Goodbye, Ada

http://fogknife.com/2017-01-08-goodbye-ada.html

Ada the cat, September 2008

Ten days ago, my wife and I had our cat euthanized, hours after she started a clear and rapid decline from the heart disease whose inexorable progress we had tracked for years. For all those months, Ada worked around her own failing health, still taking interest in the usual cattish things even as her body gradually allowed for fewer of them. But on that last day, after an evening of avoiding eye contact with me while struggling through increasingly labored breathing, she padded into the kitchen after midnight, looked up at me, and meowed.

Something passed between us. I will always remember it. The memory of that ragged meow will forever live next to the memory of the soft animal sound my mother made when she saw my father for the last time, the cry of a creature that knows it has come to an ending. I woke up my wife and we put our coats on.

The presence of Ada’s absence lingers long, with a weight. When I round any corner of our little apartment, I subconsciously check around for the cat. If a coat is crumpled on a chair a certain way, my breath will catch. Just now I rose from bed to write this, because I couldn’t convince my whole sad brain that she didn’t lie on the mattress just out of sight, over the hill of my sleeping wife’s hip. I stretched out my arm to brush the cold, flat blanket there. Twice, at least.

Two days ago, at my wife’s request, I picked through every photograph I have taken over the cat’s lifetime, which is to say every photograph I have taken while my wife and I have lived together. These time-spans correspond. The task let me better understand why, perhaps, losing Ada has felt like such an ongoing ache. Whether we realized it or not, she was the mascot for the household my partner and I keep together, and the shared external spark we have carried with us through all our house-moves since then.

When I was twelve, we put to sleep Gi-Gi the dog, many years my senior and with whom I shared a best-case childhood-pet relationship. I recall the sadness of the day, and I also recall feeling like I had passed through a necessary ordeal of growing up. It felt natural, like moving forward. Losing Ada doesn’t feel like this at all. It feels only like loss, that a little animal so subtly definitional to our human relationship should leave us.

The first of the photographs depicts four-year old Ada a few days after we adopted her. It shows her moments after she first decided to stop cowering behind these strangers’ couch, and come lie down on the couch instead. The last photograph also shows Ada lying down, eight years later, but not alone. The three of us are tumbled into bed together, nobody at a flattering angle, an awkward composition forced by my urge to take a poorly lit self-portrait anyway, and only a month ago. You can’t see Ada’s eyes, but you can clearly see the shape of her black-furred head and face. A cat-eared negative space in the foreground, her two human companions fading into the back.

We’re not devastated. With plenty of foreknowledge, we prepared for her departure, and we’ll move on together as surely as I did after Gi-Gi. We have dozens more photographs between those two, which will assist with her life’s transformation into soft and happy memories. Today, though, and for a time more, I must allow Ada to exist, achingly, as a thing missing.

Ada the cat, December 2016

I read I Contain Multitudes

http://fogknife.com/2016-12-27-i-read-i-contain-multitudes.html

Charlie Stross has a reputation among science fiction authors as one of that community’s most outspoken critics of interplanetary travel. Any dreams about humans permanently colonizing any world but Earth, he maintains, foolishly ignores how every part and process of our bodies has evolved for complete interdependence with every aspect our home planet, well beyond obvious stuff like gravity and oxygen. You can’t just pop a plexiglas bubble on your head and fly to the stars like a cartoon spaceman; bereft of the only environment nature designed it for, your body will fail in short order. Literal extensions of the planet they evolved on, fragile humans simply cannot live anywhere but here.

The Stross viewpoint came to mind repeatedly as I read Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. The book surveys modern science’s rapidly growing understanding of microbiology, with a particular focus on the microbiome: the island-universe that each and every person and animal on earth becomes for invisible creatures beyond number. (Before reading this book, I don’t think I’d heard it expressed that an adult human hosts more microbes than there exist stars in our galaxy, and by many orders of magnitude.) And within my own lifetime-so-far, the role of microbes vis-à-vis animals has itself evolved from filth that lurks everywhere and sometimes makes us sick to an elemental presence wholly intertwined with the development and sustenance of complex terrestrial life (and which sometimes makes us sick).

You, and every friend you have with a spinal cord, evolved in a world caked with microbes, and you all carry this forward by allowing them to thoroughly colonize every inch of your outside-world interface — not just your visible parts, but down the ducts and tubing of your nose, your mouth, and all your miles of guts. In the gut especially, evolution has designed many of our most crucial life-sustaining processes to invite the inevitable little darlings to make themselves at home and help us help them in the most literally symbiotic ways, while also making sure they keep out of deeper tissues where they’d only cause trouble. Anywhere we go, they gotta come with us. We can’t live without them.

Beyond that, in our roles as microbiomes, we really do live second lives as different worlds. While all humans carry the same broad categories of bugs, we are all so different in the details, the makeup of our teeming trillions unique to each of us. The “flavor” of our tiny symbionts likely influences our relationship, our interfacing, with the outside world at least as much as our genetics. And on that note, with especial delight did I read about horizontal gene transfer. Microbes, far too simple for something as mechanically involved as sex, instead play in Darwin’s great game by just casually passing their DNA back and forth. It struck me as a squishy biological version of quantum mechanics, the rules about how mutation and evolution works breaking down and getting weird when viewed at a sufficiently small scale.

Through HGT, fecal-transplant therapy (about which this book holds a whole chapter), and other microbe-specific wonders lies dizzying future potential, one where we encourage the strains in our bodies to learn new tricks that also benefit we-their-hosts. Yong interviews scientists who let themselves imagine a twenty-years-on time when we might ingest tailored microbial sachets that reprogram our gut-buddies to boost our health and eat our diseases. Somewhat ironically, I can’t deny finding this idea cleaner than the still-foretold future of injected nanobots picking the plaque from our arteries and so on. How elegant, to retrain the living tools we were all quite literally born into, rather than reinventing them from scratch.

This blog is now called Fogknife

http://fogknife.com/2017-01-05-this-blog-is-now-called-fogknife.html

A fog knife, via 48north.com

When I launched this blog two years ago, I wouldn’t let myself believe I’d attend to it with any regularity, and as such didn’t spend much energy on thinking of a title. So “jmac’s blog” it was, with the URL blog.jmac.org. An acceptable URL, but a terrible, forgettable not-title. With my first post of 2017, I change both.

During several summers of the previous decade, I’d spend a week guesting at a lodge on an island in Downeast Maine. This lodge had built up all sorts of decor over many decades as its ownership passed from one generation to the next. Among my favorite such artifacts was a blobby wooden plank hanging on one wall, about the size of my forearm, labeled FOG KNIFE. With an apparent handle and straps, it suggested use as a hand-held tool, but its blunt, round “teeth” with large and carefully bored holes made its utility entirely unclear. It certainly didn’t look suitable for cutting anything, and what did fog have to do with it? I remember searching on the web for it while sitting underneath it, and finding no clues.

According to the one article I can find today, the artifact exists primarily as a prop for prankish mariners: build a fog knife according to spec and hang it on your wall (just as I’d seen), and then wait for the inevitable questions about it from curious and gullible friends — a contract I apparently failed to fulfill. If I had, goes this article, then the knife’s owner would have described in all seriousness the knife’s usefulness for carving out and lifting away wedges of fog around one’s boat, as a handy aid to visibility.

Since I never did ask about it, the fog knife instead came to represent to me a tool of certain existence but uncertain application. And so it struck me this past week as a wholly appropriate title for this blog, which I feel compelled to keep sinking hours into every week or so despite entirely murky rewards.

Thank you for reading. I will keep writing.

(Technical note: All older URLs leading to individual articles on this blog should continue to work, quietly forwarding to the appropriate page on the new domain. Furthermore, existing RSS subscriptions should work without modification.)

I read I Contain Multitudes

http://blog.jmac.org/2016-12-27-i-read-i-contain-multitudes.html

Charlie Stross has a reputation among science fiction authors as one of that community’s most outspoken critics of interplanetary travel. Any dreams about humans permanently colonizing any world but Earth, he maintains, foolishly ignores how every part and process of our bodies has evolved for complete interdependence with every aspect our home planet, well beyond obvious stuff like gravity and oxygen. You can’t just pop a plexiglas bubble on your head and fly to the stars like a cartoon spaceman; bereft of the only environment nature designed it for, your body will fail in short order. Literal extensions of the planet they evolved on, fragile humans simply cannot live anywhere but here.

The Stross viewpoint came to mind repeatedly as I read Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. The book surveys modern science’s rapidly growing understanding of microbiology, with a particular focus on the microbiome: the island-universe that each and every person and animal on earth becomes for invisible creatures beyond number. (Before reading this book, I don’t think I’d heard it expressed that an adult human hosts more microbes than there exist stars in our galaxy, and by many orders of magnitude.) And within my own lifetime-so-far, the role of microbes vis-à-vis animals has itself evolved from filth that lurks everywhere and sometimes makes us sick to an elemental presence wholly intertwined with the development and sustenance of complex terrestrial life (and which sometimes makes us sick).

You, and every friend you have with a spinal cord, evolved in a world caked with microbes, and you all carry this forward by allowing them to thoroughly colonize every inch of your outside-world interface — not just your visible parts, but down the ducts and tubing of your nose, your mouth, and all your miles of guts. In the gut especially, evolution has designed many of our most crucial life-sustaining processes to invite the inevitable little darlings to make themselves at home and help us help them in the most literally symbiotic ways, while also making sure they keep out of deeper tissues where they’d only cause trouble. Anywhere we go, they gotta come with us. We can’t live without them.

Beyond that, in our roles as microbiomes, we really do live second lives as different worlds. While all humans carry the same broad categories of bugs, we are all so different in the details, the makeup of our teeming trillions unique to each of us. The “flavor” of our tiny symbionts likely influences our relationship, our interfacing, with the outside world at least as much as our genetics. And on that note, with especial delight did I read about horizontal gene transfer. Microbes, far too simple for something as mechanically involved as sex, instead play in Darwin’s great game by just casually passing their DNA back and forth. It struck me as a squishy biological version of quantum mechanics, the rules about how mutation and evolution works breaking down and getting weird when viewed at a sufficiently small scale.

Through HGT, fecal-transplant therapy (about which this book holds a whole chapter), and other microbe-specific wonders lies dizzying future potential, one where we encourage the strains in our bodies to learn new tricks that also benefit we-their-hosts. Yong interviews scientists who let themselves imagine a twenty-years-on time when we might ingest tailored microbial sachets that reprogram our gut-buddies to boost our health and eat our diseases. Somewhat ironically, I can’t deny finding this idea cleaner than the still-foretold future of injected nanobots picking the plaque from our arteries and so on. How elegant, to retrain the living tools we were all quite literally born into, rather than reinventing them from scratch.