I can’t believe this horribly sad news

This morning, I learned horrible news about a friend of mine, a friend who had grown distant over the past year but with whom I had just been trying to re-establish a connection with, and who I still loved nonetheless.  I called her a month ago, she called me two weeks ago, I was going to call her back soon…

Now that is not possible, because last week she took her own life.  This is such devastatingly sad news, and I have not yet processed it fully yet.

The thing that bothers me the most is that I cannot honestly say that I had no idea that she was this disturbed.  I did know that she had a serious mental illness, although I never dreamed it would go so far in this direction.  I believed that her family and her religion and her religious community would support her through her struggles, and so even as I found it harder to connect as she got more and more into her religion, I took comfort in the thought that she had a strong support network in her family and other friends.  Or so I thought.

I knew she was sick, and it makes me feel that much worse that I didn’t reach out or wasn’t there for her or that she didn’t come to me.  I know in my rational, psychological-illness- experienced brain that suicidal thoughts are very personal and that I may not have been able to reach her even if I had known how much she was struggling.  Or that I could have seen her every day and never known that she was in such a dark place internally.  But even knowing that, it is hard not to think of what I might have done or said, if only we hadn’t grown apart, or if I had gotten back in touch with her sooner.

When she left our job last winter, I firmly believed she was experiencing a true manic episode.  That was when I first realized that she was not just the most optimistic and cheery person I had ever met, but that she was actually suffering from mental illness.  The type that leads you to make rash decisions which can have dire consequences.  I felt hurt at the time that she made such a snap decision to quit her job even as I had counseled her about making longer term plans to get out.  It was the beginning of the fading of what had become the closest friendship I’ve had in this office, at this job.  She was so much more than a coworker to me.  We went out together, we went fabric shopping (the fabrics she bought to make a skirt with are still in a bag in my apartment), she came to my apartment and we made sewing patterns, I attended her buddhist readings and chanting sessions, she came to see me skate and to an Ice Theatre show with me, and we talked often every day that we were in the office together.  We would e-mail each other to meet in the bathroom where one of us would have a good cry.  But then she quit, thinking that her part-time sales gigs and dancing would support her, and she was so confident and happy about it.

But there is not much you can do for someone in that manic state, because they don’t believe they need any kind of help.  All there really is to do is to be there for them when they crash from it and help them with the support they will need.  I wanted to be there for her, but she was getting harder to reach – I didn’t see her in the office and she wouldn’t always follow through on plans to meet or talk.  Also, it was her growing religious fervor that made it harder to stay close.  It was hard for me to talk with her when she would constantly return to the thought that this positive life force in the universe was going to make everything good and well and beautiful and that she could rely on it to do so. We drifted apart, and she called me on the day she left the city but left a message that wasn’t clear enough for me to realize she was leaving town, so I didn’t make it to see her that day.

A mutual friend tells me that shortly after that she stopped believing that crazy stuff, but I never knew – she never told me, and I am so sorry for that because I would have tried to help her see why life is beautiful and worthy even without the poppycock.  But I never had a chance to.  It is indescribably sad.

At the end of the summer the mutual friend told me that she was back in NYC.  I didn’t immediately contact her, because I wasn’t sure how I felt about our friendship.  But I knew that I missed her and called her one evening in early October.  I left her a message that I was sorry we hadn’t been in touch much and if she was interested I’d like to get together and catch up.  She called back about two weeks later, and she started with a preface that she had been so busy and there were so many people she hadn’t had time to catch up with, and that she was sorry about that, but that she was looking for work as a nanny or tutor and could I see if our other coworker might want her help when her baby came?  And I hadn’t responded for a little while, because I was hurt that it sounded like she was only calling me back when she thought I could help with something.  But I had thought it over and resolved to call her back and see her and tell her that it had upset me but that I still wanted to be friends and catch up.  I hadn’t gotten to it yet.

It sounds like she had family and friends around who would have been trying to offer their support and help her.  Since she had moved back to NYC, she had been staying with a friend who my coworker says was good for her.  And apparently back at her home she had been in therapy.  So she wasn’t alone, she had some type of support.  But whatever that support was, it wasn’t enough, and  it was just that they couldn’t reach her.  I don’t mean to think I am different, but I have had so many loved ones struggle with mental illness and I would have gladly welcomed and supported her if only we had reconnected sooner.

She is from Minneapolis, so the services will be there with her family, and I cannot attend.  They may have a NYC memorial later this month, so I’ve asked to be updated when they have details.

I still have the card she gave me on her last day at my office – it’s been on my cubicle wall ever since.  It is full of love and encouragement – just how I remember her most:

Flicka Mawa,

I will never forget your greatness or the greatness of your story, with your family, friends, and Husband.  It has been fun filled and fan’freakin’tastic!  I love you very much.  The world awaits to experience your greatness (and you in turn to experience theirs)!



All this fury over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” is so disgusting

On the anniversary of 9/11, I just need it to be said here that I am really bothered by all of the anti-Islam sentiment that the country has poured out recently.

I work a few blocks from the WTC site.  For 16 months I’ve watched the workers there, and lately I am relieved to see a building that has finally risen stories above ground level.  In my office’s neighborhood I walk by the constant construction site that is Ground Zero.  I’ve spent lunch breaks sitting on the benches at Trinity Church, the site that for so long had its fences covered in letters, pictures, shirts, and flags.  I’ve visited the new World Trade Center memorial and walked past the steel cross that stood on the pile until it was moved to a permanent home along a street next to the site.   More than a few times I’ve directed a lost visitor towards Ground Zero.  I eat at restaurants that were closed for months, that survived only through the loyalty of their customers.  I’ve also noticed the awning to New York Dolls, one of the seedier strip joints in NYC, and seen condo buildings empty and retail spaces that lack tenants.

Almost every day, I see the area of NYC most directly affected by the tragic day of 9/11/2001.

And I couldn’t be happier to have a new community center open in the neighborhood, or more upset to see so many Americans unable to distinguish between a Muslim and a terrorist, between the hallowed Ground Zero site itself and a side street blocks away, between a mosque and a community center, or, most upsetting of all, freedom of religion and freedom to practice whichever society-approved religion you want.

Cat Wisdom Wednesday: Einstein on God

Last week, I read about a letter containing Einstein’s thoughts on religion that was auctioned for $400,000. I haven’t been able to find the full text of the letter, but this article seemed to provide a good amount of information about what was in it.

From all that I can read, I agree with Einstein’s more nuanced views on religion and God.

So the new Cat Wisdom will be a quotation from the letter itself:

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.


Ugh. I am so sickened by even the previews and hype around this new documentary, “Expelled.” From watching the preview, I get the idea that Ben Stein is trying to tell us all that science is persecuting those that disagree…but the problem is, science isn’t about freedom of speech, it’s about TRUTH. And if you come up with some bullshit that can’t be falsified through tests, then I’m sorry, but you’re not making a scientific hypothesis and scientists do NOT need to respect you. So, the hypothesis that there is a “creator” who is guiding the design of life on earth, well…it’s not science. You can have that hypothesis if you want, and you can tell your children that’s what you believe if you want, but you absolutely 100% do NOT have the authority to make my children hear about it in schools, or to be demand respect from the scientific community.

Dan Whipple writes in the Center for Inquiry‘s publication PSICOP:

Expelled is such a morass of innuendo, untruth, irrationality, and fear-mongering that it’s hard to know where to start dissecting it. While presenting a brief for teaching intelligent design (in university classrooms, at least), the film never says what intelligent design is. Then, at a media telephonic extravaganza on January 22, Stein and co-producer Walter Ruloff said they had no theology to promote.

Said Ruloff, “We really are not validating one particular position, being the intelligent design or the design hypothesis, or creationism or other forms. What we’re really asking for is freedom of speech.” But the movie, or even a cursory review of the film’s Web sites (www.getexpelled.com and www.expelledthemovie.com), shows that this assertion is—how to put this politely?—unsupported. Says the GetExpelled.com site, “For decades now, Neo-Darwinism has maintained a stranglehold within public education, suppressing all other theories on the origins of life—especially those that hint of a ‘designer.’”

And this tidbit from that same piece is a real gem:

ID isn’t explained very well in Expelled and neither is Darwinism. This quote from Ben Stein comes from the movie’s telephonic promotional extravaganza. It’s not in the film itself, but the theme is pervasive in the film:

“Darwinism as I understand it—and maybe I don’t understand it,” Stein said, “but Darwinism holds that life began by something like lightning striking a puddle and inorganic matter was converted into living matter. And from that, after four-and-half-billion years, came the form of life that we now know.”

Well, clearly he doesn’t understand it. He made a documentary that’s on the big screens and made top 10 at the box office last weekend, and he didn’t even bother to research what Darwinism is! Evolution and natural selection make no claims about how the first life began, only how it evolved after that point. While the origin of life is a fascinating question that scientists are investigating, the various theories on how life could have begun naturally are still being developed and data is still being gathered. The fact that we haven’t yet pinpointed exactly how the first living organisms began doesn’t negate the evidence for the truth of evolution, the science of how all of the species and organisms living today descended from that first life.

The article in CSICOP directed me to another interesting piece in Scientific American, Six Things in Expelled that Ben Stein Doesn’t Want You to Know. One of these things I had already heard of:

3) Scientists in the film thought they were being interviewed for a different movie.
As Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Eugenie Scott, Michael Shermer and other proponents of evolution appearing in Expelled have publicly remarked, the producers first arranged to interview them for a film that was to be called Crossroads, which was allegedly a documentary on “the intersection of science and religion.” They were subsequently surprised to learn that they were appearing in Expelled, which “exposes the widespread persecution of scientists and educators who are pursuing legitimate, opposing scientific views to the reigning orthodoxy,” to quote from the film’s press kit.

Pretty deceptive of the filmmakers, huh? I bet then they probably selectively cut interviews to show those scientists as unfavorably as possible. Again, ughhh.

I also found that Scientific American has a whole slew of articles on the the documentary, which you can check out at this page: Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed–Scientific American’s Take.

Science Debate 2008 status update

I got this email in my inbox today, and I wanted to share it with you in case you haven’t heard yet of Science Debate 2008. This issue matters a lot to me, not just as a scientist but also as an atheist. I cringe to know that they are going to stand up there and probably make claims as to how important their faith is to them but how it won’t impact their policies, but then on these important science and technology issues, they are remaining silent. Not having been as aware of the science community and research infrastructure until the past 5 years, I don’t have much of a feeling for if it’s always like this or this is a relatively recent thing, but I fear that all this fervor over religious issues (using morality as a code word, but with that comes the inaccurate assumption that the non-religious don’t bother worrying about morality) is leading the nation to fall behind in science and technology compared to the rest of the world. Anyway, without further ado, here is the update on the status of science debate 2008:

Clinton and Obama will debate faith but not science

I am sorry to send two emails in such short succession, but I thought you should know that after declining our invitation to debate science in Pennsylvania, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton yesterday agreed to attend “The Compassion Forum,” a forum of “wide-ranging and probing discussions of policies related to moral issues.” CNN will serve as the exclusive broadcaster of the “presidential-candidate forum on faith, values and other current issues” at Messiah College near Harrisburg, Pa., April 13 at 8 p.m. You can read more here.

Perhaps among the moral issues discussed should be whether they have a moral obligation to more fully engage on science issues, since the future viability of the planet may hang in the balance, for starters. Is there a larger moral imperative? How about the future economic health of the United States and the prosperity of its families? Science & engineering have driven half our economic growth since WWII, yet but 2010 if trends hold 90% of all scientists and engineers will live in Asia. Then there are the moral questions surrounding the health of our families with stem cell research, genomics, health insurance policy, and medical research. There’s biodiversity loss and the health of the oceans and the morality of balancing destruction of species against human needs and expenses, there’s population and development and clean energy research, there’s food supply and GMO crops and educating children to compete in the new global economy and securing competitive jobs. Science issues are moral issues.

I would encourage you to write letters to the editor, emails to the campaigns, and blog postings pointing this out. And if you can, support our ongoing effort to turn this country around.

Shawn Lawrence Otto


Check out the Center for Inquiry

After Saturday’s lovely Dawkins lecture, I went online to the Center for Inquiry to sign up for their e-mails. I had been to their site before, but I never signed up for the newsletter, and I realized at the event that I’ve been missing out on some pretty cool NYC events for skeptics, atheists, scientists, and the like. So, you may ask, what is the Center for Inquiry? Their newsroom page describes it well:

A Leading Resource for Journalists, Producers, and the Media:

Tackling head on many of today’s burning issues from a refreshing and often provocative perspective, based on science, reason, and a secular outlook the Center for Inquiry engages in research and development in three broad areas of foci:

Religion, Ethics, and Society

Paranormal and Fringe-Science Claims

Medicine and Health: Commission for Scientific Medicine and Mental Health Practice: CSMMH

The tensions between religion and science and tradition and secularism pose difficult dilemmas for modern society-unfortunately, much of what passes for “answers” is uninformed, unreasoned, and all too often, unprincipled. There is an urgent, pressing need for a fresh approach.

I am most interested in their work with religion and humanism – they house the Council for Secular Humanism, and I am an active secular humanist. I can’t recommend their podcast, Point of Inquiry, enough. I love to listen to it while I’m commuting throughout the city. It’s a great way to get an overview of some of the best books out there today on these topics without actually finding the time to read every one of them. And sometimes, it may even inspire you to go read the whole book, or to look up a concept or author further.

Links to check out

Tara Smith writes on her Scienceblog “Aetiology” Damn those women, out there ruining science and being lazy and depressed.

She pointed me to Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard’s Women in science — passion and prejudice.

I’m feeling some atheist pride after yesterday’s Dawkins talk. I came across this amusing T-shirt: Godless and Proud Ringer T says “GODLESS & PROUD — I outgrew the need for imaginary friends as a child.”

I’ve also been eagerly checking out a K8, a cat, a mission often since she’s expecting a baby pretty soon!

I met Richard Dawkins today

Ok, and by “met” I don’t mean we had a personal dinner or something, but still, Husband and I are ecstatic. We got a chance to say hi to him and shake his hand, and then afterwards we had him sign The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, which I bought there (we lent our copy of the The God Delusion to Husband’s brother), and took a picture with him on another student’s camera, so I’m not sure how that came out. Husband had already gushed to him some about how big of fans we are, and so then Husband spoke to him a little bit about his ideas on helping the public understand the nature of intelligence. It was a very stimulating and exciting evening, and perhaps I’ll write about what he said and what we thought about it, but for now I just wanted to gush to you all about how excited Husband and I were just to meet him and shake his hand. Dawkins. We met Dawkins!

Cat Wisdom Wednesday

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve posted a Cat Wisdom Wednesday. This one is in honor of the upcoming talk by Richard Dawkins at the New York Society for Ethical Culture (which happens to be, by the way, where we got married. I love that it’s a meeting place for such great minds as Dawkins and Rushdie!).

Bertrand Russell said in the mid-20th century:

Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence, it will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines.

Here are the details of the Dawkins event in case you are in the NYC area. I’ll definitely be there.

Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion

A free public lecture and booksigning featuring Richard Dawkins, renowned scientist and public intellectual, discussing The God Delusion and the state of science education.

“A resounding trumpet blast for truth . . . It feels like coming up for air.” – Matt Ridley, author of Genome and Francis Crick

March 15, 7:00 p.m.

New York Society for Ethical Culture
2 West 64th Street at Central Park West
FREE and open to the public. First-come, first-serve, general admission seating.For information: nyc@centerforinquiry.net; (212) 504-2945

Sponsored by Center for Inquiry-New York City; New York Society for Ethical Culture; Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers at NYU; and Columbia Atheists & Agnostics.

The Manga Bible

Wow. A manga story of the bible, edited to include more action and less of the boring parts. This is pretty crazy. From The bible as graphic novel, with a sumurai stranger called Christ by Neela Banerjee at the NYTimes:

In a blurb for the Manga Bible, which is published by Doubleday, the archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, is quoted as saying, “It will convey the shock and freshness of the Bible in a unique way.”

No doubt. In the Manga Bible, whose heroes look and sound like skateboarders in Bedouin gear, Noah gets tripped up counting the animals in the Ark: “That’s 11,344 animals? Arggh! I’ve lost count again. I’m going to have to start from scratch!”

Abraham rides a horse out of an explosion to save Lot. Og, king of Bashan, looms like an early Darth Vader. The Sermon on the Mount did not make the book, though, because there was not enough action to it.

The Manga Bible, originally uploaded by Flicka Mawa.