The Diagnosis and the Present Moment

Karen outside at picnic table
Karen, October 2019

Karen, one of my best friends, was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer in September 2019. At the time, she was working as a consultant in a small town in Utah. In early March 2020, before COVID took over the world, we talked at her house in New Hampshire about how getting a difficult diagnosis has changed the way she views the present moment.

Martha Henry: How did you end up in a hospital in Salt Lake City on Labor Day weekend?

Karen: I’d been experiencing some physical discomfort for several months and then had a bowel blockage. Joe, my husband, took me to the emergency room on a Saturday night.

How did you know you had a bowel blockage?

I didn’t until they told me. It was very different from food poisoning. The vomit had different smells.

The emergency room doctor gave me a CT scan. They pumped my stomach and got me stabilized. The doctor was looking at the scans with a flummoxed face. We heard him say something about, There’s more going on here than just the bowel blockage. He was consulting with doctors from Salt Lake who said, Get her up here.

They put me in an ambulance. I had nothing with me. We didn’t pack a bag. It was the middle of the night, driving miles and miles and miles. We didn’t know what was happening. Everything was surreal,  like we knew we were in an alternate universe. Continue reading The Diagnosis and the Present Moment

Distinguishing between Self and Other: Q&A with Dr. Karine Gibbs

Dr. Karine Gibbs
Dr. Karine Gibbs

How do you distinguish between self and other? That’s the question Dr. Karine Gibbs, an Assistant Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard, is trying to answer. Using the bacterium Proteus mirabilis as a model, Gibbs and colleagues are working to understand how bacteria discriminate self from non-self.

P. mirabilis is the culprit in most catheter-related urinary tract infections (UTIs). But UTIs aren’t the bacteria’s only talent. When migrating as a swam across a surface, populations of the bacteria display a remarkable phenomenon: swarms of the same strain merge, while swarms of different strains form a visible boundary between each other. This behavior suggests that P. mirabilis swarms are capable of self vs. non-self recognition leading to territoriality .

Looking for the molecular mechanisms underlying this ability, the Gibbs lab has identified a set of genes in P. mirabilis that encodes the components necessary for self vs. non-self recognition. Martha Henry sat down with Dr. Gibbs in her office in Harvard’s BioLabs to talk about the work.

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Does the Self Have a Gender? Q&A with Joy Ladin

Joy Ladin
Joy Ladin, photo by Liz Denlinger

Joy Ladin is a poet and Gottesman Professor of English at Stern College of Yeshiva University. In 2007, after living as a man for 46 years, Ladin transitioned from male to female, changing her name from Jay to Joy. She and her wife of over twenty years divorced. Ladin’s memoir, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, chronicles her life of gender dysphoria and eventual transition. She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Transmigration (2009) and Impersonation (2015). She talked to Martha Henry by phone in early May.

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Access to Bliss: Q&A with Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor

As her brain began to shut down during her stroke, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist and spokeswoman for the Harvard Brain Bank, was fascinated by the process. The stroke left her unable to speak, walk, or remember anything about her former self. She became, in effect, a 37-year-old newborn. Once her condition stabilized, surgeons removed  a golf-ball-sized clot from her brain. That was in 1996. Bolte Taylor spent the next eight years recovering and creating a new self. Her poignant TED Talk, My Stroke of Insight, went viral in 2008. Martha Henry reached her by phone at her home in Indiana.

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Self-Observation Through Drawing

The Daily Practice of John F. Simon, Jr.

Drawing 1.25.2015
Drawing 1.25.2015

On February 22, 1999, John F. Simon, Jr. created the first drawing for a daily practice that continues to this day. He began with the intention of observing his unspoken rules for visual improvisation. A computer artist at the time, he hoped to define and code those rules into drawing software. He failed at that task, but in the process and over 5,000 drawings later, discovered something much more interesting

John F. Simon, Jr. is a visual artist and software programmer. He was born in Louisiana in 1963. His father was a lawyer, his mother a mathematician. Simon eared undergraduate degrees in Studio Art and Geology from Brown University, a Masters in Earth and Planetary Sciences from Washington University in St. Louis, and an MFA in Computer Art from the School of Visual Arts in New York.

His work can be found in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He helped design the world’s first app album for Björk, called Biophilia.

John F. Simon, Jr. and Martha Henry talked by phone.

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13 Questions for Brad Taylor

How Your Stylist Enhances Your Sense of Self

Brad Taylor

I honestly believe a good haircut is one of the keys to mental health. That’s why I wanted to talk to Brad Taylor, my articulate hair stylist at Pyara Spa & Salon .

Martha Henry: Do many of your clients come in with a photo of a celebrity and ask for that hairstyle?

Brad Taylor: Yes, all the time.

Do you get the feeling that they want the celebrity’s lifestyle as well as their hair?

Yes, they look at this picture and say, oh, their hair is so beautiful, but what they really mean is that the celebrity is so beautiful and they think that once they have this hair style or cut or color or whatever, they’ll look like that celebrity. A lot of people think that if they have Kim Kardashian’s hair, all of a sudden they’re going to be this socialite. A trick that we do is cover the person’s face and ask them if they still like the haircut. A lot of people’s answers change.

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