Category Archives: off topic

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.

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.

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?


Last minute (sort of) thoughts

I am having a terrible case of “what the hell was I thinking?” about the sprint triathlon I’m doing tomorrow. (I notice I can’t say “running” or another more specific verb. The pun of tri-ing is just too awful to use. I’m stuck with the vague and unsatisfying “doing”. So sorry.)

Seriously, even with long trail runs where I’m likely to be DFL and it’s likely to rain, I don’t feel like it’s a mistake to have entered. But right now, I just feel like it’s all terribly complicated–a race where part of the competition is in how fast you can get your shoes and your bike helmet on? I’ve packed a bag, in layers, with all the things I think I need (two pairs of shoes, goggles, swim cap, clothes for after, bathing cap, five water bottles (some with Skratch, some without), sport beans, and more!) (oh wait, bike helmet, gloves, sunglasses!). Tomorrow morning, at 7 AM–for an 8:20:15 start (yes, they’re that precise, because it’s a staggered pool start)–I have to arrive, get my act together and organize all this stuff.

I love doing 5Ks. By comparison, the hardest part of a 5K is figuring out where to park and whether to toss a sweater in the bushes just before the start or leave it in the car and be cold for fifteen minutes before the start.

Well, I paid my entry fee. I’m not going to scratch now. I’ve done the training. I don’t think I’ll be DFL (but how would I know before I finished and looked at the results, anyway, since everyone starts at a different time (which ranges from 7:30 AM on)?). Think of me tomorrow. I’m hoping I’ll be enjoying it.

Taking in my pants

I mentioned to a friend that I was taking in a pair of my agility pants, and she asked me how I did it. Hence this series of commented photos of the process.

This is the middle back of the pants (outside) before I did anything at all.

taking in 1

And this is the inside middle back before I did anything.

taking in 2

The next step was to sew the drawstring in place so I could use it after I was done. The way I did it, it won’t slide through the middle back, but I know from experience that doesn’t matter. I just zigzagged across the sides where I planned to cut.

taking in 3

Next I cut a triangle out of the middle back that was a little less than the amount I needed to take in.

taking in 4

Then I overlapped the two sides and zigzagged one side on top of the other. I went over the seam twice to make it strong.

taking in 4half

No, it’s not the classiest or neatest job ever, but I always wear a sweater or a t-shirt over my pants, so no one but my dear readers will ever see it. Besides that, I’d be way less embarrassed for someone to see that seam than I would be for my pants to fall down while I’m running!

Heads Up! This one is BORING! (Dieting and food and exercise. Like I said. BORING.)

I started this blog (8 or so years ago) with the intent of having it be a training log so that I could keep track of what I was doing. Now it’s become much more of a journal. Anyway. I’m excited (and no one else really cares much) because I’ve now lost just over forty pounds. I like round numbers and that one is divisible by 10 (four times!) which makes it especially likable. I started trying to lose weight by seeing a nutritionist in August of 2012 and that worked for a while–I lost thirty pounds in about a year–then I maintained for a year, then I decided to get serious again (since I’d gained some weight while training for last summer’s bike travel down the Oregon coast) and started going to Weight Watchers, mainly because of the public shaming aspect of it.

All I really did was commit to showing up on Mondays at noon for a meeting, but having committed to that–and paid for it on the automatic payment plan–then I feel like I don’t want to gain weight from week to week. Public shaming. I could stop going, but I’m adverse to wasting money. This is working.

I’ve also decided to be more serious about my running training. I like running. The dogs like it when I run with them. Getting more serious has made a difference. While Jay and I were in Palm Springs (for the annual get-fit-for-spring cycling boot camp that Jay has created for us), I ran two five-kilometer events. Well, one of them was a 6K, but I went through 5K at 37 minutes. A week later, I did the 5K at 35.01 minutes. I am still patting myself on the back for that one. Huge improvement over last fall’s 41-and-change, but of course that was up and down on Mt. Tabor.

Besides going to Weight Watchers, running, and counting all those stupid points (although it’s probably easier than counting calories directly), I’m also a) not eating anything where the first label ingredient is sugar, b) avoiding factory-produced foods as much as possible, c) only eating 7 French fries if I eat any, and d) eating an absolutely horrifying amount of fruits and vegetables. All of this seems to working to the tune of about half a pound a week. So it’ll only be another year to lose the twenty-four more pounds I’m hoping to lose.

And then I just need to keep eating carefully for the rest of my life. Not a big deal at all.

Wildly off topic–a feminist manifesto about shoes (and makeup)

This post has nothing to do with dogs, knitting, poodles, agility, or bicycling.

Yesterday I happened to notice two children, ages 9 and 10 or so, getting out of their father’s car and running into the store. One child–wearing sneakers–leapt out of the car and ran across the parking lot, shouting “come on!” to the other child, who was wearing a pair of cowboy boots that seemed to be too large. I could hear the boots clumping along and the expression on the child’s face spoke of frustration and discomfort. In a moment, her father passed her–he was wearing sneakers, too, like her brother–and the two males, one young, one not-so-young, waited impatiently at the door for her to catch up.

Her cowboy boots were very cute indeed. Pink leather with flowered tops. I’m sure she thought they were terribly cool. But… they kept her moving slowly, instead of easily.

A few days ago, I went to a party given by our corporate bankers at the Pittock Mansion. As is my wont these days, I wore a pair of sneakers, although I did make an effort with my clothing (I wore nice pants and a new pink sweater). Apparently this inspired a certain amount of envy in some of the women there, who quietly spoke to me about how jealous they were of my sneakers. I greatly enjoyed the freedom to explore the Mansion, walking easily up and down the marble staircases to try to understand how the house was put together.

I also noticed that none of the men there were wearing high heels or shoes that kept them from moving easily.

Last week at our store, I spoke to a mid-20s woman who was wearing a gorgeous pair of high heels. They were lovely; they made her legs look long and sleek; she appeared tall and elegant. When I complimented her on the gorgeous shoes (we were waiting for coffee together), she said her feet hurt but she needed to wear them for work. (I’ll note that my inability to tolerate high heels now is a direct result of the years I spent trying to look tall and slender by wearing 3-inch heels every day.)

Our culture seems to have built up expectation that women will wear shoes (and other pieces of clothing–don’t get me started on the anti-breathing device that is the modern bra) that hinder their ability to move quickly and easily.

On Facebook yesterday, I stumbled across an article on how men don’t wear makeup and women do. Men don’t wear heels and women do. These are both things that signal “I’m female” to the broader culture (pun almost intentional). They are also things that cost money (how much do those fancy cowboy boots cost anyway? did her father forgo the robotics class she could have taken instead?). It’s apparently not enough, societally, that women don’t make what men make? We have to buy shit that slows us down and wastes our money too?

Gadget Review: Cat Eye Strada

In keeping with my love of data and gadgets and in keeping with my frugal inclinations, I tried keeping track of my bicycling distances and times using my iPhone and a GPS app. The iPhone chewed battery power on a long ride and I kept forgetting to turn off the app when I got somewhere or turn it on again when I left. I tried keeping track by mapping the distances using Google Maps. That just plain took too long. I tried using my Garmin running watch (the FR10, the subject of another review, here). The FR10 does a great job for shorter rides–once you strap it to the handlebars–but it has a limit of about 4 hours before it needs to be charged–there are other Garmin watches that have much longer charge times, but they’re heavier and bulkier.

My daughter recommended the Cat Eye Strada as an elegant solution to the problem. It’s a tiny little tracker that installs on the front wheel of the bicycle and then communicates wirelessly to a display on the handlebars. It turns itself on whenever the front wheel of the bicycle is turning. It’s easy to reset, and even if I didn’t reset it, it just adds the new ride to the last ride. It doesn’t cost very much. Its battery lasts about two years in normal use. All it does is show distance, pace, and time. No maps. No GPS. There is a cumulative odometer, though.

I love the device. I love the instantaneous speed reading. There’s a strange satisfaction in seeing that I’m going 32 mph on a downhill when the speed limit is 30. It’s nice to know, too, that I’m not holding up traffic! Seeing that my uphill speed on the worst hill coming up to our house is only about 3.5 mph–as slow as if I were walking–provides incentive to push just a little bit harder.

Losing weight: what’s working for me

As of this morning, I have lost thirty pounds since last July. It’s a nice round number that feels like a huge accomplishment. At the trial this weekend, it seemed that after every run someone came up to me and quietly said “so how much weight have you lost?” Discussing weight is such a taboo subject among women that they all said it in the same subdued tone that implied perhaps I’d only lost weight because I was ill. I think it would have been easier for everyone if I’d just put a sign on my back that said “yes, thirty pounds.”

Anyway, the second question was mostly “what are you doing?” It’s a question I’ve asked many time myself over the years. The answer that sticks out in my mind was a very sharp “I stopped eating” (from a woman who had lost more than sixty pounds, such that I didn’t recognize her until I left the room and heard her speaking in the next room, even though I had just talked with her–an interesting commentary on how your focus changes your perspective). I knew not eating wouldn’t work for me (I’ve tried the protein-powder fasting, back when it was trendy–never again), so I didn’t follow up.

Anyway, I’ve gone with actual scientific research. There’s a lot of it out there these days, since the government is actually concerned about what it commonly called the “obesity epidemic.” (One caused, in my opinion, by a lot of the government’s own food policies, but that’s a rathole I don’t want to vanish down right now.)

Here’s the research, quick summary: data matters. It’s important to track input (what you eat) fanatically. It’s important to exercise regularly. Definitions of “regularly” vary from daily to three-or-four-times-a-week, and the amount of exercise recommended also varies, but the general consensus is that walking is good for you, running might not be (knee problems abound in the fatter sectors), and that aiming for a half-hour a day or more is good, but more than an hour a day might leave you hungrier (maybe). It matters what time of day you eat; earlier is better. Breakfast is a good thing because it gets your metabolism into gear, even if you eat a very light breakfast. Looking further afield, once you get your heart rate up by exercising, it stays up all day.

So what have I done with all of this?

I am recording everything I eat, even when I’m a bit embarrassed to admit to myself (no one else sees my records) that I ate a Dairy Queen chocolate dipped cone (330 empty–possibly actually deleterious–calories). (Yes, I am aware that’s not real food. I have loved them since childhood, and one a month (or less) isn’t going to kill me.) I have found that, when I do my last check before dinner, that self-honesty keeps me from going overboard on dinner.

I am recording, with my Fitbit every single step I take. One of the joys of the Fitbit web site, for me, is that it combines the data on what I ate with how much I walked and lets me know if I have more calories to spend. If I’m hungry at dinnertime, this often gets me out of my chair and out with the dogs for a quick mile walk just so I can use a bit more olive oil when I cook. I aim for over 11,000 steps a day.

I spoke with the nutritionist last summer, and in addition to confirming that I was mostly eating very sensibly–although I was advised to eat somewhat less carbohydrate (especially juice and breads)–she said one thing that has stuck with me: “yes, you will be hungry; sometimes you just have to power through that.” Now, I’ve tried all kind of weight loss groups and every single one of them has said “you shouldn’t feel hungry if you’re following the diet correctly.” Bullshit. At least, for me it’s bullshit. I am pretty much hungry all the time. I’ve decided that the right response to that is “so fucking what?” and then I go eat something that satisfies the urge to chew (I eat a lot of carrots and apples), write it down, drink a glass of water, and take the dogs for a walk.

Finally, I’ve been reading a lot of serious stuff about our food supply and about food processing. I have come reluctantly to the conclusion that food manufacturers, with profit motive in mind, want to sell more food, and thus have an interest in creating addictive foods. I now cook more for myself pretty much every meal. There isn’t a truly healthy choice ready made, despite a lot of pretty packaging. I have simplified the cooking; I eat the same thing every day for breakfast and lunch (oatmeal, yogurt, fruit for breakfast, lots and lots of vegetables (carrots, apples, peppers, etc.), salad dressing, a slice of toast, and a little protein (cheese, chicken) for lunch); soup or chili (made in huge batches and frozen) for dinner. Jay and I go out for dinner once a week or so and I figure out what I’m going to eat before I get there and I don’t open the menu if I can avoid it.

I also try to remind myself, every morning, that this is about my knees. I really don’t want to end up having to replace my knee joints. Expensive, time consuming, annoying, possibly not successful. Not a good idea if I can avoid it! My knees already feel so much better: I walked (according to the Fitbit) more than 21 miles over the weekend (at the agility trial) and this morning it only took one Tylenol to make my knees feel just fine.