Tag Archives: life

The Important Things

In a valley nestled between the mile-high peaks of the Mitras, the unmistakable Cerro de la Silla, and the Sierra Madre Oriental lies the city of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. Founded in 1596, it is the third-largest metropolitan area in Mexico and a major industrial hub. But its people are the reason I will always love Monterrey.


My wife grew up here; most of her large family lives here still. The old house resounds with the noise of children’s cries and laughter and running feet, of many voices talking. It smells of coffee and pastry and eggs and ham. These are more than in-laws; they are my own people.

This afternoon I am visiting Colegio Mirasierra. No school in the world has a more beautiful view: the twin peaks of La Silla – named for its resemblance to a medieval Spanish saddle – loom behind the campus. Opposite, the jagged ridge of the Eastern Sierra Madre rears against the turquoise sky. I used to teach seventh grade here. My sons once ran around this place in their green and white sport uniforms. Good memories are everywhere.


School is letting out, and students are everywhere. The halls and walkways are rivers of green and white. It is the busiest time of the day, but Lulu Valdes, the academic director of the school, greets me with the same warm smile and unshakable poise I remember from years ago. We talk of the last six years and the joys and troubles they have brought to both sides of the border. Lilia and I are both struck by the difference in the rhythm of life. Here, there always seems to be time for a visit and a good talk. Back in the USA, things are faster, as if people are caught in a perpetual cycle of production and consumption. We wonder what will become of the cycle when automation and artificial intelligence – already taking cashiers’ jobs, along with those of forklift drivers; soon to be followed by the rest of them – pushes the jobless rate to 90%. Life will doubtless become simpler for many of us, whether we wish it or not. Maybe we will use the time to sit and talk more, to eat slowly and enjoy our meals, to visit friends and turn our minds to other pursuits than production and consumption. That would, we agree, be not altogether bad.

It is Thanksgiving. I am thankful for the wonderful people all over the world I have been privileged to call my friends and colleagues. I am thankful for the good will that works quietly and ceaselessly while corruption and evil strut and rage, in vain. I am thankful for places like this place, for times like this time. I am thankful for having the choice, in every moment, to stop and see the important things.

Is a Virus a Living Creature?

I suppose the answer to this question depends on how you define a “living creature”. This is not as simple as it seems: the more we learn about living things, the harder it has become to come up with a definition of life that holds true in every case. Anyone can compare a squirrel to a stone and pick out the living creature. But what if you were exploring an alien planet and came upon a thing you had never seen before? How would you know if it were alive or not? Without actually touching them, would you be able to tell an egg from a stone carving of an egg? At first glance, a hibernating animal seems very much like a dead one. Bacteria are living things, but are too small to see without a microscope; nobody knew of their existence until 1676, less than 400 years ago. Viruses, which are even smaller, were discovered only a little more than one hundred years ago, in 1898. You can’t tell whether something is alive if you can’t even see it!

What is life? Biologists agree that there are several signs that a thing is living. Using energy, growing, having organized structure (that is, at least one cell), responding and adapting to the environment, and reproducing are all things that living creatures do. Not all biologists agree about how many of these behaviors are needed to call something alive. For example, even a rock crystal grows – but it does not behave in any of the other ways living things do, and it is not alive.

So what about a virus? Viruses are not cells – they are simple packages of genes with no cell parts. They reproduce, but they need to get inside a host cell – a living creature – in order to take over the cell’s functions, re-programming it to make more viruses. A virus adapts to environmental change (which is why we need a new flu vaccine every year). But it does not use energy for its inner processes, because it has no inner processes.

Some biologists look at all these traits and decide that a virus is a living thing. Others prefer to call viruses “semi-living”, because they have some characteristics of living organisms but lack many other important ones.

Viruses are interesting because they make us think about what life is exactly. It seems there is less of a clear line between living and non-living than we used to think!