Books are kind of amazing.

Correction: books are amazing, one kind of amazing, a kind that is slowly, surely, healing my soul.

Ten weeks ago shit happened. Ten weeks ago, as the most lovely Salman Rushdie puts it, the excrement hit the ventilation system. And in the time since, it has been on books that I have relied, books which make getting up out of bed in the morning a more promising prospect. I’ve had some time on my hands, therefore the number of books read is high and grows higher. It will grow higher soon with the fifteen books I put on hold at the library today.

Last night I finally made a list. They had been sitting in a stack beneath my windowsill, next to my bed. I added one to the mental stack at lunchtime. This afternoon I finally dismembered it, pulled out the library books to return them. And tonight I set that hand-written list to pixellated form.

19.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One with the Universe

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

The Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

Nothing Special by Charlotte Joko Beck

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Quiet by Susan Cain

When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Internal Medicine by Terrence Holt

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Ballistics by Billy Collins

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Nine Horses by Billy Collins

As I started thinking more and more about place, as well as both my relationships and humans’ relationships in general with places, I started reading about it. A lot.

In typical obsessive Nicole fashion, I started collecting resources – pages and pages of them, so many that I couldn’t list them all here, and that I was thoroughly surprised when I started digging things up. But they’re wonderful, every one, some short, some long, and since I know this is too extensive for most people, I’ll order them by what you should read first. Oh yeah, and Sarah Menkedick who has, oh, a lot of essays mentioned here, is WRITING A BOOK which I am of course insanely excited for.

And, as always, I will take any further suggestions!

SO. Here we go.

 

Home: a reading list.

 

SHORT FORM

“Homing Instincts” by Sarah Menkedick

(my all-time favorite piece on this subject, maybe just my all-time favorite piece)

“The Opposite of Loneliness” by Marina Keegan

(the book of her work, published posthumously, also has several other things touching on this subject)

“The Purest Form of Play” by Miranda Ward

(I can’t remember how I found Ward’s work, but it in turn led me to Vela, and then to Sarah Menkedick, and then to so, so many good things)

“Love in los Tiempos de Spanglish” by Sarah Menkedick

(if you speak even a little Spanish, play the audio along with it)

“Rich Country” by Anne Beatty

(I only found this piece today, but WOW, it sums up so much of how I feel)

“Everyday Geography” by Sarah Menkedick

“A Letter to My Thirties” by Sarah Menkedick

“Caught in the Middle” by Sarah Menkedick

“On Not Writing (About Home)” by Miranda Ward

“My Own Mexican Revolution” by Sarah Menkedick

“On Change” by Miranda Ward

“(Im)permanence: When I Travel” by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

“Homing” by Lou Canelli 

(what happened when I sent Lou the first Menkedick piece)

“Goodbye to All This” by Lauren Quinn

“The Edge of Extraordinary” by Amanda Giracca

“This Is Not a “Travel Blog” (But It Is a Travel Blog” by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

“Leave to Remain” by Miranda Ward

“On Home, Things, and a Tiny House on Wheels” by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

“Roots vs Wanderlust: On Home, Accumulation & What’s Missing” by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

LONG FORM

Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver

(talk about finding beauty in honesty and in the everyday)

Nothing Special by Charlotte Joko Beck

(not exactly on this, but worth every word)

Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton

(honestly can’t recommend this book enough)

The Essentialism Issue of Kinfolk Magazine

Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things by John Ryan and Alan Thein Dunning

(scary as all heck, but definitely a must-read)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

Considerations by Colin Wright

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

How to Travel Full-Time by Colin Wright

A couple of days this week I brought Sylvia Plath’s Ariel to clinic with me, to read in the moments without patients in the triaje (vitals) unit I’ve been working in. This copy of Ariel is a thin ivory paperback, lent to me in a stack of poetry books from my dad, or stolen off his shelves at some point a couple years ago. Inside the back cover is his signature and a date – May 27, 1981 – and inside the front cover is a stamp with his name and his address at the time in Sunnyvale, California.

I sat in clinic yesterday having just finished the poems, and put my name and the date – February 12, 2016 – below his in the back of the book. But when I got to the front cover, intending to again echo his marks, I paused for a second before writing my name and not one but four addresses. One for The School on The Hill, one for the new house in Portland, one for the house I grew up in (that our belongings are being loaded out of as I write this), and one here in Cusco.

Since I left the house I grew up in to attend The School on The Hill two and a half years ago, I’ve been forced to think about home – what it means, what it entails, who is involved, and where might qualify. And since that initial departure, the answers, both by situation and the nature of my thinking, have become increasingly complicated.

I have settled into the feeling – like most people seem to do when embarking on place-related soul-searching – that home exists as a sentiment, a collection of often intangible elements held inside of ourselves. Routine lets us externalize these feelings by dumping them onto the objects and places around us. The t-shirt I’m wearing right now is no longer just a t-shirt, but a decorative memory of my sophomore Harvest Fest at The School on the Hill; my favorite shirt in the way it fits just right; a shirt I wore for a great number of soccer practices and trail runs; the one I usually wear with the long ivory cardigan I didn’t pack for this trip.

As a friend put it, home is like the clothes we wear – it holds physical and emotional fragments of past iterations of ourselves. And as the same friend also pointed out, because those fragments are from the past, we can go new places, put on new clothes, and have them be more us in the present than the things we cling to as pieces of our identity.

—-

I sit writing this on my bed at my host family’s house in Cusco. The address on paper for this place is laden with markers. There’s the district – Wanchaq – and the neighborhood, or urbanización – Ttio – and then the sub-area, the paradero, which is like a block but not really. There’s a cross street, a jiron, and finally a house number – which is a letter and a number, then a hyphen and a second number. As someone who is drawn to order, I expected I’d love this system and learning the intricacies of it. But since I’ve been here, I’ve realized that it’s not the address making this place home.

Home – when Lulu, the younger of my host family’s daughters, makes a fuss about eating her chicken, and I get to exchange knowing smiles with the older daughter and my host mom. Home – turning the key in the outside door and greeting the family dog (“Hola, Fafi!”) on my way home from work every day. Home – writing in my journal before bed at night, the lighting its usual dim, this time with mechanical pencil in a partway broken overpriced journal I bought at the shopping mall the one time I went with the other volunteer who used to live here. Home is lived experience.

Yes, sometimes I still crave certain places. I’ll look at the clock in clinic some days and know exactly what my friends are doing at school, and on Thursdays around ten fifteen I’ll sometimes hum Sing songs and wonder which ones they’re singing a couple thousand miles away. Sometimes I wish I could run my old neighborhood again, running shoes on pavement, planning and altering routes depending on my energy level. There has been more than once this trip that I called my dad on Skype crying, wishing to avoid the loneliness that came by sitting alone in a foreign country thinking about the people I love.

I’m still learning, still adapting. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes in How to Love (which, I’ll admit, I’ve maybe read one too many times), when a tree (or love) stops growing, it begins to die. This is still growing, changing. The current definition? Home is a work in progress.

My family is relocating, for the first time in all the time I can remember. My parents did this once when I was one and a half years old. Except different from last time, they are moving not thirty miles but ACROSS THE COUNTRY. (I’m actually not freaked out at all by this. I just like using all caps for emphasis.)

Is it really bad that in thinking about moving away from my childhood home, the only thing on my mind is, “I will miss you, lovely, spacious, double-decker oven”?

Whoops.

And, in a lot of ways, so is the college admissions process.

Let’s make that above statement a little clearer, at the very least by saying that the reverse is very not true – online dating is not a science, not in the least. Nut I was struck last night by the idea that science (or really, my attempts to get into science last summer) resembles accounts of online dating.

Back to the beginning. This all starts with Aziz Ansari and Modern Romance (I finished it this week), which focuses on romance and romantic relationships in the modern technology-obsessed age. It spends a lot of time talking about online dating, which is something I’ve never thought about before. As Aziz describes it, the process (with some variation) looks like this:

  • You create a profile.
  • You start poking around for potential matches, or some algorithm spits out other profiles that match what you think you want.
  • You read up, gather info, look at profile photos.
  • You then dismiss a lot of them based on subjective criteria. And then you get your heart set on a special few.
  • With the ones you don’t automatically dismiss, you craft a message – with varying levels of personalization and investment – that gets sent to “the other side.”
  • Sometimes there’s a screening stage here – an exchange of messages between parties, a date or two.
  • You are either accepted or rejected, no matter how many other vague criteria people try to put between the two.
  • And, in the end, you a) more often end up with someone you already have connections to, and b) actually are drawn to categories you wouldn’t have thought to plug into the search algorithm.

When I was thinking about this coming summer last night, I was struck by the similarities between this process and trying to find a lab to work in last summer. I wrote up a vague CV/resume (kinda hard to do when you’re a teenager with no experience), looked up labs, read papers by the PIs, got invested in a couple, sent a whole lot of messages, and got a whole lot of nos. And in the end, I ended up at Jacobs Lab through a string of connections, doing work that I wouldn’t have chosen off the bat if you presented it to me in a list of other options.

But it worked itself out in this case, and was pretty darn wonderful in the end. Honestly, I can’t see that process going many other ways.

And this afternoon I’ve been sitting and reading Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be on the college admissions process, and I’m applying the same analogy. You create a Common Application, you use an honestly screwed-up methodology to try to find things that you think appeal to you, you submit applications, time passes, and you’re rejected or accepted. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t.

 

I want my process to be less screwed-up than that, both with college and with science. Really. But I know that it will likely be as arbitrary as anyone and everyone else’s, and I’m trying to come to terms with that. With science it’ll likely stay that way, for the next couple years at least, and acceptance is probably necessary. But with college, I can and will try to change it. My current strategies to fight the random, arbitrary nature of the search and application process?

  1. Listen to recommendations by people I care about. I have ten schools on my list right now, three of which have been recommended to me personally by people who know me and know how I work and learn. I want to give those recommendations a thoughtful examination, because I know that other people sometimes (okay, quite often) know me better than I know myself.
  2. Attempt to figure out what I want. In this I mean: be specific. Have criteria. Even if you change those criteria drastically later (see: my dear friend Supy and his college struggle and madness), figure out what you’re looking for so you can avoid applying to schools with big brand names just because you know about them or “think you should.” I want to go to a medium or large university (for the most part not an undergrad-only liberal arts college) with really strong undergraduate research programs, in or near a fairly large city where I’ve never lived before. I’m flexible with this set of criteria to some extent, but it’s crucial in narrowing the field.

 

I am at the relative beginning of this process (except for maybe the crazy parents who start their kids while in diapers). I have a long ways to go. But, at the very least, I hope to remain somewhat reasonable along the way, even over the course of a process that makes millions feeding off teenage fear and insecurity. I am a primarily statistics-driven person, but this is can be so random that I’ll even say it: wish me luck!

 

There are a number of things I am excited for when I get home. (Tofu, not secretly eating meat and finding out about it later, seeing family and friends, etc etc) What I’m most excited for right now? Altitude, or really lack thereof.

Altitude for Cusco, Peru = 10,800 ft or more than 2 miles, or basically, running kinda sucks here. I know I’m out of shape, but feeling like collapsing after, say, seven minutes of light jogging is kinda extreme. But I can’t be blamed because you’re TWO FREAKING MILES above sea level here.

Then, altitude for Portland, Oregon = 50 ft or about 0.01 mi = lovely, lovely running, aka no excuse to not start training for a half marathon like I’ve been wanting to for, oh, a year and a half now. (Just do it already!)

(Altitude for The School on The Hill, in case you’re curious = 404 ft, but it’s good I’ll be in Portland first because trail running is not my specialty, which is what most everything at school is.)

I lent out my copy of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running a couple of months ago, otherwise I’d be rereading it basically every other day.

So excited. Let’s go.

 

modern romance

  • Latest book book is Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance. Started last weekend and… not read at all this week. SUCCESS! Uh, no. But it is truly freaking amazing, in part because I am kinda in love with comedy while being the lamest comedy geek ever (see: Mindy Kaling’s memoir (reread four times) and a more-than-mild infatuation with Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee). So, excited to actually sit down and read this thing next week.

 

  • I have decided as of this evening that it will be good for my mental health to read every one of Frank Bruni’s NYT op-ed pieces on the college admissions process. So that’s going to be a thing. 

 

  • I’m going to Machu Picchu this weekend, which involves two bus rides and two train rides, and my incredibly wonderfully packed backpack (unlike this time) has both Pablo Neruda’s Residence on Earth which I’m taking forever to get through, and Ariel by Sylvia Plath, which I nearly read in one sitting then realized I had a 100 or 101 fever and Sylvia wasn’t helping me. So starting over!

 

  • Not on books: I figured out about myself a couple weeks ago that I really like running to out of date pop music (and Sylvan Esso and Alt-J). Am I totally out of my mind?!

 

Okay, enough for tonight. Need to sleep soon.

I am oftentimes a string of contradictions. I can be highly misanthropic, but I’m a student dorm head. I argue – no, battle – with a friend of mine over the superiority of the sciences over the humanities when really I want to double-major in biochem and philosophy. And, most relevant this morning, I hate parties with a burning passion yet one of the things I’m mostly looking forward to about adulthood is hosting dinner parties. Specifically, Friendsgiving.

I have never liked Thanksgiving; in fact, I considered it a really stupid holiday for a long time. It’s a prime example of the US twisting its (already screwed-up) history in order to encourage consumerism. It meant spending time with family, and since I’m a misanthropic human being, I never really took much joy in being forced to listen to my younger cousins’ children’s music or watching a dozen episodes of Extreme Couponing with my sister and the older cousins on the other side of the family. And as a vegetarian the past couple of years, I was both mocked and perpetually felt like I was missing something. I HAD BEEN TURKEY BRAINWASHED.

Okay, moving on. A couple of years ago we were in Paris for Thanksgiving, so no celebration. And this year I was by myself in Pisac, Peru, and I’m pretty sure I ate some weird quasi-lentils. I’ll admit that the habit of celebrating is ingrained in me such that not doing so feels a little… sad. But I don’t want to keep blindly following tradition; I’ve become attached to my concepts of the ideal not-Thanksgiving: Friendsgiving, or Vegetable Feast. Where it’s only the people you really want there, and where everything on the table is vegetable-based (yes, Natalie, this means no butter in the mashed potatoes). Where I can cook and bake to my heart’s content – little plates of different vegetable dishes, and a half dozen or so desserts – and we can eat and be grateful together.

I typically hate parties, even the ones I host, because something about the word “party” rubs me the wrong way. It was probably going for four or five years as a kid without being invited to anyone else’s, but that’s another story… What I do love is cooking, and baking. And vegetables. And sharing the things I make. So while I hate party parties (define this as you wish), I keep thinking I could get behind dinner parties, especially my perfect Friendsgiving.

Of course, I did as I usually do with an idea planted in my head – I did research. Lots and lots of research this morning, mostly consisting of listening to the Bon Appetit Foodcast and Calvin Trillin’s “Spaghetti Carbonara Day” then collecting recipes. Because, you know, it’s never too early to start planning – even in mid-January a year or two or ten before there’s a real possibility of making it happen.

Let’s talk science for a while.

Humans. Sometimes they’re incredibly brilliant, other times incredulously stupid. All humans, like all other species, are evolutionarily inclined to protect themselves. This is true for all processes of human life – from survival mechanisms like eating and hunting to making weapons, and in the modern age, engaging in wars to defend our ideas and beliefs, those non-tangible extensions of ourselves.

However, I am a microbiologist, and not a war theorist. The protection I want to talk about is against things too small for us to see – microbes and pathogens – and how our forms of protection over the past, say, fifty years or so, have actually hurt us and exacerbated the (perceived) problem.

Let’s talk first about cleanliness. I am an organized human, sometimes in a nearly-compulsive way. This post is not to talk about neatness, just what we use to keep things neat, shiny, and often pathogen- and allergen-free – cleaning supplies. By using cleaning supplies to eliminate these particles from our living spaces, we’re also limiting our exposure to them, especially in childhood. So while that might avoid making us sick as kids, there is a theory called the Hygiene Hypothesis claiming that it’s the cause of the increasing rates of adult-onset asthma and allergic diseases. Once we leave the clean bubble (often moving away from home for the first time), we have increased exposure to everyday substances and microbes that our bodies should know how to deal with but don’t. And so we get sick.

If you’ve ever brought up food, sustainability, or the union of the two with me, you’ll know that I’m a vegetarian for environmental reasons, and I vehemently oppose the industrial food system, particularly when it comes to meat production. But everyone should oppose the current dominant food system in the US simply on the basis of health. This is a big statement, and I can prove it.

It goes back to that same idea of protecting ourselves. In order to prevent potentially-dangerous microbes from living in industrial animals (and eventually our bodies), those animals are fed massive amounts of antibiotics. (These antibiotics have previously also shown to work like growth hormones to create bigger animals faster, but that’s not what I’ll be focusing on.) For a while these antibiotics worked, and sometimes they still work. But after nearly a half century and thousands and millions of bacterial regenerative cycles (a happy E. coli cell doubles every 20 minutes), a great many of these bacteria have gained drug resistance.

Drug resistance – when a chemical intended to have a certain effect (typically to kill) is unable to do its job. This can and does happen in plants and bacteria and viruses frequently. Some strains come with resistance to certain chemicals – TB is resistant to beta-lactams because it produces beta-lactamase, an enzyme that deactivates them – but the vast majority are acquired over time. And how is resistance acquired? By repeated exposure to the chemical(s) in question. So the cows and chickens and all other animals in factory farms receiving dosages of antibiotics over their short lifetimes? They are becoming homes and breeding grounds for extremely drug-resistant pathogens that we don’t know how to treat, putting you as the consumer at risk. By farms trying to protect consumers (and their economic interests), they’ve created a problem we don’t know the answer to. And that, to be honest, is really freaking scary.

Humans always have and always will get sick from their environments. I know this quite well – my immune system seems particularly susceptible to the multitude of pathogens having a ball at the petri dish known as The School on the Hill. We will get sick. But our bodies are made to recover. We perceive getting sick to be a problem – and yeah, it feels pretty sucky – but it actually makes us stronger. By trying to prevent ourselves from being sick in the first place, we weaken our innate protections. And as humans become more advanced in the prevention, the organisms trying to attack us advance as well, and capitalize on our weakened systems inside of our chemically-produced bubbles.

Great job, humans. By following evolutionary instincts you’ve created more issues for yourselves, with at least one of two I mentioned having the potential to kill us all. That was probably a pretty stupid move. Let’s hope we find a brilliant way to come out of this one.

 

Extra reading:

The Hygiene Hypothesis

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

RESISTANCE documentary (on Netflix) (the best documentary on this subject I’ve seen, and maybe the best-made documentary I’ve ever seen)

PBS Frontline on antibiotic administration

Total books read: 67

What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine by Danielle Ofri, MD

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself by Frederick Douglass

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver (with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver)

Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships by John Welwood

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Little Bee by Chris Cleave (RR)

Running is Flying: Aphorisms, Meditations, and Thoughts on a Running Life by Paul E. Richardson

CrazyBusy: Strategies for Handling Your Face-Paced Life by Edward M. Hallowell, MD

Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things by John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

Considerations by Colin Wright

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Milk Bar Life by Christina Tosi

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

Othello by William Shakespeare

Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott

The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Loving Learning by Tom Little

Sold by Patricia McCormick

Nothing Special by Charlotte Joko Beck

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

Complications by Atul Gawande (RR)

To the Rescue (Harless and Morris, ed.)

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Between Here and Forever by Elizabeth Scott

On Call by Emily R Transue, MD (RR)

Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger

Bacteriophages and Biofilms by Stephen T Abedon

The Dinner by Herman Koch

Wonder by RJ Palacio

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach

How to Love by Thich Nhat Hanh

How to Sit by Thich Nhat Hanh

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok (RR)

Brain on Fire by Susannah Calahan

Self-Therapy by Jay Earley

Freedom From Your Inner Critic by Jay Earley and Bonnie Weiss

Eat, Pray, Love by Elisabeth Gilbert (RR)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

How to Eat by Thich Nhat Hanh

In Defense of Eating by Michael Pollan

Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton

Justice by Michael Sandel

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

Waking Up to What You Do by Diane Eshin Rizzetto

How to Love by Thich Nhat Hanh (RR)

Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver (RR)

Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern

The Madman by Kahlil Gibran

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

Death & Fame by Allen Ginsberg

The Yarn Whisperer by Clara Parkes

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Fruit Trees by Jamie Halladay

How to Travel Full-Time by Colin Wright

Food Storage by Jamie Halladay

Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus