Green Genius

“But how is light fuel? We can bathe in the Sun all we want, but we have no way to convert its light into the chemical energy that our cells can use. We can change it into electrical energy with a solar panel, but that’s not going to feed our cells. Lie on the beach all day, and you are still going to have to eat lunch. How does the Sun become lunch?”

So begins an answer to yesterday’s post wherein I talked about entropy and posted Part 1 of Things Fall Apart, an attempt to explain the basics of biology in a way that allows a broad perspective. Entropy dictates an unceasing march towards disintegration for all things. Yet our world is filled with complexity, order, and vitality. How? Energy. A constant influx of energy is required to oppose the tendency to disorder and decay. Energy input may come in the form of eating a deep-fried Mars bar (an Edinburgh specialty), to keep youself intact (if a mite queasy), or patching the roof of your house, to keep it intact.

Today I post Things Fall Apart-Part 2, and explore where all this energy comes from. The answer is the Sun, and the green genius is the way plants take sunlight and use it to create not just energy for themselves, but for all of us.

Why are leaves green? Why do plants need water? How do they create oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide? Tune in to Part 2, and find out how plants feed us, provide our oxygen, process our waste, and ultimately stand–in all their understated vegetal elegance–between us and a slide into nothing.

Published in: on November 30, 2006 at 12:22 pm  Comments (1)  

Things Fall Apart

An aging widower is losing the battle to maintain his crumbling home. The body of a gray fox lies prone in a stand of birch trees; over a season it swells, decomposes, then shrinks back into the soil. Rivulets of spring water roll down a hillside. What thread connects these disparate phenomena?

So begins my attempt to explain the core of biology in a short series that will appear as separate pages on my sidebar. It sounds about as exciting as a repertory film festival in Delaware featuring elementary school filmstrips. But I swear if it weren’t such a hackneyed title, I’d call it Biology for Poets. It is specifically not for science types.

I have noticed that many people have a good grasp of various aspects of biology but, by no fault of their own, lack a clear view of how it all fits together. And, unless you are a scientist, it is truly the big picture that is important. The basic ideas that underlie our presence here in the world can be an endless source of metaphor and creative inspiration for anyone trying to make sense of all this madness. My God, I am a biology evangelist. At once creepy and dorky.

The first subject I address is entropy, which is another way of saying that things fall apart. They unravel and shrivel and disintegrate and crumble and melt. This seems natural to us. But the vitality of living things stands against that inclination, at least for a while.

Published in: on November 29, 2006 at 11:47 am  Leave a Comment  

Dispatch from Edinburgh–A Nasty Bit O’ Business

Hatbox Louie and I live right near Edinburgh’s OldTown. Cobbled lanes snake around past medieval storefronts and pubs, and the tiny arched alleyways, called closes, connect to even smaller streets and are often named for the trades once plied at the end of the tunnel: Tanners Close, Fleshmarket Close, Old Distillery Close, Fishers Close.

We recently wandered into OldTown’s Greyfriars graveyard, and found it the most graveyardish graveyard we had ever encountered. Hilly, muddy, and the grayest of gray. Bare trees held shifty crows that followed us with their eyes as we walked, as if they new something we didn’t. Dates on the headstones ran back to the 16th century. It was over the top, cartoonish, a Tim Burton set. And it got worse.

We noticed a grave completely surrounded by iron bars. Another was enclosed by concrete with iron bars across the top. A 19th century gambit to foil graverobbers. The trade in corpses was lively then, supplying the expanding center of Medical training in Edinburgh.

Across the street at the Royal Museum of Scotland, we found a mortsafe–an enormous iron sarcophagus, made to hold the traditional casket. It would attend the corpse for six weeks, then be removed, at which point decomposition would have rendered the body useless for dissection. The museum also displays a Kingskettle collar. An iron shackle was placed around the neck of the corpse, and bolted to the coffin floor. Very restful.

As disturbing as it seems, what we learned next made us recognize this all as a rather lighthearted look at cadaver-supply–barely sinister. And these bodysnatchers, or resurrection men, as just a bunch of goofy cutups trying to turn a dime. The truly gruesome story was of the Burke and Hare murders. These men, rather then suffer the tedium of waiting for a death and then digging through the night, killed 17 people and sold their bodies to an anatomy lab.

Their story brought us to the College of Surgeons Museum where some artifacts from the murders and the subsequent trial and punishment are on display. If you’re interested, I was inspired to write an article about the whole affair, called

Published in: on November 28, 2006 at 11:48 am  Leave a Comment  

Dispatch from Edinburgh–A Moratorium On Second Chances

Well, Hatbox Louie and I are in Edinburgh. Yet we are not Scottish nor English nor Welsh. Hatbox Louie writes novels, so she can work anywhere. Would she knowingly choose a place where the Sun rises at 8 AM and sets at 2 PM? A northerly Sun that now, in late fall, can only describe a small arc, and always somewhere off in the distance? Well artists can be quirky, sure. But that is not the answer.

She is here because Dr. Nostrum is here. It is why she was in Wilmington, N.C. and El Cerrito, CA. In Oaxaca, Mexico and Quito, Ecuador. Providence, RI and Baltimore, MD. Peru, Bolivia, Ohio. Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I have slunk in and out of medicine, always trying to leave to reinvent myself as an independent spirit, laughing in the wind, and doing…..? Then each time, tired of drifting at sea, trying desperately to plug back in to make it work. Primary care, part-time, locums, humanitarian medicine. No, no, no.

And Hatbox Louie is dragged all over the world, making the best of things. She’s a trooper. So, one more try at a conventional path–not medicine per se, but solid, respectable, established, clearly set out, and perhaps a vindication of a squandered career–brought us to Edinburgh. But this ain’t it either. Sigh.

Last chance. Last chance to plug back in. Over. No sunlight. An indefinite moratorium on second chances.

Oh, well. Don’t want to sound bleak. We’ll figure it out. We’ve just returned from a beautiful French market that’s traveling through town, and we’re lousy with cheese. How bad could things be?

Published in: on November 27, 2006 at 4:13 pm  Comments (3)  

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? Part 8-The End?

I thought about my grandfather leaving high school to help support his family. Out of basic necessity he rode the New Deal out to Utah to poison prairie dogs and put food on the table. Then he was out on a coastguard cutter patrolling the North Atlantic for German U-boats. He just did what he had to do. Choice never entered into it.

Was he denied the possibility of reaching his full potential, or did he lead a happy, industrious life without the torture of trying to actualize himself. Now my little family was out of money. I had thrown away a perfectly acceptable career. I was out of energy, out of ideas. I was numb.

When Hatbox Louie returned from work on the second day of my sit-down strike, I announced that I was going to find a residency where I could finish my training. It was a job. It seemed the only one for which I was qualified. It is actually a pretty bad job. Eighty or ninety grueling hours a week. I think if you work it out, medical residents make less than minimum wage. It didn’t matter. It was something. I queried dozens of hospitals for openings in the second year of their programs.

Three days later, I got a message on my answering machine. It was a hospital in North Carolina with a second year position open due to an untimely pregnancy in one of their house staff.

I’ll be damned. All aboard. “Welcome back on the conventionality express! How was your trip? Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Buckle up now, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

I was crawling back on my hands and knees. I had failed. The yoke was back on. Yet, I had a job, a respectable position, and it felt as if a crushing pressure had been instantly dissipated. Like a screaming in my head had suddenly stopped, leaving only that light ringing sound you hear after leaving a rock concert. I could support us and regain my self-respect. The skies began to clear. I was going to be a somebody again. I was back in the world’s good graces and by god it felt good.

Published in: on November 27, 2006 at 10:27 am  Comments (4)  

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? Part 7

What had I done? I had been foolhardy and now I was being trampled by the world’s condemnation: “Who the hell are you? Do you know how many people would have loved to go to med school? Do you think your grandfather wanted to leave high school to support his family?” I must soldier on. An honest day’s work. Absolutely nothing wrong with that.

“Your eyes are your windows to the world, and they’re non-replaceable…” droned the predictably stilted and mind-numbing workplace safety film. The sound was bad, the actors self-conscious. It was like a porno movie with safety replacing sex, which may have accounted for the unexpected attentiveness of the frat boys. When it had mercifully ended, I sat down to fill out the application.

What a complicated set of feelings I experienced as I tried to jam my educational history into the tiny box they provided. As I shakily finished with “MD, University of XXXXX”, I decided it was just too much. I grabbed my application and headed back down the long red ribbon, if not running, then shuffling very quickly.

I tried to fly through the guardhouse, but they stopped me to confiscate my application. “You don’t understand. I’ve changed my mind. I’m just going to get rid of this.” I clutched the shameful document to my chest. “I’m sorry,” he returned. “No paperwork leaves the premises.” Glancing at his sidearm, I handed it over and dashed down the red stripe and home.

The next day I got a message on the answering machine from the coolguy at the warehouse who had apparently been given my contraband paperwork. “Dr. Nostrum, I would very much like to discuss…” I guess he figured even a degenerate doctor on the loading docks would be a boon for workplace safety. Degenerate. What else could he have thought? Had I been caught selling oxycontin from the trunk of my station wagon? Had I decided that a breast exam should accompany an evaluation for earwax impaction?

I sat silently on the couch for two days after that. On the second day, I rose to step outside. The rain had torn the spiders’ webs, and I watched them labor over the repairs as the drizzle or rain or precipitation or whatever thrummed against the hood of my poncho. I began to envy those industrious little insects. They had their job and they did it. There was no conflict — no soul searching. No choices. I grabbed the mail: my seventh rejection from the nun. I was beginning to think she was not interested.

Published in: on November 27, 2006 at 10:25 am  Leave a Comment  

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? Part 6

More letters.

November 30

Dear Sister Kreskey,

. . . resume . . . teaching position in the biological sciences should one arise . . . while not Catholic . . . background prepares me ideally . . . Bar Mitzvah . . . Thank you for your consideration.

December 15

Dear Sir,

. . . ad for a loading dock associate . . . keen interest
. . . transportation of goods . . . opportunity . . . Sincerely

December 31

Dear Sir,

. . . ad for a plasma clinic supervisor . . . those compelled to sell . . . precious fluids . . . deserve competent supervision . . . empathy and care . . . one who can join them at the bottom of the barrel . . . Sincerely,

I received, after sending out about thirty letters, exactly two responses. One was a letter of rejection from Sister Kresky which, through some computer error, kept getting sent to me over and over for weeks. Things were very glum around our apartment. It was very grey. I had just about given up the fight. Hatbox Louie, fresh out of her Classics program, was working as a telemarketer. Besides making about seven cents an hour, Hatbox Louie is rather shy and likes talking on the phone to strangers, interrupting their dinner, about as much as cats enjoy inner tubing. At least she had a framework to understand her suffering. Her academic background had prepared her well to recognize one of Dante’s circles of hell. It was time for action. It didn’t matter what–I had to have work.

Pursuing the single positive response from my letter-writing campaign, I found myself walking hesitantly down a thick red stripe on the tarmac of a shipping warehouse. It was a vast open lot with a menacingly dark red pathway meant to keep people from straying as they came to fill out applications for work. It passed through an armed guardhouse, then led me into a building complex. I sat down with the other applicants: basically me, a few illegals, and a bunch of frat boys looking for some extra winter-break beer and rohypnol money.

The manager was young, he was a coolguy, his baseball cap was worn backwards, his goatee was tidy, his wrap-around sunglasses dangled on a green cord from his neck, he felt deeply empowered: “Ok. First off, the way you are going to succeed in this job is to be on time and to follow the workplace safety guidelines.” He flicked on a projector.

Published in: on November 27, 2006 at 10:22 am  Leave a Comment  

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? Part 5

Portland. We got an apartment and felt somewhat renewed. The geographical cure is certainly a temporary fix, but it works nicely for a while. There is the novelty of the new place, the distractions of putting together a new apartment. Hope trickles down. It was mid-September, it was sunny, everything was green. A new start. I was feeling somewhat confident again. Sure, I had cut my training short, but still I was a doctor, that had to be worth something. Though I had given up on saving the world, I felt I could at least parlay my education into something I might enjoy.

Life took on a certain rhythm. Get the paper, circle the jobs: medical writer, hospital PR. There were trips to Kinko’s to make copies of my resume. I would stand outside for hours watching spiders spinning webs and hunting in the bushes by our front door. I invented salad dressings. My job search was floundering. I couldn’t seem to get anyone to call me back. I tried letters:

October 10

Dear Mr. Fitzpatrick,

I am responding to your ad for a Community Relations Coordinator . . . ability to offer both a clinical background and a real interest in community health . . . committed to meaningful work . . . asset to your program. Sincerely, Dr. Nostrum, MD

I began to see the world in a new way: “Hey, look at that guy power-washing the glass bus stop shelter. That could be Ok.” “Is it me or do mail carriers have it made?” “What about tree surgeons? That’s medically related.”

Then one-day clouds moved in. They never left. I listened to the weather report each morning anyway. It was like playing with a sore tooth: I just couldn’t help myself. Like the Inuit and their scores of words for the subtle shades of snow, these Northwesterners would spin their invariably sodden condition. “Today: steady drizzle with periods of rain punctuated by heavy downpours. Misting overnight. For your extended forecast, please take today’s and multiply it by six months. Have a nice Wednesday.” My moods followed closely: Patches of despondency, with scattered self-loathing. Chance of overnight despair. Still, there was no choice but to press on.

Published in: on November 27, 2006 at 10:19 am  Leave a Comment  

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? Part 4

There she was: The Director. She caught my eye and brought me into her office. We talked. She mostly looked dumbfounded. She was presumably trying to understand why I would have left medicine to come out here for . . . what exactly was I trying to do?

A doddering old bitty stumbled into the office. “I left my bag,” she warbled in her quavering old-lady-voice. The director explained that her bag must be across the hall where the meeting had been held. She spoke in that cartoonishly loud-for-the-infirm way which, if used in our new cardboard home, would have had our divorcé on the phone to the police. And that sweet old lady, who seemed to have forgotten where she had been not ten minutes before, was probably the director’s most trusted, peace-forging lieutenant. What had I done?

In the end, I had not been asked to start Monday, at this ancient coalition for global change. Nor to shuffle off to another organization in this world of world-fixers where she was sure an idealistic young doctor could be of use. The director had however asked me for advice about her husband’s gout.

I left the meeting feeling oddly calm much like the gazelle who’s resigned to the inevitability of its fate in the jaws of the cheetah. Slowly making my way back down the corridor, I guess I should have been wondering what had just happened, and what on earth I was going to do next. But I wasn’t. I was thinking about bread. About Hatbox Louie kneading dough in our cardboard box. Is she making bread?
“Now, rum and Coke. Rum and Coke’s a different thing. There is a reason half the world is owned by a company making bubbly sugar-water. Americans like Coke. It’s that simple…”

Hatbox Louie had indeed been baking and the apartment smelled wonderful. As I entered the kitchen, she scanned me for any outward sign of how the interview had gone. Her eyes gently grazed the paper bag I was holding. I just smiled at her, moved wordlessly to the cupboard for a glass, pulled the vodka from the bag and poured a tall one. “That good, huh?” she suggested. I just smiled at her and replied, in voice so breathy even our dimwit upstairs couldn’t complain, “vermouth.”

Our savings were running out. In a last ditch effort to salvage our adventure, we headed north to Portland, Oregon, Hatbox Louie’s ancestral homeland, and one she remembered as a haven of good food, good coffee, good beer, and an easygoing lifestyle. Yes indeed. The problem is the Bay Area. Too expensive. Too much competition: PhDs working in bookshops, bidding wars on the stoops of apartments-for-rent. Not for us. We head north.

Published in: on November 27, 2006 at 10:15 am  Leave a Comment  

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? Part 3

As I stood quietly waiting for my interview, the voice from within The Academy clarified. A nasally screed whirred through the crack in the door. “Now let’s get one thing straight. Americans do not like vermouth.” An academy . . . of mixology. “And if they hate vermouth, why then do Americans order Martinis? Because–and listen closely folks–you are all about to become little David Copperfields. The conjurer, not the waif. With vermouth as your magic wand, you will help people maintain the illusion that they are not simply drinking huge glasses of gin or vodka.” I leaned back against the wall and shut my eyes.

The coalition director had repeatedly put off my interview. Week after week I waited to meet with this estimable woman. Meanwhile, a quick look around the Bay Area made it clear that this thing–this non-profit, world-healing thing–had better work out. It was rough out there.

We’d had to outbid four other couples for our apartment. They’d come with rental resumes and letters of recommendation for their pets. Luckily, we had cash. Hatbox Louie had been refused an interview for a job in a used paperback bookstore which reeked of cat urine, and whose shelves sagged under the weight of tattered bodice-rippers. Her master’s degree did not make muster. Even the guy slinging coffee at Peet’s had a PhD. After six weeks of cancelled dates, I was granted an audience. When the day finally arrived, I pieced together a presentable outfit, and took the train into San Francisco.

“When someone orders a dry Martini, they want you to pour out the vermouth before the gin goes in.”
A squeaking door hinge jolted me out of my reverie, and I stood bolt upright as someone emanated from the global peace meeting. I prepared to see a young, earnest, progressive do-gooder. But no. This was an old man. A quite old man. A few minutes later, another old man. Not even spry. Nursing home old. Then a third. This couldn’t be. Action . . . global change.

“When they ask for a whisper of vermouth, they want you to pour them a huge glass of gin and whisper the word ‘vermouth’ over the top of their glass.”

A blue-haired beauty slipped out from the meeting. She was so unsure on her feet I almost dashed over to help her. Then another frail old woman.

“The biggest tip I ever got was from an orthodox bishop from Estonia who had me pour him an enormous glass of Stoli while staring at a bottle of vermouth.”
Another old man emerged from the meeting with a woman who, though solidly in her seventies, seemed a mere slip of a girl: the director.

Published in: on November 27, 2006 at 10:10 am  Leave a Comment