Author Archives: Diana

The Gene

I have been reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book The Gene: An Intimate History. It’s absolutely fascinating. An approachable history of the genetics side of biology. I’m only about halfway through; I wasn’t planning on recommending it until I was done, but it’s too good to wait. If you’re at all interested in modern molecular biology, biochemistry, or history of science… it’s worth your time.

I’m finding it personally interesting for another reason: I knew, as professors at MIT when I was a student and when I worked in the biology department after I graduated, many of the people whose work on DNA and genetics is discussed in this book. For the first time, I understand the internal politics and the in-fighting that went on up and down the halls. I understand why one professor’s work was lauded and another’s criticized. I didn’t have the historical perspective then that I have now, which is one part of it; another part is that I was simply naive about how much out-and-out competition was going on, for scientific glory (and money).

I also understand now why my undergraduate advisor, the man who elucidated the sickle cell gene (obit here) was totally the wrong person to advise undergraduates. Well, this undergraduate, anyway.

And I’ll just mention here that MIT sure must have been anxious to get their toes in the water… they hired a lot of people away from other places in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Civil Rights, the Museum of African American History and Culture, and the on-going struggle for equality

My mother didn’t much like children. I don’t think she liked people in general, honestly, but she really thought children should be “seen and not heard,” and she definitely lived by that credo. I was luckier than most children in that situation, though, because she hired a nanny/housekeeper to manage the house and the children so she could work. Mrs. Day was an African-American woman, about ten years older than my mother, whose one son was grown; she was hired when I was six months old in 1955, and she died when I was forty. (I was on the way to see her, but didn’t make it in time. I take some comfort in knowing that she knew I was coming.) I don’t know much about Mrs. Beatrice Day; I know she grew up in Virginia and came to live in the Philadelphia suburbs with her husband Benny, whom I think worked for the Pennsylvania Rail Road (PRR), although I’m not sure why I think that. Maybe I heard it once?

Mrs. Day loved me, took care of me; later she taught me how to cook (my mother didn’t cook). We went to a lot of places together, including her AME church in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, where I learned to love gospel music (although my parents, staunch atheists both of them, slightly disapproved, I went with her whenever they were out of town, which was often, since they liked to travel, preferably without children in tow). We saw a revival screening of Gone With The Wind in 1966, a fancy showing where we both dressed up and sat in the balcony with great seats that had been given to my parents, and I have to wonder now what Mrs. Day made of that, but I remember crying through the sad scenes (when the pony dies) and then running to make our trolley back home. She made me run ahead to catch the car and ask them to wait for Mrs. Day. Everyone knew Mrs. Day; she was an important person in her circle. (We took the P&W trolley rather than the train, I remember, which meant we had to run to catch the last trolley.) There are pictures from 1969 of the trolley at both 69th Street station (where we got on) and the Haverford station (where we got off) here. I didn’t question it at the time, but the train (the Main Line train, from 30th Street Station to the train station in Haverford) was for white people, and the P&W trolley was for black people. I liked the trolley much better–it was just more fun–it clacked along slowly and you could open the windows on hot days. Less expensive too.

Mrs. Day genuinely knew everyone. I remember getting told off by her for being disrespectful to one of the lunch ladies at my elementary school. I was embarrassed, but also not at all surprised that she knew about it.

At the same time, I was growing up in the well-off Philadelphia suburbs, where it was mostly Republicans–although my parents were both Democrats, and my mother ran for a township office and got more votes than any Democrat ever had, while still only getting 10% of the vote–where it was still segregated, mostly. But I also went to a Quaker elementary school, and the older brothers of my friends were traveling to the deep South to sit-ins and demonstrations as part of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. My school gave scholarships to a few African-American students from the local community.

As I went into high school (a private all-girls school), the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had passed a few years before, Martin Luther King was making waves and having an impact, the Black Panthers were creating a movement in Oakland, and equal rights were having their day.

I was thinking about all of this last week, when I went to Washington DC to see the newest Smithsonian museum, the Museum of African American History and Culture ( It’s not an easy museum to visit–since it opened over a year ago, it’s been so busy that there’s a ticketing system. You have to go online at 6AM (Pacific time) the first Wednesday of the month to request tickets for three months later (and they are gone quickly, although they’re free (your tax dollars at work)). That’s how I ended up going to DC in December; I started trying to get tickets last February and didn’t succeed until September.

The Museum is astonishing. The architecture is beautiful, to start with. There are three floors below grade and four floors above. Rosalind (my sister) and I managed to see most of the exhibits on the lower floors, which detail the history of African Americans from the 1400s (before the opening of Africa to international trade) through the inauguration of Barack Obama as our 44th president. There was a huge amount of information about the slave trade and the actual living conditions of African Americans before the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s. As we went down in the elevator, the operator (it’s a huge elevator, holding about fifty people) gave an introduction to the Museum and told us that, after we’d finished those lower floors, there was a room for reflection and spiritual renewal that we might want to visit. And yes, there was a need for that room. A huge need. I could describe the lower floors as dark, but the more accurate description was “horrifyingly thought provoking.” I knew much of the history (thanks to my Quaker education at The Friends School of Haverford, PA) but that’s really not the same as seeing film of the treatment of protestors. Nor does hearing about the history in a safe classroom have the impact of seeing Emmett Till’s casket (empty; he was reburied after re-identification of his remains). (History aside: Emmett Till was lynched, at age 14, because he “offended” a white woman he spoke to in a grocery store. Beaten. Murdered. Drowned. His murderers were found innocent by an all-white jury and confessed the next year–but never served time.)

There’s also a reconstructed slave cabin and a guard tower from Angola prison.

As I said: horrifyingly thought-provoking.

And in the week since, I find myself wondering: why did I never ask Mrs. Day about her childhood? What was it like for her growing up? I know she didn’t learn to write until she worked for our family–how did that happen?

The upper floors of the Museum are devoted to African American Culture and are far more cheerful. Rosalind and I skipped to the floor devoted to music, movies, TV, and cuisine. I got to see Chuck Berry’s red 1972 Cadillac convertible. There was great music. There were costumes worn by black musicians. It was a lot of fun, that floor.

We had lunch in the cafeteria, which has four areas, devoted to regional black cuisine. I had “western-style ribs”, which were good. Better than good.

After that experience, Rosalind and I walked to the National Botanical Garden and its Conservatory and admired orchids and other tropical plants. It was restful, but we continued talking about the (other) museum. We talked about the family history: distant Dickinsons owned slaves in western Virginia. Not many, not a plantation, but one or two (accounts vary) before moving to Kansas in the late 1840s. That’s pretty much all I know. I don’t even know their names.

The next day, my cousin Cindy Dickinson and I went to the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Historic Monument, a tiny house that was the site of the campaign for women’s suffrage a century ago. (The Constitutional Amendment passed in 1921.) There were four people there as we toured the house with a knowledgeable docent. No tickets, no waiting. For that matter, no fancy metal detectors or security guards, either.

In reflecting on my trip, I find I’m saddened. During the 1970s, as I started my working career, women and African Americans didn’t have full protection under the law and were often discriminated against. We still are, even though another forty years have gone by. I hoped for better, back then, and now I’m hoping we don’t slide backwards.

Speed circles ….

I’ve been working on deliberate practice for Rush’s contacts. There are two pieces to the process: I need to practice holding Rush to my criteria AND Rush needs to practice meeting those criteria. For quite a while, I’ve been using the principles of deliberate practice that are explained in the book Peak to work on small chunks of courses, rather than doing whole courses.

It’s a challenge to make that kind of deliberate practice fun for the dog–but Rush loves speed, so this is what I did.

I set up a speed circle around the outside of the arena, no tricky handling, just straight approaches and every thing set up to make it straightforward and fast. Rush loves speed and has had trouble with his two-on-two-off stopped contacts.

I started with one round of slow running, giving Rush a cookie for each contact before releasing. Then I started doing faster laps, rewarding his stop with a release to go on. After a few rounds of that, I was running as fast as I could and Rush was still holding his contacts even as I sprinted past him.

There are two parts to this. One is the speed circle and the other is adding the contacts to the speed circle. When I set up a speed circle with Rush, I use the full length and width of the arena to set up a course that is a big circle without handling complexity. The jumps are set at spacing that makes sure he is running in full extension or near full extension. Rush has a huge stride, so that distance can be twenty-five feet or more. When he really gets going, I’ve seen him bounce-jump an 18 foot distance. The arena where I train is 70 x 120 so the full-speed-ahead circle–when all I’m training is full-on sprinting for both of us (which I also call aerobic agility because I use it to develop aerobic fitness for both me and the dog)–is tunnels in all four corners, one jump in the middle on the short sides, and three jumps down the long sides.

Those jumps can be the broad jump, tire, double, triple, wingless or winged. I often replace the corner tunnels with short-bar wingless jumps (using a four-foot bar) because dogs often don’t see those jumps and that allows me to practice that skill too. Or I’ll put big winged jumps out in the corners with five-foot bars and work distance on those corners.

When I want to train fast weaves at speed, I replace the middle jump on both sides with six poles. If that goes well, I set up twelve poles.

When I set up this kind of speed circle, I will do three or four rounds of the circle (changing directions halfway, so as to work both leads) before I stop and reward–so thirty or forty obstacles, then a long game of tug and chase-me, which are my dog’s favorite rewards. Rush LOVES running fast though and is in excellent condition, so I would absolutely stop and reward WAY more often with a dog that doesn’t love the game.

For a speed circle with contacts, I replaced the jumps on the long sides with the a-frame and the dogwalk. The teeter was on a long line down the middle so that I could make a long skinny circle with the teeter. Because the teeter is unidirectional, I didn’t put it in the larger circle, since I like to train both leads.

If you’re familiar with the athletic training concept of high-intensity-interval-training (HIIT), speed circles are how I implement HIIT for me and for Rush. I have to run all out, and so does Rush. It’s great for teaching obstacle focus. Now, Rush is a big dog, very fast, and is not naturally inclined to work at a distance. With a dog that likes to work at a distance, the catch is that you may be tempted to not run at YOUR top speed because you can instead stay on the inside of the circle and direct the dog at a distance. That’s cheating yourself of the opportunity to do some fun agility HIIT.

The care and raising of good parents

Recently, as part of a Facebook discussion group, members of my high school class were discussing the art of raising daughters and granddaughters. I’ll note here that I went to a private, non-sectarian, academically-oriented, all-girls school and I graduated in 1972. My former classmates include lawyers, doctors, professors. And so on.

The question was raised: how do you raise daughters and granddaughters to be fearless. Immediately, of course, I changed the question to raising fearless children, because I honestly think of both of my kids (who are now adults in their early 30s) as fearless. Later when I discussed it with Stacia, however, she pointed out that she’s not fearless, but that she does things anyway. The correct idea, then, is not fearless; it’s brave.

I was stumped by the question, to be honest; I really have no idea what Jay and I did right when we raised our kids. They’ve turned out brave, smart, energetic, and a pleasure to be around. Stacia’s theory is that we provided opportunities, gave them some choices, and expected them to choose–but they didn’t have the choice of doing nothing. I don’t know if that’s it, but perhaps it was part of it.

Stacia and Me, at the top of our climb on Mt. St. Helens. That's the caldera in the background.

Stacia and Me, at the top of our climb on Mt. St. Helens. That’s the caldera in the background.

This weekend, though, the question and the idea got flipped for me. Stacia and I did two things this weekend where not that long ago I would have said “oh, go ahead without me!” The first was a twelve-plus-mile day hike on Mt. St. Helens exploring the blast zone and the ecological after-effects of the 1980 eruption. It was a challenging hike; I use the word “challenging” very carefully. I try not to say “hard” because “hard” is just too vague.

The hike challenged me physically and mentally. There were more than a few moments where I wanted to call for a rescue helicopter. I discovered, unhappily, that my feet swell a lot on long hikes–by the last few miles my toes were banging uncomfortably against the front of my shoes; I may be losing a few toenails over the next few weeks. There was the moment when I realized that the “official” measurement of the hike at slightly over ten miles was wrong; my Garmin GPS watch read almost nine miles and the hike leader said we had about three and half miles to go…

photo by Stacia Torborg

photos by Stacia Torborg

There were also exhilarating moments when I (briefly) felt invincible. We found a patch of ripe and beautiful wild strawberries and stood eating them for what felt like a long time. There was a tiny patch of snow (a rough circle perhaps twenty feet in diameter) and I scrubbed my hands with some and put some on the back of my neck. I ate half a chocolate bar at about 8 miles and it was possibly the best chocolate bar I’ve ever had.

st helens strawberries small

This challenging hike, which I completed because of Stacia’s generous help (seriously: she carried extra water bottles so we’d have plenty; she carried, in total, about twice the poundage I did; she lent me her day pack), got me thinking about raising brave parents. Over the last five or six years, Stacia’s expectation that I will follow her example of confronting fears and just doing things anyway has led to be doing things that surprise me, like a twelve mile hike. It started when she completed a marathon and then suggested that I get back into running by doing Couch-to-5K; yesterday’s hike was just another data point.

After we drove home from our hike (we stopped at Burgerville and shared a marionberry milkshake), we rested for a bit, then Stacia and I went back out to participate in the Naked Goddess Swim here in Portland. It takes place annually at the August full moon, and features naked women swimming off a public access dock under the rising moon. There are safety kayakers and everyone is checked in and out of the water, so it hits all my “is this safe?” buttons nicely. (I’m not known as “Queen of the What-Ifs” for nothing; I always like to figure out how to do things safely.) Another friend met us there, and we dove into the Willamette River with our pink glow necklaces around our necks and swam (yes, naked) in the exhilaratingly chilly river as the moon rose. Spectators stood on the Hawthorne Bridge and gawked; there were about a hundred women in the water, younger, older, thinner, fatter, all of us naked in the moonlight. It was delightful. I didn’t get out until my teeth started to chatter.

What constitutes “improvement”?

I’m quite competitive with myself. I like to see evidence of improvement when I’m working on things. I enjoy running, for example, but I also want to get faster and more fit as part of my running. I’ve been working on improving my fitness in many ways, including by losing weight, for years now. I’ve been training in dog agility for 13 years this summer and I’d like to thinking I’m improving. I run some races year after year, looking for improvement in my times.

All of which begs the question: how do you measure improvement in these areas? Take weight management and a healthy diet, for example: Is it good enough to maintain a steady weight if the average Jane gains a few pounds every year? Exactly how much (how little?) sugar should there be in a healthy nutrition plan? Should you judge healthy nutrition by blood sugar and blood lipid levels?

Or my race times? I’ve steadily improved my Mt. Tabor Tar ‘N’ Trail 5K times over the years. October 1st will be my fifth running. If I don’t improve my time, is that a sign of impending decline? Or is holding steady good enough at my age, when the world record progression shows a steady and inexorable decline with age (See this link.) (I’ll note here that, if I were 83 (and not about-to-be-62, tomorrow), I’d currently hold the world record. Obviously, I’m not world class.)

And how do I measure improvement in dog agility? More Qs? More interesting Qs? Not worrying about Q-ing? For a long time, when I first started running Rush, my goal for any given run was not to be barked at; Rush was inclined to yell at me if he thought I was late with a cue. These days I mostly get through courses without being barked at, and sometimes we run clean, and sometimes I measure success by not getting lost and sometimes I measure success by directing Rush through a course faster than dogs we normally lose to. More often, though, I try to think of each agility course as a unique challenge and not compare my success with anyone else’s including my own ideal self.

Low Carb, No Carb, Sugar, and More

My mother used to follow a low-carb diet, right up until, as she put it, “that woman killed her diet doctor.” She was referring to Jean Harris’s murder of Herman Tarnower in the early ’80s. Tarnower advocated for a relatively low-carbohydrate diet for rapid weight loss (called the Scarsdale Diet, should you want to do more research on this). I couldn’t tell, in all honesty, that the diet did my mother much good. Of course, my mother also hid chocolate bars around the house so that she could find them when she wanted them in the middle of the night (I inherited her insomniac proclivities, but I don’t eat chocolate at night).

As anyone who’s been paying attention to this blog for a while knows, I’ve been working on slowly, steadily, painfully losing weight for the last almost-five years. I’ve been maintaining a sixty-pound weight loss for about a year and half now (after losing for three and a half years), but I dream of losing another ten or so pounds. Maybe fifteen. But… I’ve been steady for a year and a half, which is not nothing.

I eat very carefully these days. I rarely eat sugar. I don’t drink much alcohol, maybe once or twice a month. My preferred beverages are seltzer, tea (hot or iced, no sugar), water. I eat very little bread. Some potatoes, some brown rice. I even eat quinoa. I eat lots of fruit. I eat nuts. Green vegetables. Avocado. I eat meat. I use olive oil and butter to cook with. I ask myself if I’m hungry or thirsty before I eat. Mostly I avoid fried foods and mostly we cook at home, whole foods that aren’t processed at all. I try not to eat unless I’m actually hungry. This seems to work to maintain my weight. There’s that word: “maintain.”

Can you tell I’m a little frustrated to be stuck at this weight? Just a little.

I’ve been reading up on metabolic biochemistry. A friend recommended  Nina Teicholz’s The Big Fat Surpriseas a study of the food industry’s influence on so-called scientific research on nutrition and health over the period since World War II. Some of it I knew because I was a biochemistry major (undergraduate) and Professor Gene Brown (of MIT) was a stickler for facts. I was advised, back in the early 1970s, that eating trans fats in the form of margarine and other hydrogenated oils were going to be a serious health problem. Prof. Brown was an advocate of liquid oils like olive oil and also for butter. His drawings of the membrane transport disruptions caused by trans fats have stuck in my brain ever since. (Of course, I went off to find illustrations, but could not.)

Teicholz covers trans fats. She covers the low fat high carbohydrate diet recommendations for the US government in detail. And she covers the reasons why low fat diets don’t work and are bad for you too. Very persuasively.

I went on from Teicholz to Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat, which also covers real science, very persuasively.

Both Teicholz and Taubes make convincing cases against sugar and refined carbs and in favor of a meat-and-fat-based diet with some greens thrown in for micro-nutrients. Taubes suggests that everyone’s tolerance for carbohydrates is different and that some people can eat lots and maintain a healthy weight, and others cannot. While I realize that this is a small-scale experiment, that’s exactly what I’ve noticed with Dancer and Rush. Yes, they’re dogs, not people, but dogs co-evolved with humans and pretty much eat what we do. Rush and Dancer get the same meat, the same oils, the same vegetables… and Dancer gets way less carbs than Rush. If I give her more carbs, she puts on weight.

I joke to people that, metabolically, I’m a Prius. I really don’t require a lot of fuel. I honestly would prefer to be a Suburban or a big truck, that burns a lot of fuel, but I’m just not. It appears, from these two books, that I may be better off further reducing my carbs (which means, mostly, less fruit) and increasing the amount of proteins and fats that I eat. It seems like something I can try.

Sleeping, a theory about the senses

I noticed one night a few months ago that if I emulated a behavior both my kids had as babies, I could fall back asleep more easily. Both my kids, as babies, rubbed their blankets between their fingers as they fell asleep. I was pondering that as I lay awake in the middle of the night, trying to quell my monkey brain (which was busy with to do lists at the time), and I decided to try it. I have a new plush throw blanket that I use because Jay sleeps cooler than I do and I need an extra blanket. It’s a very soft plush and feels lovely in your hand or when rubbed on your cheek. I tried rubbing it between my fingers, focusing on the fibers and how they felt–and the next thing I knew, it was morning and I felt refreshed.

I tried it a few more times, and the key seemed to be focusing on the sensations reaching my finger tips, focusing on that single sense of touch.

That got me thinking about the senses on a recent night as I once again tried to quell my monkey brain. Sleeping, to my mind, is about turning off those senses. We wake up from a deep sleep and we remember nothing of the previous hours–not what we smelled or tasted or touched or heard or saw. We close our eyes and disable our vision to sleep. We try for quiet and comfort. So that night, instead of focusing on touch, I focused on hearing. I listened to the regular sound of Jay’s breathing and the breathing of the dogs as well. Again, I went back to sleep easily. I sprayed my pillow with lavender a few nights ago and when I woke up during the night, I focused on that smell and tried to exclude all the other senses. It worked.

I have been thinking about the monkey brain that wakes up when I can’t sleep. Is it wide awake because it doesn’t have anything better to do? No senses to process?


Report from CPE Nationals

It’s taken quite a while to recover from CPE Nationals and the three weekends of trialing that I scheduled immediately afterwards. (This turned out to be a mistake, I should have rested more, but too late now.)

Rush double small for webYou can see from this photo that Rush was in peak condition for Nationals.




Nationals went pretty well. I was disappointed to find that there were only two 24″ dogs competing! Following a friend’s advice, though, I decided that I would compete with myself to challenge myself every run. In the end, Rush was first in 24″ standard and first in 24″ games. We got four Qs (all of them first places) and three near misses (a single bar down in each of the three runs). In Jumpers I completely forgot the course halfway through; Jackpot was just too challenging (only 8 dogs Qd of the 309 competing).

RushD_SatStandard_CPENAT_2017 was our best run; Rush had the third fastest qualifying run of all the dogs in all height classes.

I learned something from the Jumpers run where I forgot the course. The dog who ran ahead of me was distracted by the environment and ended up peeing mid-course, causing a delay. During the delay, I waited impatiently for my run to start–and forgot to review my plan as I entered the ring. I normally enter the ring and do a quick mental review of the course–I got distracted by the dog’s distraction and let it throw me. Later, when I saw it happening again, I started talking to myself, calling out my plan and ignoring the dog. Something like: Stay-lead out-jump-front cross-tunnel-sprint down the line-weaves-blind cross-pull to tunnel…

Videos of all four qualifying runs here:






Tuning up for CPE Nationals

I have spent the last four months obsessed with being ready for CPE Nationals, which begin in about ten days. Rush and I have been running. I’ve done intervals and hills and taught him to swim. He’s clipped down so his coat will look its best (one last cleanup groom just before we leave). I’ve got my clothes and my shoes planned.

As for training, I’ve been training everything I can think of: ten treats work (ten jumps, ten treats), jump lines for strength and jump curves to keep each lead balanced, threadles on a verbal, backsides on a verbal, contacts and more contacts, weird weave entries, his go-to-leash cue. I’ve worked startline stays to the point where he yawns when I do them no matter how far away I get. I’ve worked jump-weave openings and tunnel-weave discriminations. I’ve done zen circles on both leads and zen ovals and zen circles with doubles and tunnels, even. I’ve worked front crosses and rear crosses and blind crosses and pushes and pulls (he pulls way better than he pushes!). I don’t know what else there is to work, honestly, although I’m sure the judges will come up with something I missed. That’s their job, right?

I’ve got the fan for the car and ice packs in the trunk. I’ve got rain gear. I’ve got an ex-pen I don’t expect to need. I’ve got extra socks and extra shoes and all the shoes have been tested on grass and dirt and even turf.

I don’t think I’ve forgotten anything.



This year, as part of annual self-improvement day (New Year’s), I joined two different “Challenge” groups. One of them is Daisy Peel’s 2017 agility challenge group; the other is a running challenge group called the Hadfield 2017 Challenge. They have a few things in common; the one that stands out for me is that they are both mostly women, and both mostly women who are afraid that they’re not meeting some arbitrary external standard. “I’m not that fast,” they say. They write: “I’m not a very good handler” or “my dog deserves a better handler.” On the running challenge, they ask for advice about riding a bike in traffic (for cross-training) because they’re afraid of riding in traffic. Or about dealing with dangerous dogs that they might encounter in a new situation. Or about how to get up the courage to try a long distance race or a triathlon.

I think for many of the women in these groups, the “challenge” is overcoming their own fears. It’s that inner critic again: the one who knows all our secrets, including how scared we are to try something new–and maybe fail–or maybe just look foolish–or maybe trip and fall.

When I am trial chair, one of the questions I always get from first-time competitors is “what happens if my dog poops in the ring?” My answer is: you leash your dog, then you clean it up, and then you take your dog out of the ring. Sometimes the ring crew will clean it up for you. Oh yes, and “it has happened to every single experienced competitor in this trial.” And every single new competitor is worried that they’ll be embarrassed. There is that horrible video that goes around the internet every few years, of an agility dog having a wonderful run right up until he stops to shit; I cringe every time, because that poor handler must feel so awful that she asked her dog to run when he needed to go.

We all worry about making fools of ourselves.

We all worry about our safety.

We all worry about appearing clumsy or inexperienced.

We all worry that people are judging us and finding us lacking.

But I’ve noticed that most people aren’t interested in judging other people. We’re watching because we want to learn. We want to be awed. We want to share our experiences with others. We’re not holding up signs with numbers. Really, we’re not.