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

It’s New Year’s Eve. Everyone everywhere is making lists to reflect on the year that will end tonight, before going out and celebrating. I am sitting in bed, sick with yet-another upper bronchial infection, knitting socks for my roommate. And making one of those lists.

Why does last January seem so far away? I’ve changed – hugely – as a person since then, that’s for sure. But something in time’s warping seems off to me right now.

Last year I made one of these lists, fifteen items long. So I suppose I should continue in that fashion – this year, sixteen.

  1. I did a lot of science. (see bottom of this post)
  2. I did NOT read 100 books (but I did read 66).
  3. Two sweaters came out of some piles of yarn, as well as a large number of hats and socks, and a couple of scarves. I also knit a Skiff hat in one weekend while listening to the first season of the Serial podcast, which some people might call a waste of a weekend but is something I won’t regret. And I learned to weave!
  4. While I didn’t run nearly as much as I hoped I would last December, I learned some stuff about climbing (more to come on that love-hate relationship!) and am definitely a better soccer player now than I was at the start of my freshman year.
  5. I listened. A lot. And made some incredible new friendships through it, and way deepened a lot of existing ones.
  6. My parents decided they wanted to move cross-country. And in the last two weeks, more or less, they bought a house in Portland, Oregon.
  7. I baked. Like a maniac. Which meant that I could return to school with cookies for 100+ people this past October, that I could feed Oren mango pie (twice!), and that I can now bake bread with intuition and a love for the feeling of dough in your hands.
  8. I reclaimed dancing again. (Finally.) I restarted dancing my freshman winter, taking classes for the first time in nearly three years. But I always felt awkward, and dancing was never mine, never something I felt connected to like I used to. But that changed this year, as I started spending time in the studio by myself, trying to explore what it means to take up and move through space.
  9. My birthday happened, and with it, $3300 to get clean water to 110 people in Uganda.
  10. I ran for / applied for a number of different things. Some of which I got, a lot of which I didn’t. Now I’m well-acquainted with rejection.
  11. With some of my favorite people I saw some live music this summer – Wilco and Sylvan Esso, to be exact.
  12. I hate parties, I really do, but I hosted a couple good ones (Anti-Prom, Gen’s surprise party, my personal Social pity party, etc.) and got (semi) surprised by one myself, hosted by some of my favorite folks ever.
  13. I grew some stuff this summer. Which meant a whole bunch of lovely tomatoes, some beautiful beans, baby kale, marigolds, teeny tiny radishes, mini jalapeño peppers. Then, when I got back from school I was pleasantly surprised by some baby-sized carrots and more marigolds (used to dye yarn! my first attempt at natural dyes, which was absolutely awesome and I can’t wait to try more).
  14. I started learning how to sit. It’s been a process, will always be a process. I’m (very) glad it’s started.
  15. I traveled by myself to a country, continent, and hemisphere I’d never been to before. And had my mind and heart blown open in the best (and sometimes most painful) of ways, with more to come.
  16. I learned a lot. About the world, about me.

So. What’s next?!

 

A note on science: I was looking back this morning and went HOLY COW cuz I did a lot of science this year. I had two science seminars and with them did two major research projects and learned to read scientific papers. I spent ten-plus weeks working at a fairly well-known university laboratory and met some incredible human beings there. I learned what research is like in the real world, and got to feel some of the downs (nearly two straight weeks of eleven-hour days?!) and the ups (small successes and friendships along the way). My bio research skill set? Through the roof. This fall I took three science classes – bioethics, astronomy, physics – and became way fascinated all over again. I mixed the humanities and the sciences in bioethics. I tripped myself up with physics, over and over again, and eventually started to solve problems. And in astronomy I learned to recognize asterisms and find deep sky objects, as well as do some of the computations involved in figuring out facts about our universe and its origins. So I’m way way way beyond happy with my growth as a student of science and our world this year.

So many things in life are intuitive with regard to their use. That’s how things are supposed to be (or so I tend to think) (see: evolution). But there are some things in our society (and particularly in woman culture) that I just can’t get my head around. Therefore, this small list.

  1. High heels. I’m slightly taller than average, and therefore maybe too tall to understand. But why in the world would you ever sacrifice comfort for a couple extra inches?
  2. Pointed-toed shoes. Same deal with the comfort thing.
  3. Fake meat. Thankfully I’ve not come across too much of this during my life as a vegetarian so far.
  4. Tampon applicators. Why so much plastic?
  5. Starbucks, and hanging out at Starbucks. I can’t drink coffee because I can’t have caffeine (yay! migraines!), but from all I’ve heard, their coffee is not that good. Their prices are not that good. I would highly doubt that any of it is sourced with sustainability / with social responsibility. Yet it is hugely, hugely popular. And people spend time meeting up with other people and hanging out there (see: my sister’s definition of dating from a year or two ago). I just don’t understand.
  6. Bikini swimsuits. They aren’t made for swimming, for all I can tell. Either wear a swimsuit or don’t wear a swimsuit. I don’t care all that much which you choose, but stop picking the middle (“tankinis” being the worst of that category).
  7. The television show Scrubs. This one I can kinda get; medical television is never really about medicine anyways.
  8. Poetry by E. E. Cummings. I’m sorry. Just no.
  9. Music videos.
  10. Excessively large cell phones.

I am in A Mood. Yes, A Mood. One of the ugly even-I-don’t-want-to-deal-with-me moods. I am trying to accept it (and do various things to improve it), and in the meantime, am trying to do some (quite entertaining) reading and musing to cheer myself up.

For example:

How to Stock an Independent Bookstore

The trouble with dry goods (and most of the rest of this blog)

Sarah Winkler’s amazing landscapes

And half-imagining half-planning the family library for the new house, probably constructed with these bookshelves.

 

Gotta plow on through.

 

bellows in progress

I have done it.

I have figured out a system to read and knit at the same time.

This has always been my greatest hesitation with knitting – that it takes away my reading time because I can’t hold a book flat and turn pages while also holding my knitting and turning yarn into fabric. I will admit that my current solution is flawed because it doesn’t work with paper books but it works for right now and that’s good enough for me.

The system: Kindle Books. On my laptop, which is on my lap, with the cursor placed over the “next page” arrow. I can have my knitting in my hands above my computer and hit the cursor to turn the page with my unoccupied right pinkie finger. I have long been able to knit without looking, and especially now that I’m working on a simple-though-tedious scarf for my mother, the knitting requires practically no attention and I can just read. AND knit.

Granted, I know this is a cop-out, especially because I am a physical books devotee, to the point that it almost counteracts my commitment to minimalism. And this requires buying Kindle books from Amazon, which does make me cringe. But I haven’t nearly been reading as much as I expect myself to, or hope that I would/will, so maybe this is a small force in changing that.

 

On the reading front: in my endless quest to find new books on the internet, I discovered this book today and am more excited to start it than nearly anything I’ve heard of or read recently (except perhaps when I found The Madman free online when I was in Pisac). So incredibly excited.

 

Hurdles jumped. Yes.

(P.S. the photo above is from this past spring when I didn’t have this system but still tried to figure out other things I could do while knitting. I think at that point it was Grey’s Anatomy as background noise. I have upgraded to House, for the tiny bit of television that I watch at all, but will probably reduce further and further with this new revelation.)

 

I have started knitting a scarf for my mom.

A year ago for the holidays I gave her an IOU for a hand-knit scarf or shawl, more specifically, this one. She picked out a vibrant purple in O-Wool Local, and we bought the yarn. Then it sat there. And sat there. I looked over the pattern again and decided I wanted to switch to this one instead. I still never started it.

Then, on Sunday, I decided I wanted to take a break from the nearly-endless pairs of socks I  am knitting for the folks back home, and that the way to do it would be to knit a scarf for my mother. So I’m using a similar shade of purple yarn – fingering-weight alpaca bought at the market in Pisac – on what I believe are size two needles (I’ve long lost the label and/or forgotten). Fifty stitches per row (6 3/4 in wide) and going to be six feet long (fairly standard scarf length). Garter stitch.

At about two minutes per row and ten rows per inch and 72 inches to knit, this scarf should take me twenty four hours to finish knitting. Which is just about a week and a half of knitting two and a half hours a day (not unreasonable given the time on my hands here).

Anyone else would consider this extremely tedious and probably wouldn’t attempt it or cast on in the first place. If I already have the other yarn at home, why not just wait? But I don’t work like that. I like the now, and I like fingering weight yarn. And besides, I tend towards the tedious.

My innate tediousness is what makes me a successful and happy sock knitter (I always have the patience to finish things, and actually like the second sock better), as well as a good proofreader and test-taker because I will check and recheck things. As my perfectionism is slowly fading, I’m left with a lot of patience (and probably four and a half more feet of garter stitch scarf to knit).

There’s a lot of beauty in the little things.

 

My family made a trip to Spain the spring break of my freshman year. Jet-lagged as we all were arriving in Madrid the first day mid-afternoon, my dad and I decided to go on a walk, and as often happens when it’s the two of us walking in a city, we ended up at a bookstore. It was some chain bookstore in Madrid, a couple of blocks from our hotel, and we spent maybe a half hour perusing the selection of books whose titles we could barely deduce.

The one book I bought that day was a Spanish-translated copy of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (Bajo La Misma Estrella). I had a handful of friends who had given the novel (the English version) rave reviews, and I was game to try it. Especially now that I could make it slightly more interesting by attempting to read it in Spanish.

I thought about reading it my freshman spring, the following summer, and all of sophomore year. But I still didn’t do it. And then I tried over the summer one day, pocket-size Spanish dictionary in hand. I got through most of the first chapter, looking up words every couple of sentences. (YA fiction has a tendency to use an excessive number of synonyms as part of its defining characteristic for me – the most-always-unnecessary need to describe everything.) But I couldn’t make it past the first chapter, because it was just too cliche. Even in Spanish, even when it was teaching me the odd vocabulary word. I simply couldn’t believe how overdramatic it was.

 

I’m thinking of this now because the daughters of my host family were watching a dubbed version of the relatively-new movie for The Fault in Our Stars. And as sweet as it would have been to ask if I could sit with them and watch Bajo La Misma Estrella, I thought of the translated book and I simply couldn’t do it. My intentions were not good enough for this one.

 

I got to my host family’s house yesterday. Just minutes ago we unloaded groceries they bought tonight – and my faith was restored that I MIGHT BE ABLE TO LIVE IN THIS COUNTRY FOR THREE MORE MONTHS BECAUSE – you’ll never guess – THEY HAVE PEANUT BUTTER AND CEREAL.

Life is now really, really good.