Word of the Day: Axolotl

An axolotl is a self-regenerating salamander whose ongoing existence is threatened by pollution, loss of habitat, and inbreeding in scientific labs.

“Self-regenerating” means that if the axolotl loses a limb or even a piece of its heart, it can grow a new one with nary even a scar. The regeneration is smart: the salamander regrows just the part it needs, and in the correct place, and the new part functions just like the original.

“Fascinating—and somewhat grotesque—experiments from the past 150 years brought us much information about the axolotl’s ability to regenerate and heal. For example, amputated axolotl limbs regenerate completely, and even after multiple amputations, they are as functional as the original limb. The axolotl’s cells “know” which structure to regrow: When an arm is amputated at the level of the shoulder, the entire arm regrows. But when the arm is amputated at the elbow, only the lower arm and hand regrow; when the arm is amputated at the wrist, only the hand regrows.”


I can well imagine why scientists like to study this tiny creature. The ability to regrow a body part, if we could replicate it in humans, would be transformative. We’re studying the axolotl so hard to find out how the miracle happens that we’re contributing to its likely extinction. There has to be a better way to unlock the axolotl’s secrets.

Living with Integrity in the Era of Trump

New Yorker writer Masha Gessen knows autocrats. She’s a Russian-American journalist, born in Moscow and now living in the United States. She’s a keen observer of  the autocrat Putin, and now of Trump as well.

In her latest New Yorker piece, entitled “In the Trump Era, We Are Losing the Ability to Distinguish Reality from a Vacuum”, she reflects deeply on living with integrity in the era of Trump. She dares to believe we can rebuild after, and I hope and trust she is right.

Definitely worth a read. Here’s a paragraph, if you don’t have time to dig into the whole piece:

“Consider the last month’s worth of conversation about Trump and North Korea. Forgetting the President’s “little rocket man” remarks and building on months of denial that Trump had brought the world as close to the brink of nuclear annihilation as it has ever been, politicians, bureaucrats, policy wonks, and journalists have been speaking as though Trump were engaged in actual negotiations with Kim Jong Un. Some deliriously joined him in contemplating the prospect of a Nobel Peace Prize. The voices of a few experts who dared say that nothing had been accomplished yet and expressed doubt that the summit would actually occur were quickly drowned out. The ritual of analysis and anticipation that normally accrues to diplomacy was accruing instead to Trump’s flailing gestures, in the same way that the normal rituals of punditry have accrued to Trump’s tweets, harangues, and inconsistencies, all of which are the opposite of politics. On Friday, the Times’ morning podcast, “The Daily,” offered up a thoughtful analysis of Trump’s summit-cancelling missive, which was written in the language of a sulking, lovelorn seventh grader. But no sooner was the podcast posted than Trump told the media that he might hold the summit after all.”


The central ethos of the Trump administration is chaos and disorientation, so that we lose track of the scandals, the corruption, the self-dealing, and the fact that nothing much of substance is happening at all.

Rebuilding after Trump means tuning out the intentionally created chaos, and focusing on what we see and hear and intuit.

We can do this.

Conscious Aging: Talking with a Discobot

The Atlantic, to which I subscribe, has a new-ish premium pay service called Masthead. The have calls with interesting and relevant contemporary figures to which Masthead subscribers can log in and participate, various online forums, and other such benefits. They are trying to create an online community of thinkers and readers.

Most recently, we subscribers were invited to enter a forum where we introduced ourselves. I did, and got an answer from a discobot, represented by a cute little blue icon.

The message asking if I wanted to chat sounded quite human, although the discobot made clear that responding was entirely up to me and if I didn’t respond it would be fine because the writer was, after all, a robot and wouldn’t feel rejected.

I’m not responding because I think engaging in communication with a robot is a little weird — like talking to Alexa. That said, I confess to some curiosity about how far an email exchange with a robot might go.

Am keeping the email around, and if I decide to engage, will let you know. 🙂

Writing Life: To Keep or Not to Keep

This piece from Quartz is actually talking about journaling or diary writing, a more personal form of expression than writing a blog that is open for public view. But the question is pertinent: to keep or not to keep.

The opinion writer here suggests that diaries are not to be kept, for the simple reason that “very little writing stands the test of time, and that’s fine.” Diary writing has numerous benefits for the individual who writes, but the entries are not necessarily of timeless benefit to the literary world.

Here is one enduring benefit, and it strikes a chord with me in terms of blog writing.  I think blog writing makes me more fluent in the language of both contemplation and observation.

Journaling also offers some of the same benefits as meditation, refining your relationship to the mind. It’s an opportunity to observe thoughts and feelings, watch them arise, and then let them go. Just as a meditator is taught not to judge thinking, but to note its qualities—how thoughts are constant and constantly shifting—a diary writer can become fluent in the language of contemplation.”

There is really no backup on the WordPress system for blog posts, which I’ve been writing since 2009. I could create my own backup, or I could print out the daily posts and enter them in a notebook, keeping what I’ve written in the old fashioned way. But I choose not to. The point of the blog is that I observe and contemplate the world around me, part of a daily spiritual discipline that involves being attentive and grateful for the immense gift of being alive. The point is not so much what I write as THAT I write.

And that you read, of course. That’s the difference between blogging and journaling. Blogging has readers, and journaling has an author who is the singular reader. Blogging is reciprocal and active. Journaling is individual and contemplative.

Your thoughts? Do you write regularly in any form, and do you keep what you’ve written?

The Comey Book

Hard not to think that Trump underestimated the degree to which his sleazy business practices and personal infidelities would come under public scrutiny once he entered politics. As a private business owner, Trump had nearly unlimited payoff money and his fixer, Michael Cohen, to make the deals.

Now, Trump’s sleaze is pouring out into public view, revealed in books like that of James Comey.

Trump can fulminate all he wants. The religious right can profess not to care about Trump’s personal morality, or lack thereof. Republicans in Congress can continue with their devil’s bargain and defend the indefensible.

But the drumbeat continues, and the next elections are in November. The 60% of voters who are not tribal Republicans are watching, and listening, and deciding which man’s story is closer to the truth, Trump or Comey.

Writing Life: Finding my Blog

My late father-in-law, Dr. Max J. Klainer, was a physician in private practice in Stoneham, Mass. Max died of a massive stroke in the early 1980’s.

Yesterday, in the Comments section, I received this note from Richard Holt, who found my blog during a search and wondered if I had more than the same last name in common with Max. Holt’s late mother was a patient, and he wanted to reach out to express his gratitude to someone who might have known Max .

Here’s the Comment, which initially references a post on Dr. Martin Luther King:

Wonderful, wise commentary you provide. Thank you. I am touched, moved and inspired. Bless you.
I found you by searching for Max Klainer, M.D., who was my mother’s doctor,
and shrink, it would seem. A deeply thoughtful, generous man whom my mother loved, and who helped me enormously. I find myself wanting to say thank you to someone who might have known Dr. Klainer, who, I assume, has passed away. Sorry for your loss, of your husband Jeremy.
And sorry to ramble here.”

I sent the comment along to family in Boston and Maine, and to Sara and Matt — Max’s grandkids.

Holt’s impulse to express gratitude for his mother’s care is a lovely thing, and the fact that someone who knew Max could find me after all these years and communicate is part of the marvel of blogging. This is the best of what an interconnected world can make possible.

The next post, about Facebook, references the internet’s darker side.

Hogg v. Ingraham

Score one for the good guys. Conservative pundits like Laura Ingraham and Alex Jones and Ann Coulter pour out venomous criticism and rampant conspiracy theories with seemingly little consequence or accountability. But when Ingraham went after Marjorie Stoneham Douglas student David Hogg, she got it right back — wielded by a young man just as adept, if not more, at using the media. Ingraham made fun of Hogg for not being accepted at all the colleges to which he applied. He in turn called for a boycott of her advertisers, and got several of them to announce they were withdrawing their advertising dollars from her Fox news show.  Ingraham blinked first, offering a tepid apology for her slimy remarks.

You notice that Trump has been picking his battles, and not going after the Parkland school shooting survivors. I hope that if he does, Hogg and the others send a blowback pitch in his direction too.

It seems as if the adults who are trying to set limits on Trump could learn something from David Hogg.

NY Times Obits: Retroactively Honoring Women

I don’t usually read the obits. My mother did, frequently calling me with an item from the long running Kearny Observer, the local rag. The conversation would run something like this: “Do you remember Eddie Schlagenhaft? He played with Wendy. His cousin’s mother married somebody who lived near us on Maple Street, and that person had a uncle whose brother is a descendant of someone who served in the Civil War. Anyway, the brother’s third cousin just died and he’s being waked at Eddie Reid’s Funeral Parlor.” “No, Mom.  I don’t remember Eddie Schlagenhaft.” “You have to remember Eddie Schlagenhaft. I knew his mother. They’ve been a Kearny family forever.

If you saw the Oscar nominated film Lady Bird, this conversation is right along the lines of something that might have passed between Lady Bird and her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf.

But I did read that the NY Times is having pangs of conscience about the fact that their obits have mostly covered white men. In this time of honoring women, they have remedied that by writing obits for prominent but overlooked women whose deaths passed unnoticed at the time: Ida B. Wells, Diane Arbus, Qiu Jin, Sylvia Plath, Henrietta Lacks, and many others.

Take a few moments to check out the article. I knew about many of these women, but not all. And I loved being reminded of the courageous lives of people like Ida B. Wells, who deserves to be lifted up and honored by the NY Times and by history in general.


Anderson Cooper in Seattle

Anderson Cooper, who spoke on Sunday night as part of Seattle’s Unique Lives lecture series, filled McCaw Hall on Oscar night. McCaw Hall is the opera venue, and it has a lot of seats. Cooper himself joked that when he realized he was booked to speak during the Oscars, he figured nobody would come. Wrong!

In person Cooper is every bit as engaging, witty, charming and funny as he is on CNN. I really like his nightly news program, and watch both hours every night that I can. He is my go-to guy for political coverage of contemporary events.

He has a really interesting and powerful life story, much of which I knew. His mother is Gloria Vanderbilt of “poor little rich girl” fame. His father died when he was ten, and his brother committed suicide jumping from a ledge in their mother’s New York apartment when Anderson was a senior in college.

Cooper had lots to tell about his life as a journalist, his travel through war zones reporting on conflicts, and the current state of political reporting. What intrigued me most, though, was a personal story. During the Q&A someone in the audience asked which celebrity Cooper might like to invite for dinner. Cooper responded that because of his job, he’s had dinner with tons of celebrities. The person he’d most like to have dinner with is his late father, whose memory exists fleetingly through a book that the older Cooper wrote, through a still existing recorded interview made during the book tour for that publication, Anderson’s own memories, and stories people have told him about his father. Cooper quoted a favorite author, Mary Gordon, who lost her father when she was seven. I know Mary Gordon’s work well, and recognized the quote. It’s this, approximately — I don’t have the citation in front of me: “When you lose a parent, everything is possible and nothing feels safe.” Cooper expanded that to “when you lose a parent and a sibling …”.

I share that experience with Cooper, having lost my father when I was fourteen and my infant sister when I was four. I came across that Mary Gordon quote myself many years ago, and it affected me as deeply as it did Cooper. What it means is that losing a beloved parent when you are a child is the worst thing, so if that can happen, everything else terrible can happen too. “Nothing feels safe” means there is no protective barrier — not religious faith, not other people who might fill in for the lost parent, not your own still less-than-adult-level resilience. Each of us — Cooper, me, Mary Gordon — figures out individually how go on, rebuilding a sense of safety about life and about the world.

For Cooper, that meant throwing himself into as many dangerous reporting situations as possible, and working through. For me, that might have been a good part of the motivation to go into the Peace Corps.

I like watching the Oscars, especially this year when I’d seen most of the Best Picture options and was heavily invested in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress nominations. But I’m glad I went to hear Anderson Cooper. It was important for me to be there.

Writing Life: Evolution of a Writer

I zoomed through Thomas Perry’s eight books created around the Native American heroine Jane Whitefield. Liking the author a lot, I went to a much earlier and shorter series, three books written about the Butcher Boy.

The evolution of Thomas Perry as a writer is fascinating. I can see elements of what became Jane Whitefield in the earlier books: a single, highly skilled expert who prevails over a daunting number of bad guys, someone who is very good at tracking, someone who is good at shape-shifting, or convincingly assuming different identities. There is one big difference: the Butcher Boy is a hired killer. Jane Whitefield helps people disappear when the law has failed them and their lives are in jeopardy.

Early in my career a literary agent told me that with my writing skill, I could churn out a mystery or Gothic romance a month, and make a lot of money that way — all the while taking time to write the stuff I wanted and trying to get it published for a smaller market. I chose not to follow that path, although I appreciated the advice from someone who had a lot of experience knowing what kinds of books sell.

I think at the time I was making a distinction between “serious” writers, and those who found a mass market niche and doubled down on writing for it. Looking at Thomas Perry’s earlier and later work, I’m acknowledging that he’s a serious writer too, albeit a mass market one. His books have character development and tightly woven plots. His writing has evolved with time, gotten better and better. That takes work, and focus, and commitment.

These days my writing is focused primarily on the blog, which is enough of a daily commitment for me. But I haven’t lost my interest in the writing life, in what makes a serious writer — or in what sells. I have no plans to stop writing, and I hope Thomas Perry doesn’t either.