As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I once had a stint as a humor/lifestyle columnist for the Dayton Daily News. The editor-in-chief who signed off on that gig was Jeff Bruce, now writing a mystery serious about, well, a columnist (whose column is quite different from my own.) Jeff writes as J.C. Bruce, penning the stories of Alexander Strange. Jeff also recently interviewed me for his book club; you can watch that interview here.

Talking with Jeff brought back some fond memories of my Sanity Check column, which ran every Monday in the Life section of the Dayton Daily News for ten and a half years.

Thinking about that–and our current challenging times–reminded me of another interview, one I did for my column. I interviewed–well, I imagined I interviewed–an amoeba. The amoeba and I had so much to talk about that our discussions turned into a two part interview.

Here, for your enjoyment, and perhaps some inspiration, are both columns.

An Interview With an Amoeba

Recently, I ran across a news clip about a scientific experiment involving amoebas.

Amoeba lovers, don’t fret; this scientific experiment did not involve testing medicines or eyeliner on amoebas, or injecting them with illness-inducing strains of, well, other amoebas, or withdrawing amoeba food or amoeba sleep.

In fact, the scientists created the perfect amoeba environment. So, what happened to these amoebas floating around in the perfect, stress-free environment?

They died.

Just sank right down to the bottom of their perfect little 5-star Petri dishes, and keeled right over.

I’m not sure how a shape-shifting blob keels over, exactly, but the results of this surprisingly cruel experiment are fascinating; so fascinating, in fact, that I wish I could have interviewed one of those amoebas as it sank to the bottom, its little pseudopods flailing hopelessly.

Me: Excuse me Mr.—or is that Ms. Amoeba—

Amoeba (sighing): No need for formality. Just call me Amoeba.

Me: Oh, OK. So, Amoeba, I don’t get it. Why are you and all your amoeba buddies just giving up and dying? You had everything you could possibly want or need!

Amoeba: Sounds great, doesn’t it? That’s what we all thought when we signed up for this gig. And, yeah, we had it all. The perfect saline solution. No worries about running into ravenous plankton. An all-you-can-eat bacterial buffet. Even twenty-four-hour access to our all our favorite cable channels. Everything from CNN to BFN.

Me: CNN? BFN?

Amoeba: You know, Central Nucleus News. Binary Fission Network. Although that last one was late-night, adults only.

Me: Right. Well, if your life was so perfect, what happened to make you all start dying?

Amoeba: That IS what happened! Life became too perfect. No struggles mean no challenges.  Sure, who doesn’t need every now and then to kick back, relax, float around, and sip on a glass of Algae Cabernet? But after awhile… boring.

Me: So, you’re all dying of boredom?

Amoeba: I think it’s more accurate to say that we’re dying because our purpose was taken away.

Me: Your purpose was to avoid plankton, eat bacteria, and split up with yourselves!

Amoeba: Hey, don’t knock it! So we amoeba aren’t much in the industry or creativity areas. We still have a basic purpose. When that purpose was fulfilled for us, instead of by us, then our purpose ended and so we just gave up.

Me: Hmmm. You know, I see a correlation between amoeba and people. People need purpose, too.

Amoeba: Uh huh. Like torturing amoeba by creating perfect worlds for them?

Me: What are you, a sarcastic strain of amoeba?

Amoeba: Actually, I’m a Pelomyxa palustris.

Me: Oh. Anyway, human purpose takes various forms—competition, creativity, seeking knowledge, helping others. And there are all kinds of ways that purpose manifests itself.

Amoeba: Would that include creating imaginary conversations with amoebas?

Me: Hey, I’ve learned a lot from our little chat! Why, if even amoebas need to be challenged in order to achieve purpose, then that need must be part of all life… wait, where are you going?

Amoeba: This conversation has been enough of a challenge to inspire me. Forget sinking to the bottom. I’m floating back to the top and demanding that the all-you-can-eat bacterial buffet be removed!

Me: Are you getting rid of CNN and BFN, too?

Amoeba: Don’t be ridiculous.

Follow Up to An Interview With An Amoeba

Just two months ago, I wrote a column about a scientific experiment involving amoebas, in which amoebas became dejected and sank, lifeless, to the bottom of their Petri dishes when all stress was removed from their pH-balanced environment.

An imaginary conversation with a stress-free-but-ailing amoeba (yes, this is exactly the kind of thing writers imagine) made the point that facing and overcoming challenges are necessary for making life worth living.

Well, amoebas are back in the news.

You can read all the details at livescience.com, but the basic story is that in tough times, dictyostelium discoideum amoebas, which usually prefer to be rugged individualists, decide to get chummy with other dictyostelium discoideums. (Or is that discoideii? Anyway…)

When living conditions turn particularly difficult (e.g., the bacterial buffet starts running out, amoeba-munching plankton start proliferating, and so on), these amoebas join together to make a “community of individuals” to become a multi-cellular organism. Then, the amoebas either become spores that can survive and reproduce and pass on genetic information to future amoebas… or about 20% of them become stalks, which lift the spores above the ground to make it possible for them to then disperse to more favorable living conditions.

The downside to being an uplifting stalk? The amoebas with that duty must first die before turning into stalks.

Now that’s a fun scientific fact that, on the one hand, could make this seem like a pretty grim analogy for the importance of community in these difficult times.

But let’s modify that death-by-turning-into-uplifting-stalks to be something a little more, well, uplifting, but still sacrificial.

It would be glib to simply suggest, for example, that one might consider eating out a little less in order to donate to a food pantry, since plenty of folks are already cutting back on such luxuries, as well as necessities, to take care of themselves and their loved ones.

In fact, giving to others when the times are so frightening seems almost counterintuitive. It’s tempting to pull back, hang on to what one has, even hide.

But I think dictyostelium discoideums have it right. In tough times, more than ever, it’s important to join together. To help each other out.

Sure, that help can take the form of a donation of goods or services or finances.

But helping each other out can take the form of a smile. A little more patience. A little more listening. A conversation one might not normally have.

What’s more, helping others doesn’t have to be anything visible, either. It can be a prayer. An adjustment of attitude. Trying to see people… even strangers… especially strangers… in a kinder light.

That driver who cut you off this morning? OK, maybe he is a jerk. Or maybe he is in a hurry to a job interview or to help a loved one.

That woman in the grocery who got in the 15-or-less line with 15-or-more? OK, maybe she is a jerk. Or maybe she’s so distracted by a problem, she honestly didn’t see the 15-or-less sign.

At the risk of going from amoeba analogy to amoeba pun, I’ll close with a comment—I’m sure you get the, ahem, drift—and with a question: why is it that amoebas suddenly seem to have become news-worthy, what’s more providing the perfect fodder for analogy-creating?

I’ve been a higher life form on this planet for four-plus decades, and never thought about amoebas. Now I can’t seem to get away from amoebas.

Maybe it just that the most basic life lessons come from the most basic life forms.