Saturday, October 17, 2020


California grape leaves, in autumn ~ digital painting by Ames Gilbert
"Our native grape can be credited with saving the European wine industry. In the late 19th century, most European wine vines were being killed by a voracious leaf and root–attacking species of aphid. The California Grape is resistant to this pest, and now nearly all commercial grape species around the world are grafted onto the rootstock of our resistant native grape." ~ Nancy and Ames Gilbert of the California Native Plant Society, Redbud Chapter


My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer

I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar,

like what I remember of love when I was young —

love that was so often foolish in its objectives

but never in its choices, its intensities

Too much demanded in advance, too much that could not be promised —

My soul has been so fearful, so violent;

forgive its brutality.

As though it were that soul, my hand moves over you cautiously,
not wishing to give offense

but eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance:
it is not the earth I will miss,

it is you I will miss.

~ Louise Glück


The dead don't miss anything, if that's any comfort. But I do like the poem, especially the first stanza. I too feel a new kind of tenderness toward my body.


Me too. How fragile it can be.


Looking at one’s body at an older age can be like looking at a newborn — look, my hands — what a miracle to have hands . . .

Yes, fragile and so precious. A source of both pleasure and pain. Like almost everything else that’s important.

“You have to live your life if you’re going to do original work. Your work will come out of an authentic life, and if you suppress all of your most passionate impulses in the service of an art that has not yet declared itself, you’re making a terrible mistake.” ~ Louise Glück


It's always an uneasy balance, and more difficult for women. They know that if they have a child  (especially if they can’t afford help, but even with help), they’ll have less time and energy for writing (perhaps none). On the other hand, having a child is obviously a great adventure and great material. It's a terrible dilemma.



“I’m a very sociable person. The fact that I dislike interviews doesn’t mean I’m a recluse,” the poet Louise Glück said early on in our interview.

Glück had been put in an uncomfortable spot. On Thursday morning, she won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Journalists were lining the street outside her home in Cambridge, Mass. Her phone hadn’t stopped ringing since 7 a.m., an onslaught of attention she described as “nightmarish.”

By now, Glück should be accustomed to acclaim. In a career that has lasted more than five decades, she has published a dozen volumes of poetry and received virtually every prestigious literary prize: The National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Humanities Medal, among others.

She’s revered by literary critics and her peers for her spare, direct and confessional verses.
“Her work is like an inner conversation. Maybe she’s talking to herself, maybe she’s talking to us. There’s a kind of irony to it,” said her longtime friend and editor, Jonathan Galassi, the president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. “One thing that’s very constant in her work is that inner voice. She’s always evaluating experience against some ideal that it never matches.”

The past few months have been trying for Glück, who is divorced and lives alone, and was accustomed to dining out with friends six nights a week before the pandemic. For several months in the spring, she struggled to write. Then, late this summer, she started writing poems again, and finished a new collection, titled “Winter Recipes From the Collective,” which FSG plans to release next year.

“The hope is that if you live through it, there will be art on the other side,” she said

Glück spoke to The Times a few hours after the news of her Nobel Prize broke. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How did you first hear the news?

This morning I got a phone call at something like quarter to seven. I was just awake. A man who introduced himself as the secretary of the Swedish Academy, he said, “I’m calling to tell you you’ve won the Nobel Prize.” I can’t remember what I said, but it had some suspicion in it.
I think I was unprepared.

How did you feel once you absorbed that it was real?

Completely flabbergasted that they would choose a white American lyric poet. It doesn’t make sense. Now my street is covered with journalists. People keep telling me how humble I am. I’m not humble. But I thought, I come from a country that is not thought fondly of now, and I’m white, and we’ve had all the prizes. So it seemed to be extremely unlikely that I would ever have this particular event to deal with in my life.

What has your life been like during these intense and isolating months during the pandemic? Have you been able to write?

I write very erratically anyway, so it’s not a steady discipline. I’ve been working on a book for about four years that tormented me. Then in late July and August, I unexpectedly wrote some new poems, and suddenly saw how I could shape this manuscript and finish it. It was a miracle. The usual feelings of euphoria and relief were compromised by Covid, because I had to do battle with my daily terror and the necessary limitations on my daily life.

What is the new collection about?

Falling apart. There’s a lot of mourning in the book. There’s also a lot of comedy in the book, and the poems are very surreal.

I’ve written about death since I could write. Literally when I was 10, I was writing about death. Yeah, well, I was a lively girl. Aging is more complicated. It isn’t simply the fact that you’re drawn closer to your death, it’s that faculties that you counted on — physical grace and strength and mental agility — these things are being compromised or threatened. It’s been very interesting to think about and write about.

A lot of your work draws on classical mythology and weaves together mythic archetypes with more intimate contemporary verses about family bonds and relationships. What draws you to those mythic figures, and how do those stories enhance what you are trying to explore and communicate through your poetry?

Everybody who writes draws sustenance and fuel from earliest memories, and the things that changed you or touched you or thrilled you in your childhood. I was read the Greek myths by my visionary parents, and when I could read on my own, I continued to read them. The figures of the gods and heroes were more vivid to me than the other little children on the block in Long Island. 

It wasn’t as though I was drawing on something acquired late in life to give my work some kind of varnish of learning. These were my bedtime stories. And certain stories particularly resonated with me, especially Persephone, and I’ve been writing about her on and off for 50 years. And I think I was as much caught up in a struggle with my mother, as ambitious girls often are. I think that particular myth gave a new aspect to those struggles. I don’t mean it was useful in my daily life. When I wrote, instead of complaining about my mother, I could complain about Demeter.

Some have compared your work to Sylvia Plath and described your verses as confessional and intimate. To what extent have you drawn on your own experience in your work, and to what extent are you exploring universal human themes?

You always draw on your own experience because it’s the material of your life, starting with your childhood. But I look for archetypal experience, and I assume that my struggles and joys are not unique. They feel unique as you experience them, but I’m not interested in making the spotlight fall on myself and my particular life, but instead on the struggles and joys of humans, who are born and then forced to exit. I think I write about mortality because it was a terrible shock to me to discover in childhood that you don’t get this forever.

You’ve experimented with different poetic forms in the course of your career, though your voice has remained distinct. Has that been a deliberate, conscious effort to push yourself by trying different forms?

Yes, all the time. You’re writing to be an adventurer. I want to be taken somewhere I know nothing about. I want to be a stranger to a territory. One of the few good things to say about old age is that you have a new experience. Diminishment is not everybody’s most anticipated joy, but there is news in this situation. And that, for a poet or writer, is invaluable. I think you have always to be surprised and to be, in a way, a beginner again, otherwise I would bore myself to tears. And there have been times when I have, when I’ve thought, you know, you wrote that poem. It’s a very nice poem, but you already wrote it.

In what ways do you feel aging has led you to explore new territory as a poet?

You find yourself losing a noun here and there, and your sentences develop these vast lacunae in the middle, and you either have to restructure the sentence or abandon it. But the point is, you see this, and it has never happened before. And though it’s grim and unpleasant and bodes ill, it’s still, from the point of view of the artist, exciting and new.

Your style has often been described as spare and pared down. Is that the voice that comes to you naturally when you write, or is it something that you’ve developed and polished?

Pared down sometimes, yeah. Sometimes I write conversationally. You don’t work on a voice. The sentence finds a way to speak itself. This sounds so Delphic. It’s a hard thing to discuss, a voice. I think I am fascinated by syntax and always felt its power, and the poems that moved me most greatly were not the most verbally opulent. They were the poets like Blake and Milton, whose syntax was astonishing, the way emphasis would be deployed.

You teach at Yale and have spoken about how teaching has helped you through difficulties you’ve confronted in your own writing. How has teaching shaped you as a writer?

You’re constantly being bathed in the unexpected and the new. You have to rearrange your ideas so that you can draw out of your students what excites them. My students amaze me; they dazzle me. Though I couldn’t always write, I could always read other people’s writing.

Thank you so much for your time. Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

If you consider the fact that I started out by wanting to mention nothing, and then I talked my head off, no, I can’t think of anything. Most of what I have to say of any real urgency comes out in poems, and the rest is just entertainment.



When I studied and taught Sophocles’ tragedy “Oedipus the King,” the stress was on hubris, irony, blindness. What wasn’t emphasized is that the play was written during and is set in the midst of a plague.

The citizens of Thebes, in the tragedy’s opening scene, implore their wise and resourceful ruler Oedipus to save them from this disastrous illness. Oedipus, moved by their plight and confident in his own capability, promises to do exactly that. His effort to hunt down the criminal whose unpunished sin is polluting the city and causing the plague leads to Oedipus’s own exposure as the source of that pollution.

But he persists in his hunt for the truth – even though the truth, as every student learns, turns out to be that he himself is the polluter whom he seeks. Trump, like Oedipus, is the source of the pollution
or at the very least, a vector, a spreader, an enabler. Unlike Oedipus, the president has actively discouraged the hunt for the truth.

The final words of the tragedy are addressed by the chorus to the citizens of Thebes. Presumably the plague will be routed; the city has indeed been cleansed. In contrast, the citizens of our country keep on dying. The president removes his mask and proclaims his triumph.

Aristotle recommends in his “Poetics” that in the best tragedies, the pivot or reversal – called “peripeteia” – from the height of success to disaster is accompanied by some kind of knowledge – anagnorisis, or recognition. “Pathei mathos,” sings the chorus in Aeschylus’s tragedy “Agamemnon”: wisdom comes through suffering.

The simultaneity of Oedipus’s enlightenment and his catastrophe is one of the factors that made Aristotle so admire this elegantly plotted play.

The untranslatable, chaotic force of até (Nemesis) plays out in the cycle of reversal followed by recognition; arrogance followed by retribution. What are we supposed to think?

Whether we rejoice or mourn, whether we’re elated or fearful, and whatever happens in the weeks and months to come, this news – that the president has COVID-19 – arrives with a freight of predictability: This particular infection seems, in retrospect, if not inevitable then at least overwhelmingly likely.

Hubris: not seeing what’s in front of your nose. Even as lawsuits and tell-all books have piled up, Trump has always seemed triumphantly immune. Not any more. ~ Rachel Hadas on Vox Populi

He "cannot solve the nation’s pressing problems because he is the nation’s most pressing problem." ~ The New York Times, Opinion, October 16, 2020



Thanks for posting the article on Oedipus. It’s a very good comparison. 

I know that play very well because I taught it many times, but that was years ago, and I had forgotten that it was about a plague. Yes, he himself is the pestilence. How appropriate to our times.


Remembering history:


“That you are here—
that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on,
and you will contribute a verse.”

~ Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass



~ “Men have to toughen up,” Jordan B. Peterson writes in 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, “Men demand it, and women want it.” So, the first rule is, “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” and don’t forget to “clean your room.” By the way, “consciousness is symbolically masculine and has been since the beginning of time.” Oh, and “the soul of the individual eternally hungers for the heroism of genuine Being.” Many such pronouncements—didactic as well as metaphysical, ranging from the absurdity of political correctness to the “burden of Being”—have turned Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, into a YouTube sensation and a bestselling author in several Western countries.      

12 Rules for Life is only Peterson’s second book in twenty years. Packaged for people brought up on BuzzFeed listicles, Peterson’s brand of intellectual populism has risen with stunning velocity; and it is boosted, like the political populisms of our time, by predominantly male and frenzied followers, who seem ever-ready to pummel his critics on social media. It is imperative to ask why and how this obscure Canadian academic, who insists that gender and class hierarchies are ordained by nature and validated by science, has suddenly come to be hailed as the West’s most influential public intellectual. For his apotheosis speaks of a crisis that is at least as deep as the one signified by Donald Trump’s unexpected leadership of the free world.

Peterson diagnoses this crisis as a loss of faith in old verities. “In the West,” he writes, “we have been withdrawing from our tradition-, religion- and even nation-centered cultures.” Peterson offers to alleviate the resulting “desperation of meaninglessness,” with a return to “ancient wisdom.” It is possible to avoid “nihilism,” he asserts, and “to find sufficient meaning in individual consciousness and experience” with the help of “the great myths and religious stories of the past.”

Following Carl Jung, Peterson identifies “archetypes” in myths, dreams, and religions, which have apparently defined truths of the human condition since the beginning of time. “Culture,” one of his typical arguments goes, “is symbolically, archetypally, mythically male”—and this is why resistance to male dominance is unnatural. Men represent order, and “Chaos—the unknown—is symbolically associated with the feminine.” In other words, men resisting the perennially fixed archetypes of male and female, and failing to toughen up, are pathetic losers.

Such evidently eternal truths are not on offer anymore at a modern university; Jung’s speculations have been largely discredited. But Peterson, armed with his “maps of meaning” (the title of his previous book), has only contempt for his fellow academics who tend to emphasize the socially constructed and provisional nature of our perceptions. As with Jung, he presents some idiosyncratic quasi-religious opinions as empirical science, frequently appealing to evolutionary psychology to support his ancient wisdom.

Closer examination, however, reveals Peterson’s ageless insights as a typical, if not archetypal, product of our own times: right-wing pieties seductively mythologized for our current lost generations.

Peterson himself credits his intellectual awakening to the Cold War, when he began to ponder deeply such “evils associated with belief” as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, and became a close reader of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. This is a common intellectual trajectory among Western right-wingers who swear by Solzhenitsyn and tend to imply that belief in egalitarianism leads straight to the guillotine or the Gulag. A recent example is the English polemicist Douglas Murray who deplores the attraction of the young to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and wishes that the idea of equality was “tainted by an ideological ordure equivalent to that heaped on the concept of borders.” Peterson confirms his membership of this far-right sect by never identifying the evils caused by belief in profit, or Mammon: slavery, genocide, and imperialism.

Reactionary white men will surely be thrilled by Peterson’s loathing for “social justice warriors” and his claim that divorce laws should not have been liberalized in the 1960s. Those embattled against political correctness on university campuses will heartily endorse Peterson’s claim that “there are whole disciplines in universities forthrightly hostile towards men.” Islamophobes will take heart from his speculation that “feminists avoid criticizing Islam because they unconsciously long for masculine dominance.” Libertarians will cheer Peterson’s glorification of the individual striver, and his stern message to the left-behinds (“Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark.”).  

The demagogues of our age don’t read much; but, as they ruthlessly crack down on refugees and immigrants, they can derive much philosophical backup from Peterson’s sub-chapter headings: “Compassion as a vice” and “Toughen up, you weasel.”

In all respects, Peterson’s ancient wisdom is unmistakably modern. The “tradition” he promotes stretches no further back than the late nineteenth century, when there first emerged a sinister correlation between intellectual exhortations to toughen up and strongmen politics. This was a period during which intellectual quacks flourished by hawking creeds of redemption and purification while political and economic crises deepened and faith in democracy and capitalism faltered. Many artists and thinkers—ranging from the German philosopher Ludwig Klages, member of the hugely influential Munich Cosmic Circle, to the Russian painter Nicholas Roerich and Indian activist Aurobindo Ghosh—assembled Peterson-style collages of part-occultist, part-psychological, and part-biological notions. These neo-romantics were responding, in the same way as Peterson, to an urgent need, springing from a traumatic experience of social and economic modernity, to believe—in whatever reassures and comforts.

A range of intellectual entrepreneurs, from Theosophists and vendors of Asian spirituality like Vivekananda and D.T. Suzuki to scholars of Asia like Arthur Waley and fascist ideologues like Julius Evola (Steve Bannon’s guru) set up stalls in the new marketplace of ideas. W.B. Yeats, adjusting Indian philosophy to the needs of the Celtic Revival, pontificated on the “Ancient Self”; Jung spun his own variations on this evidently ancestral unconscious. Such conceptually foggy categories as “spirit” and “intuition” acquired broad currency; Peterson’s favorite words, being and chaos, started to appear in capital letters. Peterson’s own lineage among these healers of modern man’s soul can be traced through his repeatedly invoked influences: not only Carl Jung, but also Mircea Eliade, the Romanian scholar of religion, and Joseph Campbell, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, who, like Peterson, combined a conventional academic career with mass-market musings on heroic individuals.

The “desperation of meaninglessness” widely felt in the late nineteenth century, seemed especially desperate in the years following two world wars and the Holocaust. Jung, Eliade, and Campbell, all credentialed by university education, met a general bewilderment by suggesting the existence of a secret, almost gnostic, knowledge of the world. Claiming to throw light into recessed places in the human unconscious, they acquired immense and fanatically loyal fan clubs. Campbell’s 1988 television interviews with Bill Moyers provoked a particularly extraordinary response. As with Peterson, this popularizer of archaic myths, who believed that “Marxist philosophy had overtaken the university in America,” was remarkably in tune with contemporary prejudices. “Follow your own bliss,” he urged an audience that, during an era of neoconservative upsurge, was ready to be reassured that some profound ancient wisdom lay behind Ayn Rand’s paeans to unfettered individualism. 

Peterson, however, seems to have modeled his public persona on Jung rather than Campbell. The Swiss sage sported a ring ornamented with the effigy of a snake—the symbol of light in a pre-Christian Gnostic cult. Peterson claims that he has been inducted into “the coastal Pacific Kwakwaka’wakw tribe”; he is clearly proud of the Native American longhouse he has built in his Toronto home.

Peterson may seem the latest in a long line of eggheads pretentiously but harmlessly romancing the noble savage. But it is worth remembering that Jung recklessly generalized about the superior “Aryan soul” and the inferior “Jewish psyche” and was initially sympathetic to the Nazis. Mircea Eliade was a devotee of Romania’s fascistic Iron Guard. Campbell’s loathing of “Marxist” academics at his college concealed a virulent loathing of Jews and blacks. Solzhenitsyn, Peterson’s revered mentor, was a zealous Russian expansionist, who denounced Ukraine’s independence and hailed Vladimir Putin as the right man to lead Russia’s overdue regeneration.

Nowhere in his published writings does Peterson reckon with the moral fiascos of his gurus and their political ramifications; he seems unbothered by the fact that thinking of human relations in such terms as dominance and hierarchy connects too easily with such nascent viciousness such as misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. He might argue that his maps of meaning aim at helping lost individuals rather than racists, ultra-nationalists, or imperialists. But he can’t plausibly claim, given his oft-expressed hostility to the “murderous equity doctrine” of feminists, and other progressive ideas, that he is above the fray of our ideological and culture wars.

Indeed, the modern fascination with myth has never been free from an illiberal and anti-democratic agenda. Richard Wagner, along with many German nationalists, became notorious for using myth to regenerate the volk and stoke hatred of the aliens—largely Jews—who he thought polluted the pure community rooted in blood and soil. 

By the early twentieth century, ethnic-racial chauvinists everywhere—Hindu supremacists in India as well as Catholic ultra-nationalists in France—were offering visions to uprooted peoples of a rooted organic society in which hierarchies and values had been stable. As Karla Poewe points out in New Religions and the Nazis (2005), political cultists would typically mix “pieces of Yogic and Abrahamic traditions” with “popular notions of science—or rather pseudo-science—such as concepts of ‘race,’ ‘eugenics,’ or ‘evolution.’” It was this opportunistic amalgam of ideas that helped nourish “new mythologies of would-be totalitarian regimes.”

Peterson rails today against “softness,” arguing that men have been “pushed too hard to feminize.” In his bestselling book Degeneration (1892), the Zionist critic Max Nordau amplified, more than a century before Peterson, the fear that the empires and nations of the West are populated by the weak-willed, the effeminate, and the degenerate. The French philosopher Georges Sorel identified myth as the necessary antidote to decadence and spur to rejuvenation. An intellectual inspiration to fascists across Europe, Sorel was particularly nostalgic about the patriarchal systems of ancient Israel and Greece.

Like Peterson, many of these hyper-masculinist thinkers saw compassion as a vice and urged insecure men to harden their hearts against the weak (women and minorities) on the grounds that the latter were biologically and culturally inferior. Hailing myth and dreams as the repository of fundamental human truths, they became popular because they addressed a widely felt spiritual hunger: of men looking desperately for maps of meaning in a world they found opaque and uncontrollable.

It was against this (eerily familiar) background—a “revolt against the modern world,” as the title of Evola’s 1934 book put it—that demagogues emerged so quickly in twentieth-century Europe and managed to exalt national and racial myths as the true source of individual and collective health. The drastic individual makeover demanded by the visionaries turned out to require a mass, coerced retreat from failed liberal modernity into an idealized traditional realm of myth and ritual.

In the end, deskbound pedants and fantasists helped bring about, in Thomas Mann’s words in 1936, an extensive “moral devastation” with their “worship of the unconscious”—that “knows no values, no good or evil, no morality.” Nothing less than the foundations for knowledge and ethics, politics and science, collapsed, ultimately triggering the cataclysms of the twentieth century: two world wars, totalitarian regimes, and the Holocaust. It is no exaggeration to say that we are in the midst of a similar intellectual and moral breakdown, one that seems to presage a great calamity. Peterson calls it, correctly, “psychological and social dissolution.” But he is a disturbing symptom of the malaise to which he promises a cure. ~


The latest articles on Peterson tend to follow the “rise and fall” mode. They describe him as a guru who ultimately couldn’t help himself. He developed an addiction to benzodiazepines, went on an all-meat diet, and suffered a variety of health problems, including pneumonia and Covid. It’s not certain if he can resume the life of a public intellectual again. 

a recent photo of Jordan Peterson, eating steak with his daughter Mikhaila, the "meat only" diet guru, in Serbia



Columbus Day: a strange personal coincidence since it’s the anniversary of my arrival in America. By now I know it’s pointless (and dangerous to my mental health) to wonder if I’d made a gigantic mistake, the greatest mistake of my life from which all the rest followed like the unfolding of a Greek tragedy. It’s my number one no-think zone.

Of course I’ve also gained some things. I think I have a larger mentality for having grappled with the enormous difficulties of being an immigrant -- of having experienced poverty, for instance. But that’s perhaps a rationalization, since I can’t predict how my intellectual development would have proceeded if I’d stayed.

THE ONLY CERTAINTY: The price I paid in stress and suffering was horrendous. My advice to a prospective young immigrant: don’t even think about it. If life in your homeland is truly hard to endure, that may be the only good reason to leave. But if your life is rich and interesting (as mine was in Warsaw), forget it. Drop on your knees and deeply thank whatever gods you believe in that you that you have a homeland.

From a poem of mine:

In the morning I had a homeland.
In the evening I had two suitcases.

And yes, of course I thought that America was coast to coast Manhattan and Americans lived in skyscrapers.


In the New York Review of Books, I read an article about a woman who had not bothered to have an amniocentesis (these days there is a blood test) and ended up having a child with the Down Syndrome. I thought about my youth and the recurring thought that just because I valued the life of the mind so much, I’d end up having a “mentally defective” child (as we called it back then — nowadays. a “child with special needs” is the politically correct term). It would be my punishment for loving books and ideas. It would be life’s corrective action, humbling me, saying See? You wanted your child to be a genius. What a laugh!

I don’t think a man expects to be “punished” by life or society for loving books and ideas. Perhaps there is some notion that reading books is unmanly, but women’s attraction to intellectual men is a potent corrective. A man who can talk about literature realizes that he “speaks woman.” Tony Hoagland carried a copy of Rilke’s Duino Elegies for seduction purposes. I know it not only because of his poem where he confesses to using this ploy, but also because I remember how we met at the Yaddo Arts Colony, lined up for dinner. He was holding a red-cover copy of The Duino Elegies in his left hand (the side that showed).

Why on earth did I perpetually expect to be punished, humbled, “corrected”? I grew up in a milieu where reading and intellectual achievement were encouraged -- not that I needed to be encouraged, being a compulsive reader. Nor can I point to the slightest streak of sexism in this regard. True, I overheard my parish priest saying, “Girls . . . They are so stupid.” But I can’t claim that this harmed me in any significant way; even as a ten-year-old, I realized that the comment said something about the priest and nothing about me. (Nor did I retaliate by sending him a note: “Priests . . . They are so stupid.” No, I was a nice quiet girl. Anyway, I was too busy reading.)

So I don’t really know why I expected to be punished for being who I was. When you grow up Catholic, you expect to be punished. More broadly, when you live in a punitive culture, you expect to be punished — the reason is irrelevant; it will always be found.

Perhaps the expectation of punishment had something to do with the way life kept shattering my dreams. Perhaps I picked up sexist judgment from the larger culture. Or perhaps it’s more universal than that, more globally “female.” My mother said, more than once, that she had terrible nightmares during her pregnancy about giving birth to an abnormal child. Such nightmares, I read, are common during pregnancy. Nor do I think that my brave and resourceful mother would not have managed to cope somehow. Fortunately she didn’t have to.

Most fears don’t come true. It’s what we didn’t think of fearing that tends to happen — IF anything happens. And then it’s not the end of the world. Between falling apart, crying and screaming versus coping somehow, the vast majority of humans manage to cope.

And I don’t really need to analyze the possible sources of those long-ago fears. It’s in the past, irrelevant now. Onward. There are real bridges to cross.

There is no time for despair,
no place for self-pity, no need
for silence, no room for fear.
We speak, we write, we do language.
That is how civilizations heal.

~ Toni Morrison


I hate to remember how long it took me to realize that it was too late in life for depression. But it takes as long as it takes — “ripeness is all.” 


She's a favorite of mine. Strong, wise, powerful, beautiful.


The 2018 Harry’s Masculinity Report, as it’s titled, surveyed 5,000 men ages 18-95 across the US, weighted for race, income, education, sexual orientation, military service, and more. The respondents were asked about their happiness, confidence, emotional stability, motivation, optimism, and sense of being in control. They were then asked how satisfied they are with their careers, relationships, money, work-life balance, physicality, and mental health, and also about the values that matter most to them. 

The results showed an clear trend: The strongest predictor of men’s happiness and well-being is their job satisfaction, by a large margin—and the strongest predictor of job satisfaction is whether men feel they are making an impact on their companies’ success. 

This measure, the study finds, is influenced by whether men feel they are using their own unique talents at work, whether they are surrounded by a diverse set of perspectives, how easily and often they can chat with co-workers, whether they feel their opinions are valued, and whether they’re inspired by the people they work with. 

These results aligned with Harry’s 2017 survey of 2,000 men in the UK, also led by Barry, which similarly found that satisfying, secure employment is the strongest predictor of British men’s positive mindset. ”Men who have high job satisfaction are very likely to be content in other aspects of their life,” the report on the UK study explains. “Men at work are more likely to be men at ease with themselves. Everything else—contentment at home, in relationships and friendships—flows down from men being satisfied at work.” 

Following job satisfaction, the top indicators of a positive mindset and wellness for American men are, in descending order, their physical and mental health, income, age (men over age 50 were significantly happier, especially in the US Midwest), and relationship status. 

The survey found that 91 percent of married men had normal or better levels of mental positivity, compared with 80 percent of single or unmarried men. Regionally, friendship is a particularly strong predictor of well-being for men in the west and northeast US, while socializing through sports and healthy competition was a stronger indicator of well-being for men in the US south. 

If this study teaches us anything, it’s that by and large, American men (along with their peers in the UK) derive happiness not from traditional notions of power and strength, but from the typically quieter task of doing meaningful work and contributing to the communities around them.



Let's hope that a future study will probe what makes women happy. I'm not sure if job satisfaction will be #1, but I suspect it will place high on the list.


~ Billions of years ago, life on Earth was mostly just large slimy mats of microbes living in shallow water. Sometimes, these microbial communities made carbonate minerals that over many years cemented together to become layered limestone rocks called stromatolites. They are the oldest evidence of life on Earth. But the fossils don’t tell researchers the details of how they formed.

Today, most life is supported by oxygen. But these microbial mats existed for a billion years before oxygen was present in the atmosphere. So what did life use instead?

Our team of geologists, physicists and biologists had found hints in fossilized stromatolites that arsenic was the chemical of choice for ancient photosynthesis and respiration. But modern-day versions of these microbial communities still live on Earth today. Perhaps one of these used arsenic and could offer proof for our theory?

So we joined a surveying expedition of Chilean and Argentinian scientists to look for living stromatolites in the extreme conditions of the High Andes. In a small stream deep in the Atacama Desert, we found a big surprise. The bottom of the channel was bright purple and made of stromatolite-building microbial mats that thrive in the complete absence of oxygen. Just as the clues we’d found in ancient fossils suggested, these mats use two different forms of arsenic to perform photosynthesis and respiration. Our discovery offers the strongest evidence yet for how the oldest life on Earth survived in a pre-oxygen world.

Turning sunlight into energy

For the last 2.4 billion years, photosynthetic organisms like plants and blue-green cyanobacteria have used sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to make oxygen and organic matter. In doing this, they turn energy from the Sun into energy to be used by life. Other organisms breathe in oxygen as they digest organic carbon, gaining energy for their respiration in the process.

Microbes in the ancient world also captured energy from sunlight, but their primitive machinery could not make oxygen from water or use oxygen for respiration. They needed another chemical to do this.

From a biochemical perspective, there are only a few possible candidates: iron, sulfur, hydrogen or arsenic. A lack of evidence in the fossil record and minuscule amounts of some of these chemicals in the primordial soup suggests neither iron, sulfur nor hydrogen would be likely candidates for the earliest form of photosynthesis. That leaves arsenic.

Modern microbes, ancient analogs

The Atacama Desert in Chile is the driest place on Earth, flanked by volcanoes and exposed to extremely high UV radiation. It’s not too different from how the Earth looked 3 billion years ago and not exactly supportive of life as we know it. Here – with the help of a team that spanned four continents and seven countries – we found what we were looking for. 

Our destination was Laguna La Brava, a very salty shallow lake deep into the harsh desert. A shallow stream, fed by a volcanic groundwater spring, led into the lake. The streambed was a unique, deep purple color. The color came from a microbial mat, thriving quite happily in waters that contained unusually high amounts of arsenic, sulfur and lithium, but missing one important element: oxygen.

We cut a piece of the mat and looked for evidence of minerals. A drop of acid made the minerals fizz – carbonates! – this microbe community was forming stromatolites. So our team went to work, camping out at the site for days at a time. 

We measured the chemistry of the water and the mat with our field equipment during day and night, summer and winter. Not once did we find oxygen, and back in the laboratory we confirmed that sulfur and arsenic were abundant. Looking through the microscope, we saw purple photosynthetic bacteria, but oxygen-producing cyanobacteria were eerily absent. We had also collected DNA samples from the mat and found genes for arsenic metabolism

In the lab, we mixed up microbes from the mat, added arsenic and exposed the mix to sunlight. Photosynthesis was happening. The microbes used both arsenic and sulfur, but preferred the arsenic. 

All that was left was to show that the two types of arsenic could be detected in the modern stromatolites. We went back to France, and using an X-ray emission technique made chemical maps from the Chilean samples. Every experiment we performed supported the presence of a vigorous arsenic cycle in the absence of oxygen in this unique modern stromatolite. This validates, beyond doubt, the idea that the fossil Australian samples that we studied in 2014 held evidence of an active arsenic cycle in deep time on our young planet. 

On board the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover that is currently hurtling through space is an instrument that can observe elements using the exact same process we used to make our element maps. Perhaps it will discover that arsenic is abundant in layered rocks on Mars, suggesting that life on Mars also used arsenic. For over a billion years, it did so on Earth. Under the harshest conditions life finds a way, and it is that way we are trying to understand.

Laguna la Brava, Atacama Desert, Chile


Arsenic makes me think of the suicide of Madame Bovary, so it was fascinating to find another perspective on this chemical element, more important in the evolution of life than I ever suspected.



This article on suicide notes is interesting in a paradoxical way: the notes are not especially interesting. Many show the delusional "never" and "always" thinking of depression: I've never been any good. People always put obstacles in my path.

~ “A collection of suicide notes launched the discipline of suicidology, founded by Edwin Shneidman and his colleagues. During the 1950s, Shneidman was asked to write condolence letters to relatives of suicide victims. While he was searching through records at the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office, he discovered a stash of 721 suicide notes. They’d been written by people ranging in age from 13 to 96.

Among the typical sentiments expressed are:

I can’t find my place in life.

This is best for all concerned.

I don’t want to go, but there is nothing else to do. I've never been much good.

I’m all twisted up inside.

A divorced woman, age 61, wrote: “You cops will want to know why I did it, well, just let us say that I lived 61 years too many. People have always put obstacles in my way... I am not insane. My mind was never more clear. It has been a long day. The motor got so hot it would not run so I just had to sit here and wait. The breaks were against me to the last. The sun is leaving the hill now so hope nothing else happens.” This cache represented the notes collected by the coroners between 1944 and 1953, but this meant that only about 15% of recognized suicidal decedents had left them.

Shneidman and Faberow found that it was nearly impossible to distinguish a potentially suicidal person from case details alone, except for certain “red flag” conditions such as paranoid schizophrenia or reactive depression. Almost three-fourths of those who completed the act had attempted or threatened it in the past. About 50% of those who killed themselves after being discharged from a hospital accomplished the act within three months.

On standard psychological tests, individuals who had threatened suicide vs. attempted it showed more guilt, agitation, and aggression in their responses.
Many more studies have been done since Shneidman found his first set of notes, and much more is now known about the suicidal mind, but in many cases it still remains a mystery. ~

“I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call it Eternity.” ~ Jerzy Kosiński

“Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.” ~ George Sanders (British actor)

“I am now about to make the great adventure.” ~ Clara Blandwick, actress famous for playing  Aunt Em in The Wizard of Oz

(Contrast these with Virginia Woolf’s suicide note which ends with a tender expression of gratitude to her husband Leonard Woolf. It’s practically a love letter. )

~ “Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.” ~ David Foster Wallace


Wonderfully put, and I love the analogy. But in my experience, the person who's firmly decided to commit suicide, set the date, chosen the means, etc, can appear strangely calm, even cheerful and happy. Problems? What problems? Soon there will be no problems, no difficulties, no shame, no struggle, no burden of responsibility. Death is the ultimate escape.

One of the statements made by suicidal individuals is, “The world would be a better place without me.” In saddest cases, you can't help but agree. So now and then suicide comes as a relief to those involved with the person (who likely is mentally ill or severely addicted, not just messing up his life but also disrupting the lives of others).

And perhaps the best predictor of non-suicide is the sense of one’s usefulness. A person who feels s/he has a  lot to give wants to continue that giving.

I do wish we had the phrase “the pursuit of usefulness” rather than the pursuit of happiness or the pursuit of success. “Usefulness” puts life in a practical, do-able framework: you always have something to give, even if it’s just a few kind words, a smile.



~ The inventor of radar chaff was a woman named Joan Curran.

Born Joan Strothers and raised in Swansea on the coast of Wales, she matriculated at the University of Cambridge’s Newnham College in 1934. Strothers studied physics on a full scholarship and enjoyed rowing in her spare time. Upon finishing her degree requirements in 1938, she went to the University’s preeminent Cavendish Laboratory to begin a doctorate in physics.

At the Cavendish, Strothers was assigned to work with a young man named Samuel Curran. For two years, Strothers got along swimmingly with her new lab partner. But with international conflict brewing in Europe, in 1940 the pair was transferred twice to work on military research, and ended up at Exeter.

There, the two developed proximity fuses to destroy enemy planes and rockets. There also, Strothers married Sam and took on his last name, becoming Joan Curran. Shortly after their wedding in November, the Currans transferred to the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) in the autumn of 1940. Curran joined a team led by British physicist and scientific military intelligence expert R.V. Jones that was developing a method to conceal aircraft from enemy radar detection.

The idea, Jones later explained in his book Most Secret War, was simple. Radar detectors measure the reflection of radio waves of a certain wavelength off of incoming objects. As it turns out, thin metal strips can resonate with incoming waves, and also re-radiate the waves. Under the right conditions, the re-radiated waves create the sonic impression of a large object when in reality, there is none.

This property means that a few hundred thin reflectors could, together, reflect as much energy as a heavy British bomber plane would. A collection of strips might conceal the exact location of an aircraft during a raid behind a large cloud of signal, or even lead the enemy to believe they were observing a major attack when in reality, there was only one or two planes.

By the time Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, Curran was nearly a year into painstaking experiments on using metals to reflect radar signals. She had tried a seemingly countless number of sizes and shapes, from singular wires to metal leaflets the size of notebook paper. The leaflets had been a particularly interesting idea, since they could do double-duty as propaganda sheets with text printed on them.

In 1942, Curran finally settled on reflectors that were about 25 centimeters long and 1.5 centimeters wide. The reflectors were aluminized paper strips bundled into one-pound packets and intended to be thrown out of the leading aircraft. When defenestrated from a stream of bombers once every minute, they could produce “the radar equivalent of a smokescreen,” according to Jones.

In 1943, the reflector strips were put to a serious military test when the Allies launched Operation Gomorrah on Hamburg, Germany. Operation Gomorrah was a brutal campaign of air raids that lasted over a week, destroyed most of the city and resulted in almost 40,000 civilian deaths. But with rates of only 12 aircraft losses out of 791 on one evening’s bombing raid, the campaign was a major victory for the Allies, in large part due to Curran’s reflectors.

Perhaps most notably, radar chaff was used as part of a large-scale, elaborate diversion on June 5, 1944 to prevent German forces from knowing exactly where the Allied invasion into Nazi-held continental Europe would begin. Deployed on the eve of what would become known as D-Day, two radar chaff drops, Operations Taxable and Glimmer, were combined with hundreds of dummy parachutists to draw German attention towards the northernmost parts of France, and away from the beaches of Normandy.

Curran went on to work on many more scientific and military technologies in both the UK and U.S., including the Manhattan Project. She is remembered as being a truly unique and skilled researcher, and was lauded in her obituary for having “the scientific equivalent of gardening green fingers.”

But despite her impressive body of work, Curran’s legacy was obscured due to the customs of the time. In fact, Curran did not actually possess a degree from Cambridge when she did all of her remarkable war-winning work. This was not for reasons of merit—she had, of course, completed all her coursework for an honors degree in physics—but only because in that day and age, women were simply not granted degrees, despite completing all the work and being hired to continue their studies.

In 1987, Curran was finally awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws by the University of Strathclyde. She died in 1999.

In her obituary, Jones was quoted as having said, “In my opinion, Joan Curran made an even greater contribution to [Allied World War II victory] than Sam.” Like many other female scientists who have faded unrecognized into history, Curran and her work was discussed only by men, and only in the context of that of her male counterparts. And her own words have never been published, nor recorded in interviews, making her voice unavailable to generations of female scientists who followed in her footsteps.

According to Jess Wade, a postdoctoral scholar studying solid state physics at Imperial College London and who also creates Wikipedia pages for female scientists, it’s crucial that we tell the stories of Curran and other scientists whose work has been obscured.
“We don’t know how many women were working in the labs of famous male scientists, or how many discoveries women contributed to, because for centuries men did a very good job hiding the achievements of women,” Wade remarked. ~ 

Capsule summary from Wiki: “Joan devised the technique that was codenamed Window, which is also known as chaff. She tried various types of radar reflectors, including wires and sheets, before settling on strips of tin foil 1 to 2 centimeters (0.39 to 0.79 in) wide and 25 centimeters (9.8 in) long that could be scattered from bombers, thus disrupting the enemy's radar.[12] Window was first employed in Operation Gomorrah, a series of raids on Hamburg, and resulted in a much lower loss rate than usual. As part of Operation Taxable on 5–6 June 1944, Window was dropped by Avro Lancasters of 617 Squadron to synthesize a phantom invasion force of ships in the Straits of Dover and keep the Germans unsure as to whether the brunt of the Allied assault would fall on Normandy or in the Pas de Calais area.”


The Wiki article also leads me to suspect that Joan’s exposure to radiation during her uranium-enrichment work at  Berkeley may have had something to do with her first child’s being born with severe mental handicap. Three sons later born in Scotland all went on to earn a PhD. Joan became an activist for the cause of better life quality for the disabled. Both Sam and Joan ended up dying of cancer, within a year of each other.

I also found something of special interest: “During the war the Polish 1st Armoured Division had been based in Scotland, establishing ties between the community and Poland. Joan promoted a special relationship with the Technical University of Lodz, and also devoted care and attention to the children's hospital of that city. Later she established the Lady Curran Endowment fund for overseas, particularly Polish, students.” ~ Wiki



I like the label “literary atheist.” This is a person who believes in the power of fiction. A character like Superman is invented, and cult behavior follows. “Star Wars” is an even better example, with Yoda as a spiritual guide and the master of “The Force.” Or even Harry Potter. Having supernatural powers is a big part of the appeal of those characters that become cultural icons.

A literary atheist regards a god, including the Abrahamic god, as a fictional character. Perhaps “mythological” would be a more precise label, but “fictional” covers more ground. Just because a character is fictional doesn’t mean that he or she doesn’t “exist.” A fictional character can have a vivid neural existence, having become an indelible part of our psyche, along with the main narratives.

A literary atheist is a gnostic atheist [one who knows that god doesn’t exist “out there”], but with a subtle difference: she recognizes that a fictional character can be very powerful part of our lives, often more powerful than an actual person. The human brain doesn’t strictly separate reality from imagination. It’s not just young children who confuse “imaginary” and “real” characters and events; adults show the same tendency, as demonstrated by the phenomenon of false memory. In a way, all characters (including ourselves and our friends) are “imaginary.”

So in a way it’s fine that Yahweh is a fictional character. The distressing part is that he’s not a well-written one. This is not surprising, given that the bible was written and edited over a long time by many men. He’s not the creation of a single literary genius; he’s a collective creation.
And then there is the question of selective reading and shifting interpretation over the centuries that followed. Given that, it’s remarkable how, for all the efforts to soften him, he remains an he remains an obnoxious character, definitely “not a swell dude,” as someone recently put it. But a character doesn’t have to be likable to be powerful — literature is full of villains and good guys, as well as more complex villains who now and then have a gracious moment.

But let’s face it, Yoda is wiser and more endearing by far.

Yoda stands for goodness and wisdom. Darth Vader has gone over to the Dark Side of “might makes right,” but he's redeemed at the last moment. The ancient ideas keep getting recycled, updated.


My favorite line from Star Wars was when Darth said something like "Who is the master now?" And the response was "But you're only a master of evil. " Thought it was a great put down.

On the other hand, there is the sneaky rabbinical wisdom of not defining or explicitly describing Yahweh.

Did you know that when the Romans would sentence a person to death for becoming a Jew, the crime was called, "atheism"? Since the Jewish G*d cannot be seen or described, they considered this person to be without any god at all. Turns out that Judaism is closer to atheism than most people's theism. As Rabbi Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch once put it, "The G*d the atheist doesn't believe in, I don't believe in either." ~ Tzvi Freeman


~ I had learned about traumatic brain injuries in a physiological psychology class I took at Drexel University, where I was majoring in psychology and on the pre-med track. This is when I first discovered my fascination with the human brain’s structures, and how physical damage to those structures can affect a person’s perceptions and behaviors. 

It was also the first opportunity I had to think critically about my own mother’s brain, and the traumas it has endured throughout her life. I remember poring over different case studies, searching for any recognizable symptoms that might be associated with the parts of her brain that had been damaged, anything that would help me understand my mother better. 

Long before I was born, when my mother was 17, she collapsed in her high school’s hallway after suffering a massive aneurysm when a tangle of blood vessels burst in her right frontal lobe, bleeding into her brain. 

She doesn’t remember anything between hearing her classmates say she shouldn’t be drinking at school just before passing out and coming to two weeks later in the hospital. Though she’d been conscious the whole time to answer questions the hospital staff had asked, the nurses and doctors startled her when she gained awareness again. She had no memory of them. 

My mother was lucky that she didn’t have to relearn how to walk or talk. Though, like some of my clients at the brain injury center, she did experience some short-term memory loss — like not remembering whether she had taken her medicine that morning, or repeating the same story or question over and over again.


A few years before I started the internship, during the summer before my senior year of high school, my mother had abandoned us. After marrying a man she’d met on eHarmony, she packed up and left me and my 15-year-old sister, Lindsay alone in our house – without any prior discussion or warning. 

Her new husband’s home was closer to where she worked, in a town a little more than 20 miles away, though she didn’t check in on us often. Our father, who lived 500 miles away, was oblivious to the situation the entire time. We were too afraid he’d make us move in with him, and so we kept it all a secret. 

At the age of 17 – the same age my mother was when she experienced her brain aneurysm – I stepped up into the parent role. I worked as a manager at a nearby grocery store, where I’d shop for our groceries. I was the one who made sure Lindsay finished her homework as I drove us to school each morning, and forged our mother’s signature on any school forms that required it. I took us to the doctor when we got sick. 

With each day that passed, I collected more resentment toward my mother. She didn’t understand how cumbersome it was for us to navigate daily tasks without her, how painful it was to not have our mom around. She couldn’t seem to grasp that we still needed her, and I was too stubborn to admit I wanted her to come home. 

I managed to get myself into college, where I majored in psychology — not for any particular reason, though looking back on it now, I can’t help but see it as the first step of my attempt to understand my mother. 

Feeling distant from my mother was not a new experience for me. Throughout my childhood and adolescent years, I’d often felt as if there was a wall between us. I vividly remember coming to her when I was 12 or 13, frustrated about something — maybe I was annoyed with my sister, or had just had an argument with a friend, or even likelier, was upset because of a boy. My mother was lying on the couch reading a book as I stormed into the living room with tears running down my face. 

She looked up from her book and laughed in reaction to my despair, offering only one of her frequent refrains of “oh, it’s not a big deal” or “life isn’t fair” as comfort. Being dismissive of my emotions and concerns was typical for my mother, as was her cold affect, and I never got used to it. The emotional rejection hurt each time. 

In the developmental psychology class I took during my sophomore year at Drexel, I learned about attachment theory, how crucial it is for a baby’s development to bond with their mother after birth, and how important it is for their emotional development that they feel safe in her arms. As I sat in that lecture hall, scribbling down notes from our professor’s slides, my thoughts returned to my mother. I’d been told I was a difficult newborn with bad colic, and knew my mother had gone back to work when I was only a couple of months old – two things that explained our lack of connection, or so I wanted to believe. 

I raised my hand, eager to find out whether it was ever too late to start forming that bond. By the time my professor called on me, I was too ashamed to ask. 


One afternoon I was walking through the hospital with Jeremy, a client who was volunteering in the maintenance department as part of his job-training program. As he pushed his cart beside me, he tried to fill the quiet hallways with conversation. 

“So, when we gonna hang out?” he said. “You’re pretty hot, you know.” 

My initial reaction was shock and embarrassment, and if I wasn’t supposed to be the professional one in the situation I might have turned around and run down the hallway. I managed to stumble out a response. 

“That’s inappropriate and unprofessional, Jeremy,” I said. “You don’t speak to people you work with like that.” 

“O.K., O.K.,” he said with his head down, embarrassed. “Got it.” 

Once my knee-jerk shock reaction subsided, I felt something else for Jeremy. As I was teaching him how to interact in the world again after his injury, he was teaching me a lesson in empathy. And maybe, if I could learn to understand and feel compassion for what Jeremy was experiencing, I could learn to feel empathy for my mother, too. 

In the end, the internship didn’t lead me anywhere career-wise. I never made it to medical school, but the experience did unlock my ability to re-think and write about my life – and helped salvage my relationship with my mother. 

It’s taken years, but I’m finally beginning to understand and appreciate that she’s a complex person, as all of us are. I now see she’s not only someone who has caused trauma for me, but also a person who has endured and survived trauma herself. Like some of my impulsive clients, my mother’s frontal lobe had been damaged as a result of her brain trauma, an injury that likely impaired her judgment and ability to perceive others’ emotions. Maybe she couldn’t be blamed for her character flaws. 

A few months ago, I went to visit my mother in the Poconos where she and her husband now live. We went out for dinner, just the two of us, and I ordered a bottle of red wine for us to share. I’d been reading a significant book about trauma called The Body Keeps the Score, I told her, and had lately been thinking a lot about how trauma is something we have in common. 

“Yours might be physical, and mine emotional,” I said, “but they’re both considered trauma.”
I watched as she sipped her glass of wine. She nodded with a little smile of recognition. “And we both survived,” she said. “We share that, too.” 

It wasn’t the warm, motherly embrace I’ve always dreamed of, but after years of working to be able to see my mother, I was finally able to feel seen by her. ~



~ COVID superspreading events happen almost exclusively indoors – meatpacking plants and prisons, bars and overnight camps – so environment is definitely important. But why most people do not transmit the coronavirus and some transmit a lot is still a mystery. 

“It is clear that there are some people who, because of their own personal biology — we don’t know enough about it yet — they produce a higher percentage of aerosols versus respiratory droplets,” Watson said. “The hypothesis is that some of these people are super-emitters, and they are responsible for some of these superspreading events.”

“One possibility is that different individuals have respiratory fluid with different viscosity and interfacial tension, both of which affect the dynamics of droplet formation,” William Ristenpart, a chemical engineer at University of California, Davis, said in an email. That means that some people may have differences in the makeup of their respiratory fluids, possibly affecting the way they produce droplets and aerosols. Ristenpart and his lab have previously published work that some people emit aerosols at a higher rate while talking and while coughing than others — so-called “superemitters.”

If scientists are able to identify the underlying reason for this variance, a test for contagiousness would be helpful for identifying superemitters and keeping them away from kicking off a superspreading event.

Curbing these events is crucial, and even without a contagiousness test, there’s a clear way to do that now.

“We have two big epidemics of COVID in Hong Kong where the epidemic went up, then we got on top of it with public health measures, and the numbers came down again,” Cowling said. “On the upslope, there were superspreading events. But on the downslope, not so much anymore.”

Instead of focusing on identifying super-emitters, we should focus on the crucial environments where superspreading can occur, Watson said: “We see pretty consistent evidence that when we reopen indoor dining, bars, and gyms in particular — especially at high capacity and haven’t improved the airflow in those facilities — that we have increased transmission.” 

Staying at least 6 feet from others has become a common safety recommendation, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its guidance to warn that the virus can spread through the air farther than that in indoor, poorly ventilated environments. It’s added a new layer of complication for businesses, schools and offices that are struggling to reopen, against the backdrop of a debate about balancing public health with economic well-being. 

The public health recommendations we’ve been hearing for months, especially those urging us to stay away from crowded indoor areas and wear a mask, are still some of the best pieces of guidance. ~


ending on beauty: 

Even as the farmer labors
where the seed turns into summer,
it is not his work. It is Earth who gives.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke