Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Book Review: Never Home Alone Embraces the Wild Indoors

The New York Times review of Rob Dunn's new book Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honey Bees, the Natrual History of Where We Live (2018, New York: Basic Books, 307 pp.), calls it "a book that will make you terrified of your own house." To the contrary, it is a celebration of the biodiversity of the indoors. Presented here are solid scientific arguments for re-thinking how we approach our daily lives.

Dunn is among the most prolific science writer of our time, but the rigor and research he applies to each book is beyond reproach. He is also captivating in his delivery, a master at never talking down to the reader, but instead elevating the reader into a participant role in the storytelling. Indeed, my reaction to some passages was "why didn't I get invited to help with that study?" or "how do I get to help in the next research project?" Dunn's enthusiasm and sense of wonder are far more contagious than any of the pathogenic microbes he discusses in Never Home Alone.

About those bacteria, yeasts, molds, fungi, and viruses. Turns out that there is untold diversity among them, and the overwhelming majority are beneficial to us rather than malignant. In the course of surveying homes around the world, from his own neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina to Russia, and even the international space station, Dunn and his minions discovered new species of microbes. Probably new genera and families, too. How is it that we still have so much to learn about the places we spend ninety percent of our lives? He has a theory, but you will find no spoilers here.

Dunn puts the "history" in "natural history" in all of his books, and it is often a history we do not learn of in school, certainly not to the depths that various historical figures and episodes deserve. Here, that history demonstrates where science has been confronted with choices, and how civilization has progressed, or potentially strayed, as a result of the paths we have taken.

The overall message of Never Home Alone is a positive and encouraging one. It is always the disasters and exceptions that make the headlines. How black mold turns homes into lethal chambers for the human residents. The latest epidemic of Staphylococcus bacteria in the local hospital. Not publicized are the numerous microbes, insects, fungi, and other organisms found in the average home or workplace that are essential to our human lives. We are overzealous in our efforts to rid our homes of harmful creatures, eradicating the helpful and inert species with far greater success, albeit inadvertently. The dangerous critters prosper through evolved resistance to chemical treatment, and the absence of the good creatures that would outcompete them if we did little or nothing to intervene.

Dunn stops short of stating the ultimately obvious: "Product" and "service" are rarely the answer to any problem, especially an ailing household. Something is already out of balance, and applying chemical treatments is only going to exacerbate the situation rather than solve it. Your home, workplace, and even your body are ecosystems, mostly at a microscopic scale, and failure to treat them as such, to cultivate the beneficial species, is asking for trouble.

Never Home Alone concludes with a chapter about bread, specifically sourdough, which results from fermentation processes conducted by yeasts in concert with other microbes. Bread is a living thing, or more properly a collection of living things, like an orchestra, bread being the musical product. It is an apt metaphor for how we should approach every aspect of our lives. We should be striving to be a complement to other species, fostering diversity at every level. When we seek to understand, ask questions first, and hesitate before reaching for the cleansing fluid, we begin to truly flourish. Our potential as stewards of the planet begins, literally, at home. Stop with the apologies, the "excuse the mess" greeting you give your guests. You are not a messy housekeeper, you are promoting biodiversity. Read this book and free yourself.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

A Different Kind of Impulse Buy

© 30seconds.com

I share the following experience not to boast, but as a conversation-starter, a place to begin thinking about how we can heal our isolation, and maybe upend our assumptions and fears, and start overcoming our guilt. Actions do speak louder than words, and risks do have their rewards.

The other night my wife and I were in a grocery check-out line behind an older woman in one of those motorized carts. I watched from a respective distance as she unloaded mostly processed foods. After the clerk gave the total, the woman began subtracting items to get herself within budget. The first to go was a bag of oranges. The second was a bag of vegetables for stew. That did the trick, she could pay now.

I turned to my wife and mentioned that I thought the lady had sacrificed the two most nutritious things in her cart. This had me concerned if only because the woman might not be in great health already, and giving up fresh fruits and vegetables would not help matters. I felt myself getting increasingly anxious and fidgety. I asked my wife if she would agree to let me buy the two items for the woman. She nodded. I spoke up quickly before the stranger concluded her transaction and rode off into the....well, the sun had already set, actually.

Naturally, the woman was grateful, I have yet to meet any random individual in a scenario like this who is an ass about it. What surprised me was myself, how I had reacted quickly, without sizing up anything more than the fact that this lady might be in ill health, possibly on a fixed income, was older than myself ("respect your elders" was playing in my ears), and Caucasian. End of story, and the fact that she was White was a mere observation. My assumptions, if I had any, were all giving her the benefit of the doubt.

Reflecting on this, I ask myself under what circumstances might I have not intervened in a positive manner? How about a single mother paying with food stamps who is unable to get the items being taken off the conveyor because they are not WIC or SWIPE approved? Well, don't we all deserve some comfort food now and then, or a minor indulgence in something extravagant? I think so. I do it myself.

I know one person who volunteers in the food pantry at my wife's church who, sadly, judges everyone who walks through the door. This person complains to us about how she sees people coming in for food who have a smart phone, tattoos, nails done up by a salon, and other visible attributes that suggest they are spending their money frivolously. Wow, a few assumptions there, don't you think? How do we know they did not get the tattoos and phone before they fell on hard times? So what if they have nice nails? You get your hair done, don't you, we ask our friend?

This is how bigotry starts, with stereotypes and assumptions, and a superiority complex thrown in for good measure. We have no idea of the backstory for a given individual and, what is even worse, we have no desire to hear it. God forbid that we learn our judgments are unfounded. We would probably end up calling that person an "exception" anyway. Sigh.

What if the person ahead of you at the checkout was a young man of "minority" ethnicity, with face tattoos that make him look like the next mug shot you will see on the news? Seriously, you should see what the average Colorado criminal looks like. Ok, maybe not, but on the other hand, what if helping him out keeps him from a B&E to get that item later? The blessing and the curse is that you never know the consequences of your actions. They might be insignificant or even have zero impact, or they might change everything. So, you do it anyway. You may ask yourself whether you will regret it, but if you are in a situation where you can help someone, you will very seldom be sorry you did so. Not acting on your better impulses is something you are almost guaranteed to regret.

Psst, how about some overweight dude in overalls with a red "Make America Great Again" ballcap? Ok, now you have gone over the line. It's every man for himself! Insert wink emoji here.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Deliver Us From....Delivery

© Zencomputershop.com

This Sunday is the "big game," and we are guaranteed as Americans to have pizza and other food delivery drivers scrambling to satiate us as we gather at parties to sit in front of the huge television we had delivered just the other day to make the sports spectacle all the more spectacular. Lately, though, it seems that "delivery season" has stretched to encompass the entire calendar year, and that should stir some unease at the very least.

Our delivery culture has arguably made us more isolated and dependent, physically weaker, overspent financially, and turned us into hoarders of a sort. It continues if not accelerates the idea that material things are all that matters, all that gives us comfort and joy. It bloats not only our consumption of products, but adds to our waste of energy and other natural resources. We have come to embrace convenience as our social and economic god, above all else.

"Free shipping" encourages mindless binge shopping because we can simply add an item to the shopping cart icon, no muss, no fuss. People who bought this also purchased this, and so we want to keep up with the Joneses. We are slaves to fashion, marketing and advertising, peer influence, and the "influencers" we follow on social media. Strike that. We are shamed by those manipulative factors.

My own home looks more like a warehouse these days, in part to my deceased mother's and father's belongings that we relocated to our house from their storage lockers. Still, we seem to accumulate more boxes almost weekly from purchases my spouse makes online. That is not to say she is impulsive. Neither of us spends much on material goods beyond what we need. We tend to "upgrade" sporadically. Despite our best intentions, we are tripping over Amazon containers.

Let us think for a moment about all that extra packaging that goes into delivery, most of it disposable, too often like the products inside them. We tell ourselves we can re-use the boxes, but are defeated in trying to strip off all the tape and labels and barcodes. In the end we often just dump them in the recycling bin if we are lucky enough to have recycling services. Our food orders come in styrofoam, plastic, or maybe cardboard boxes, all inside a trash-worthy plastic bag. Wasteful, even as we are laughing at the new handheld gadget that comes in a cubic foot box.

Perhaps the scariest part of our obsession with delivery is that virtually all of the vehicles used to bring things to our homes are fossil-fuel dependent. Maybe some couriers employ electric cars, or bicycle messengers, but the range of both are geographically small and microscopic respectively. Delivery drones have not become commonplace despite promises to the contrary, but I for one think that is a good thing. I loathe the prospect of a future full of the incessant whining of tiny rotors from drones passing overhead.

The growth of delivery services has become almost exponential. Restaurant food delivery alone is becoming the norm, though ironically restaurants still call such customers "guests." Options like Grubhub, DoorDash, and now UberEats make it uncomfortably easy to never leave your home or apartment except, maybe, to commute to and from work. One can see the day where Uber and Lyft are transporting more goods than they are human passengers.

We cannot, of course, ignore the social ramifications of delivery. The only way we can deliver ideas, sentiments, passion, and other vital currencies of society to each other, powerfully, is in-person. Conversation has been replaced with keystrokes. We are allowing corporations to have the only voice, the only authority, in our lives. We meekly accept the invasion of our privacy as a logical consequence of convenience, individualized marketing on Facebook as the price we pay for our otherwise anonymous participation in the economy. Oh, we complain about it. We mourn the closing of our favorite bookseller, hardware store, bakery, and other local businesses, but fail to see how our shopping habits led to their demise.

We are also up-in-arms over thieves that steal the packages off our porches, but now we have spyware for that....The snowball of technology keeps rolling, right over us as we lie listlessly on the couch, with Netflix and Hulu, the new delivery streams for media. Maybe we need to re-think this. Maybe we....Excuse me, I believe I just heard the doorbell.