October Update

Bought a standard poodle puppy.  Bringing him home October 5, so October will be full of housebreaking, and FUN.

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WONDER OF THE MOMENT

Tuesday
Jul032012

Love Me, Love My Bacteria

My June 19 post was about the exciting study of our microbiomes.  A microbiome is the entire assemblage of bacteria that live in any one human being, or other animal.  Your microbiome is different from mine.  We might have a lot of the same species of bacteria inhabiting our bodies, but in different amounts.  Or you might have some species I don't have, and vice versa.

We now know that only 10% of our cells are human.  The other 90% are bacterial.  Since our species, and for that matter, all animal species, evolved in a bacterial world, we depended on our resident bacteria from the very start.  We actually can’t survive well without them  In fact, maybe we shouldn’t think of them as “resident.”  Maybe we should think of them as part of us!

         Vast quantities of bacteria live in our gut.  They break down food, like cellulose from plants, that we can’t break down ourselves.  They manufacture vitamins we need, like the B-group and vitamin K.  They regulate the amount of acid in our stomachs.

         Recently, researchers have begun to think some of our bacteria actually “teach” our immune systems how to function.  In particular, our bacteria may regulate our "killer T-cells," such as the one in the micro-photo I've posted today.

         How amazing: we may have evolved to need certain bacteria to regulate the immune systems we had come to think of as nearly supernatural in their ability to fight off infection. 

         How intriguing: this immune regulation may have something to do with rising rates of asthma.




Thursday
Jun282012

Warm Winter: Summer Consequences?

After one of the warmest Chicago winters on record, we wound up with one of the earliest springs on record.  It was as if the flowers were in a race to see which could bloom soonest.  Plants that usually blossom in slow, measured steps were blooming all at once: Crocus, daffodil, tulips, hyacinth, forsythia, azaleas, iris, lilac.

         A big question during the early spring blossoming race was what would happen to summer flowers.  I figured they would bloom early too.  But I figured it wouldn’t be so striking, since lots of summer flowers are annuals that people plant whenever they want to. 

         But I’ve noticed two summer flowers that bloom perennially and seem not to have started any earlier than usual this summer.  These are hollyhocks and orange trumpet.

         I’m happy to see red, purple, and blue hollyhocks blooming now, in late June.  I anticipate they will continue to flower all summer.  Also happy, on my June morning lakefront walks, to find the orange trumpet vines on the high public golf course fence, beginning to flower just this past week. 

         Some flowering plants bloom according to temperature, some according to night length.  Fortunately for us, the night length doesn’t change with weather!  So we can count on some favorites refusing to join the flowering competition, and gracing our lives on schedule this summer. 

Tuesday
Jun262012

Radio Sociology

Years ago, I worked as a substitute elementary school teacher for the Chicago Board of Education.  One day I was assigned to a school in the inner city, a few blocks west of 79th Street and Stony Island Avenue.  During a break from class, I got into conversation with a regular first grade teacher there.  She was a dancer, whose early career had been in ballet.  She was lithe and attract, clearly loved by her six-year-old students.  As a teacher, she felt strongly, that part of her job was to bring the culture of our big, diverse city into the lives of her little charges. 

         This teacher took advantage of every bit of travel money she could get her hands on to take her classes on field trips to museums, downtown parks and statuary, the gorgeous main library, etc.  No matter where she took her students, she insisted their mothers must come too.  She did this, she said, because most of those mothers had never ventured more than a few blocks away from their homes, and they needed to get to know the City too.  I was in awe: what a brilliant, important idea. 

         Yesterday morning, I listened to “848,” a daily program on Chicago’s local NPR station, WBEZ.  It was first in a series on racism.  It was broadcast from BJ's Market and Bakery at 79th and Racine.  (This is the third BJ’s, the original one is at 8734 S Stony Island Ave., the second at 9645 S Western Ave.)  John Meyer, the owner, was invited to open the restaurant at 79th and Racine to help improve the neighborhood, a venture that’s turning out well!

         One point the reporters on the program stressed was that neighborhoods are segregated if they consist of only one race, period.  In other words, if I’m white, and I live in an all-white neighborhood, I am living in segregation.  Wow, what a concept!

         A second point: It isn’t race or ethnicity that makes a neighborhood safe or crime-ridden, highly educated or not so highly educated.  These are consequences of higher or lower income levels  Segregated neighborhoods are often economically segregated as well as racially segregated.

         Another excellent point, the one that reminded me of the first grade teacher I described at the beginning of this post: On a trip to Starbucks, teens from a segregated, low-income neighborhood feel intimidated and out of place.  Why?  They don’t know the Starbuck's lingo.  Never heard of “tall, grande, venti.”  Never heard of “skinny, half-caf, wet, dry, macchiato.”  Never mind the choices of syrup, etc.  Yet Starbucks is a common location for career networking.  So these teens need to become familiar with Starbucks and its ilk just to get ahead.  We really do need to integrate our neighborhoods racially and economically.



Thursday
Jun212012

Strangers In Your House

Imagine waking up to find strangers parading through your bedroom and living room.

         On my usual six A.M. power walk along the bike path in Chicago’s lakefront park, I pass by several wooded areas, eastern offshoots stretching between the park and the beach.  Early morning sunshine dapples and dazzles through the leaves, its beauty assuring me that a power greater than ourselves arranges our beloved earth.  So I always look east to see this mystical light as I pass these favorite spots.

         In one of these, last Monday, seated at a heavy wooden picnic table, I saw someone reading a book and making notes in a notebook.  For a moment, as I sped by, I believed this was a perfectly normal scene.  But as I left that scholar behind, I realized the scene was not normal.  Who would come all the way to the lakefront park at six in the morning in order to study?

         Then I thought of the many homeless people who have appeared in this park at dawn all through the summers of my years of power walking.  There was a couple who woke from a makeshift double bed.  By the time I arrived in the morning, the woman was carefully folding the bedding, handing it to the man to stack in a rickety shopping cart.  “Good morning!” she used to greet me, smiling.

         There was a lone man who held what appeared to be a cell phone to his ear.  He kept up a running stream of chatter, as if he had just dropped in to the park to conduct an important phone call at dawn, as if there were a listener who never replied at the other end.

         All sorts of comfy, ordinary behavior to make it appear these people were living normal lives.  To avoid the appearance of loitering or vagrancy.  To avoid the police.

         On my return trip on Monday, I looked more carefully at the reading note taker, and sure enough, under the picnic table by his feet stood a worn, raggedy duffle bag, full of who knows what.  Yet I like to believe this was no ruse.  Maybe the person is working toward a GED, or maybe he’s newly homeless and is in the midst of retraining to try a new line of work with more available job opportunities. 

         Now I sort of regret not having walked over to talk, to find out.  Now I regret that I never have any cash on my morning walks.  Yet how would I feel, waking up the second time, after hitting the snooze button for an extra 10 minutes, if a perfect stranger came to my bedside and said, “Hi!  What are you up to?”



Tuesday
Jun192012

We Are (Definitely) Not Alone

I’m always bedazzled when I realize that we live in a bacterial world.  Nothing shows quite so graphically the power of evolution.  Bacteria, especially “friendly,” useful bacteria, are the dark matter of our lives.  And we only become aware of them when they go missing and something goes wrong.

         I’ve mentioned before the strange business of increasing rates of asthma and other allergic conditions in present-day children.  Strangest of all is the fact that rural children, especially farm children, don’t seem to be affected.  Those kids don’t suffer from the over-sterilized city world of anti-bacterial soaps and cleaning solutions.  Apparently, when children are exposed to an enormous variety of bacteria from birth, they are protected from allergies to some degree.

         Recently, research has begun to show that our protective bacteria inhabit every part of us they can get to, and that we contain enormous numbers and kinds of bacteria.  These guys are being called a “microbiome,” and each of us has our own, different to some degree from everyone else’s. 

         We begin to pick up our own microbiome as we pass through our mothers’ birth canals.  (Children born by Caesarian section have higher asthma rates than those born vaginally!)  After birth, we continue to pick up bacteria from the air, from food, and all sorts of sources..  Every part of our bodies that is exposed to the outside becomes inhabited by an enormous variety of bacteria. 

         And it turns out we really need these bacteria for nutrition, for protection, for the proper functioning of our bodies.  All those anti-bacterial products we use to get rid of “germs” are making some of us sick, or obese, or who knows what else? 

         A good example of people trying  to re-do what the Cosmos has already done much better.  We need more humility.



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