you never know


We never really know what knowledge is going to come in handy. I might never need to know that molluscs have teeth, or what kind of teeth they have, but knowing doesn’t hurt anything. But, other than the joy of knowing for the sake of knowing, can it actually help?

Well, one never knows. I think it might have been in Imre Kertész‘s Fatelessness, or possibly in Ta-Nehisi Coates‘s Between the World and Me, or maybe even neither (although each contains some aspect of this theme): you go through life and start to realize, possibly even lament, all those things you could have learned but didn’t because you didn’t see their applicability or value.

In my last job I had to learn a great deal about laparoscopic surgery and specific lap procedures. Being the “all-in” type (as well as the one responsible for drumming up themes, ideas and topics – as well as often ghost-writing the posts – for a blog that internal folks rarely understood the purpose of) I dove into research and studies about laparoscopy and its uses, technologies and tools … and blah blah blah. Sure, this made it easier for me to do my job, much easier to talk to the former clinicians within the company who were responsible for marketing lap-specific products and also to talk to clinicians externally (to whom we were selling). But beyond that, I saw no real scope for applying this knowledge elsewhere. Did that stop me from going wild like a pig at the research trough? No.

And wouldn’t you know that after I spent significant time and effort inhaling laparoscopy, a friend would require a hysterectomy and had been told by surgeons in her country that, because she had never had a child, she would have to have the full open surgery? I’m no surgeon; heck, I am not even a healthcare professional. But I was reasonably sure, given the evidence and research I had just spent months combing through, that it was absolutely possible for her to have a laparoscopic hysterectomy. I gathered the evidence I could find, sent it her way and told her to push back and ask more questions.

This is perhaps the other important note: We don’t know, we are not experts, so we fear pushing back. We tend to trust the specialists in whom we place our care and well-being, and we doubt that their advice is given because they are trying to fool us… but there are other institutional matters a healthcare professional weighs in diagnosing and offering treatment. In this case, the friend’s surgeon perhaps did not have the most up-to-date information or was not capable of performing the laparoscopic procedure himself. Or, as is often the case, the healthcare system and its practitioners will try to push the cheaper option, even if it is riskier and involves longer healing times. We are often at our most vulnerable and afraid in these situations, so less likely than ever to push back: who are we, untrained mortals, to push back against the education, expertise and experience of these medical professionals? But who else is going to advocate on our behalf?

Still, I am happy to say that she did push back, armed with a bit of evidence. (Ironically, one of the world’s leading experts on laparoscopic hysterectomy procedures comes from her tiny country but practices in the US….) And she was referred to a surgeon with the appropriate expertise and had the procedure laparoscopically, with a much shorter recovery and healing time.

And here I go back to the point: I never imagined that the knowledge I gained in my last job, which was so far outside the boundaries of anything I imagined doing in my career, would have a real-life pay off. And yet, that knowledge I gained might well have been the most important thing I ever learned in a workplace in terms of how great a difference it made in someone else’s life and well-being.

Photo (c) 2006 Amanda Graham used under Creative Commons license.

the wind’s tracks


I am furious with myself
Elsa Tió
I am furious with myself
for this waste
useless like a blind man before a mirror
like the watch on a corpse’s wrist.
I only see land without peasants or songs
before my lost things,
a huge slab of cement and stone
as a tomb for seeds
a kidnapped leaf for a somnambulist wind
and a tree as a coffin for some crushed wings.
I’ve tried to make out the wind’s track
of what’s going on
bleeding, weeping, and dying.
I only see time’s scar.


Tengo furia de mí
Tengo furia de mí
de mi desgaste inútil
inútil como un ciego ante un espejo
como el reloj pulsera en la mano de un muerto.
Ya solo veo ante mí cosas perdidas
tierra sin campesinos ni canciones
una gran losa de cemento y piedra
sirviendo de sepulcro a las semillas
una hoja secuestrada por un viento sonámbulo
y un árbol que es la tumba de unas alas vencidas.
He tratado de ver las huellas en el viento
de todo lo que pasa de todo lo que vive
de todo lo que sangra y llora y muere
y solo veo la cicatriz del tiempo.



I, ever the nagging tooth infection, am abnormally obsessed with teeth.

Not in quite the same way as my old friend, Mike, who became obsessed with his own tooth care so as not to leave behind a toothless skeleton.

Also not in the way that most Americans obsess about the cosmetics and perfection of their teeth and smile. But in an all-encompassing way. Months ago, I stumbled on a book, Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America by Mary Otto, which actually made me cry, and also, more importantly of course, chronicled the American love affair with cosmetic dentistry (and its accompanying expense) and the relation between tooth care, oral health and poverty. But this was not enough. But I was not sure how to drill down (ha – I know – not funny) further.

Last week I read some books on teeth, Teeth: A Very Short Introduction and Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins – both by Peter S Ungar – that delve into evolutionary theory and how teeth have developed – in humans and other species. As I read, particularly as one book went into detail about the types of teeth in other species, I wondered to myself, “What am I doing? Why am I reading this?” Yes, I was fascinated – riveted even – but it still seemed so far off course from what I would normally read or be interested in. I thought for a moment that it might just be deep-rooted (ha – again, not funny) respect for the level of obsessive detail scholars (in any field) bring to their work. I would not have the patience or depth of interest in any field to carry out the kind of painstaking attention and focus that these researchers in archaeology, paleontology, biology, anthropology (and various other sciences) dedicated to their ongoing work.

But it was certainly more than that because I don’t read multiple books on other topics just because I admire the compulsive need of the scientist to chronicle his/her work and hit upon discoveries no one has made before (or broaden, deepen, confirm, refute or upend the existing scholarship). No, it’s just a weird fascination with teeth. In Ungar’s Teeth, as I happily read along in delight, this was confirmed in a long passage about the teeth of snails, slugs and other molluscs, confirming my answers to this internal self-questioning.

Then there are the mollusks. Tens of thousands of species, from slug to snail to squid, have ‘teeth’. These form in rows on ribbons of chitin in the mouth called radulae. Many mollusks use these structures as a comb to rake up microorganisms, or as a rasp to scrape food from rock or shell. Radulae typically move back and forth like a handsaw. While radular ‘teeth’ tend to be small and recurved, shapes and sizes can vary with species and function in feeding. They can even vary within individuals. In fact, a change in diet can trigger a change in shape for new ‘teeth’ formed to replace old, worn ones. Also, some radulae are extremely specialized. Whelks, for example, commonly have three long, sabre-like ‘teeth’ in each row. These are used to drill through barnacle and clam shells with the help of secretions that break down calcium carbonate. And cone snails have radulae modified into hypodermic needles to inject venom. These have barb at their ends, and can be extended from the mouth like harpoons to attack and paralyse prey.

I had to laugh at my own oddity.

Photo (c) 2017 S Donaghy

subtle change


I may finally have emerged from a grey-food period. I was eating mostly the same mundane meal daily because it was easy, healthy and almost instant. But I’ve finally decided I should put in a bit of upfront effort and prepare some variation and make a few meals for a few days in advance.

My latest go-to, at the very least, is very colorful, although not necessarily pretty. With a base of a grain mix of quinoa, buckwheat, millet and amaranth, I throw in some beans (kidney or black usually), red and/or yellow peppers, red onions, asparagus, baby spinach, tomatoes and who knows what else? And then sometimes add a bit of salmon or a few prawns, if I am in that kind of mood (prefer mostly vegan eating but sometimes seem to need a change).

I think my laziest thing is that I don’t want to bother cooking, so if I do it all at once and make a bunch of well-measured out bowls and cook enough of this grain stuff to many such bowls, I don’t have to think about it every single day. I know people have been saying that to me forever – just take the one ‘hit’ in terms of time, prep, patience, and you will thank yourself. But even that, until recently, I could not force myself to do. But I suppose alongside all the rest of the changes this year, thinking ahead and preparing even for the most boring thing I can think of (eating) is something I can ken.

Now the question remains: will I ever bake again?