Famous biologist Rich Kessin writes a novel with the best feminist twist I’ve read

Rich Kessin could almost be called a Houstonian since he loves the city and spends several periods a year with us. When he isn’t being a famous Columbia professor and mentor to the entire social amoeba community, it turns out he’s turned his hand to fiction. He’s now written a book that I could hardly put down as I read a late draft. It is called The Famine of Men and you can get it from his website, or from Amazon, though more funds go to Rich from his site.

Why do I like the book so much? Partly it is that it is by my friend, but that would not keep me going. Rich has a poetry with his words, an insight into what motivates people, a clear perspective on the complexities of research. But the book doesn’t get too technical. It has too cool a plot for that. It has mystery viruses, epidemics, mixed with love affairs, lab politics, and Amish religion and custom. It feels like I’ve entered a whole world, one I can snuggle into a comfortable chair and put out my own issues for awhile. But it isn’t too much of an escape, for the lab scenes are all too familiar.

Check out this great book and wonder it the world wouldn’t be a better place if the Kessin virus were reality!

Posted in Art and Music, Fiction, Literature | Leave a comment

Don’t kill the ants in the lounge!

Leave some sugar out and there will be ants. Sugar ants, tramp ants, crazy ants, fire ants, you name it, we do not live in sterile environments and ants find food. If you bring in a plant, you may well bring in a happy, usually harmless colony of ants.

So why is it that people at the first sign of ants want to call in the dealers in poison, the chlorinated organophosphates and the like? Why are people not more afraid of these chemicals than of a few ants? What kind of environment do they imagine we have? Why can’t we just tolerate a few ants and use them as a reminder to be a little neater?

What if all the microbes on our bodies and our work areas were as visible as the ants?  What would we do then? Would we bathe and scrub with soap like Lady Macbeth, washing out stains that will not leave? Aren’t we doing more harm than good, turning our immune systems back on ourselves when they have nothing foreign to chew on? Why are we so obsessed with this form of purity?

Yes, we have a faculty lounge here at Wash U. It is largely unused because it is locked and only for faculty, to protect the free packeted coffee. And yes, there were ants in there today, the kind I call crazy ants, named for their speed. I bet I could get a great photo of them from Alex Wild. The poison guy was called. He wanted to put out a gel, just a gel, why not? Yes, it has something toxic in it. Yes is was manufactured somewhere. No, we don’t know what the standards for its manufacture were. What will it harm besides the ants?

The thing is, we don’t need it. We don’t need purity. What we need is nature and more of it. We need living things. We are extincting so much. How do these harmless little behaviors, so called, contribute? Where does the poison come from? Where does it go? What is the end?

I like the attitude of my wonderful Venezuelan friends, Juan and Simonetta Castillo. When the termites hatch and fly, the cats feast. When the army ants move through, everything is cleaned. Keep the house open to nature and accept what comes with the seasons. I need to get out of here for respite in the peaceful tropics. Ants, I love you!

Posted in Environment, Insects, Rice University | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The heartbeat of nature

HomeIt may not seem like much, but that strip of forest behind my childhood home made me a biologist, a lover of nature, a seeker of the unexpected. I thought about it as the airplane made a wide loop into the Lansing airport that I knew would take me right over home.

How small the strip of forest seems today. How ravaged are the fields and forests that once seemed so primeval. I suppose I was the kind of animal that did not need wild corridors. I freely crossed roads, fields and even back yards of homes in search of wildness. I knew the gravel pits were man made. But that did not detract from the tadpoles, beetle larvae, snapping turtles, and blue gills in them. I longed to eat off the land in those long summer days, but more often simply pilfered fruit trees, or community gardens where a middle school now stands.

That church had not gouged out our woods when I was young. The aspen were still standing. Our previous home seemed miles away, though it is now on my daily walk circuit and doesn’t even get me to the ten thousand paces that make my Fitbit buzz.

I don’t think I realized until college that the landscape I loved was not Michigan’s eternal one. We are looking at the result of catastrophic logging. Once I knew that, I believed for a short time in succession. But now half a century has passed, and Michigan’s woods only look more damaged. It isn’t only last fall’s ice storm that broke so many trees and limbs, the pale stubs still showing. It is the ragged nature of this prespring forest. These trees are not majestic. There is no sign anywhere of a return to the climax forests Michigan should have, though I haven’t read the literature on this topic.

But the spring peepers are calling. Soon the mosquitoes will be out, and soft green will hide our scarred and feeble forests.


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The loneliness of Facebook

You may scarcely know your Friends that post most often. They have cooked something new, have cute puppies, or have children with prizes. They might have taken a quiz that reveals what trivia they know or what experiences they have had that everyone else might have had. They may be somewhere they like. They may have read an interesting study.

If you stay on Facebook a lot, you will learn about important papers published, about who has died, or if they find that crashed plane’s black box. But what you will not get is any true connection with your Friends. What you will not get is any idea of what they are really up to, what is bothering them, what family tragedies they are enduring, or what true joy they are experiencing, though actual death will appear if it is of an elderly parent. You will not get any real enrichment of your connection with your friends, though when you see them next, you may feel artificially close. You might know what they had for dinner last night, how their last batch of home-brewed beer turned out, or where their vacation was.

In a way it reminds me of the difference between my junior and senior year in college, when I moved from a co-op of about 50 to an apartment with one true friend.  There were a lot of reasons I made the move, but one of the most important was that I despaired of shallow friendships. I did not have to commit to real friendships at the co-op because there was always someone in the living room. If I felt lonely, I could just go to the living room, and talk with whomever was there. It filled a void, but not in a good way, like a handful of potato chips when I really needed a warm bowl of pinto beans.

So I moved out and into an apartment with Sue. We shared a one bedroom, something students do not seem to do any more. Besides being close friends ourselves, we had other friends to our apartment, or met them, more often in bars or the library than coffee houses – did Ann Arbor even have them in the 1970s? I wish I could say that this was much better, that my life became full of enriched friendships. But I was lonely more often than I had been in the co-op. I did have stronger real friendships, relationships where we had to actually decide to see each other. But I also learned there is a human place for shallow friendships, for soft encounters to fill a temporary void.

Now I’m long past the crucible of college, I have a clear understanding of friendships, close and otherwise. I have a family and a lab group. Why do I even look at Facebook? Is it the village commons, but with no gossip, where everyone appears only as they want to and criticism is forbidden? Is it keeping me from nourishing friendships? Is it the fluff of rice crispies when I really want oatmeal? Are there enough photos family members post that I otherwise would not see to make up for stranger’s successes? Have we traded in occasional loneliness for something worse?

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Away with decorative pillows!

IMG_2794Sleep is one of life’s great pleasures. It helps us process complexity. It renews, refreshes, and makes us fit for companionship, human and otherwise. It is snuggly, even sexy. In the winter it is warm and cozy. In the summer the heat can feel drunken.

If I’m tired, I can look up at any yellow lit window and wish I were home in my snug beg. So the last thing I want to do when I’m about to dive under the covers is remove a bunch of extra pillows, particularly the fat, flowery kind, not even good for reading, but only to adorn the bed. A pillow on a couch might help with support. But why mess with the perfection of a bed? Why make me scoop a bunch of leaden bolsters onto the floor to trip on during the night?

Do pillows make a bed seem like something it is not? Are we embarrassed about our beds? Is it a Southern thing? A Northern or Western or even Eastern thing? Does a hotel get an extra star if they have enough pillows? I don’t know.

I don’t get the extra bolsters, just as I don’t get the knicknacks on tables in rooms meant for guests to use. But I do like to travel, so I’ll just keep shoving those lumps onto the floor and luxuriating in sleep! I’ll have some right now!

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No, I won’t eat an egg-white omelet

DSC08035One of the recommendations from the Wash U Record, endorsed eating egg whites and cheese to reduce stress. Really? Throw out the best part of the egg, the richest, most delicious, most nutritious aromatic yolk meant to be all the nutrition a developing chick needs and just eat the surrounding mucoid white? And then add cheese? What is this person thinking? Why do we get such ridiculous food recommendations, from nutritionists no less? Since when is cheese fine and egg whites to be tossed? Both are good and bad, like everything else in life, both tolerable in moderation.

“Oh, Joanie, you are not going to throw out the end of the bread, are you,” my distant uncle, Martin Gutzwiller, famous for work on the moon, asked me a couple of years ago when he stayed with us for a week. No, I was not. I freeze them and use them to make one of the many Italian usually tomato-based recipes for old bread, like pappa al pomodoro. It is simple and good. You soak the old bread in water and add jarred tomatoes, salt, and olive oil. You might saute an onion too, if you are feeling ambitious. The thing is, we don’t waste food.

Spoiled food goes in the compost heap, lidded in a bin so it feeds earthworms and bacteria instead of racoons and possums, or worse, rats. So why would we eat an egg white only omelet ever?

Posted in Food, Recipes

You should write a blog

Three years ago today I began my first blog, Goodbye Houston. I had a colleague from the library get me started. I used a program to get the blog entries uploaded called Ecto or something. It is no longer supported, I believe, and now I just write right into the WordPress box. I’m careful to save drafts frequently.

I had to choose which blogging platform to use and whether to privatize it. I had to have a focus and a name. I’m happy with WordPress and also use it for our research website.

So, why should you also blog? Aren’t there enough bloggers? Does anyone read these things anyway? Can’t I just tweet my messages in 140 characters?

I joked when I started Goodbye Houston that it was better than therapy as I processed leaving the city I called home for more than 30 years. I love the city. I love the university in the city. But I was leaving. (Probably you can figure out why if you dig back through some of these blogs.) But that joke was only partly a joke. It was helpful to think about what I wanted to tell the world about Houston. What would I miss? What would I not miss? What could be replaced? What could never be replaced? How often would I visit?

But I digress. You should blog because it will help you write. You should blog because we are interested in your particular perspective on life. It will help you understand better how to share your research and your mentoring if you are an academic. If you are not, you can share your corner of the world. We can read about it in small pieces, dipping in or not. I read a number of natural history blogs, for example. But I would be interested in some other kinds too. What is it like to begin a business? What should I really know about advertizing?

Ultimately, blogging is quite personal. When I had my students blog about birds, tying science to personal experience, some lovely writing resulted in Slow Birding.

If you don’t like personal writing, I have one other recommendation. Write for Wikipedia. We need so much more information on this platform for the world. Edit the entries on your favorite theories or organisms. Edit your hobbies. Help the Wikipedia community improve the people’s encyclopedia.

Just remember that when you write you should be telling a cohesive story, with a hook at the beginning and a compelling narrative. The more you write, the easier it gets! And people will read what you have to say. In the three years I’ve been blogging, I’ve had 213,578 people click on my stuff, not even counting our lab web page. I hope they had a laugh, or learned something.

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