The Casual Blog

Tag: Doctors without Borders

Charities, Allegiance, history, microbes, walks, and flying my new quadcopter

Demolition on Harrington Street

Demolition on Harrington Street

This week I wrote my annual checks to my favorite charities. Giving seemed more than usually important this year, since some of my favored causes are directly threatened by the recently elected executive — the environment, human rights, civil liberties, animal rights, family planning, and those less fortunate. I felt really lucky to be able to help, even if only a little, by giving to effective organizations.

I was especially mindful of the dire plight of refugees from the Middle East, Africa, Central America, and elsewhere, and so want to mention for your consideration the work of the International Rescue Committee and Doctors Without Borders. I’ll also note that in these tumultuous times we need more than ever the wisdom and beauty of the arts, and hope others will join me in supporting the wonderful North Carolina Ballet and North Carolina Opera.
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On Tuesday, Sally and I saw Allegiance, a movie of a show recently on Broadway about the experience of Japanese-Americans in WWII. It was inspired by experiences of George Takei (Star Trek), whose family, along with many others, was held in a grim internment camp. At one level, it was a normal Broadway show, with pretty songs and kinetic dances, which were enjoyable if not especially original. But it was ambitious in taking on a big and tragic subject and expressing some of its complexity. While the so-called alt right has found new methods for inspiring fear and hatred of minorities, Allegiance does the opposite — it inspires caring.
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The movie of Allegiance was a one-time-only, nationwide event that I learned about from the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast, which I’ve been listening to at the gym. Stuff You Missed often take on subjects that our American history textbooks played down or left out, because they don’t fit comfortably into a triumphalist national narrative. For example, recent ones I’ve liked have treated the Dakota War of 1862, George Wallace, the Reynolds pamphlet of Alexander Hamilton, the first transatlantic cable, and the Palmer raids. They segments are lively and have a nice balance between serious academic history and the personal, emotional implications of some dire events. The hosts, Tracey V. Wilson and Holly Frey are starting to feel like friends — really smart, curious, and hardworking, with a sense of humor. You can check it out here.
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THe spirit of curiosity and engagement with new things has been upon me, and so I finished reading, and started re-reading, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong. It’s a lively and convincing view of the bacteria that live in us, on us, and all around us. This is a really exciting area of science, and developing fast. I like that Yong’s title used a line from Walt Whitmans’ Leaves of Grass, which also can change how we see ourselves.

When I was a child, I was taught that “germs” were bad, and the best thing to do was avoid them or eliminate them. As Yong makes clear, this was both silly and dangerous. Our bodies contain more bacterial cells than human cells, which calls into question who really owns those bodies. There are some 39 trillion bacterial cells in and on us, and thousands of species, though the particular kinds in each of us varies greatly, and the varieties are constantly changing. They are vital to our well-being. Without them, we could not grow or thrive. Each one of us is an ecosystems — microbiomes, as they now say. Without those multitudes, we could not grow, and could not continue to live. They are vital, for example, for digesting food, producing vitamins, breaking down toxins, and killing more dangerous microbes. DCIM100MEDIADJI_0017.JPG

I also finished reading On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, by Alexandra Horowitz. Horowitz, who teaches psychology and animal behavior at Barnard, writes well about who she sees, hears, smells, and touches in walking around New York. After an initial walk by herself considering how much there was to see in a city walk, she also realized how little she normally perceives. She does the other 9 walks with experts in some aspect of the urban environment, like a geologist, a paleontologist, an architect, a wild animal expert, a sound designer, and her dog (an expert in smells). She gives short by credible accounts of the relevant science, and makes us consider the urban environment as full of non-human life and history.

The demolition photographs here are from just down the block on Harrington Street, where they just knocked down a former furniture store that sat next to the old Board of Elections Building. They didn’t fence off the site, so I was able to take a good look around on Saturday. I look forward to more new construction in the neighborhood, including (can’t wait for this one) a grocery store.
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Finally, this weekend I added a new line to the c.v.: quadcopter pilot! I took my first flight with my new DJI Phantom 4 quadcopter, a/k/a drone (a term I don’t really like, at least as applied to my aircraft) at Fletcher Park, where it was cold and gray. It was awesome! There is a learning curve, and I’m climbing it. I’m very excited about exploring aerial photography. These ones are my beginnings.
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Getting a new floor, Ethiopian food, beautiful bugs, helping refugees, and our gun problem

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We’re living in a hotel in Cary while the floor of our condo is being removed and replaced. While I’m grateful we have the means to remedy our defective flooring, this has been a major project – like moving (lots of planning, arranging, sorting, boxing, and hauling), but without the ultimate gratification of a move. Flooring is one of those things I don’t usually think much about, and I will be glad to be finished with it.
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It’s unsettling to be uprooted. Our hotel is fine, with amenities including a gym, pool, free wi-fi, breakfasts included, and best and most unusual of all, they take doggies. At first our Stuart was discombobulated by the new situation, uninterested in his food (most unlike him), listless and particularly in need of affection.

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We all consoled each other, and we humans, though unsettled, did not lose our interest in food. On Friday evening we tried a new-to-us Ethiopian place called Awaze. Our servers were warm and friendly, and happy to give us coaching on the traditional forkless method of eating. You tear off a piece of injera, a spongy sort of bread that comes rolled up, pick up some of your main dish with it, then insert in mouth. We tried the vegetarian platter, a combo of most of their veggie entrees. Every bite was exotically spiced and delicious.

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On Saturday morning I visited Raulston Arboretum, as I often do. One thing you discover when you regularly visit a garden: it’s never the same twice. There are major changes every week. This week it was lush and green, with lots of insect activity, including some gorgeous butterflies. The closer you look, the more beauty there is to see.
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This week I read the latest UN Report on Refugees. Did you know that we currently share the planet with the largest number of refugees and displaced persons in history – 65.3 million? That’s up from 59.5 million a year earlier. Children make up more than half of the total. The largest source countries are Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. This short UN film (scroll down to Global Trends) highlights the human dimensions of this catastrophe.

Inasmuch as these fellow human beings are in dire straits, and particularly in consideration of our partial responsibility from our destructive decades-long war in the Middle East, it would seem we should be working hard to help. For many, though, the primary concern seems to be that there could among these unfortunates uprooted by war and terrorism be terrorists. Based on this disproportionate fear, we’re doing almost nothing, and let the devil take the hindmost. This is an ethical failure of huge proportions. Consider a gift to the International Rescue Committee or another reputable charity serving refugees.
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There are occasional shining sparks of humanity. The New Yorker this week had a harrowing/inspiring piece by Ben Taub about the work of Doctors Without Borders and others providing medical care to displaced persons in Syria. The Assad government has denied health care to millions of civilians by systematically killing hundreds of health care workers and destroying hospitals. You might think this would drive out the surviving doctors, but there are still some who will not quit, and continue to save lives under unimaginably harsh conditions. Human kindness and courage still exist!
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Speaking of moxy, House Democrats showed some backbone this week in staging a sit in in support of gun control. The NRA’s bought-and-paid-for veto power over gun legislation is an extreme example of the corruption of our political system, and although it’s grotesque, we’ve come to accept it as unchangeable.

In the wake of the Orlando massacre, as dozens of Democrats disrupted House business demanding a vote on a gun control bill, it felt bracingly close to real change. The bill at issue was underwhelming – as the gun wingnuts correctly pointed out, the no-fly list is not a reliable source for identifying bad people – but the larger point was clear and important: we can no longer treat this corruption preventing sane gun laws as business as usual.
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The New Yorker noted this week that more Americans were killed by firearms in the past decade than in all of WWII. What is the root cause of the American obsession with guns and allergy to reasonable gun control? A lot of it surely involves high levels of irrational fear. What if we tried to help people find better ways to deal with their fears, and helped them see that in general guns make them less safe, not more?

Sure, that’s a tall order, but it’s worth a shot. Here are some first thoughts to get the ball rolling. Call out fearmongering by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and many others. Give away free copies of local crime statistics showing downward crime trends. Teach stress reduction techniques. Promote visits to the local arboretum.
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