On Deciding What To Do With Your Newborn’s Body


After holding him for some time in the delivery room, the same room where I myself had delivered hundred of babies and passed them on to families beaming with tears of joy, I was asked about his body.

His body? His body. Oh, his body.

How do you process that as a parent?

How do you process that when you have been a parent for all of three minutes?

It’s even harder when the person in the morgue tells you

“We can’t keep his body here forever, you know.”

Dr. Jen Gunter explains how you try anyway. This is one hell of a post.

It took 32 days to decide what to do with my son’s body. On grief, ethics, and death. | Dr. Jen Gunter.

Surviving the Polar Vortex Amid Zillions of Dead Bugs

Photo courtesy Bryan Pfeiffer, all rights reserved.

Actually it was 600,000. But still:

The thing about insects is that they present infinite “contrivances,” as Darwin once put it, to divert your attention. Invertebrate collections like these throw my ADHD into overdrive.

While many of us suffered through the polar vortex, Bryan Pfeiffer, writer, naturalist, bird guide, ace photographer, and a man obsessed with the dragonflies he’s writing a book about, got lost amid the vast bug collections at Florida State.

Many beetles defend themselves with toxins, which they often spray out their rear ends. Because they lack fangs or a stinger to deliver their chemicals, beetles aren’t technically venomous. But Onychocerus is the only known exception. It stings with the tip of its antennae. A beetle with antennae as weaponry – how cool is that? It gets better.

It turns out that Onychocerus’  terminal antenna segment delivers toxin like a genuine killer: scorpions. A scorpion’s tail end, actually modified terminal abdominal segments, andOnychocerus’ stinging antenna are remarkably similar. Yet they do not share a common ancestor from which this trait was inherited. Instead, the stingers evolved independently to be nearly identical. It appears to be a classic case of convergent evolution.

A fun read and a fine entry into this man’s buggy and birdy obsessions. Read and gawk at I Survived the Polar Vortex Among Millions of Dead Insects. See Pfeiffer’s lovely site for more photos and writing.

Photo courtesy Bryan Pfeiffer, all rights reserved.

Where Does Tech Go Now? 8 Ideas from Alexis Madrigal

Skateboard detail
Detail of skateboard. Taken with a retro-look Olympus OM-D EM-5 and uploaded via God knows what filter to Instagram. Credit: The author.

Technology’s biggest product in 2013, observes Atlantic Tech ringleader Alexis Madrigal, was technoanxiety — worries about everything from the NSA (and how easy we make it for them to spy on us) to how we may be warping our minds, societies, or children by gluing our eyes to screens. And meanwhile, as he puts it,

Vintage everything. Digging your hands into the earth, while software eats the world.

We want a high-tech phone or gorgeous retro camera that takes old-fashioned photos. All of which sets us up for what Madrigal really wants to talk about:

This year, I think this uneasy balance busts. Its not that the underlying tensions will go away, but one can only remain anxious for so long. We will make our peace with our smartphones, either succumbing or overcoming, or something. Attention will turn elsewhere. 2014 feels like the beginning of a new cycle, and thats where my focus will be. I find myself astonished at the reporting possibilities that are apparent to me this year. And I want to share some of my hypotheses with you.

He has eight, from job tech and robots (some overlap there) to the question of whether, given the chance by ‘wearables’ and other tech that’s not in a phone, we’ll grab the chance to ditch these screens and use a tech connection to the world that may (or may not) be less distancing. Also, of course, tech and kids, which, as Madrigal now has one, I think we’ll see some stimulating work on.

This is a a wonderful forecast of the obsessions he’ll be covering this year and a brisk agile piece, full of Madrigal’s restless, unpredictable smarts and quick-flick language. You don’t even have to care about tech to enjoy this story. But you do, so you will, even more.

Where Do We Go From Here? 8 Hypotheses About Tech in 2014 – Alexis C. Madrigal – The Atlantic.

My Mother and Her Lover Are Free All Month

Evelyn Jane and David

I still miss my mom, who died over a decade ago, and tend to think of her a bit extra at certain times, like her birthday, Mother’s Day, a new year; she’s been on my mind. This makes it an extra treat to learn today that the story I wrote about her a while back for The Atavist, “My Mother’s Lover,” was voted by Atavist readers as their favorite story from that innovative publisher of beautifully produced short, multi-platform e-books. As a result, the story is free to read this month at The Atavist’s gorgeous web reader, which integrates many of the multimedia features such as maps, audio, and video that give Atavist stories an extra dimension and depth.

The first chapter is below. The rest is at The Atavist. It’s free till February 1. Tell your friends. Hope you enjoy. (Note: The links in the version below, which for convenience I pulled from the Atavist reader app, will not work here, for they’re internal to the Atavist web reader. As they work beautifully at The Atavist site, I highly recommend just going there to read it and experience the Atavist’s innovative reading experience.


Evelyn Jane and Angus on arrival in Hawaii, 1944
Evelyn Jane and Angus, on her arrival in Hawaii, 1944

My Mother’s Lover

by David Dobbs

Chapter One: Twenty Questions

The February after my mother died, my brother, Allen, left his New Mexico home and boarded a plane for Honolulu. He carried a backpack that carried a rosewood box that carried our mother’s ashes. The next day, on Maui, he bought six leis and rented a sea kayak. With the leis in a shopping bag and our mother’s ashes in his pack, he paddled into the Pacific.

That day nine years ago was the sort one hopes for in the tropics: warm and balmy, with a breeze that pushed cat’s paws over the water. Beyond the mouth of the bay he could see rising plumes, the spouts of humpback whales gathered to breed. He paddled toward them. When he was closer to the whales than to the shore, he shipped his oar and opened his pack. He pulled out the box and sat with it on his lap, letting the boat drift. He watched the distant spouts. Without any prelude, a whale suddenly but gently surfaced about 30 yards in the distance and released a gush of air. It bobbed, noisily breathed, and dove.

Allen wouldn’t get a better cue. He lifted the leis one at a time and dropped them onto the water. They formed a loose, expanding circle around him. He turned the latch on the box and opened it; the contents looked denser and darker than he expected. They shished and gently rattled when he tilted the box. He had traveled a long way to bring her here, but there wasn’t much to return. Five pounds of hard ash. He tilted the box and poured her into the sea. Evelyn Jane Hawkins Preston Dobbs, as if eager to get there, dove straight for the bottom.

Four months earlier, she had been lying in a bed in Houston’s Methodist Hospital, where decades before she and my father had trained as physicians and where she had given birth to four of her six children. She had long been fearsomely strong. Tough? we used to joke. Our mother’s so hard you can roller-skate on her. Now she struggled to breathe. Her once thick hair lay thin and dank. Tubes fed and drained her. Purpura stained her skin. She was 80 years old and had been sick for most of the previous decade—breast cancer, hip replacement, bowel obstruction, pelvic stress fracture, arthritis, pulmonary fibrosis. She’d had enough. “A stroke,” she said. “Why can’t I just have a stroke and die?”

Allen, an emergency-room doctor, stood at the head of the bed holding her hand. “Mom, I hate to say it. But a fatal stroke is about the only thing you don’t seem at risk of.”

“Damn it, Allen, I’m a doctor, too,” she said. “I’m quite aware of that.” Allen looked at us helplessly. Until then it had seemed as if the world would need her permission to finish her. Now she had given it. She closed her eyes. Allen shuffled. No one said anything. After a while she said, “Children, I want to talk about later.”

“OK, Mother,” said Sarah. Sarah was the fourth of the six children, the one who lived nearest to her and had done the most to look after her. “What about later?”

“When I’m gone,” she said, “I’d like to be cremated.”

This was new. In the past, she had talked about getting buried next to her father, who was in a leafy cemetery in Austin.

“OK,” said Sarah.

“And I want you to spread my ashes off Hawaii. In the Pacific. Will you do that for me?”

“Sure, Mom,” said Allen. “We can do that.” My mother smiled at him and squeezed his hand.

“Mother?” Sarah asked. “May we ask why the Pacific?”

She closed her eyes. “I want to be with Angus.”

We children exchanged glances: Had anyone seen this coming? Heads shook, shoulders shrugged.

What we knew of Angus was this: Angus—the only name we had for him—was a flight surgeon our mother had fallen in love with during World War II, planned to marry after the war, but lost when the Japanese shot him down over the Pacific. Once, long ago, she had mentioned to me that he was part of the reason she decided to be a doctor. That was all we knew. She had confided those things in the 1970s, in the years just after she and my father divorced. I can remember sitting in a big easy chair my dad had left behind in her bedroom, listening to her reminisce about Angus as she sat with her knitting. I remember being embarrassed, and not terribly interested.

I was interested now. Even 30 years before, her affair with Angus had been three decades old. Now, 60 years after he had fallen into the sea, she wanted to follow him.

“Of course,” said my brother. “We’ll do that for you, Mom.”

A week later, seemingly on the mend, she was sent home to the elder center where she lived. For a week or so she continued to gain strength. But then she started to have trouble breathing, was admitted to the home’s care center, and, on her second day there, suddenly stopped breathing. Despite a standing do-not-resuscitate order, the staff tried three times to revive her, to no avail. The doorman told me later that when the ambulance arrived and the medics rolled her out, she was “blue as can be, Mr. Dobbs. Blue as can be.” The hospital, too, tried to bring her back, and they were still trying when Sarah arrived. By that time, our mother was brain dead but alive and could breathe only with a tube. Exactly what she sought to avoid. Sarah gathered her strength and told the nurses that this was against her mother’s wishes and she must insist they remove the breathing tube. “It was like jumping off a cliff,” she told me later. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was harder than pushing out a kid.” The nurses called the doctors. As they pulled out the breathing tube, my mother bit down on it. Sarah screamed, “Oh my God she’s fighting for life!” The doctors assured her that this was a common reflex and tugged it free.

Then they left. Sarah sat next to the bed and put her head next to my mother’s and held her hand. With the tube gone, her breathing slowed. Sarah cried against her neck. It took about 10 minutes. Finally, the room was quiet.

An hour later, my brother, sitting in his car on the side of the highway in New Mexico, called me to tell me she had died.

“So it wasn’t a stroke,” he said after we’d talked a while. “But at least it was fast.”

“Have to admire it,” I said, laughing. “Mom always got pretty much what she wanted.”

Or so a child likes to think.


Angus in gunner bubble
Angus in the gunner’s bubble of a rescue plane.

By the time Allen got her to Hawaii, three months had passed. After the memorial services in Texas, I returned to my home in Vermont, where the coldest winter in a generation had the place in a lock. When I opened Allen’s email describing the ceremony he had fashioned, I sat at a desk overlooking the North Branch of the Winooski River, frozen three feet deep and topped by three feet of snow. I read my brother’s email, looked at the pictures, looked out my window, read his email again. I wondered how much you could discover about a person 60 years dead when all you knew about him was that his name was Angus, likely a nickname. I’d had three weeks to ask my mother such things before she died—three decades, actually—but had not. Now, with the snow outside and Hawaiian light sparkling in my head, I picked up the phone and called my mother’s cousin Betty Lou.

“What do I know about Angus?” said Betty Lou, repeating my question. Betty Lou has a beautifully soft north Texas accent. She was down in Wichita Falls, Texas, where she and my mother had grown up together, sometimes in the same house, much as sisters.

She took a deep breath. “Well, there’s not a whole lot I knew about Angus. But I knew his real name was Norman, I’m pretty sure it was, and he came from Iowa. He was divorced. They met in San Antonio when he was stationed there awhile. She was out of her head with that man. At one point, when he got stationed to Hawaii, she followed him clear out there for a while. He ended up getting sent way out in the Pacific—Guam, Iwo Jima, somewhere like that—and got killed right near the end of the war.”

“How’d she find out?”

“Somebody in his outfit wrote her. Letter actually got there after the war ended. And that letter, David, just about destroyed your mama. She could not be consoled. Weeks. I’ve never seen anybody grieve like that. Before or since. She did eventually pick herself up and go on, because you knew her, David—your mama was a strong woman. She even scared me sometimes. But I’m not sure she ever got over losing Angus.”

“You remember his last name?”

“Best I recollect, was Z-something. Zert, Zaret, Zart. Something like that.”

“You sure it started with a Z?” I asked. “That could make things a lot simpler.”

“I hope so, David. Because beyond that it gets pretty dang complicated.”

It took me about 20 minutes online to find a copy of the World War II Honor List of the Dead and Missing, State of Iowa. The book was just scanned pages, not digitized, with the names listed alphabetically by county. All I had to do was scroll down to the end of each county’s listings, past the Adamses and Joneses and Moores and Smiths and Thompsons. There were not too many Zs. I found him about halfway through the book, at the end of the listings for Johnson County:


The M meant he was missing.

I started searching genealogy sites for anyone in Iowa named Zahrt. Every time I found someone, I sent an email saying I was seeking information about a Captain Norman E. Zahrt, who was a close friend of my mother—sometimes I phrased it as “a dear friend of my mother”—who according to a letter she received was either killed or went missing in action toward the end of the war. I sent about a dozen of these emails and got a few replies, all negative. After a couple weeks, I opened my email one morning and found a new response:


What a surprise to get an email from you. Yes, my father is Norman Zahrt. My mother is Luella. Norman and Luella had two children: David born Sep 37 and Christy born Jan 40. I have attached a file which I presume you can open. It is Norman’s graduating medical school class. Please let me know whether or not you can identify Norman.

I don’t have words to describe the mixed emotions that come to me when I revisit this issue. I’ve come to learn that in the process of growing up one accumulates scars. And that the challenge is learning to own your scars, and live them.

You can imagine that this inquiry fills me with questions.

I didn’t have to imagine the questions. He listed 19 of them:

1. What prompted this search?

2. How long has the notion of this search been ‘brewing’?

3. What brings you to the point of finding Norman’s descendants and asking these questions?

4. What is your mother’s name?

5. What was your mother’s occupation?

6. Do you have a picture of her you could share with us?

7. Are you certain that Norman and your mother met in San Antonio?

8. If so what was your mother doing at the time in San Antonio?

9. Was your mother in the military?

10. Was she assigned to Hawaii?

11. Did she travel to Hawaii with the express purpose of seeing Norman?

12. Did your mother affirm that Norman was divorced, or did you receive that information from a secondary source?

13. Who was Norman’s friend who wrote to your mother after the war?

14. Is Norman’s friend still alive?

15. Can we reach Norman’s friend?

16. Is your father still alive?

17. Can you tell us a little bit about your father?

18. Did he know that his wife wanted to be with Norman?

19. What else can you tell us about your mother?

As you can imagine this is, to say the least, an interesting surprise. My sister and I would like to entertain a continuing exchange with you, but this is probably enough to begin with.


I had never seen a note at once so prosecutorial and generous. I dithered for days. Finally, I wrote and answered all 19 of his questions as best I could.

When David, along with his sister, Christy, responded, they did so with an openness that showed they really did want to own their scars. My mother posed as big a mystery to them as their father did to me. We began a long collaborative search—dusty records, strained recollections, tree-shaded graveyards—that ends, for lack of a better marker, with the story I’m about to tell you.

Aglitter in the Net: Recent reads, 7 Jan 2014

US soldiers escort Dutch girls in traditional costume for a concert after the liberation in 1945. Via @HistoricalPics
US soldiers escort Dutch girls in traditional costume for a concert after the liberation in 1945. Via @HistoricalPics

US soldiers escort Dutch girls in costume to a concert after the 1945 liberation. See above. You’re welcome. Via @HistoricalPics

A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops. Brilliantly reported and written story by Amy Harmon about a Hawaiian county councilor’s struggle to do the right thing on a bill calling for a ban on all GMO crops.

Engrossingly Gross Photos of Spiders and Insects Eating Each Other. Exactly as described.

Top 10 Top 10 Lists — storytelling edition, from Nieman Storyboard This top-10 list may be all you need. Endless beautiful rabbithole, especially for writers. But here’s another, with a few that got overlooked elsewhere: The best stories we didn’t write  — Inside MATTER — Medium

The Brain, in Exquisite Detail – NYTimes.com  The Times Science crew doesn’t run many brain-imaging stories. This one is well-chosen, with great animations of brain connectivity.

“The Prophet” — Profile of Dr. Eben Alexander, Author of Proof of Heaven. On certain factual omissions, among other things.

What is a gene, post-ENCODE? History and updated definition. The gene’s many definitions.

All for now. Read well.

Novels Change Your Brain. So What?

A recent study found that reading novels appears to alter one’s brain connectivity — a revelation that immediately spurred a lot of coverage, and I can see why. For this former English major who writes a lot about mind and brain, “novels light up the brain” raises some mighty mixed feelings, tempting pride at the power of the novel while setting my bullshit filter on high alert.

Sure enough, quite a few people took this study to task for overreaching. None has done so better than Christian Jarrett, who writes the Brain Watch blog at Wired. Jarrett does a fine job identifying the problems in this study and links to several other critiques. But he saves the best for his last paragraph, which adds, as nature neuroscience editor Noah Gray pointed out on Twitter, an invaluable extra depth you would almost never find in a mainstream publication:

I’m going to finish with a suggestion that the potentially important finding from this study is nothing to do with the brain-boosting effects of novels, but about the use of resting-state brain scans as a diagnostic tool (you can see why that didn’t make the headlines). The use of the scans in this way is predicated on the idea that they’re stable and reliable. Map someone’s resting-state connectivity today and you learn something meaningful about the long-term state of their brain, or so it’s hoped. Supporting this, Berns and his team cite past research on the stability of resting-state networks over a course of a year. Their motive was to show that you’d really expect resting-state connectivity patterns to be stable over 19 days, and it’s therefore a big deal that reading a book changed these networks. But let’s flip this. If an activity as straight-forward as reading a book has a significant effect on resting-state connectivity networks, this presumably undermines the clinical usefulness of resting-state scans. Or were the changes not that meaningful? The researchers can’t have it both ways, can they?

Splendid work, educating the reader memorably while getting at the sort of problem that haunts far too many brain-imaging studies.

When Jarrett started Brain Watch  a few months ago, I tweeted that I was quite pleased to see such a sharp, capable writer pick up the neuro slot I formerly worked in at Wired Science Blogs. Posts like this are why. Follow this fellow, both at Wired (through the link below) and on Twitter, where he is @Psych_Writer. He’s been killing the pscyh/neuro beat for some time now, and he’s only getting better.

Reading a Novel Alters Your Brain Connectivity – So What? – Wired Science.

An Academic Says Goodbye To All That

On seeing when it’s time to say goodbye to something you love, because there’s so much you hate about it. Very fine piece by @scicurious.

I could have kept at it. Many people told me to take another post-doc, take the ‘part time’ (though is a 3-3 with research and service really part time?), non-TT job I was offered. To adjunct, to keep trying.

And part of me really, really wanted to. I have always wanted to be a professor. I remember seeing my father in class once, when I was very young. He is a professor, and to me, he looked like the coolest guy in the world. So knowledgeable, so inspiring, so brilliant. And I wanted to be like that when I grew up. I wanted to teach, to think big thoughts, to present new things to the world, to have everyone think I was smart.

So I went to college. I went to grad school. I did a lot of science. I felt I was doing something that would change people’s lives for the better, that would help people who suffered. I wanted to save the world. In the end, I wasn’t good enough to save the world, not Tenure-Track good enough. But also, in the end, I realized that I did not want to BE good enough. I no longer wanted to be big wig science professor at a big wig university.

The ‘system’ failed me. It should have failed me sooner. | Neurotic Physiology.

Whence Comes Anxiety? Scott Stossel Explains

Scott Stossel’s fine vivid account of his spectacular struggles with anxiety — an Atlantic article excerpted from his new book —carries, among other pleasures, a splendid answer to the question of how temperament arises:

Is pathological anxiety a medical illness, as Hippocrates and Aristotle and many modern psychopharmacologists would have it? Or is it a philosophical problem, as Plato and Spinoza and the cognitive-behavioral therapists would have it? Is it a psychological problem, a product of childhood trauma and sexual inhibition, as Freud and his acolytes once had it? Or is it a spiritual condition, as Søren Kierkegaard and his existentialist descendants claimed? Or, finally, is it—as W. H. Auden and David Riesman and Erich Fromm and Albert Camus and scores of modern commentators have declared—a cultural condition, a function of the times we live in and the structure of our society?

The truth is that anxiety is at once a function of biology and philosophy, body and mind, instinct and reason, personality and culture. Even as anxiety is experienced at a spiritual and psychological level, it is scientifically measurable at the molecular level and the physiological level. It is produced by nature and it is produced by nurture. It’s a psychological phenomenon and a sociological phenomenon. In computer terms, it’s both a hardware problem (I’m wired badly) and a software problem (I run faulty logic programs that make me think anxious thoughts). The origins of a temperament are many-faceted; emotional dispositions that seem to have a simple, single source—a bad gene, say, or a childhood trauma—may not. After all, who’s to say that Spinoza’s vaunted equanimity, though ostensibly a result of his philosophy of applying logical reasoning to irrational fear, wasn’t in fact a product of his biology? Mightn’t a genetically programmed low level of autonomic arousal have produced his serene philosophy, rather than the other way around?

The article is Surviving Anxiety – Scott Stossel – The Atlantic. The book is  Amazon.com: My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind. I look forward to digging into this.

A Speck in the Sea

A doozy of a sea story, from Paul Tough:

Looking back, John Aldridge knew it was a stupid move. When you’re alone on the deck of a lobster boat in the middle of the night, 40 miles off the tip of Long Island, you don’t take chances. But he had work to do: He needed to start pumping water into the Anna Mary’s holding tanks to chill, so that when he and his partner, Anthony Sosinski, reached their first string of traps a few miles farther south, the water would be cold enough to keep the lobsters alive for the return trip. In order to get to the tanks, he had to open a metal hatch on the deck. And the hatch was covered by two 35-gallon Coleman coolers, giant plastic insulated ice chests that he and Sosinski filled before leaving the dock in Montauk harbor seven hours earlier. The coolers, full, weighed about 200 pounds, and the only way for Aldridge to move them alone was to snag a box hook onto the plastic handle of the bottom one, brace his legs, lean back and pull with all his might.

And then the handle snapped.

A Speck in the Sea

A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops

Amy Harmon, in the New York Times, on the efforts of a Hawaiian county council to respond properly to a bill proposing a ban on all GMO crops:

What really stuck with Mr. Ilagan were the descriptions of tumorous rats. Reading testimony submitted before the hearing, he had blanched at grotesque pictures of the animals fed Monsanto’s corn, modified with a gene from bacteria to tolerate an herbicide. According to the French researcher who performed the study, they developed more tumors and died earlier than those in the control group.

“Are we all going to get cancer?” Mr. Ilagan wondered.

Sifting Through Claims

The next week, when his legislative assistant alerted him that the rat study encountered near-universal scorn from scientists after its release in autumn 2012, doubt about much of what Mr. Ilagan had heard began to prick at his mind.

“Come to find out, the kind of rats they used would get tumors anyway,” he told his staff. “And the sample size was too small for any conclusive results.”

Sensitive to the accusation that her bill was antiscience, Ms. Wille had circulated material to support it. But in almost every case, Mr. Ilagan and his staff found evidence that seemed to undermine the claims.

A report, in an obscure Russian journal, about hamsters that lost the ability to reproduce after three generations as a result of a diet of genetically modified soybeans had been contradicted by many other studies and deemed bogus by mainstream scientists.

Mr. Ilagan discounted the correlations between the rise in childhood allergies and the consumption of G.M.O.s, cited by Ms. Wille and others, after reading of the common mistake of confusing correlation for causation. (One graph, illustrating the weakness of conclusions based on correlation, charted the lock-step rise in organic food sales and autism diagnoses.)

Butterflies were disappearing, but Mr. Ilagan learned that it was not a toxin produced by modified plants that harmed them, as he had thought. Instead, the herbicide used in conjunction with some genetically modified crops (as well as some that were not) meant the milkweed on which they hatched was no longer found on most Midwestern farms.

He heard many times that there were no independent studies of the safety of genetically modified organisms. But Biofortified, which received no funding from industry, listed more than a hundred such studies, including a 2010 comprehensive review sponsored by the European Union, that found “no scientific evidence associating G.M.O.s with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.” It echoed similar statements by the World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of Medicine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

A blog post on the website of NPR, a news source Mr. Ilagan trusted, cataloged what it called “Top Five Myths of Genetically Modified Seeds, Busted.” No. 1 was a thing he had long believed: “Seeds from G.M.O.s are sterile.”

via A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops – NYTimes.com.