Who are you?

Question: Where are you from and how has that shaped you?


Calvin Trillin: Kansas City, Missouri.

Well it made me Midwestern, for one thing. And so I think that’s a somewhat different viewpoint . . . kind of worldview that . . . than particularly Easterners have. I always say Easterners are much more given to sort of analytical thinking of the sort that . . . If an Easterner says something like, “Is it an accident that these two things happened?” Midwesterners usually says, “Yeah probably. Probably an accident.” And there’s a sort of an undercutting quality in the Midwest of . . . I mean the worst thing that could happen to you is to have someone tell your mother at the supermarket that you’d gotten too big for your britches.

And that’s a particularly Midwestern quality, I think. And I used to make up license plates for various states, or talk about the difference in license plates. License plate mottos I mean, not the numbers. I let them do those themselves. And like some Midwestern states are so modest they don’t actually have mottos on their license plate, and I would make them up. Like Nebraska was “A Long Way Across”. And I always thought that if there had been a regional license plate for the Midwest, the motto would be “No Big Deal”.


Question: Who was your greatest influence when you were young?


Calvin Trillin: I’m sure my father influenced me. I’m not so sure about other people. I think . . . anybody my age who grew up in the United States . . . any male my age was influenced by Joe DiMaggio. And Joe DiMaggio’s . . . to the point where people said, “Well Joe did this.” And I said, “I don’t wanna hear about it. It’s Joe DiMaggio.” And partly of making things look easy and not being . . . not doing the baseball equivalent of dancing in the end zone. I don’t know what that would be. But I think everybody was, to some extent as children, or as little boys, influenced by DiMaggio.


Question: What was the first book you enjoyed reading?


Calvin Trillin: I wasn’t a great reader. I mean I did read books, but my father believed that I should . . . He had the notion that I should read these books of sort of heroic, prep school triumphs. Wright, and Emerson, and “Left Tackle Jones”. I can’t remember the names of them. The guy who wrote them, or many of them, also wrote a book that influenced my father a lot called “Stover at Yale”. And my father, who was a grocer who hadn’t gone to college from before I was born, wanted me to go to Yale. And it was all based on Stover. And people didn’t believe that.

When my wife first met my father, she said, “How did __________ happen to go to Yale from Kansas City?” And my father said, “I read this book.” And so he wanted me to read books like that. I didn’t read Stover at Yale until not so long ago when I did a book about a college classmate of mine who had been the person we call the “Would Be President” who committed suicide in his 50s. So this would have been a dozen . . . 15 years ago. And I finally read “Stover at Yale”.


Question: Are you glad you went to Yale?


Calvin Trillin: Well it’s funny. I’ve talked about that some. I was certainly happy I had gone there, and I find it difficult to imagine my life without my father’s aspirations. I mean they certainly made a big difference. I wanted to go to the University of Missouri with my pals and drink beer. And I probably would still be there if I had done that. It may have been a good thing. I don’t know. But I used to think . . . I think my father’s notion was that he would send me to Yale where Stover had gone, and I would do more or less Stoveresque things. And there I would be with the sons of the industrialists. And then I’d be . . . I think in his idea, I think it had to do with opportunity – that he thought I’d be sort of at the starting line at an even start with the sons of the industrialists.

I always thought it was a . . . it was a nice notion that Yale had changed who I was, but I had always thought it was sort of, to some extent, how I think; and to some extent what I think about; and to some extent where I do the thinking. But then about . . . god, it had to be about 30 years ago. I was at a dinner party of about 20 people and somebody’s name came up. There were two tables of about 10 people. These were mostly magazine writers, and some of ‘em had done quite well. And I realized everybody at the table knew this person who was just a figure who had came from nowhere. We didn’t know her at that time, but we had known her.

And I looked around, and then I looked at the other table and I realized that just about everybody in the room had gone to someplace like that – had gone to Yale, or Princeton, or Harvard, or because of the era had gone to Wellesley or Radcliffe. And then I thought, “Yeah, but these are writers.” It’s not like you get into the firm because you know the person, the father knows and everything. They at least have to write and let people look at what they do. And I had thought, “Well how do they get to The New Yorker?” And I got there from Time magazine. “And how did I get to Time?” Yale Daily News. And then I thought, “My god, my father was right.” That was . . . He . . . I mean at that level he, like so many other things where I thought what he said was oversimplified and everything, he had a pretty good grasp of it.


Question: What sparked your interest in writing?


Calvin Trillin: Not really. I definitely wasn’t the sensitive lad hanging off to the side composing things while the other boys frolicked. I don’t . . . I think I could have gone to law school or something. I knew that I wasn’t going to . . . I think most of the people my age who were in roughly journalism or whatever that is sort of backed in.

You have to remember that in those days, journalists, so called – except for one or two people in Washington like Walter Lippmann or somebody like that – were sort of a scruffy lot. I mean they were thought of as this guy with a kind of greasy suit and a bottle of bourbon in the lower right-hand drawer. And it wasn’t a very respectable profession, or trade, or whatever it is. And I think most of the people my age who ended up in it sort of backed in. I wrote about this not long ago when I wrote a piece about Johnny Apple – R.W. Apple, Jr. of the New York Times. I wrote a profile of him in The New Yorker. We had met in college.

He was the editor of the paper at Princeton the year I was the editor at Yale. And he always knew he wanted to work for the New York Times since about the age of 12. I think it’s really rare of people my age. I think most of us couldn’t make up our minds about what to do, and happened to be working at a magazine or a paper when we realized we couldn’t make up our minds. Or we sort of backed into it, or the novel didn’t work out or something; but I don’t think there are many people . . . I didn’t think of it exactly as being a writer. I think I thought of it as being a reporter.


September 5, 2007


Trillin wasn't the sensitive lad hanging off to the side composing things while the other boys frolicked.

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
  • The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
  • The debt forgiveness program is one part of a larger program to make higher education more accessible.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Supreme Court to hear 3 cases on LGBT workplace discrimination

In most states, LGBTQ Americans have no legal protections against discrimination in the workplace.

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Supreme Court will decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also applies to gay and transgender people.
  • The court, which currently has a probable conservative majority, will likely decide on the cases in 2020.
  • Only 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws effectively extending the Civil Rights of 1964 to gay and transgender people.
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