TSA’s Gratuitous Bun Squeezing

I have a friend named Neda. She is known for many things, but her most striking physical feature is her hair. It is explosive. Thick black curls billow from her head and intertwine to form a wild thicket. Her hair has the tensile strength of woven steel. If it were long enough, it could support the weight of a prince. It is alive, almost a separate being. There is Neda. And then there is her hair. They’re like conjoined twins.

On Sunday night, Neda coaxed her hair into a bun and headed to the Los Angeles airport. She was booked on the redeye back to New York City. And everything was going smoothly until she exited the body scanner.

That’s when a TSA agent stopped her and said, “I need to check your hair.” The agent donned blue latex gloves. And then she cupped Neda’s bun. “She squeezed it a couple times,” Neda says. “And then she said, ‘You’re good.”’ Continue reading

Redux: You’ve got mail, you idiot!

This post originally ran on October 26, 2011, back when Donald Trump was relentlessly propagating an easily debunked conspiracy theory about President Obama. As we ponder the triumph of “alternative facts,” it’s worth considering what makes bullshit so appealing and why it’s so hard to debunk.Earlier this month, I gave an Ignite talk at the National Association of Science Writers meeting.

(I also organized a panel on covering scientific controversies–click here to listen to/download mp3s of my interviews with panelists Gary Taubes, Jennifer Kahn, Jeanne Lenzer and Brian Vastag.)

I’ve had numerous requests to share my Ignite talk, and so in an attempt to replicate the experience, I’ve put together a storyboard/slideshow.

Here it goes…

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The Last Word

March 20-24, 2017

Helen gets thirsty when she sings. Good thing, too, because she spots an interesting bug: One of those times, when I was unscrewing the top of my water bottle, I noticed a brown spot on the chapel wall. I checked again–it was there every time. It looked bug-shaped. True-bug-shaped, I mean, a member of the order Hemiptera, many of which are kind of shaped like a shield, like this one.

Michelle tells a story about immigrants, racism, and resistance in Hood River, Oregon: When fruit packers refused to buy from Japanese-American orchardists, League members picked up their produce and took it to market themselves. They responded to racism as if it were a death in the family, making sure the bereaved were fed, warmed, and steadily kept company.

Jennifer has a little friend named Gus. Gus is a hepatic hemangioma: Things that end with “oma” aren’t usually good things. Glioma. Glioblastoma. Sarcoma. Roma tomatoes (which just aren’t that flavorful). Then again, He-Man is a superhero.

Sarah has her family map their memories of home, and each map looks different: In his own map, my brother ends up sketching out the once-undeveloped swath of our mesa where the ruins of a fish farm used to be, and where he found a cougar-killed deer once – a story that looms large in the mythology of his childhood.

I redux a post about Diane Kelly studying alligator penises, because TGIPF: She covered her camera in a plastic bag with only the lens poking out. That way, she didn’t have to take off her gloves to change the settings. This was gross anatomy—she would do the detail work later in her lab in Amherst. Gross means big, Kelly says, “but sometimes, gross is gross.”


He-Man image from http://clipart-library.com/

TGIPF: Alligator Awesome Redux

Today really feels like Thank God It’s Penis Friday, doesn’t it? This post originally appeared in February 2013.

The alligator harvest at Louisiana’s Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge happened every September, so in the fall of 2007, Diane Kelly packed her bags. She wasn’t hunting, but she still had to put her scalpels and knife blades and the rest of her dissection kit in her checked bags. Explaining to TSA that she was going to figure out how the alligator penis worked wouldn’t fly.

Kelly, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has studied how penises work in everything from rats to turtles, looking mainly at what makes the penis stiff. During graduate school, she scavenged roadkill in Florida to learn more about armadillo penises. Why roadkill? As she told a Story Collider audience this fall, she was a life-long animal lover who was squeamish about sacrificing animals just so she could study them. Then she realized that using animals would be an essential part of her work—and she studied how to do it humanely and to learn the most from each animal as possible.

But still: alligators. She was relieved she didn’t have to hunt for them herself. “When they brought them back they were huge, they were dead and I found them frightening,” she says now. “If I had gone out myself, I would have been lunch.” Continue reading

Where is here; here is where

Isaiah’s map.

Isaiah grins at me across the dining room table and more than 1,000 miles.

In my nephew’s small, pale hand is an outsized Crayola marker, to match the pencil in my more gnarled fingers. We both lean over rectangles of paper—his in Colorado, mine in Oregon, now occupying the same virtual space, thanks to a slightly jumpy Skype connection.

My brother pops into the frame, revealing a bushy beard that he didn’t have when I saw him over Thanksgiving. “What’s another thing that you remember from our walks?” he asks Isaiah, who is four and half. Isaiah thinks for a minute and announces, “The brown truck!” He takes a moment to scribble on the paper, then holds it up for Patrick and me to admire.

I had asked Isaiah and my other family members in Boulder to help me with a basic experiment: Draw a map of the neighborhood where my parents have lived for decades, where my brother and I spent the first 18 years of our lives, and where Isaiah lived for a time with my brother while he was looking for a new apartment. But instead of being a regular map, with meticulously labeled streets and platted homes, drawn to scale and placed in context with relevant landmarks, my instructions were simply for each of us to identify the five most memorable things from the neighborhood that come to mind, and situate them in space in relation to my parents’ house.

In Topophilia—literally, love of place—Yi-Fu Tuan’s 1974 book on the way people relate to their environment, there is a chapter on ethnocentrism and space. In early maps and mapping experiments, cultures from across the globe have tended to place themselves and their known home landscape at the center of the world. Surrounding landmasses are secondary, smaller, distorted, or don’t exist at all—giving way to sea, or more mystical conceptions of what lay beyond it.

Might the same be true of us as distinct individuals, I wondered, each our own little countries with separate interests and histories? And would these little memory maps reveal a flicker of how we had experienced the same place differently? Continue reading

My Liver’s Bloody Buddy


Periodically, I get an MRI to confirm that all is well with my internal organs. It’s because at one point some years ago all was not well. As a result of my bodily dysfunction, I now have no spleen, a tailless pancreas, plus ulcerative colitis and weird chronic pain and the beginnings of arthritis in my hands, knees, and hips. (That last bit is a recent addition, and not really relevant to my internal organs. I just wanted to be thorough.)

Other than that, Doc, I feel fine.

My MRI results have, fortunately, not changed in a number of years. I’ve always liked perusing the reports, and my most recent one, from last week, was a true joy to read. First, it’s nice to see the word “normal” associated with parts of my body, and under these circumstances I also appreciate “unremarkable,” which under other circumstances might hurt my feelings.

But the other reason I like reading my MRI results is because they remind me that I have a special friend within me. I’ve named him Gus. Gus is my own personal hepatic hemangioma. Continue reading

Resistance Begins at Home

On the evening of November 29, 1944, in the small town of Hood River, Oregon, the members of American Legion Post 22 performed what they later described as a patriotic act: They went to the county courthouse and blacked out sixteen names on the plaques honoring local soldiers. All sixteen men were still overseas, fighting on behalf of the United States. All sixteen were of Japanese descent.

The United States government, in the midst of the racist paranoia that followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, had already “removed” some 120,000 Japanese-Americans from their homes on the Pacific Coast to internment camps in the Interior West. In Hood River, hundreds of families had been forced to abruptly sell or lease their land and board a train bound for the camps, not knowing when or if they would return.

By the fall of 1944, with the end of the war in sight, the hysterical hatred directed at Japanese-Americans had begun to subside. In Hood River, however, it was about to reach new heights.

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