Monthly Archives: May 2013

Interlude

At once Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” came to me today, as I was walking home. It had become that time of evening, when quietude is palpable and thoughts saunter out onto the porch, greeted openly by barely-awake blades of grass. I remembered the two toddlers who I’d seen on the bus earlier today, surprised and befuddled by each others’ existence. And then there was the music coming from just inside a window in a manufacturer’s area of town; at least, I thought it was emanating from somewhere around me. But it was in fact coming from my phone—I’d accidentally touched my music app and granted Shostakovich access to my late afternoon daze. And so what better thing to do than to enjoy the unexpected music, the flurry of happy clarinets, and to laugh at my giddy response, which was to hold the phone to my ear as though someone were addressing me with private joys.

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Mushrooms and the Microbiome

I used to hate mushrooms. Too squeaky, too chewy. As a child, it disturbed me that some were poisonous while others were not; I likened the harmful ones to ominous little gnomes crouching in the summertime dusk, and until recently, I remained skeptical of store-bought ones, too. Why was I so wary of nature’s white-capped domes? My opinion of them has done a complete 360 since then, probably because I have a better understanding of the possibly constructive, even benevolent role fungi might play in our bodies [National Geographic “The Loom”]. And probably because I discovered that mushrooms taste good sautéed in butter.

The word “fungus,” to my mind, was synonymous with “wild,” “undisturbed,” “spontaneous,” and “rotted.” I associated it with the green and purple stuff overtaking my food, the strange spotted lumps rising out of damp grass, and the sickness that resulted from fungal infections. One of the most wonderful things science can do for us, though, is show us a new side of something that has been culturally or psychologically burdened. In the linked article above, Carl Zimmer writes:

We are hosts to fungi both in sickness and in health. Fungi are an important part of the microbiome, along with bacteria and viruses–the subject of my post on Monday. Like those other organisms, our fungi have made it tough to study them with their reluctance to grow in labs. So scientists are beginning to use a different strategy–dispensing with gardening fungi and just gathering fungal DNA from healthy people.

Today in Nature, Julie Segre of the National Human Genome Research Institute and her colleagues present the first comprehensive atlas of the fungi growing on our skin. They collected fungal DNA from 14 sites on the bodies of 10 healthy volunteers. They found fungi everywhere: not just on the soles of people’s feet, but on the palms of their hands, on their backs, and in their ear canals.

There’s been a lot of talk about the microbiome lately, despite that we don’t know much about it. But the findings are incredibly interesting—they show us that fungi and other life forms routinely set up shop in our bodies, our buildings, and even our dogs [NPR]. We unwittingly colonize each other [The New Yorker] with bacteria, and we create distinct microbial communities in our homes [NOVA Next] based on the design, intent, and function of those spaces. We might even be able to create a “microbial map” documenting the sundry (scratch that, millions) of critters that live with us, with people in China, people in Norway, and so on. And in any given home on any given street in any given country, each species has its own style of interaction with humans. Freaky, but amazing. To me, these recent studies attest to the many ways we can analyze and understand the macroscopic through details inherent in the microscopic.

So with that in mind, I happily add mushrooms to my pasta.

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A Foray into East Mediterranean Food

In the coming weeks and months, I’d like to start writing about food. I never thought I’d be so fascinated by the way we envelope food in stories, myths, and ideas. But cooking for myself has granted me a new appreciation for the charms of flavor-pairing; I also enjoy learning about food’s cultural connotations, what certain ingredients add to the intellectual and emotional experience of eating, and how various spices come to be so important. When I listened to Jerry Seinfeld speak on NPR about coffee, it occurred to me that other beverages, products, and delicacies add character to our lives in different ways and take on various roles.

Inspired by the local markets and eateries where I live, especially places like Sofra Bakery and Café, my main focus is on Eastern Mediterranean (and Middle Eastern) food—which I absolutely adore… plus, it’s good for you. So this is your warning—I’m delving into something new!

Mediterranean-Sea

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Yes, I Do Care What You Ate For Breakfast

I knew there was a reason for my frustration.

Older generations tend to complain endlessly about rampant “narcissism” amongst Twitter users. They lament self-absorbed Facebook statuses and argue that social media is ruining our sense of privacy. Sure, there are some valid points here, but I don’t believe situation is that dire. Obviously media organizations know this; a veritable revolution has transpired since the arrival of these platforms, and the result has arguably been a positive one. But what of personal reporting through social media? The Nieman Journalism Lab published a great piece on the history of journalling and how it relates to that topic. (As an aside, I love that every Nieman reporter I’ve encountered on the web has a  keen eye for separating life-affirming water [read: the primal and refreshing aspects of new media] from greasy oil [read: the stuff that’s flavorful but flammable].) Writer Caroline O’Donovan focuses on new research from Cornell’s Lee Humphreys:

…Humphreys found that it’s only been in the last hundred years that journalling has come to be considered a private practice. In the late 19th century, she says visiting friends and relatives would gather together and read each others diaries as a way of keeping up to date and sharing their lives. Journals were also kept in early American towns to mark and record important events: weddings, births, deaths and other events of community-wide importance.

“You don’t get a real sense of personal, individual self until the end of the 19th century,” Humphreys told the Cornell Chronicle in 2010, “so it makes perfect sense that diaries or journals prior to that time were much more social in nature.”

So there! This isn’t the first time that the private has been made public. We’ve always reveled in our ability to take the granular components of our lives (the small details, no matter how inane) and create personal narratives out of them. Like Civil War soldier Charlie Mac—who is mentioned in O’Donovan’s piece—we write (and tweet) with an imagined audience. We expect that somebody (anybody!) will read our words and think of us as having a story—even if we profess that absolutely no one is allowed to crack open our diary’s spine. Mac later worked for The Boston Globe, where

…he would have observed the budding of what we consider the traditional media hierarchy. Information would increasingly begin to flow from the top down, rather than be gathered voraciously from amateurs in the field. He would see news brands begin to shape and control narratives, and come to exist in an information system with less and less emphasis on personal interactions.

Of course, what we’ve seen in the decades since the dawn of the digital age is just the opposite. Humphreys said one of the early conclusions from her research is the possibility that the mass media of the 20th century was in fact a blip, a historical aberration, and that, through platforms like Twitter, we are gradually returning to a communication network that indulges, without guilt, the individual’s desire to record his existence.

I believe these indulgences are just as legitimate as the words our great-grandparents etched in leather-bound diaries. We may not find pressed dandelions nestled between tweets, but we’re sure to find tidbits that add to the complexity of our collective story. So in other words, I do care what you ate for breakfast. I may not care in the moment; in fact, it’s very likely that I won’t ever see what you’ve typed. But I care about it as a contribution, a step forward, a single utterance in a much longer narrative.

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