Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Holidazed and Confused

SuperSheebaI hope everyone had a great Christmas!

We spent a very nice evening with my family on Christmas Eve, then opened our presents for each other Christmas morning, then spent that evening with Ken’s mom. It’s been festive, but kind of tiring, too! We’re still getting plenty of R&R, though, watching lots of football, “Dexter,” and getting some things done around the place.

I got lots of books, so that should keep me busy and out of trouble in 2012! Also some good movies to watch, and some super cute I Love Lucy car mats. One of my favorite things of all was from Ken, and is an original work of art by a guy named Chris Piascik. You send him a picture of your pet, and he does a drawing of him or her as a superhero! How cute is that? I can hardly wait to get a frame for SuperSheeba. If you’re interested, go to Pets Are Superheroes to find out more. It really is a cute gift for anyone who loves their pet as much as we love Sheeba!

I’ve been keeping busy with my reading. I finished Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All by Dr. Paul Offit. Another excellent book about the utter and complete folly of the anti-vaccine movement. I seriously want to punch Jenny McCarthy in the face. “My son is my science.” No. No, he is not. A PERSON is not science. Science is science. The gloves are off when it comes to these idiots. Just a word of warning.

Anyway, then I moved on to The Incredible Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson, and I’m about a quarter of the way through it. That will make book #55 for the year...I decided to go for the double nickel, good buddy. I’m familiar, of course, with the scifi movie from the ‘50s, but the book is a whole different ball of wax. It delves into the psychological impact of what is happening to Scott Carey, and it’s really quite sad. Fighting a black widow spider is one thing...trying to make love to your wife when you’re the size of a grade school boy is entirely another. It’s much more complex than I remember from the movie, and I’m liking it very much.

I’ve also been doing really well with my workouts, doing six days a week, for at least an hour, sometimes more. My endurance is already up and I’m feeling really good about what I’m doing. I hate that sluggish winter feeling, and this is helping to counteract it. I’ll take a little bit of soreness over sluggishness any day!

The Notre Dame-Florida State bowl game is tomorrow night, we’re planning on seeing “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” on Friday, we’ve got tickets for a Notre Dame hockey game coming up on Saturday, followed by a New Year’s celebration at my sister’s (so happy that our niece Jen is in town from San Diego!) and some further festivities the following weekend. A busy time, but lots of fun. Oh, and I’m still paying attention to politics and the upcoming Iowa caucuses, but I find that I don’t want to write about it a whole lot because it has just become laughable to me. These people are pandering to the religious right at the moment, and people like Donald Trump and Sarah Palin are hinting that they still might jump into the race. This liberal is having quite a laugh at the whole thing, but I will not take anything for granted. I’m looking forward to seeing who will be going up against the President when the Republicans finally finish sifting through this bizarre lineup of the certifiable and the ridiculous. Call me when you get it straightened out, okay?

In the meantime, I’ll keep on having happy holidays, and I hope you’ll do the same!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Purging the hate

BelieversI wish I could write a very sweet entry about the holidays and about the goodness and kindness of humanity. But I’m very bothered by something right now, and if I don’t get it out, I’ll regret it. I’ll enjoy my time with family tomorrow and Sunday, but tonight, I’m feeling an anger that I need to write about. (I suspect that some of you will understand about writing as a form of therapy.) I promise not to get too angry in what I write here—I’m more disheartened and disgusted than angry, to tell the truth—but if you don’t want to be sullied by any negative emotions at this time of year, feel free to skip this entry. I would totally understand.

This goes back to my recent entry about ‘haters,’ specifically my mention of the death of Christopher Hitchens, and how there were quite a few people who claim to be Christians who seemed to find some sort of perverse joy in his death. Last night a name popped up on Facebook; it was a person who dated back to my early days of blogging. Although I had stopped reading their blog some time ago, and had hidden their Facebook posts (I can only handle so many kid pictures), I hadn’t defriended them, and I thought I’d click through to see what they were up to.

As I scrolled down, my decision to hide their posts was confirmed. Then I came across this status update: “Christopher Hitchens is dead. Enjoy the heat.”

I wrote in that previous entry that no matter what you think of Hitchens, he was also a son, a brother, a husband, a father, and a friend. To see this sort of post from someone who claims to be a devout Catholic made me beyond disgusted. It sort of made me hate people for a very brief and disturbing moment. Obviously, not all people and not all religious people are like that, so I refuse to fall prey to such generalization, and I will not judge an entire group of people based on the remark of one big creepy jerk.

But I’ll say this: I find it appalling that anyone could find such malicious glee in the death of another human being. The gloating attitude and smug assurance that Hitchens was burning in a hell that many of us feel is nothing more than a manipulative ploy on the part of religion to foster fear, dread, and guilt in humanity is quite unattractive, and it’s one of the main reasons that so many of us are leaving religion behind. Why would I want to be around someone—or a group of people—who find a sick vindication at the thought of someone suffering eternal torment, or who think it’s perfectly fine to judge others and condemn them to the Fiery Pits™? Although I don’t want to generalize, I’ve seen far too much of this to think it is an isolated incident or the irrational hatred of just one snarky person.

Instead of offering condolences to the man’s family and friends, they just had to post about Hitchens burning in hell. Why not just say nothing? It’s actually kind of laughable, because it only serves to solidify the feelings and opinions of myself and my friends who happen to think that Hitchens was onto something. If he were still lingering about and able to see this sort of thing, I’m sure he’d laugh and say, “Typical! I’m quite unsurprised.”

The person who wrote the remark? Defriended. I don’t feel one bit sad about it, either.

Now, on to Christmas! I hope that you and your loved ones are safe and happy this holiday season. No matter what you do or don’t believe, I hope that you enjoy yourself, and feel a love and compassion for others. That’s what I try to focus on. I wish you all happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Achievement: Unlocked!

Challenge acceptedI did it!

I track my book-reading on Shelfari, and probably around this summer, I noticed that with the number of books I’d read, I was “ahead of my pace” for last year. I did a quick calculation, and wondered if I could not only double my reading output, but try for a book per week.

As I was working out today, I met my goal, and even started to go beyond it when I started one of Bill Maher’s books.

Were all of my books this year works of literary art? Not hardly. But the important thing to me is that I made the time to read actual books, not just online articles and content. Don’t misunderstand me...there is plenty of good content out there, but reading an actual book is different, and I made a conscious choice to focus a little more on my reading and cut down on my online time. That means that my ability to keep up with blogs suffered, but it was the right choice for me.

This past year, I read a wide variety of things, including political books, biographies, science books, and thrillers. For sheer pleasure, my favorite was probably Stephen King’s latest, 11/22/63. When it comes to science, my favorite was definitely The Panic Virus, about the anti-vaccine boondoggle. Then there was Keith Richards’ Life and Patti Smith’s Just Kids. I loved Matt Taibbi’s books, and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Some were memorable, and some I’d like to forget. But all in all, it was a very good year, and I don’t think it’s wrong to take a little pride in this particular accomplishment.

Book-O-MatOf course, next year, I could very well get an admonition from Shelfari saying “You are behind your pace of last year.” Get off my back, Shelfari! Just back off, man! Although I would like to keep to the book-a-week goal, it might need some modification, because I want to get back into the Modern Library’s Top 100 list. Unfortunately, the next book in line is a James Joyce book, Finnegans Wake, and I’m kind of dreading the James Joyce stuff. So some of those on the list could take longer than a week to read. But our friend Kim in San Francisco has made a deal with me that we’ll both read Finnegans Wake this year. I appreciate the challenge and that will help me get it done.

Do I have other goals for the coming year? Definitely! But for the moment, I’m going to let myself be proud about accomplishing this one. It might not be the loftiest of goals, but it’s something that was important to me, and I feel very good about it. Onward and upward, and many more books to read!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Happy birthday, Keef!

Long may you rock.


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Haters gonna hate

Stop the hatredYou might think that this time of year, when people usually think about peace and family and Coke-drinking polar bears and all things squee and squishy, we’d get a little break from the hate. You might think that, but you’d be wrong.

Oh, the majority are definitely not hatin’, but it seems like it’s the exceptions that always stand out. I really started noticing it the other day when one of our local TV stations posted the Obama family’s Christmas picture on their Facebook page. It’s really a nice picture, with everyone smiling and holding hands, and the girls look so sweet and they’re getting so big. However, knowing my community and having seen some of the comments that have been posted on the station’s page on other topics, I had a feeling that it was going to get nasty. I tried a preemptive strike with this comment: “It's a great picture of a lovely family. It would be nice if people could focus on that during this holiday season.” Of course, it did no good, with attitudes ranging from apathy to rage; a couple of people took the opportunity to disparage the President for his upcoming family vacation in Hawaii; one person called him ‘evil.’ There were a handful of comments similar to mine there, and I took some heart from that.

Then Christopher Hitchens died. The atheist community is in mourning; whether or not you liked the man, he had an incredible intellect, and his writings will be greatly missed. He was also a son, a brother, a husband, and a father, as well as a good friend to many. The response from some on the Christian right was not unexpected, but I was still taken aback by the sheer ferocity of the hatred. The horrid Bryan Fischer predictably said that Hitchens is in Hell, then went on to say that it was because “God loves him.” Whatever. Apparently irony is beyond the guy’s limited grasp. One of Hitchens’ books is titled God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, so some folks on Twitter started the hashtag GodIsNotGreat. That didn’t go over well with some, and whoever started the hashtag was told to commit suicide and threatened with death. That seems to be a bit of an overreaction to me, especially when you’re proclaiming God’s awesomeness while simultaneously writing that you’re going to beat the shit out of the person who dares to disagree, or shoot them in the face.

Today, I read an article on a Catholic website stating that the atheists who had the audacity to file a lawsuit over a government-declared Day of Prayer in Arizona were whining, pathetic cowards. It included this memorable quote from author Mary Kochan: “Yes, you are outsiders. Go start your own damn country. This one was started by Christians, you puerile dimwits.” Gosh, I’m just overwhelmed by the sheer outpouring of Christian love! The broader issue here, that of the constitutionality of any government promoting religion, is beside the point. I was rather stunned at the rage emanating from this woman because someone dared to challenge the easy assumption of the Arizona government that everyone embraces Christianity and is perfectly fine with the government promoting prayer. Her level of anger seems a little out of proportion for a matter of people simply exercising their right to challenge such a declaration. I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t exactly make me think, “Wow, I’m going to get out of bed tomorrow morning and get to church bright and early, so I can meet people just like Mary Kochan!

I’m pretty mellow this time of year. I can still get fired up about things, and often do. (Ol’ Mary might still get a comment from me on her article...I’ll be respectful, though. Kind of. In my own special way. Heh.) But I tend to let things slide a little more, I do my best to not take offense at statements that would normally start my chainsaw roaring, and I try to spread a little good cheer and good will. Sometimes it’s a matter of getting someone a gift that I think they’ll really like, and other times it’s as simple as smiling at someone who seems to be having a hard day. (At the grocery store the other day, I exchanged a smile and a few kind words with a woman whose little kid was screaming his fool head off. Wasn’t that better than making her feel bad by giving her a dirty look? I think so.) Tolerance is maybe one of the best gifts we can give, not just this time of year, but year round.

So I guess if you want to go after me for something I’ve written or done, now would be the time to do it. Just remember that I may be a little more mellow and tolerant at the moment...but in a couple of weeks, it will be a brand new year. And then all bets are off. [big grin]

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Motivation: I haz none

MotivationWhere the heck did the day go?

As I think back on it, I realize that I got quite a bit done. I got some final Christmas gifts, did the grocery shopping, did my workout like a good girl, got some dishes washed, did a load of laundry, and no, I didn’t sit on the couch and flip channels while drinking beer...but it seems like there’s still so much I need to do. I’m a little bit lost in Electronica, because I’m almost halfway through Book #51, and we also got ourselves some smartphones, so I’ve been messing around with that.

I think what is weighing on me is that now that we have the tree up (Yes, it’s artificial, yes, it’s a CHRISTmas tree but we don’t go to sue me! Ha!) I know it’s time to start wrapping. I had intended to start that today, but despite the other things I got done, I procrastinated about that particular task. I’ve written before about how I don’t enjoy wrapping. I’ve tried fun Christmas music (I’m partial to the Rat Pack, and the Brian Setzer Orchestra), I’ve tried beer, but nothing makes it especially enjoyable for me. Part of it is because once I start, I don’t really want to stop until I’m done with it. So I spend an entire afternoon doing nothing but wrapping.

It’s enough to drive anyone stark raving mad.

So maybe I’ll change it up a little bit this year. I’ve got a couple of weeks before Christmas, so no one but me is dictating how much time per day I spend on it. Why not do a couple of hours, and then be done for the day? That will make my psyche AND my back happy. And maybe I’ll sip on Greyhounds as I wrap, so that I get some Vitamin C while I ease the pain. And instead of listening to Christmas music, maybe I’ll pop in a movie that I really enjoy or a guilty pleasure movie, like “Psycho” or “Road House.” (Although I just watched both of those recently, so I should find something else. “Footloose” is a definitely possibility.)

As far as I know, there isn’t some sort of Christmas Rule Book that dictates what constitutes a proper Christmas. My family hasn’t done the traditional little cottage Christmas in the little village for some time now; for several years, we did Christmas Bingo, where we all contributed fun little prizes and Mom and Dad contributed envelopes of money (anywhere from $1 to the rare $50 prize), but we all finally agreed that we just had too much “stuff” (miss you, George Carlin!) and stopped doing that. Last year, we all gave to the charities of our choice. Our family Christmas dinner is usually lasagna, but this year there is talk of a taco party. Ken and I have mimosas while opening presents. I think we’ll stick with that particular tradition, because it’s a delicious one.

I’m all for whatever works for you and your family. If you’re into the whole traditional Christmas thingy, knock yourself out. I think I’ll just make my own kinda music, sing my own special song, which might be something by the Stones rather than Bing Crosby...and I think that we’ll manage to have a good time no matter what. Life is funny—and fun!—that way.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Infection Connection: Double Shot!

The Panic VirusThis isn’t about any particular bacteria, virus, or other wee beastie. This is a review of two books concerning infectious disease, one fiction and one non-fiction. (By the way, I’m up to 50 books read this year. My goal is within sight!)

First is one I’ve been wanting to read for some time, The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear, by Seth Mnookin. Of all the articles and a few books I’ve read about the anti-vaccine movement, this reigns supreme. Mnookin does an incredible job of discussing the devastation of infectious disease, the development of inoculation/vaccination, and how the anti-vaccine movement began and took hold.

He also masterfully skewers the arguments put forth by the anti-vax crowd, although I would agree with him that they aren’t just anti-vax; they are anti-science. It is inexcusable for anyone to simply ignore the facts of the high rate of efficacy and low rate of complications of vaccines, not when children’s health and public health are at stake. One of the rationales for some is that there is so little exposure to these infections that they aren’t worried about their child getting it. Do you know why there is so little exposure? Because vaccines have been so successful! It is simply not acceptable to say, “I know, because I have mommy-instincts.” Science simply does not work that way. My great-uncle Sid died in his early twenties of diphtheria. People have forgotten that these infections can and do kill people.

Mnookin gives plenty of space to Andrew Wakefield, the unethical, sorry excuse for both a doctor and human being who started this whole ridiculous mess with his flawed and unscientific paper published in the British medical journal Lancet. The paper has since been withdrawn, and Wakefield lost his license to practice medicine in England. His studies were horrible, including contamination from control strains of the measles virus, and not including positive and negative controls in each experiment. Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of laboratory tests knows that in order to confirm your results, you must have known positives and negatives included to show that your assay is working properly.

Mnookin also provides much criticism to the media, who gave this story legs despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s a good thing for journalism to be fair and balanced, but sometimes, the other side of the argument does not bear up under proper examination; such false and harmful misinformation should not deserve equal treatment. There are two sides to every story, and sometimes one side is simply wrong.

A fantastic book, and one of my new favorites. Anyone who is sitting on the fence or has doubts about immunizations should read this. Anyone (like me) who believes that vaccines save lives should also read it, in order to bolster your arguments if you’re ever in the situation where you want to debate the subject with someone who really doesn’t get it.

Year of WondersNext is Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks. Although a fictional book, it is based on the real village of Eyam in Derbyshire, which voluntarily quarantined itself during the Black Plague of 1665-66. Brooks puts a human face on sterile statistics; it’s one thing to know that Europe possibly lost one-half to two-thirds of its population, or that bubonic plague has a 40-90% mortality rate if untreated. It’s quite another to read about Anna Frith, a housemaid who must face the death of loved ones and see her rural village felled by the Plague.

Anna is a likable character, compelled to learn, and she is strengthened by her trials. The same can’t be said for many of her fellow villagers, who at times descend into irrational fear and murderous ways. The sadness that Anna had to deal with brought tears to my eyes several times throughout the book. The horrors of the deaths and losses, her triumphs and the failures of others, shows how devastating such a pandemic would be upon even our modern-day world. Although our medical knowledge and support is substantially greater now, the stress placed upon our infrastructure and society would still be devastating. People haven’t changed so much in four hundred years or so to think that there wouldn’t be blame to be laid upon others, certain ethnic groups or religious sects forced to be the scapegoat.

This book reminded me very much of Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Although Porter’s novella dealt with the 1918 influenza pandemic, the psychological and social strain of such a devastating and lethal pandemic is the same. The horrors of such widespread disease and panic is brought to life in both books.

Those who would condemn vaccinations would be wise to read both of these books and learn more about just how bad infectious disease can be.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Operation Retro Furniture: Complete!

Retro1I’ve posted a few pictures on Bookface of the furniture we’ve been putting in the basement. A little background....

My Uncle Burt passed away some months ago. His son, my Cousin Doug, and Doug’s wife Suzanne had been living at Uncle Burt’s house in order to care for him. Now it’s a matter of doing some remodeling on their own house prior to moving back there, and starting to go through things at Uncle Burt’s house in order to sell it. Anyone who has been through this knows how difficult it is, and they really have their work cut out for them!

I remembered some of the furniture that Uncle Burt had in the basement, and asked if they would be okay with me having it. They had no problem with that at all, and after a couple of trips, it is all in place. This is original ‘60s furniture and it is in incredible shape. Doug doesn’t remember exactly what year it is from, but he’s sure it is at least 50 years old, making it a genuine antique. I remember it from when I was a kid, and I’m pushing I guess that makes me almost an antique! He remembers it being in the office of the body shop that his Dad started in the ‘50s, I believe, and that Doug runs now.

The fabric is intact on the sectional sofa—who knew they made sectional sofas in the ‘60s?—and the pieces are very solid. Even the cushions are heavy, and I believe they actually put springs in such furniture cushions, rather than today’s flimsy foam. I am delighted to have it, and I think it pleased Doug to know that someone in the family has it and loves it.

I think most of you know that I love all things retro, and the chance to have such beautiful, original, and funky furniture for our basement “rec room” is just wonderful for me. It will also be a great reminder of all the good times our families had together, just getting together here in Indiana, or vacationing together in Minnesota.

There were a few things I wanted to add to it, and I got the zebra print rug, the zebra throw for the circle chair (that was the only piece that had some damage...some of the upholstery had come off), the pillows, and the lamps. We still need to hang some curtains at the sliding glass door, and please pardon some of the mess—I still need to work on some things. The triangular end tables are unique in that they can be combined into a square, or used separately, as I have done. I had to get a little lava lamp to set on the larger end table! I will look for a few other retro items to put on the tables, but I don’t want to clutter them too much. In the meantime, I put a few of my Route 66 things on the one table, my fabulous Las Vegas sign (it lights up!), and one of my all-time favorite fun things, my Cowboy Cactus.

I’m pleased with how it has come together, and it makes me want to don a ‘50s-style dress and sip a martini. Don Draper, come on over! I think it makes for a fun basement rec room, and our first test will be when our niece Jen and Shane and Matt come over after the New Year. Jen has already called dibs on the circle chair! We’ll have Rock Band upstairs, and pool and ping pong downstairs. As Devo says, “Something for everybody!”

What do you think? Would you hang out in a basement like this? We’ll show you a good time!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Literary Ipecac

Blind Allegiance
I believe I’ve mentioned that my goal is to read 52 books this year. I’m up to 48, after finishing this one, Blind Allegiance to Sarah Palin: A Memoir of our Tumultuous Years, by Frank Bailey. Bailey jumped on the Palin train early on, working as her go-to guy for scheduling and other daily duties. Some of those duties included pressuring various people to fire Mike Wooten (infamously known as Troopergate), taking the fall for it, and covering up what Palin knew about it. Of course, he’s deeply regretful for the part he played in such underhandedness. He is now, anyway. But hey, I’m sure his god forgave him for it.

Bailey invokes his godliness early and often, and he was one of those who believed that God had chosen Palin to run. He writes plenty about the unethical practices and questionable statements that occurred often in Palin’s Alaska governorship, and how he knew it was wrong at the time, but went along with it all because he believed in Palin and thought she was exactly what Alaska needed.

He also writes often about how beautiful Palin is (I believe he even once used the word ‘sexy’), including this when he first started working for her campaign:

“A radiant smile, framed by chocolate colored eyes that would later charm hardened members of the media like Bill Kristol and Sean Hannity, lit up the room.”

[gag] He mentions the fawning adoration of Hannity, as well as the team that interviewed Palin when McCain was considering her for his running mate, not realizing that he comes across every bit as pussywhipped. It’s a wonder his marriage survived his working for Palin, because it seemed obvious to me that he had a major boner for her. (As a man devoted to his family and God, I’m sure he’d deny that. Comes across loud and clear in his writing, though, in my opinion.) Bailey was also Todd Palin’s sycophantic sidekick, doing his bidding concerning the Wooten matter to curry favor with the Palins. He was immediately convinced that Wooten was a “loose cannon” and should be fired, just because the Palins said so. He reminded me of the fat kid who lets the popular kids pick on him and pretends to be in on the joke, and loses every shred of self-respect in the process.

In fact, by the time I finished this book, I wasn’t sure who I disliked more—Palin or Bailey. I already knew that Palin is a moody, conniving, vindictive, bullying, power-hungry, unstable grifter, so Bailey didn’t tell me anything new there. However, he did tell me that he’s a pathetic, easily manipulated loser whose adulation of such a woman deluded him into believing that she was capable of being Governor, and that it was okay to bend the ethics rules if it helped her. I wanted to grab him by his pudgy shoulders and shake the stuffing out of him and say, “Wake up, you idiot!” (A smack across the face would probably have been in order, too.) He did start figuring things out—finally!—and wrote this about her vindictiveness and ability to hold a grudge, as he was watching the election returns:

“Experiencing emotional difficulty managing a state with fewer than a million people, what would President Palin do if a rogue nation like North Korea went nuclear? Would she be preoccupied with typing messages on the Anchorage Daily News blog? Would she use the FBI to monitor Dan Fagan’s radio show or dig up dirt on Katie Couric? The IRS, would it suddenly run audits of former political opponents, bloggers, or editorial critics? Would she fire dissenting voices and find out too late they were right and she was wrong—as she’d done with the entire Board of Agriculture and Conservation over the Matanuska Maid Dairy debacle in 2007? Did we want Sarah and her thin skin anywhere near that red button after that 3:00 a.m. phone call, as Hillary Clinton had warned of Barack Obama during their hotly contested primary races?”

No shit, Sherlock! I guess I can give him a little credit for finally wising up, but it should never have taken that long. I was left with a thorough feeling of disgust at the end of this book. To borrow a couple of Palinisms, what a “flippin crap cluster.”

Friday, November 25, 2011

Infection Connection: We Are Living in a Bacterial World

Good Germs, Bad GermsAnd I am a bacterial girl. (Go ahead...sing it! You know you want to!)

This week, I finished the book Good Germs, Bad Germs: Health and Survival in a Bacterial World by Jessica Snyder Sachs. Whether you’re on the job or just have a passing interest, this is a truly fascinating book.

Sachs writes about our long, strange trip with bacteria and other microorganisms. Some might think that it’s a simple matter to realize that bacteria are bad, and the proliferation of antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers makes it obvious that such a message has caught on. It’s much more complicated than that. Sachs mentions what Nobel prize-winning molecular biologist Joshua Lederberg calls the “microbiome.” Lederberg says, “It would broaden our horizons if we started thinking of a human as more than a single organism. It is a superorganism that includes much more than our human cells.”

Essentially, each of us is a walking, talking ecosystem, carting around millions of bacteria that most often protect us, but sometimes harm us. From the moment we are born, we begin developing our occupying microflora, including Staph epidermidis and coryneform bacteria on our skin, Strep salivarius on our teeth, E coli in our gut, and Lactobacillus in our vagina (if you happen to have one, that is). These organisms create protective biofilms that aid in digestion, keep harmful bacteria from getting a toehold, secrete acids that keep the “bad” bacteria at bay, and even send out chemical signals that help regulate our immune system. I find it an incredibly elegant and fascinating system, and I both adore and fear it.

I adore it because it’s obvious that we have co-evolved over millions of years; our microflora coexist peacefully with us in a mutually beneficial relationship. I fear it because it seems to be such a delicate balance, and changing one small part of it can trigger an unpleasant infection, or even a life-threatening one. (Any woman who has taken antibiotics for an infection knows how easily that balance can be upset; it’s a common occurrence to have the antibiotics wipe out our usual genital flora like Lactobacillus and have yeast set up camp. Usually not life-threatening, but definitely not pleasant.)

I find the connection between our microbiome and our immune system especially fascinating. (If I hadn’t concentrated on Microbiology, I would have gone into Immunology. I find both very interesting, and they are closely connected.) You’ve probably read about the recent explosion in asthma and food allergies in kids; many researchers are looking into whether or not kids’ immune systems are not being challenged the way they used to. I don’t think anyone (not any rational, thinking person, anyway) would dispute that vaccines for life-threatening infectious diseases are a must; but our world has definitely become a little more sanitized these days, and it is not necessarily for our protection.

It might seem to be a paradox, but an unchallenged immune system can go into hyperdrive all too easily. When we’ve been exposed to minimal allergens, the presence of an unexpected one can wreak havoc as the immune system summons the troops and engages in a campaign of shock and awe against all invaders. A veritable monsoon of cytokines, interleukins, and other immune-boosting or immune-suppressing chemicals are loosed upon unsuspecting cells; if the immune system mistakenly attacks our own healthy cells or tissues, auto-immune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, and Sjögren’s syndrome can result.

Agar platesMy relationship with microorganisms has always been a love/hate one. I loved my job, and I loved the “detective work” aspect of it, but I hated the devastation and mortality I saw. I am fascinated by their mechanisms of resistance (one of them is called an efflux pump, in which the bacteria take in an antibiotic within its cell walls and immediately pump it right back out...I picture a sailor frantically bailing out a leaky boat), but worry about how that resistance is resulting in literally untreatable infections. Sachs quotes Rockefeller University researcher Vincent Fischetti concerning bacterial antibiotic resistance: “Don’t ever underestimate bacteria.” I recognize the relationship for what it is, but each of you also has a love-hate relationship with your own microflora, whether you realize it or not.

When it comes to the “war on bacteria,” it seems that we would benefit the most from an uneasy détente. When it comes to preventing what can be devastating infectious diseases like measles, bacterial meningitis, diphtheria, and so many others, vaccines are good things. But it is pointless—and perhaps even dangerous—to believe that a sterile world is beneficial or even possible. The vast majority of bacteria that we encounter in our daily lives is not going to go after us (except for those who are immunocompromised...that is a very dangerous state to be in), as long as we keep ourselves fairly healthy, with our microbiome in general balance. Maybe it’s wise to not mobilize weapons of mass destruction against the critters we encounter every day; a little soap and water is usually going to be enough to keep our own private ecosystem in balance.

Good luck, and hey...let’s be careful out there.

♪ ♫ Bugs may come and bugs may go, and that’s all right, you see. Experience has made me rich, and now they’re after me...’cause we are living in a bacterial world....♪ ♫

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A reminder of idealism

Atticus FinchI hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving. We spent the afternoon at my sister Sue’s house, and it was a very pleasant time, with enough food for probably twice as many people. There were some loved ones who were missing, and we all feel sad about that, but we also recognize that we are very fortunate and we were happy to be able to spend time together.

Sometimes my Mom likes to read stuff. She makes us all quiet down, and then she reads what she wants to read. She read something today about being being grateful for paying taxes, because it means you have a job, or being grateful for your heating bills because it means you have a home. It was kind of nice, because that cuts through any party-line argument that anyone might have and just makes you think about how fortunate you are. (There was also little to no political talk today. It really is better that way.)

Then Mom read this:
Youth Disagrees With Column

In reply to Anthony Harrigan's column "On Moral Issues," which ran on Aug. 5, 1982:

Mr. Harrigan, I am less than a month away from my 20th birthday. As a member of the generation which will assume responsibilities for our country in a few years, I must say that I wholeheartedly agree with Rev. Jenkins' remarks concerning Communism and nuclear war.

My generation is one of peace. Your generation is one of fear and distrust. I do not want to see my relatives and friends destroyed in a nuclear holocaust brought about by your generation's mistakes. I resent the fact that such people are making decisions that will in all likelihood adversely affect my future.

If we are to see results in arms reduction talks, we must first trust the Russians to honor a limitation or freeze agreement. The Russian government was generous enough to take the first step, however small, in halting this ridiculous, out-of-control arms race. Unfortunately, our government was not quite so generous.

When I am ready to assume responsibilities in the adult world (and I think I will have something to offer), I want something left. Perhaps if there are more people willing to speak out like Reverend Jenkins, a world of peace will remain for myself and my peers.

Beth Anne Feece
Clarkesville, GA

That was an almost 20-year-old me writing a letter to the editor of our paper in small-town Georgia. I don’t recall the opinion that prompted me to write this, but it was interesting to see how passionate I was about this. At that time, we were still in the midst of the Cold War, and Reagan was President. The threat of nuclear war was still hanging over our heads and was a very real threat. (I also find it touching that my Mom and Dad saved that clipping from the newspaper all these years. They even put tape on it to preserve it.)

Almost thirty years later, I find that I still feel pretty much the same way. I went through my own personal Dark Ages in which I put financial interests above humanitarian interests, but I seem to have regained my idealistic nature. I like to think that I have added a good dose of realism, but in general, I find that what I clumsily expressed in 1982 still holds true for me today: I want a world of peace.

I really don’t think that’s idealistic. I think it’s the only sane way to live in this world.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Don’t touch me I’m a real live wire

Psycho KillerMan, I don’t know what is going on with my state of mind the past couple of days, but I’m feeling like a loaded gun with a hair trigger.

NO, I am not PMSing, mmmkay?

After a wonderful vacation with wonderful friends, I’ve been trying to get caught up on various things, getting back into my workouts, working towards my goal of reading 52 books this year (I’m at 44!), and gearing up for the holidays. I’ve also gotten back into my routine of keeping up with politics, and I think that’s the culprit here. In fact, I’m sure of it.

As I watch the shuffling parade of incompetence that is the Republican primary field, I find myself getting more and more stabby. As I observe people actually thinking that someone like Herb Cain or Newt Gingrich would make a good president, I want to take them by the shoulders and shake some sense into them. As I follow the super-committee’s latest proposals (quickly followed by the other side saying “That’s laughable!” and an immediate refusal) and continued unsuccessful negotiations, I just want to throttle the whole lot of them. There’s a reason Congress is less popular than not only Paris Hilton, but also the United States of America turning Communist, and it’s because they’re all behaving like petulant children with more than a little touch of brain damage.

And as I see the Occupy Wall Street protesters and those of us who support them categorized as lazy bums who want a handout and spend our days smoking weed and shitting on cop cars, I get very, very angry. Are there bad apples involved with the movement? Undoubtedly. You encounter douches in every walk of life. But the majority are people who see the vast and ever-increasing gap between the haves and have-nots and would like to see that change. Do we want to see the highest wage earners give away all their money? Do we want them to NOT make money? Of course not! However, it strikes me as fundamentally wrong to see CEOs making millions in salaries and bonuses, not creating any jobs, and slowly squeezing the life out of the American middle class.

Middle fingersThose who criticize the Occupy movement and see them as nothing more than unwashed hippies apparently missed the fact that the “American Dream” is on life support, and with the way we’re going, I’m not sure it can be revived. It is no longer enough to work hard and pull yourself up and get an education. I know plenty of college graduates who have been down-sized and downtrodden; when there are four people vying for every job available, there are no guarantees that you’ll find a job anytime soon. Our manufacturing jobs are being sent overseas, and I doubt they’re coming back. Our populace is under-educated and unqualified for many of the jobs that are out there. Yet the Republicans talk about cutting funds for Pell grants, and job training programs, and we just keep going deeper into the rabbit hole.

So yes. I’m angry, and I’m on edge. Washington would be wise to get it through their heads that I’m not alone in my anger.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A brief programming note

11-22-63I still have tons (one might even say ‘loads and loads,’ right Shane?) of pictures to edit, and much to write about our recent vacation, but this past week, I got the second part of my birthday present in the mail, thanks to my sister Diana and her husband Tom. It’s the new Stephen King novel, and although I can’t pinpoint the exact time that it happened (I think it was sometime around noon today), I have reached that wonderful tipping point in a book when I am completely (and happily) ensnared. I’m having a hard time getting anything else done because I don’t want to stop reading this book. As King himself wrote in a line that I marked as one of my favorites, “That’s the curse of the reading class. We can be seduced by a good story at the least opportune moments.”

The story has seduced me, and I plan on spending lots of quality time with this book as I work my way through it. Once I’ve had my way with it and I’m spent, I’ll be back here to get some pictures posted and relive our Philadelphia and New York experiences.

Until then, carry on, citizens.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

One is silver, the other gold

Sorry for my lack of updates! Sometimes when on vacation, I’ll manage to get one or two in, but this time I just enjoyed the moment(s) and didn’t worry about updating. I’ll have lots more to write about various cool things we did (Eastern State Penitentiary was just incredible, and there was an abandoned places bonus in Greenwich Village: St. Vincent’s Hospital. We couldn’t get in, but I got some neat photos.), but today’s entry will be the people entry.

Dana and BethOur first meet-up was with our long-time blogger friend Dana. He was sitting on his porch soaking up the sunshine, and we were happy to join him and have a beer or two as we talked. We laughed about how our friendship started with a bizarre news story I posted concerning a man arrested for mowing the lawn wearing nothing but sandals and a dog collar. Dana and I had a long and hilarious email exchange naming various footwear and headgear, like cowboy boots and a fez, or saddle shoes and a fedora. He took us up to his apartment on the third floor and showed us his balcony where he feeds the birds, and then he showed us his paintings. I’m a big fan of abstract art, so I absolutely loved them, and we talked about the things we saw in the paintings, the feelings they engendered, and his techniques. He has begun showing some of his art with a group in his community, and I hope others enjoy them as much as I did!

After that, we headed out for a stroll in the park by the Delaware River. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and as we walked, we worked up an appetite. We went to a place I’d found online, and Dana said it was the best restaurant in town, so that sounded good to us! We got there at four o’clock, an hour before they served dinner, so we had drinks and appetizers and more conversation. We eventually ordered dinner, and there was more conversation (I keep thinking of the Lewis Carroll poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter” and this stanza: “The time has come,” the Walrus said, “To talk of many things: Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--Of cabbages--and kings--And why the sea is boiling hot--And whether pigs have wings.”), well into the evening. I swear, I think we sat there for probably five hours! We agreed to meet for breakfast Friday morning, when we were heading out for New York.

Dana and KenI found another place online, said to be the best breakfast in town, so we were batting a thousand when it came to good places to eat! I was delighted to see Scrapple, that regional Pennsylvania-Dutch delicacy, on the menu, but I assure you I did not order it. I remember my Mom making “fried mush” when I was a kid, and no sir, I did not like it. Fried mush is just made of cornmeal, but Scrapple is fried mush on steroids. It’s the non-PETA approved version of fried mush, with bits and pieces of pork parts in it. Yeah, I stuck with an omelet. But I did get to have some grits, which I love every once in a while. You generally can’t get them in restaurants around here, and I was surprised (but happy) to see them on the menu there! Mmm, grits with butter and salt. Oh yeah! [snapping out of my food flashback]

Anyway, there was more talk and agreement that it was a wonderful meeting and that we are now and forever fast friends. Dana expressed sadness that he might never see us again, but we travel quite a bit, and when we again make our way to the east coast (another trip to D.C. might be in the works eventually), he will always be on our list to see. He is truly a fascinating man, with many wonderful tales of his days in the theater. I am very grateful to have met him, and honored to be his friend.

Ken Doug Lisa BethI actually skipped a day in there, because in between our dinner with Dana and our breakfast on Friday, we met with another long-time blogger friend, Lisa. Her and her husband came into town to do a little shopping, and were kind enough to meet us halfway between their farm and Philadelphia. They were incredibly sweet and so easy to talk to, and it really seemed like we’d known each other for ages, rather than meeting for the first time! We laughed about how we’re usually kind of introverted and can be somewhat shy, but it honestly just felt so relaxed and comfortable. I rarely feel that at ease with someone I’m just meeting, but I remember exchanging some heartfelt emails with Lisa about several things, including her efforts to quit smoking. She is still smoke-free, and I am so proud of her! Yay, Lisa! Both her and Doug were wonderful people, and we hope that they might be able to stop by our place in a couple of weeks on their way to Chicago to see some friends. We would love to have them visit!

Then it was off to New York City. We met Friday night with another long-time friend, Raquel. I’ve known Raquel since PRE-blogging days, when we both had web pages rather than blogs! We met for the first time in 2005, so it had been far too long since we got together. We walked around the financial district a bit (that’s where we were staying) and then had dinner at an Italian place near Fulton Market. (I had always heard about Fulton Fish Market...apparently it no longer operates as a fish market, but there are lots of shops and restaurants in the area.) More great conversation with a friend I love dearly, and it was wonderful to see her. The food was SO good, and we had to have some tiramisu for dessert, along with a chocolate gelato with espresso sauce. Dammit, I’m going into food flashbacks again! We found a cool brewery in the area and had a couple of drinks and more conversation and lots of laughs.

RaQ Stephen BethOn Saturday, her long-time friend (I keep using that phrase, and I keep thinking “Me love you long-time!” Gahhh!) and one of my newer Facebook friends, Stephen, came up from his home in Connecticut to meet up with us. Or as he corrected me, he came DOWN from Connecticut. Whatever! They came down to our hotel (I got the direction right that time), we walked over to Zuccotti Park to check out Occupy Wall Street (more soon), tried to see the Sept. 11 Memorial but were unsuccessful (more soon), and then just did some strolling around Manhattan. Doesn’t that sound cool? Yeah, we just strolled around Manhattan. (Yes, Manhattan is a big place. We just strolled around a very small portion of Manhattan.) I enjoyed meeting Stephen, and don’t tell him this, but I found him charming and funny and very fun to be around!

Then we headed UPtown to Raquel’s place, hung out and talked for a bit before heading out to dinner. Got to pet the puppies and say hi to Pidge (the pigeon), as well as looking at Raquel’s mom’s incredible paintings, which are replicas of old-school masters. Just amazing work. Dinner was at a Spanish place that Raquel chose in Greenwich Village. Oh, the food, the FOOD! In a wonderful turn of events, Raquel’s mom joined us for dinner, and Gloria is fascinating and so much fun! They are of Spanish heritage, so they pretty much did all the ordering of the tapas...I wasn’t even going to TRY to pronounce it! Ken and I split a paella, and oh my...I had never had paella before, and it was every bit as good as Raquel said it would be. The crusty bits on the edges...oh mama. I’m actually salivating as I write this. Then it was back to Raquel’s for a bit, but we were pretty much in a food coma by that point, so after more conversation and an invite over to Gloria’s apartment next to Raquel’s, we made our way back to the hotel. A very good day.

La BotaWe had hoped to meet with another friend, David, on Sunday for brunch, but he had a friend emergency to deal with and couldn’t make it. We were just happy to hear that all was well with him, and it’s good to know that he was being a friend to someone in crisis. Next time, for sure!

There are others we would have loved to have met on this vacation, but there are only so many hours in a day. However, the people we did meet were charming, fascinating, and just generally super cool people. I have no doubt that the friends we meet the next time around will be every bit as wonderful.

Thanks to Dana, Lisa and Doug, Raquel, Stephen, and Gloria for meeting with us, and thank you for being my friends. You are beyond precious metals…you are gems.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Herman Centipede

Herman CainNo matter what you think of him, you have to give Herman Cain credit for maintaining a presence in the current conversation. I’ve been posting several news stories and getting into a few discussions about him on Facebook. Why, Beth (you might ask)? Do you really think he has a chance of getting the Republican nomination?

Not really...but after the popularity of Sarah Palin, I don’t take the gullibility of the American people for granted. Anything can happen in this strange state of the union in which we find ourselves.

A couple of my more conservative friends (yes, I really do have some, believe it or not) wrote that they like Cain. When pressed to explain why, they didn’t have much to say about that...just that they “like” him. When asked about whether they support Cain’s stance on abortion and gay rights, they seemed to be against Cain on those “issues.” But they never did articulate WHY they like him. One said that Cain would “mop the floor” with President Obama in a debate. (Whatever you’re smokin’, honey, feel free to send some of it my way!)

I was having an email discussion with Cousin Greg today (after wishing him a happy birthday!) and wrote something about the “inexplicable” popularity of Cain. I thought Greg had a pretty good take on it:

I think his popularity is easily explainable....People who like him or Ron Paul have the same mindset as many of those who voted for Obama in 2008. They believe that the key to turning the nation around is a strong, somewhat outsider personality rather than adherence to a handful of distinct policies.

That's why your friends can't talk in depth about the merits of his policies...Because they've attached themselves to Cain's problem solving methodology and personality rather than a specific policy or two.

I wrote that I mostly agree with what he was saying, but that while some people may have voted for Obama because of his charismatic personality, I cast my vote for him because I had read his books and liked his vision for our country, and because he had a lengthy and detailed plan of what he was going to do if he became President (I still have my copy of it). I do not see that with Cain, not one bit.

When he did put forth a policy, his 9-9-9 tax policy, it was roundly condemned by numerous, non-partisan analysts as being horribly regressive, placing increasing burden on the lowest income earners and giving the highest earners a huge tax break. When this was pointed out to him, his answer was, “Those analysts are wrong.” This week, he altered his policy to make one of the nines a zero for lower income people. I have to wonder why he didn’t think that out thoroughly before he took it public. One might think that he was just trying to come up with a catchy policy phrase instead of something that would really work.

He really wants to go head-to-head with President Obama on foreign policy? Cain constantly ducks questions about such issues by saying that he’s not privy to classified information, so he can’t offer his thoughts on it. Bish, if someone like me can read about these things and offer at least a casual opinion, so can you! You’re running for President! You need to know about these things! I would also recommend that you don’t ridicule the names of other countries because you think they sound funny. It’s Uzbekistan, not “Uz-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan.” When you’ve got the president of Afghanistan noticing and laughing about your comments, you can bet that he wasn’t really laughing. He was ridiculing your lack of knowledge about other countries, and dismissing you as a serious contender and as a world leader.

Then there are the bizarre ads his campaign put out this week. The strange “He Carried Yellow Flowers” ad, in which some actor I had to look up on IMDb says to a couple of whiskey-swilling, tobacky-chewing ne’er-do-wells who dare to question his yellow flowers, “Why has it always gotta be about color? What are you guys, liberals?” and then punches them both in the face. Then there is the über-strange “Now is the Time for Action” ad, in which his campaign manager, Mark Block, talks about how America has never seen a candidate like Herman Cain (all the while shaking his head...what?), and then takes a drag off a cigarette and blows the smoke towards the camera. What. The. Hell? It’s almost surreal in its bizarreness. (But apparently Herman is just giving a shout-out to his former buddies. As a lobbyist with a restaurant association, Cain worked hard to help Big Tobacco in their lobbying efforts, including fighting against smoking bans in restaurants.) Everyone from David Letterman to Stephen Colbert to Jon Huntsman’s three oldest daughters have made parody ads. (My personal favorite was the Colbert ad featuring a huffer, followed by his Slow Smile Contest challenge to Cain.)

As I clarified with Greg, Cain’s popularity is inexplicable to ME. If you spend any amount of time looking at this guy, his policies, his outlook (Don’t have a job? Blame yourself! Want to cross the border illegally? Fry on our electric fence!), and his lack of knowledge, I don’t know how anyone can support him for the highest office in the land. We are just starting to get our respect in the world back; do you really want our leader to be known as That Pizza Guy who can’t make heads nor tails of all the Stan countries? If he showed at least a glimmer of knowledge about such matters, I wouldn’t be as dismissive, but COME ON.

I don’t doubt that the Cain bubble will burst soon, just like the Bachmann and Perry bubbles burst. He just can’t sustain this kind of bizarre behavior and continue to get a pass. But sometimes I can be a little too optimistic about the ability of the American people to see what seems perfectly obvious, so I’ll keep posting things about Cain until he tanks just like the others. If by some strange chance he doesn’t tank and actually wins the nomination, there will be plenty of fodder for his run against President Obama.

Who’s next? Santorum? That should be fun, too!