When your husband commits suicide

Last week, I spoke with a woman whose husband committed suicide in 2010. Doesn’t your heart just break when you read those words? Her husband committed suicide. Few things are more dreadful than that. I can imagine the turmoil that must have caused in her at the time.

And then again, I guess I can’t because it isn’t something I have ever gone through.

I thought she would be in a much better place by now than she was at the time, when she seemed to be blindly lashing out in pain at anyone who reached out to her to comfort her. Understandably!

To my initial dismay, I noticed that she seems to have decided that her life is now ruined forever, by contrast.

That is more or less what she said, literally.

If she has really decided that her life is ruined forever, then that is what the rest of her life will be like. That idea makes your heart break too, doesn’t it?

It may well be that all she actually meant is that she is still mourning, still busy getting back on her feet.

Nobody gets to decide how long someone else’s mourning process will take. To mourn means to heal.

Every person is the expert on his or her life and on what he or she needs. We cannot decide that for someone else.

Well, at least, very rarely. Exceptions that I can think of is children, and persons who are ill or injured and really do need someone else’s care. You can’t make decisions for yourself when you’re unconscious, for example.

But I noticed something intriguing.

Noticing the anguish that is still present in this woman induced a serenity in me, a calm, some kind of grounding, and from that place some kind of very tentative and gentle reaching out, a passive one, more in the sense of a lack of doing anything than in the sense of actually doing something. Maybe I was sending her unspoken positive thoughts. Or feelings, rather.

This serenity took me by surprise. What did it mean?

Also, I could have pointed out to her that while this happened to her, other things happened to me, to create a different perspective for her experiences. I didn’t. I knew that that was the last thing she needed to hear.

How did I know that? I don’t actually know.

After I tossed that around for a while, later, I was reminded of something that happened to me once, a very long time ago. Though it was not so much the actual event, but the realization that I suffered from such a large degree of disbelief at the time that I froze. It’s probably the only time in my life, ever, that I froze. And I’d never before asked myself why – but now I suddenly saw where it came from.

“I can’t believe it! This is not really happening. This can’t possibly be happening. This didn’t just happen. How on earth could he do that? How on earth could he do that to me?”

Then it dawned on me that the woman whose husband committed suicide may also still be resisting – coming to terms with – the idea that this happened to her. In her life.

The shock of it. The “I can’t believe that this happened to me!” shock. The “How on earth could he do that? How on earth could he do that to me?”

Maybe she is still clinging to something more positive than what really happened in a small niche of her thoughts, possibly the notion that if she tries hard enough, she’ll wake up and it will all have been a bad dream.

And maybe on another level, she is still struggling with the idea that her husband’s suicide means that she has failed. That she wasn’t good enough.

After all, bad things do not happen to good and capable people, right? Capable people always maintain complete control over everything. That idea.

That misconception. That feeling!

Yes, it’s a feeling.  An emotional response.

Fortunately, a feeling is something you can change. The cells of your body know how to make you feel a certain way, just like they know how to make you walk if you want to walk.

I know that the woman whose husband committed suicide will be okay. There was plenty in the conversation I had with her that indicated that. I could hear that the island within her is still there and that she was dipping into it, slowly replenishing her energy, restoring her soul.

I wish she knew how many tears I’ve cried for her, though, but I am probably wishing that for me, not for her. I too am merely human. And that’s okay.

Life goes on. She has her life. And I have mine to live. That’s perfectly okay.



Implicit attitudes. Awareness helps. With all forms of bias, not just regarding benefit claimants

How our unconscious minds are prejudiced against benefit claimants

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How biased are people against people claiming welfare?
via shutterstock.com

Robert de Vries, University of Kent

Without us knowing, our brains are busy making associations. While on the surface we may sincerely believe that men and women are equal, or that people on benefits are just regular folks who happen to need help, our unconscious minds might not be so progressive. In psychology, ideas that we hold unconsciously are called “implicit attitudes”.

Implicit attitudes develop under the influence of the world around us. Immerse your brain in a culture that routinely represents women as emotional and irrational, or in which black men are habitually portrayed as aggressive and criminal, and it will develop those associations whether you want it to or not.

This can happen even if you are part of the maligned group yourself. It is these unconscious associations that can – for example – lead a police officer to view a black suspect as more threatening than a white one.

A great deal of valuable research has been done into people’s implicit attitudes towards women and people of colour. However, there are many other groups which society also tends to represent in negative, stereotyped ways. A particular target in the UK are unemployed people who receive government benefits.

Described in newspaper headlines as “dossers” and “layabouts” (The Sun), “scroungers” (The Daily Mail), and “skivers” (The Express) benefit claimants are treated with unremitting hostility by large sections of British society. It is easy to see how exposure and immersion in this culture could lead to the development of negative unconscious feelings towards this group. This is the idea I set out to test with my new research.

Testing our associations

How do you find out if someone harbours negative implicit attitudes towards benefit claimants? The very fact that these attitudes are not conscious means you can’t just ask them directly. To get around this problem, psychologists have developed a set of tools called implicit association tests.

In my research, I used a specific test called the Go/No-Go Association Task, or GNAT. The easiest way to describe how this works is by way of an example. Imagine you are sat in front of a black screen. At the top of the screen some white text reads “spiders and negative words”. Words will now appear and disappear rapidly in the centre of the screen.

As each word appears, your job is to decide if it fits into the category of “Spiders and negative words”. If it does, you press the space bar (“Go”). If it doesn’t, you don’t press anything (“No-Go”). So, for example, if you saw the words “tarantula” or “disgusting” you would press the space bar. If you saw the words “wonderful” or “glasses”, you wouldn’t.

Once you’ve finished going through 60 words or so, the text at the top of the screen changes. It now says “spiders and positive words”. Now if you saw the word “tarantula” or the word “wonderful”, you should press the space bar. If you saw the word “disgusting”, you shouldn’t.

Testing for hidden biases.
via shutterstock.com

Because most people feel negatively about spiders, they will find it more difficult to group them together with positive words than they will to group them with positive words. Because the words appear and disappear so quickly, people don’t have time to deliberate. Their responses are dominated by their unconscious feelings. You can get a feel for this by trying some implicit attitude tests on a website run by Harvard University.

The principle is exactly the same when we are talking about social groups. For example, study after study has found that people find it much easier to pair photographs of black people with negative words than with positive ones.

Bias against benefit claimants

And when I used this technique to examine unconscious attitudes towards benefit claimants in the UK, I found exactly the same results. Participants found it much easier to group words relating to benefit claimants together with negative words like “bad”, “useless”, and “dirty” than they did to group them together with positive words like “friendly”, “clean”, or “wonderful”. This was true even for people who, when asked directly, did not report having any negative opinions about people on benefits. These results strongly suggest the existence of a negative, unconscious prejudice against this group.

There are of course caveats to this research. My sample was small – only around 100 people. This is a similar sample size to that of most implicit attitude studies. However, 100 people is clearly too few to start drawing conclusions about the British population as a whole. This is particularly true given that all of the participants came from a single town (Oxford), and that many (though not most) were university students.

So this research does not yet demonstrate that negative unconscious attitudes towards benefit claimants are a general feature of the British population. However, if this result proves to be robust, it has significant implications for debates about welfare both in the UK and elsewhere.

The ConversationIf antipathy towards benefit claimants is strongly rooted in people’s unconscious feelings and stereotypes, this profoundly limits the power of facts and figures to change people’s minds about the benefits system. Correcting mistaken beliefs about the benefits system is easy. Severing unconscious negative associations that have developed over decades is likely to be much, much harder.

Robert de Vries, Lecturer in Quantitative Sociology in the School of Social Policy, Sociology, and Social Research, University of Kent

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The snow birds

Once upon a time, I had two Canadian snow birds as neighbors. And every morning, they pinched my newspaper! That meant I usually didn’t get to see it until after I returned home from the lab where I was working on my PhD.

Snow birds are people who make the trek to a warmer climate to escape from the snow in their usual environment. They’re often retired. These particular snow birds were two elderly sisters whose husbands had passed away and who had decided to spend some time in Florida.

Then something happened.

One of the sisters changed her ticket and returned to Canada earlier than planned. It turned out that the other sister was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and it was suddenly progressing. She had been randomly accusing people – including her sister – of theft and other unkind deeds and it simply got to be too much for the other sister, understandably.

When people have Alzheimer’s and can’t remember where they’ve left things, and what day it is, it is not that surprising that they think someone has stolen something from them when they can’t find what they are looking for – because it’s in another place or in another time period.

So, the landlord we had in common (Paul, a guy I knew from another setting) and I started looking after the lady. I discovered that merely keeping track of the days for her was greatly reassuring to her, but also how draining it can be to look after someone with Alzheimer’s. It requires your complete attention, and a lot of patience. It is not something you can do “on the side”, while doing something else at the same time. It requires dedication.

The landlord got in touch with the airline and arranged that the ticket date got changed and that someone would ensure that the woman in question wouldn’t return to Nova Scotia, where she used to live, but travel to the city in which she was now living. It got critical at some point when the airline asked whether the woman was actually able to travel on her own.

And I called the woman’s daughter, to keep her up to date and liaise with her too.

The woman – let’s call her Peggy – was actually a wonderful person who used to be very happy and who was also quite aware of what happening to her, which saddened me. Looking after her wasn’t nowhere as bad as I may have made it sound above. She was often lucid, and helping her keep track of time actually also seemed to help her stay lucid, because it eased the stress on her.

There was a second critical moment, though, when she arranged to have money wired from her account in Canada to a local bank. I informed one of the professors that I was going with her to the bank, and why. Just in case. And at the bank I kept my distance from the counter, on purpose.

But everything went fine.

For some reason, Peggy trusted me, even though I was in fact a complete stranger. Not even once, not even for a second, did she become  suspicious or distrustful about me in the days I looked after her, and I was very grateful for that.

It all happened decades ago on another continent, and I am sure she has passed away by now, so I don’t feel I am violating her privacy by posting the photos Paul took of the two of us at the airport. Yep, we’d gotten coffee. I am holding the coffee in that image on the left.

I was reminded of it this afternoon when I got a phone call related to another woman who needs to have a practical problem solved. That’s what Alzheimer’s is like in the beginning. A practical problem that others can help with.

Last week, I went shopping with an elderly woman in an electric wheelchair. I had spotted her in front of a busy shop with narrow aisles, clearly debating whether to go in or not, as the shop would close within 45 minutes. I offered to go into the shop with her and she accepted. I checked and cleared aisles, scouted products for her.

Heck, why not? I wasn’t going anywhere at the time and it didn’t even interrupt anything at all. (It’s important to give the other person enough space in such a situation, and I think I did that sufficiently too.) No, it wasn’t something I’ve done before. It was a spur-of-the-moment heck-why-not thing. A here-is-a-practical-problem-I-can-help-with-right-now thing.


Don’t take refuge in anything, in anyone, except in the island inside

Because you are enough. Good enough. Strong enough. Worthy enough. Resourceful enough. Human enough. Vulnerable enough. Understanding enough. Wise enough.

It is important to protect and replenish that island inside, too.

You have to close the windows from time to time, to keep the noise out and allow serenity to return.

Consumerism of all kinds – and hope

Do you crave and often purchase beautiful shiny things?

Do you often indulge in a lot of cookies late at night?

Do you regularly have a few drinks too many?

Does this make you feel uncomfortable on some level?

Then stop and ask yourself why you’re doing it. You know the answer.

The shiny new things may confirm to you that you’re a success. The cookies may give you a sense of being loved. The alcoholic drinks may dull your senses enough to give you a sense of safety and security.

They bring you hope. They bring you the idea that you can choose to feel this way in the future, any time you want, if only you have the things you need that make you feel the way you want to feel.

It can even be a particular breed of dog that you use as a tool to bring you the feeling you want, for instance the feeling of being adored, or successful or loved.

Know that you have the power to give these feelings to yourself without the designer products and clothes, the cakes and cookies and hot chocolate, and the beer, wine, whiskey and rum or any other prop that you use. The warm-blanket feeling is already inside you. You can give it yourself any time you want.

You don’t need an excuse to feel that way. You deserve to feel the way you want to feel. Successful, loved, safe and secure. You have the power to decide how you feel.

Being aware of how you want to feel is a major first step. Take the time out to give yourself that feeling whenever you need it. Choose to feel the way you want to feel.

Just like the cells of your body know how to make your walk if you want to walk, the cells of your body know how to make you feel a certain way if you want to feel a certain way.

If you want a tool to help you accomplish that, use for example Paul McKenna’s 30-minute “Change Your Life in 7 Days” soundtrack or one of his apps on GooglePlay or the AppStore. Late at night, early in the morning, whatever time suits you. Do it. Because you’re worth it.

Paul McKenna’s 30-minute “Change Your Life in 7 Days” soundtrack is available on YouTube, for example here and here. I can also e-mail you the 27.4 MB MP3 file if you want (or send it to you on CD at a small fee); use the form below. It may not literally change your life in seven days, but it will likely change how you feel within seven days.


There is only one success: to be able to live your life in your own way.
– Christopher Morley

And of course, there is nothing wrong with a little indulgence every once in a while!



Two travel observations

Muslim woman dressed in black with a veil and a wonderful broad smile is travelling with a young child. Her daughter. She is precocious and smart, chats non-stop, entertaining everyone around her with her gentle voice. As a distraction to play with, the girl has an American video or game featuring fragments from Bizet’s Carmen and Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite, as well as the topic of Christmas. As free as a bird in the sky. The little girl reminds me of me when I was a little girl. Even her hair is about the same.

Young blond guy in a turquoise-blue jacket accidentally drops something that looks like a business card or ticket at Victoria Station’s Prêt. I happen to see it happen, from a nearby waiting area. When he ends up in my vicinity, I tell him about it. “I am not sure,” he replies, and goes back into Prêt, where he loiters and keeps an eye on me. Meanwhile, a Prêt employee notices the card or ticket, picks it up, studies it and puts it on the counter. Did young blond guy not even listen to what I said and assume I was asking for money (which is not unusual in Britain)?

Geoethics – Call for abstracts

The IAPG (International Association for Promoting Geoethics) organizes/supports five sessions on geoethics at the Resources Future Generations – RFG 2018 Conference (Vancouver, 16-21 June 2018) under the Theme “Resources and Society: Social & Ethical Values”.

More information: http://www.geoethics.org/rfg2018.

Tasering of patients

Dutch daily Trouw prominently featured anger about a human rights violation on its 6 September front page (online version).

Not only had Dutch police tasered a patient in so-called drive-stun mode (“pain compliance“), the patient in question already was in solitary confinement.

I was shocked when I read this. It seems to signal a return to practices I thought we had left behind a long time ago, and it particularly worries me that this happened in the Netherlands of all places.

“This is torture,” say Amnesty International as well as organizations of patients and their relatives, and Amnesty has called for an immediate suspension of the use of this type of weapon by Dutch police, so I understand. According to Trouw, the taser’s manufacturer advises against use on psychiatric patients and Amnesty believes taser use may actually be life-threatening in such cases.

This is likely the first time a taser was used to subdue a hospitalized psychiatric patient in the Netherlands, where three-hundred police officers are currently testing tasers.

The following appears to have transpired.

On 17 July, police officers were called to a hospital in Cappelle aan de IJssel, in which a male patient in his twenties was having a psychotic episode. (When Dutch police are called to a hospital for a problem with a patient, police take over responsibility.)

The patient was having a bad day, apparently, and had refused to take his antipsychotic medicines. Rotterdam police were first called to force the patient into solitary confinement (to reduce sensory input and calm the patient down).

In the evening, police were called again, for unknown reasons. That’s when the tasering occurred.

The patient’s mother, Marijke Bos, found out about the incident a few days later during a visit on her son’s birthday. Her son had dark bruises under his eyes, several bruises on one of his hips and roughly thirty small taser-related lesions on his back. The patient had also been tasered on one of his feet.

The patient’s mother has filed several formal complaints.

The hospital staff reportedly is also extremely dismayed about the taser use.

Solitary confinement in itself can be damaging and can be seen as a human rights violation. Tasering a patient who already is in solitary confinement and clearly no danger to anyone else raises eyebrows, to put it mildly.

It seems to me that tasering in drive-stun mode is even worse than using a baseball bat to knock someone out as it deliberately causes pain, so it is more comparable to stabbing someone with a knife or throwing scalding water or oil.

The incident made me wonder about taser use on patients in other countries and I did a quick web search. It is not clear whether other reports of taser use on patients concern drive-stun mode or probe mode, but probe mode is the usual taser mode.

New Zealand police used a taser on a mentally ill man earlier this year as well and it was the country’s second case this year in which taser use against a mentally ill person was ruled (excessive and) unjustified:

“Police told the 21-year-old he would need to be strip searched, the man repeatedly refused to remove his clothes telling the officers he had a history of sexual abuse and didn’t feel comfortable being touched by males.”

In Britain, even taser use in general has turned out to concern mainly mentally ill persons, according to Home Office figures:

Taser use against patients in hospitals has already around in Britain for more than ten years:

The consensus appears to be that this is a big no-no:

I agree with Matilda MacAttram (director of Black Mental Health UK and writer of the above article in the Guardian) that there is no role for police in mental healthcare, just like police have no business in heart surgeries and appendectomies either.

See also this article:

Reblogged: Buddhism and decision-making

Reblogged wisdom about making decisions:

“Know well what leads you forward and what holds you back, and choose the path that leads to wisdom.” ~Buddha

“The unwise wait for a lucky day but every day is a lucky day for a diligent man.” ~Buddha

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment” ~Buddha

“You will always be getting praise and blame, but do not let either affect the poise of the mind.” ~Buddha

“What comes to you, comes from you.” ~Buddha

“Cast off pretense and self-deception and see yourself as you really are.” ~Buddha

Struggling with Meaninglessness


It has been 5 years since the day I started studying Buddhism philosophy. Buddha is not a divine being. Like you and me, Buddha is just a human being, a mere mortal.

Buddha became enlightened after many years of searching for the meaning of life. Buddha knew the in and out of how human mind and the environment work. In Buddha’s world, there’s no magic, no miracle, no divine power but all can be explained by using logic, common sense and wisdom.

Even after 2,500 years, his wisdom is still applicable in many area of our life. Buddha’s words always make sense to me. It might sound audacious, but I strongly believe Buddhism philosophy played and will continue to play a huge part to advance and evolve our mind.

For this little meaningless anniversary, I dedicate this essay, on how Buddhism philosophy can be applied to something we do everyday…

View original post 1,763 more words

Big algal bloom off southern English coast?

An unusually hot day yesterday and, I think, this was the first time in a long time that we’ve had hot weather on a bank holiday weekend. So lots of people made the trip to the coast.

This photo is from a different year, looking east from Southsea (Portsmouth).

Yesterday evening, a “chemical haze” suddenly rolled in from the sea in southeastern England. People’s eyes and throats were irritated by it and some people are reported to have vomited (but I wonder if that was actually caused by whatever was in the air).

Whatever it is, it is present in Portsmouth as well. During the day, I had noticed that my throat was achy, for no reason that I could identify. In the afternoon/evening, I first smelled something that I quickly recognized as barbecue fumes and later I smelled something else that I couldn’t identify and shrugged off. Maybe someone did something weird with a barbecue.

Then I saw a tweet… After I read about a chlorine-like chemical haze, I wondered if I was merely imagining smelling something. Seems easy enough to do. I later went to the window, saw that the windows were wet on the outside so some cold air (mist) had definitely rolled in, and what I smelled was like the smell of seaweed that I smell when I hang out on the shore.

Anyway, chlorine seemed very unlikely to me and I started thinking ozone build-up. But it seemed too massive for that (and would likely have required a reversal of wind direction during the day).

What I ended up wondering is: Could it have been DMS from a massive algal bloom? (“gas production during the senescence phase is 7–26 times higher than during the growth phase”) And next: Could it have come from E hux? (And, could it be related to global warming, maybe? It’s likely to soon for it to be related to Harvey somehow.)

If that is the case, then surely active marine scientists have already contacted the authorities with their speculations.

As usual, the British authorities were saying little more than to close windows and not to worry.

Also, wouldn’t the substance spike have shown up in one of the automatic air quality monitoring stations?

Likewise, if the haze was due to some kind of industrial event in France, then surely the authorities would have already found that out. (There is a windfarm construction project off Brighton, but it seems very very very unlikely to me that that has anything to do with it, lol.)

Some people must still be very busy studying satellite images of the English Channel right now.

An E hux bloom should show up in those easily enough, but such an observation would then have to be linked to “ground truth”. If it’s some other kind of bloom, it might be more difficult to detect.

If there is a bloom, wouldn’t one of the ferries have noticed something? If not, then a bloom could be further out.

They’re working on it: https://www.sussex.police.uk/news/hundreds-affected-as-gas-cloud-hits-sussex-coast/

I am highly intrigued!

A phytoplankton bloom in the English Channel as seen by SeaWiFS (2002) (The light area near the Thames, that is sediment, however.)


Will future parents need a license?

I ran into a discussion on Kialo, to which I quickly contributed the first paragraph below and penned what I have added below, all within about five minutes. I later edited it a bit, to make it easier to read.

I am so pleased someone started this discussion. I promote non-discrimination of embryos and fetuses. A child is not a consumer product but a human being who must be loved and encouraged to flourish. How can you love one child but not another if the latter is non-mainstream? I’ve been thinking about that and it’s made me wonder if it actually means that the parents aren’t fit to be parents. I haven’t dared say that out loud yet, but this discussion clears the road for me.

So yes, maybe parents-to-be should require vetting.

Within a few decades, we will no longer require sex to create babies, but will make our offspring in the lab, possibly on the basis of skin cells from each of the parents. We’ll probably look after our little gestating (incubating) children as if they are rare orchids that we want to bring to bloom.

(So by that time, women will no longer have a need for abortions and they won’t have to menstruate and experience PMS any longer either.)

I can imagine very well that you will require a license in the future in order to have a child. Somehow, that feels like an automatic consequence of the possibilities we will have then.

And also, indeed, why should adoptive parents be scrutinized but are natural parents free to do whatever they want?

And after all, in that distant future, anyone who wants can probably have a child (technically speaking). Even adoption may slowly become a thing of the past, that is, if we get to the point that we no longer succumb to illnesses and accidents and maybe even can choose when our lives end.

I hasten to add that at the moment, natural parents are not always free to do as they please either, of course. For example, in countries with a great deal of inequality, the state may step in on the basis of what is no more than prejudice in practice.

Nowadays, some children suffer horribly, either because of their parents or because of someone else. Sometimes before children are removed from their parents and sometimes afterward.

In practice, perhaps it won’t be an actual license but a training program that must be completed with good results. If that training is tough and long enough, that alone will already sort committed parents from parents who aren’t ready for a child.

Would they have to get a license or go through some kind of training program every time they want to have a child? Yes, I think so. Insights change.

It’s even possible that parenting will eventually become a profession.

Unfortunately, Kialo may not work very well with Linux. I was able to post my contribution, but seem unable to comment on other people’s contributions. Maybe it’s part of the learning curve, but I did see the intro video and the comment option mentioned in it simply does not seem to exist for me.

The Ultimate Brainchild

Earlier this year, I translated and adapted Richard Bintanja’s second novel. (The original is in Dutch.) The title of the translation is The Ultimate Brainchild. In his daily life, Richard is currently a professor of climate change.

I know Richard in real life because his wife and I became members of a professional network for women in science and technology a long time ago. I even spent some time at their home after my unplanned re-emigration from the United States to my native the Netherlands.

I have also edited some of Richard’s scientific publications because I’ve always had excellent writing and language skills, and as you probably guessed by now, I too have an extensive science background. (And, as you likely know if you’ve been to my web site before, I’ve been self-employed for a long time.) One of his papers is still the greatest I have been lucky enough to be able to work on. It literally made me sit up. It was for Nature, and I knew right away that it would be accepted.

Translating one of Richard’s non-scientific works was a very interesting experience for me and I want to share with you why.

Apart from the fact that I rarely read books in Dutch, this is not the kind of book that I would have selected for myself, to read. I normally look at a few pages, and I may read a few pages, but if it does not pull me in straight away or the pace is too slow, I tend to give up. I often go for fast-paced American thrillers and crime novels.

But this, and I only discovered this because I translated the book, is a book that has to be read in full before you can judge it. That is very interesting. Does this mean that I too have become part of the people who want “instant gratification”? I am still chewing on this…

The book is very well crafted (featuring brain scientist George Walder) and, of course, you don’t  fully appreciate that until you arrive at the end, when everything has come together. I can imagine it as a film. There is enough action in it to make it work, enough suspense and enough that sparks curiosity. A good script writer could easily add a few scenes here and there or adapt a few scenes here and there to give it what it would need to be turned into a film. (No, I am not kidding. I believe that this book has many elements – including some nudity, by the way – and a storyline that would work very well in a film.)

The book contains a division into persons who have a certain ability and people who don’t. There is even a parallel universe in it, which really threw me at first because I didn’t know what it was about until much later. (The book increasingly produces a sense of delight as you progress through it.) So it is also a book that could potentially yield new insights about equality and inequality for some people.

Now, ask me anything you want! About this book or the context of the above.

Trump: An analysis

Several people have said that he has a narcissistic personality disorder. Donald Trump, that is. Some think it’s the “malignant” variety.

I have had (serious) reasons to look into this condition in recent years and think about it. (Nothing to do with Trump. I also took a few simple online tests to see if I might have a trace of that disorder myself, just in case. No. That was not surprising, but hey, I could have been wrong.)

No, I don’t consider myself an expert on the topic and no, I have never met Trump, and no, I can’t say for certain what is the matter with him, of course, but narcissistic personality disorder does seem to tick a few boxes.

I used to have at least one of his (apparently heavily ghost-written) books. When I later started following him on Facebook, I was astonished to see what kept him occupied and I grew bored with his incessant comments about Rosie O’Donnell and the like. I was stunned when a few years after that, he won the US elections.

Not all narcissists are bad people. Some even work very hard at being the best – most decent – people they can be. Some are actually quite nice people, underneath the disorder, and once you start understanding the disorder, it becomes easier to avoid “triggering” them (depending on the severity of the disorder) and to stop being angry with them (getting triggered by them).

You certainly can’t blame them for having this disorder. It is not the result of a choice they made, but caused by genetics or by extreme neglect or excessive spoiling in early childhood. Not all variants of the disorder are as severe as Trump’s may be.

Narcissists have an internal disconnect. This internal disconnect seems to work somewhat as follows.

There is one side that comes across as extreme confidence (or arrogance). There is an inflated self-image filled with superlatives. This is what can make them so successful, certainly if they also happen to be very talented in one or more areas. This is the Trump “train” that overrides everybody else’s concerns.

The other side of them is extremely insecure and needs to be reassured all the time. (This side often remains very well hidden, by the way, to the casual observer.)

I suspect that these two sides reinforce each other, somehow, or support each other. The disconnect is not complete, but the disconnect does mean that narcissists have a limited understanding of themselves.

Some also seem to display an extreme focus on the here and now at times. I think we see that with Trump when he says things that contradict what he said the day or week before. The things he says often make little sense to the rest of us, but they make sense to him in that particular moment.

I also think that when Donald Trump said he saw huge masses during his inauguration, he wasn’t actually lying to us. He is not blind, so his brain and his insecure side undoubtedly noticed how few people there were. He cannot not have noticed that. It’s physically impossible (unless someone fed him tons of fake news, with images from a different inauguration – and that idea is way too far-fetched to be true).

As that did not gel with the other side of him, his inflated self-image, the only solution for him was to tell himself that the crowds were immense.

I think we’ve also seen the insecure side of him, namely when he we saw him look over, with suspicion, to check if his wife was really voting for him.

You see it in the above image as well. He has the need to lecture us, explain things to us and to show us how intelligent and well-informed he is, but out comes this childlike gibberish. I checked it. He really said that, yes. If you are isolated and rarely speak with people, yes, then it may be hard to create beautiful sentences when you speak, but Trump is not a recluse in the middle of the desert and the language he used also conveys a lack of understanding of what uranium is. That was bound to make him feel uncomfortable. It somehow sounds as if he was actually talking to himself…

Our tendency is to expect this man to behave and function like the rest of us. We want to tell him how stupid he is that he cannot see the things that are right in front of him, we cannot believe that he seems to be telling us lie after lie after lie. They are such blatant lies, however, that they clearly have nothing to do with intellect or normal logical reasoning.

Again, these are the lies he tells himself, often lies in which he has to believe to preserve his own self-image, and they are also extremely spur-of-the-moment, childlike actions and utterances to do with that narrow focus.

He surrounds himself with people who support that hero image of himself and as soon as a person ticks him off, that person is likely pushed “out” soon (but it depends; there is the need to see a positive image of himself reflected around him but there is also a need to cling to people). His Twitter feed follows only a few accounts that support his self-image.

As long as narcissists get tons and tons of positive feedback, they can function well. It’s criticism that they have a problem with.

It’s incredibly sad that the American electoral system is so flawed that Donald Trump was able to get into the White House. Unfortunately, remedying this severe flaw would require each individual state to carry out an amendment to be able to implement the required changes, so I understand. I haven’t heard any news that indicates that there are plans in that direction.

Without going into more specifics – speculation – about narcissistic personality disorder, I do think that the fact that he seems to have this disorder means that he can be made to step down.

He does not enjoy being president. Different rules apply now that he’s in the Oval Office relative to when he was merely in business and on TV. He thought he would be an absolute ruler and found out the hard way that now there are courts and judges and many others to whom he can’t instantly say “you’re fired!” when they don’t do what he wants.

He is also getting a lot of negative feedback that his boisterous side will deny categorically, but that his brain cannot help noticing and feeds into his insecure side.

I think that if we flood him massively with the message to step down – although I am not sure if that should be one consistent message or just massive negative feedback – he will become so uncomfortable that he will have to do something “magnanimous” and “heroic” to preserve his self-image.

(Alternatively, he may then drive himself “into the ground” as a result of it really angering him. Keep in mind that he generally believes that other people are exactly like him. That’s the mirroring aspect, and you can imagine how confusing that must be for someone like that, with these two sides. He also may have a tendency to respond with the same attitude as he encounters. I don’t know if that is a deliberate strategy or an automatic trait of the affliction.

What he is looking for, as surprising as it may sound, is unconditional love – and everything that clashes with that stresses him out, but will also often make him lash out.)

He is likely aware that he has the condition, by the way. If he has it.

As an excuse to resign, he may come up with severe illness for his wife or one of his children. Some factory deal that supposedly will bring millions of jobs to a city or state won’t do it because he is already claiming that kind of thing and it would not offer him a “safe retreat”.

I really think we need to flood him massively and incessantly with negative feedback he cannot miss, that his senses cannot miss. Banners all over cities, newspapers plastered with big headlines, chants wherever he goes. No letters, because his aides will open those.

Step down from the US presidency, Donald Trump.

The threat of impeachment is helping. He won’t – can’t – let it get to that point. The idea that a committee may be formed to assess his mental health on a monthly basis surely has not escaped him either. The fact that right now, he chooses to go on a CAMPAIGN RALLY – WTF? – and won’t attend the Kennedy Center Honors event seems to indicate that he feels threatened and is only focusing on preserving his self-image.

He wants to be applauded, have masses of people cheer around him, and if he can cause some trouble in the process, it will make him feel better, because he will likely regard that as proper “punishment” for those who don’t support him. This may also be the reason why he does childish things such as interfere with the plastic bottle ban in National Parks.

When he was not in office yet, he spoke in support of Joe Arpaio and that was one of those many instances in which he made clear that the main thing that counts for Donald Trump is whether someone supports him or not, believes in him or not. And all of that is crumbling hard all around him.

(Thing is… if he does not step down, then someone somewhere will be unable to keep his hands in his pockets and do what that Missouri senator said she hoped would happen, which I won’t repeat here. And then we might have a sudden eruption of pockets of trouble that could be unmanageable and unpredictable. I’d like to see that prevented along with other harms that may occur if he stays in the White House much longer.)

Another positive effect would be that those who feel bolstered by his presidency (such as perhaps Theresa May, Marine LePen, Geert Wilders and Nigel Farage) will also lose some ground.

For the record: This post is not about how to deal with narcissists. This post is about how to deal with Donald Trump, a man who is doing a heck of a lot of damage from the Oval Office and who is in a position to do a heck of a lot more damage.

Of course, it is quite possible that all of the above is complete hogwash. Does anyone have any better solutions?



The above clip may support the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder.

As more and more people are saying that Trump should resign, such as Al Gore, maybe it will happen, but as I explained, I think he will need a good enough excuse that allows him to do that.

I felt that there was very little I could do from where I am sitting, but I can e-mail and message people and let them know that many many people around the world support them in their justifiable resistance against Donald Trump.

About a century ago, we had a somewhat similar guy here in Europe. Now, thanks to the internet, none of us have the excuse that we aren’t aware what is happening. This means that we all have a personal responsibility to do what we can, even if it feels like it’s only very little.

The effects of fascism: you decide

Yesterday, I was in the middle of posting four tweets about Donald Trump when the news about Barcelona came in.

A U.S. president who had just said that the victims of a similar violent occurrence in the U.S. were as much to blame for what happened as the perpetrators is not in a position to then make a statement in support of the victims in Barcelona and still have any credibility. He has none left, completely lost face a long time ago. So he is no longer able to function. Period.

So I flooded Twitter with tweets, asking people to flood Trump’s timeline with demands to step down (also with the aim of working on his psyche, frankly, because the only way he can still retain a little bit of his self-image is probably by stepping down).

Trump was not aware of the Barcelona attack yet at that point. Twitter thought I was a computer sending out automated tweets – do I really type that fast? – and locked my account, but sent me a voice code so that I could unlock it again.

The United States have a violent cartoon character as acting president.

(Unfortunately, he is also rich. Money is power. Money gets to say and do what it wants and get away wit it. No, money is not evil. Just look at what Bill and Melinda Gates do with theirs, and there are plenty of other examples.)

When Trump’s period in office started, I though that he was either going to run himself into the ground or be assassinated. I didn’t say the latter out loud. Yesterday, someone here in town said the same thing. He said that all it took was, for example, a marine or ex-marine with some kind of long-distance rifle. Trump is hurting too many people, driving too many toward the point at which someone will snap.

This morning, I saw the Washington Post report that a Missouri senator in a moment of frustration had posted, on Facebook, that she hoped Trump would be assassinated. No, that is not appropriate behavior from a senator.  No, I don’t know this senator, but I do know that she is black and that “the Trump train” denies too many people she represents their humanity.

I can understand that it is getting harder and harder for many people to keep their fists in their pockets. How would you respond if someone kept spitting into your face?

Here is one of the comments on her Facebook page.


It is by someone called “Joseph George” (a troll?) and says (just in case the post disappears, as my screen capture does not seem to be working): “This is Obama’s actual legacy: a foul smelling rodent class who vandalizes public property and commits acts of violence against whites. #PresidentDonaldJTrump it is time for action. Declare #blacklivesmatter scum a domestic terrorist organization, arrest and prosecute its leaders.

About a century ago, we had a very bad man in Europe who ended up killing millions and millions and millions of people. Simply because they were from certain countries. Or because they were Roma gypsies, because they were gay or lesbian, disabled, or Jewish.

We let him.

Years later, many people said that they had not known about what had been going on.

We no longer have that excuse. We do know what is going on. No, we can’t and shouldn’t assassinate Donald Trump, but we cannot stand by and watch in silence either. (Thankfully, many Americans seem to be hard at work, using the law to find ways to stop the “Trump train”.)

This is an image I saw in a Utah newspaper, in an article about the “Trump train” cartoons (here).

And this is the image Trump tweeted the other day and then deleted. (I first thought it had actually been made for him, by his people, but apparently, that was not the case.)

Notice how the resistance of the CNN reporter is actually about to derail the “Trump train”?

My grandmother lived through two world wars. She was born at the end of the 19th century and must have been 18 or 19 when World War I started. She was highly politically engaged, always on top of the news, until she passed away in her 90s. I am starting to understand a lot more about that.

I reported and blocked the Twitter accounts of real Donald Trump and of Columbia Bugle. A useless act, I know. But I can’t stand by, watch what happens and later claim that I had no idea what was going on and that that’s why I stayed silent.

(Here in Britain, we have the likes of Nigel Farage and Theresa May and lots of media spitting out Trump’s message, sometimes packaged a little bit smarter, but more times than we should still be comfortable with, or in any case, many more times than I am comfortable with and I am so uncomfortable with it that I am even uncomfortable saying this out loud.)

But I can speak out against what Donald Trump is doing. I wish I could do a lot more, but I am just a lone soul yelling into the desert, it often feels like.

Effects of gene editing: you decide

Techniques like gene editing may bring more equality, but can just as easily bring less. Now is the time to make up our minds about the future because we can’t leave this up to a handful of experts who advise the government.

Most of you will have heard about the recent CRISPR-Cas9 breakthrough. On 26 July, scientists in Oregon successfully used the technique to replace a defective piece of DNA with a regular piece of DNA. It concerned a gene with faulty DNA that normally results in heart disease.

This was only one small step, involving fertilized egg cells that were allowed to develop for no more than a few days and weren’t implanted in a womb.

But when techniques like CRISPR become routine, which “defects” are we going to edit out and which ones will we leave intact? And will this be the domain of commercial enterprises who sell their services or should this be part of everyone’s health care?

At the moment, we have the practice that fetuses are tested for certain conditions. To give you an idea of what this means in practice, in 2009, the abortion rate for fetuses diagnosed with Down’s syndrome in the UK was 92%.

Also, embryos created with IVF are subjected to PGD (pre-implantation genetic diagnosis), which has been around for decades. The use of IVF is rising.

Right now, the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 states that “Persons or embryos that are known to have a gene, chromosome or mitochondrion abnormality involving a significant risk that a person with the abnormality will have or develop: (a) a serious physical or mental disability, (b) a serious illness, or (c) any other serious medical condition, must not be preferred to those that are not known to have such an abnormality.”

Who decides what a serious physical or mental disability, a serious illness, or any other serious medical condition is? In practice, that’s the UK Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority. Currently, embryos with one of 400 conditions such as a genetic form of dwarfism called achondraplasia or Down’s syndrome are never used in IVF in Britain. Deselection of embryos with other conditions is awaiting approval.

Will the same eventually happen when techniques like CRISPR go mainstream?

This may all sound far off right now, but within the next few decades, human procreation is bound to change drastically. It is likely that we will eventually stop using sex to create babies. Instead, we will make all our babies “in the lab” and let the embryo develop in an artificial womb.

There is nothing wrong with that. We’ll get used to it, just like we got used to cars, trains and planes or the fact that women can attend universities now whereas they weren’t allowed to in the not too distant past.

But it will also mean that we’ll be able to do a lot more genetic tweaking. We need to start thinking about these upcoming changes now. What kind of society do we want to see develop? Do we want people to resemble each other more and behave in similar ways?

There are several reasons for not eagerly fixing too many “defects” that lead to viable human beings who live worthwhile lives, other than that groups of people are starting to demand the right not to be “edited out”.

  • The first is that there are currently several ongoing trends of emancipation. This includes the emancipation of persons with a wide range of conditions who we used to lock up and keep out of society. Deaf people and blind people, people with learning disabilities and so on. This emancipation is leading to accomplishments that we didn’t consider possible only a very short while ago. Particularly people with Down’s syndrome currently keep astonishing us all. Many have jobs now, and some serve as city councillor, become artists or are getting academic degrees.
  • A second reason is that we don’t know whether we may have a particular need for persons with various conditions such as autism spectrum disorder in the future. It is unlikely that we will continue to communicate the way we do now. Maybe we’ll end up communicating solely via images. We may well discover that those of us who now seem best suited for keeping up in society will fall behind then because they lack certain talents. We need the greatest neurodiversity possible.
  • A third reason is that lots of so-called impairments are nothing more but hindrances created by society. Better education and continued emancipation will see many of these hurdles disappear.
  • A fourth reason is that technological progress itself will come up with a wide range of solutions to accommodate everyone. Once more humans start integrating technology into their bodies – we are already seeing some of that – there soon won’t be any remaining limitations for those currently still considered impaired.

For more on the topic, see also this article in Nature, by David Cyranoski:
China’s embrace of embryo selection raises thorny questions (16 August 2017).

What I heard last week

I had a conversation with a gentleman who used to work at a very large company. (I won’t indicate what kind of company it was and I certainly won’t say which one it was.)


That company, he told me, used to cooperate a lot with a similar large American company. (I won’t say which one that was either.)

At those companies, they used to call their counterparts at the other company instantly when one of them made an exciting discovery. They would ask each other to come over, so that they could teach each other, and share.

Every once in a while, they’d get together and have a conversation that went somewhat like this:

“We gave you that, and well, that’s worth about 50 million. But you gave us this, and that’s also worth about 50 million. You owe us six pence.”

And then they went and had lunch together.

What put a stop to it?



What global change and allergies have to do with each other

Some people are angry when TV/radio stations allow people in their programs who don’t believe in anthropogenic climate change. I don’t see what is wrong about listening to what other people think and having conversations with them and I said that on Twitter (while I was on the road). That does not make me Donald Trump’s favorite cousin.

Green roof, part of a hotel in Utrecht, the Netherlands

We don’t have merely climate change. We have GLOBAL change.

Among other things, we appear to be at the brink of the 6th mass extinction, with the difference that this one is entirely caused by the activities of  the human species, including how we see and treat other species. It also indicates that our habitat is likely becoming unsuitable for ourselves too.

I think it’s a stupid excuse to blame people like Donald Trump and some person called Watson Lawson, who apparently was on TV/radio in some program, for what is going on and for what other people are doing.

Companies in the United States have a CHOICE, for example. They can stick to emission targets no matter what Donald Trump says. it’s a matter of taking personal responsibility. They can even make industry-wide decisions, no matter what Donald Trump says.

I don’t know who this Watson Lawson person is, but I can understand why some people don’t want to believe in global change and refuse to believe that it is mostly caused by us. First of all, the idea is scary as hell (because it threatens our own existence as a species). So the idea that it is not happening is much more likeable. So it isn’t stupid for people to stick to such a belief. It means they’re human.

Secondly, because science is big business – requiring and using but also generating loads of money – it is easy for some people to believe that scientists sometimes say things merely to get more money. it’s happened! More than once.

Also, science has fashion trends just like everything else. I remember when more and more people started asking money for CO2-related research. Suddenly, doing that was hot.

Some scientists (Bob Berner, for instance) had already been doing that for a long time but until then, not a lot of attention had been paid to them. Others were (also) experts in topics like ocean pH (Bob Byrne, for instance). CO2 and pH have a heck of a lot to do with each other.

It used to be quite hard to get earth and ocean sciences into Science or Nature. These sciences weren’t deemed of interest to a larger audience. They were for and about people who studied fossils or looked at seals and fishes. Duh.

Fossils writing about fossils for other fossils. Fossils. That was the image a lot of people had about the earth (including ocean) sciences. Stuffy people. (Okay, there were also some who thought “oil and gas” and some who thought “shiny  minerals” and “shells”.)

Suddenly, CO2 (carbon) was where the money was so CO2 was what lots of people wanted to work on.

That does not mean that it’s useless research. Far from it. Neither does it mean that researching something else suddenly became stupid. I have had all sorts of people tell me that earth science was a stupid thing to be interested in. It was never a “sexy” science – until the world started to become aware of global change.

Many other disciplines have since jumped on board of the train, often reinventing wheels that earth scientists had already not only invented but developed. Earth science also had the undeserved stigma of not having any modellers, people able to do complicated calculations. Those other disciplines had no idea how much computer power 3D structural geology modelling took or how much math there was in hydrology or how much thermodynamics in rocks and minerals.

(Not that I mind that those other disciplines have joined because they contribute their own insights.)

It takes time for new discoveries /ideas to grab hold.

There was a time – none of us were around back then – when some dudes started suggesting that the earth wasn’t flat, but round. They met with an incredible amount of resistance! They were banned, vilified, crucified, prosecuted. It was heresy! The earth was flat and that was that.

The notion that the earth isn’t flat has taken a very long time to sink in. I am sure there are still plenty of people who are unable to grasp that we are living on a large sphere. That doesn’t make them evil people. It doesn’t necessarily make them stupid people either.

It makes them HUMAN.

I have other examples. I am sure that the ones who think I am stupid when I say it isn’t stupid to talk with and listen to people who disagree on important issues occasionally get very drunk or pig out on food and then regret it deeply the next day.

They KNOW that they shouldn’t do it. They KNOW that they will get sick. They KNOW that they will regret it the next day. Yet, they still go ahead in spite of knowing all that. Why?

Because they are HUMAN.

To be human means to be fallible. None of us are perfect and none of us are 100% right about everything.

I have a personal example too. I love pasta but I’ve recently discovered that I seem to be allergic to wheat (not gluten-intolerant; that’s something else). So I get “punished” by my body for eating pasta. It’s taking me longer to stay away from wheat than is logical.

it’s like the dialogue with someone who does not believe in human-made climate change. My body says to me: “Do not eat pasta”. I keep responding: “But I like pasta!” I have the evidence, but I like pasta and it’s taking me a while to stop liking pasta and coming around to the idea that maybe I should stop liking pasta. The idea of not liking pasta any longer just seems … odd? My body says: “Eat gnocchi instead!” But I still haven’t fully made the switch.

I don’t know exactly how this works.

All I know is that it makes me HUMAN.

Why cut off communication simply because you don’t agree with someone about a topic as important as this? It is usually not a crime to disagree with someone.

I may be seeing something similar with nanoparticles. There may be people who don’t like it when I point out that we don’t have technologies yet for removing them from waste streams. Some may be thinking that if they don’t reply to me, I will go away, even though we literally used to sit at the same table in the past.

Are they thinking that if they ignore the fact that we don’t have technologies yet for removing them from waste streams long enough, it will go away? I am not saying that this will lead “to the end of the world”, but it does seem pretty stupid to me, with all that we’ve learned from all the mistakes we’ve made in the past, to keep barging ahead with new technologies before we’ve fully figured them out and mastered them.

Yes, progress is cool. Very! I get that! And Donald Trump digs coal. Really digging something isn’t always enough justification for doing it.

I don’t know who this Watson Lawson person is, but I remember a British guy telling me, years ago, that he thought Britain was so small that nothing the British did or didn’t do would make a difference to the planet.

When all the people in the world say “I only have one dollar, so I can’t contribute much, so I won’t contribute” you end up with nothing yet when (almost) all people say “I only have one dollar, so it’s not much but that’s what I can contribute” you get a fortune!

If two or three people want to keep their dollar note to themselves, oh well. I don’t mind hearing what they did with their dollar. Because I know that what I did with my dollar.

But until it’s only two or three people, stopping the conversation does not seem a good idea to me.

In no way does any of the above translate in me saying “Go ahead, trash the planet.”

Do I wish I had much better answers? Hell, yeah! I wish I had a magic wand and could fix the entire planet with one graceful wave of my wand-holding hand. But I can’t. And I feel that the way I live, including all the plastic waste I produce, is horrible, just horrible. And it makes me despair at times.

Instead of buying new shelving, I paint and stack and sometimes first fix small tables I find thrown away along the streets. My microwave is a discard from someone else’s kitchen renovation. It stands on two small cardboard boxes. I catch the cold water when I run a shower till the water gets warm. But it’s too damn little.

Read up on people like Rachel Carson, too.

Sending me a stupid spoofed e-mail about a non-existing job in Germany doesn’t do anything for the planet either, whoever…

If you don’t get my stupid analogies, reader, that’s okay.

No, it is not embarrassing or bad to have dissenting views around the table and have a dialogue. it’s what grown-ups do in a democracy. (It’s also the sort of thing people like Donald Trump don’t do.)




What do I know about pain and suffering, you ask?

What do I know about pain and suffering, you ask?

In view of what I have been saying and will still write about little Charlie Gard’s situation and other topics in bioethics, I feel that it is justified when people ask what experience I have with pain and suffering in (physical) medical situations.

Here are answers.

Personally, I’ve been very lucky. I have a bunch of allergies, but none very serious, and the worst medical situations I’ve had were a traffic accident that led to a very serious concussion and a broken nose (in my teens) and pneumonia (in early 2017). I’ve also undergone a simple procedure to drain my sinuses (in my early 20s). Oh, and I have pigment dispersion syndrome, a fairly mechanical eye condition that is a high risk factor for glaucoma. I don’t have children of my own, by the way.

I was born in 1960 – I am a Libra – and am the eldest of three daughters; we are 3 years and 6 years apart (and a universe, it seems). My mother had a miscarriage after me, a baby boy who would have been called Paul, which is why the name of my teddy bear was Paul. (I didn’t name him.) Shortly after my birth or my sister’s birth – I don’t remember which it was; she told me about this much later – my mother found a lump in one of her breasts. She was told it was just a swollen milk gland and went on with her life.

There is a possibility that my mother was given DES (diethylstilbestrol) after that miscarriage. Both my sisters (and I) are cancer-free, to my knowledge. My sister has had two C-sections, however, and in theory, DES may have played a role in my mother’s illness, if it was given to her, though even then, it is only associated with a modestly increased risk of breast cancer.

(My other sister has no children either.)

As my mother’s was the only case of breast cancer in my maternal family that I am aware of, there clearly doesn’t seem to be a particular gene involved. My sisters and I have long passed the age at which my mother contracted breast cancer.

My mother had all her teeth removed surgically as was still often done in those days, after which she came home in an ambulance and spit a lot of blood into a bucket beside her bed. She had surgery for a large kidney stone which she got to take home in a little tube and which had caused a pain in her flank. I think that kidney surgery was in 1968.

(Off and on, you can hear from my phrasing how young I was at the time, how much or little I understood about what was going on.)

She became increasingly unwell and was unfortunately sent to physical therapy… sigh… because her cancer had already metastasised so much that it had gotten into her bones. She’d come home in incredible pain. I don’t remember what got “them” (whoever) to figure out that something else was going on.

The breast was surgically removed and the wound never healed, no matter how much ointment was applied. The cancer also affected my mother’s vocal chords; she told me that if she’d been for example a teacher, she would have needed surgery for that as well. She was treated by Dr Lokkerbol (who received training in the UK, by the way), underwent radiation (cobalt) and had some kind of chemo (not “real” chemo, but I can’t explain what wasn’t “real” about it, other than maybe it was less aggressive and didn’t make her go bald). It was (also) administered at home, by a nurse.

It was a slightly yellowish fluid that came in glass ampoules. It was not very stable and I’ve had to tell the pharmacy several times to return it when I could see that it had already gone bad (flocculation/crystallization). My mother’s white cells were monitored because the chemo made them go down and when the number of white cells declined too much, the administration of the chemo had to stop. This was the opposite of leukemia, my mother explained to me, because then you had too many white cells.

She had increasingly trouble walking, needed a cane, and in the end couldn’t even go to the bathroom unassisted. I remember helping her, holding her arm, steadying her, and wondering how my mother was feeling about her daughter helping her go to the bathroom. My mother had had a very happy childhood, but was raised in a fairly old-fashioned manner, after all. One did not talk about periods, for instance. They were a dark secret best kept to oneself. Sanitary napkins as big as diapers were provided and a special kind of (horrible) lined underwear, and that was that.

Also, my youngest sister almost died too in the meantime when her appendicitis was misdiagnosed as a bladder problem. That misdiagnosis is quite common, but if it hadn’t been for my father’s vigilance, my sister really might have died. Her fever ran up to nearly 42 degrees C and the hospital was cooling her with ice. They couldn’t operate, had to wait for my sister to stabilize first. I think my sister was 4 or 5 at the time. (Children visitors weren’t allowed on the ward, by the way.)

Anyway, I must have been in my 5th year in primary school (which has 6 years in total) when my mother became increasingly unwell as I was taking French conversation classes in our local city centre – my mother loved how the language sounded and loved saying mu-sjuh even though its proper pronunciation is muss-yuh – and I had to be taken there and collected again. I was able to finish the first year, but there was a second year, in my 6th year in primary school, from which I had to drop out pretty soon. Taking me to the language school and collecting me often was arranged in conjunction with hospital visits one way or another until that was no longer possible. (I later also sometimes or often accompanied my mother to the hospital shortly before she died, by the way. I had Wednesday mornings off in the school year in which my mother passed away. There were so many students that year that the school was forced to introduce early and late classes.)

Meanwhile, our dog got cancer too and had to be put down. She was 6 months older than I was.

Then one day, my mother’s favourite sister stopped by. She sat on the wooden bench in our large kitchen, in a serious conversation with my mother. I don’t remember whether she was on her way to or on her way back from a hospital visit. I think she was on her way home, though, and had decided to stop in on my mother to tell her about how she’d been bleeding. The bus she took passed our house and the bus stop was very close to our home. My mom’s sister – my aunt – died shortly after that visit. That must have been cervical or uterine cancer.

During one of her many hospital stays, my mother said no and put her foot down when they wanted to place her in the room in which her sister had died. (My mother had also said no and put her foot down when the kindergarten teachers wanted to keep me for another year because I was so young, at 5. I went on to be the youngest in my class and the one with the best grades for 6 consecutive years in primary school, so thanks, Mams.)

Meanwhile, one of my mother’s older brothers had been diagnosed with a brain tumour after he developed problems with an arm. The doctors didn’t tell him at the time; presumably the tumour was inoperable. I don’t know which symptoms that eventually resulted in, but when the decline came, it happened fast. He passed away shortly after my mother, who passed away in her sleep at home in February 1975, my dad and one of my mother’s brothers sitting next to her, my dad asleep at the time, but awoken by my uncle. My mother was only 42.

Everybody responds to these situations in their own way. There is no right or wrong about it. My mother’s family seemed to deal with her death in their characteristic cold manner (stiff upper lip). One evening, I found them arguing outside with my dad over the exact wording in an announcement that had already appeared in a newspaper (so the arguing served no purpose, in my eyes). It got too much for my dad (complete lack of stiff upper lip) who literally ran off, onto the moors behind our home. I shouted at my aunt and uncle that they had to understand that the man had just lost his wife, for crying out loud, and went to retrieve my dad. I was angry with my relatives, back then, but I can see now that they merely were dealing with the situation in the only way they knew. My dad was often angry with the medical profession. It wasn’t always justified – sometimes it was just his powerlessness talking – but in some cases, he certainly did have a point.

Both my parents had little education beyond primary school, by the way.

The farm on which my mother grew up.

By contrast, my mother’s mother passed away at 91 or thereabouts, after these three of her children had died. She had already lost several children at very young ages as well as her husband. I have a lot of my grandmother in me, which is only becoming clearer as I am getting older. It is a very interesting observation, one that makes me smile and makes me feel more connected with her, and with my family in general.

My other experiences with medical situations are fairly “remote”.

My mother’s remaining sister passed away of stomach cancer, but she was in her 80s then. Stomach cancer is often diet-related, so I understand. One of her remaining brothers passed away from lung cancer in his 70s. He’d been exposed to a lot of dust and had been a smoker (cigars, though he probably smoked cigarettes when he was younger). He also was incredibly stubborn. (I can’t help but wondering whether he perhaps was also allergic to wheat, barley and rye, which can cause lung problems, and which wouldn’t have helped. Besides cancer, allergies seem to run on my mother’s side of the family.) The remaining brother passed away “from old age” as far as I know. I wasn’t around for any of that as, again, I was out of the country.

My father was diagnosed with pneumonia in October last year, and with lung cancer in November; he passed away shortly before Christmas, and was 83 at the time. I wasn’t around for that either.

I know that one of my French-born cousins on my father’s side contracted lung cancer in her 50s or so and passed away shortly after that, leaving a child of only 12-years old or so behind. My cousin’s husband had died shortly before her. Another cousin then adopted the child, bless him.

I know of and knew 5 or 6 women in science who fell ill in their 50s, were diagnosed with cancer and passed away shortly after. I’ve been to the homes of a few of them. A business partner contracted prostate cancer at an age much younger than usual, seemed cured and then succumbed after all. Dammit. He called me in 2010, and explained to me everything that had been going on and I am still grateful for and touched by the vulnerability he was willing to show during that conversation. (I wish I could have been there for him a little bit more than I was able to at the time.) I know one brilliant woman in science who was also a dedicated and talented modern dancer who very cruelly developed progressive MS and my heart bleeds for her as I am typing this. (This situation particularly makes me feel angry and powerless, by the way.)

I also used to have an older friend whose health started to falter when she was only in her 50s. She already needed a hip replacement then. During the surgery, the surgeon accidentally cut through a muscle, which was discovered during a second surgery after she had fallen and needed surgery to repair the damage of the fall. After that, she was so happy she could walk normally again. (I can still see her in her flat, proudly and delightedly showing me that she could walk again, walking back and forth. Look, look! “Ik loop weer als een kieviet!”) She later contracted two kinds of cancer (one of which was leukemia) and passed away too, but I was not around for that. (Her partner, whom I also used to know, developed cancer of the esophagus. He passed away at home, made comfortable with a lot of morphine, his feet being massaged at the time. Some things were definitely done right in that case. I was not around, not in the country.)

Yes, I also know a few people who had their gallbladders removed, usually very urgently, but that’s different. There are other people, of course, who have crossed my path and who have experienced medical tribulations – one of them a Dutchwoman in France who beat a very bad cancer prognosis – but I can’t really claim them as part of their life. And of course, there are other kinds of pain and suffering, but I am leaving that for another time.

Having seen my mother suffer for so long, witness her be in pain for so many years, made me immensely relieved for her when she passed away (though for myself I despaired). I therefore must always be aware of having an emotional response when someone is seriously ill. I do not believe in extending life artificially as long as possible in all situations. It can be very selfish and be the expression of a consumerist view of medicine. Doctors are not omniscient and omnipotent. They are mere humans, just like all of us. Nature – life – is still the real head honcho, when it comes to the crunch.

(But, I’d probably have loved to be a veterinarian, I realized late in life. A false belief that I was squeamish – am not – and couldn’t handle the sigh of blood – I sure can – kept me out of it. When I was volunteering in wild-bird rehab and they called me inside after someone else had fainted, that slowly became clear to me and I did explore that. So I can probably put myself in the shoes of the doctor somewhat and for instance understand that what may come across as arrogance in doctors often isn’t. This does not mean that I don’t get ticked off at physicians who really are out of line, of course.)

So like I said, I have to be aware of my own feelings (a gut response which I may not always notice right away) and therefore I try to apply logical reasoning – which can come across as very cold – as much as possible. That is also the way to arrive at just (fair, unbiased) conclusions and definitions that hold up regardless of feelings or believes and protects against abuse and arbitrariness. It has a highly clarifying function. It makes things a lot clearer. It is also highly practical.

There was a time when we pointed the fingers at doctors and accused them of playing God when they helped patients stay alive. Now we’re often quick to accuse doctors of playing God when doctors don’t want to force anyone who isn’t viable to stay alive. Technology is starting to make crucial differences. This leads to many very difficult questions about which we – preferably in a global consensus – have to make decisions. We need to start agreeing on what we do want to do and what we don’t want to do. We need good guidelines.

For the record: Notably my middle sister will remember a different past. She had a persistent skin (yeast?) infection as a newborn, I think, but as I was 3 at the time, can I really have remembered that? May it have concerned my youngest sister around whose birth I was sent to stay with an aunt and uncle? I remember that I was not sure if she was real, at first, as a newborn baby. (She looked like a doll!)

But my middle sister also had children’s diseases that my youngest sister and I did not contract. She experienced mumps, whereas we all fell ill with measles at the same time. She also was ill with jaundice as a child (presumably due to some kind of liver infection; the common Dutch phrase was “yellow paint”). Both my sisters got chickenpox as children, which I had when I was in my early 20s. And, my middle sister was sent away to stay with an aunt and uncle around the time of my mother’s death; she once told me that herself and I had not remembered that. So her memories are very different.

That must have been very hard for her because I do remember that when she was 4 or 5, she insisted on seeing our paternal granddad before he died, tubes and all, in hospital, and fought to be kept out of school that afternoon. (None of us three had been close to him; I don’t think he was a pleasant man at all.)

We all deal with pain, suffering and death in our own way. There is no “right” way or “wrong” way.

Both my sisters saw my mother after she had passed away, at the funeral home. I never saw her dead. I didn’t want to. I wanted to preserve the memory I had from when she was still alive. She used to sing often. and was often pictured with a very broad smile in various photos before she became really ill.