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Posts Tagged ‘history’

Not Fade Away

My father started a friends and family email chain about An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, a window on a history that is both important and difficult. For a bit of balance, here are indigenous students doing something that is both important and uplifting.

Here’s to survival, and to hope.

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Students at Allison Bernard Memorial High School in Cape Breton sing Paul McCartney’s Blackbird in their native Mi’kmaq language.

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I just learned a new word-related thing and thought I’d share. The correct phrase is “just deserts” not “just desserts.”

Despite its pronunciation, just deserts, with one s, is the proper spelling for the phrase meaning “the punishment that one deserves.” The phrase is even older than dessert, using an older noun version of desert meaning “deserved reward or punishment,” which is spelled like the arid land, but pronounced like the sweet treat.

— ‘Just Deserts’ or ‘Just Desserts’? | Merriam-Webster*

I always thought this term was a food reference. Shows how my mind works.

And now that I know I was wrong, I can start being right. Learning stuff is great.

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* So wait, no “dessert” before the 16th century? Dark ages indeed;)

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Photo by Marta Dzedyshko on Pexels.com

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My little brother just got his first shot. I can’t tell you how happy I am that he and his wife are one step closer to full protection.

As discussed in many venues in recent months,* the path to the Covid-19 vaccines has been convoluted. And not only does our health and safety rest on the shoulders of scientists who spent most of their careers in under-rewarded obscurity** but the history of vaccines is even more complicated than it may at first seem.

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The past year has been a nightmare, but I am incredibly grateful that we haven’t had to deal with a disease like, say, smallpox. Wildly contagious with a fatality rate of about thirty percent, for most of human history this disease was unstoppable. It spread within communities and also, devastatingly, between locations (like 17th century Europe and North America).

Thanks to a concerted international effort and global vaccination campaign, by 1980 smallpox was eventually eradicated. Thank you, science! And now we’re tackling our own pandemic with the power of vaccination. How did we get here?

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The history of vaccination usually starts something like this:

One of the first methods for controlling smallpox was variolation, a process named after the virus that causes smallpox (variola virus)… The basis for vaccination began in 1796 when the English doctor Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids who had gotten cowpox were protected from smallpox. Jenner also knew about variolation and guessed that exposure to cowpox could be used to protect against smallpox.

— History of Smallpox | CDC

What caught my eye about this bit in particular was “variolation.” Who, I wondered, was behind the initial work? I’m always interested in the beginnings of things. Who worked out how to eat a poisonous plant like cassava, for example? In this case, where did the idea of inoculation come from? What of the giants on whose shoulders we stand?

Practitioners in Asia worked out the method, and by the 1700s it had spread to Africa, India and the Ottoman Empire. Next stop, North America, by way of the slave trade.*** Here’s a version of that story in graphic form:

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At the same time, a smallpox epidemic devastated England. An English Lady (yep, capital L), Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, brought information about inoculation back with her from the Ottoman Empire, where female medical professionals practiced a variation of the technique:

An Old Effort To Stop The Smallpox Virus Has Lessons For COVID-19 Today

Unfortunately, “European doctors were aware of what the Ottomans and others were doing but they refused to believe it worked. At the time, “Europe was pretty isolated and it was fairly xenophobic”…”

Lady Mary’s efforts came up against (stop me if you’ve heard this one) prejudice, xenophobia, and the perverse financial incentives of the medical profession.

“I am patriot enough to take the pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England.” But in the next breath, she expressed contempt for British doctors, who she believed were too preoccupied with making money: “I should not fail to write to some of our doctors very particularly about it, if I knew any one of them that I thought had virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their revenue, for the good of mankind.”

— Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Even so, she had a positive impact, not least on one particular individual:

…the technique she’d borrowed from Ottoman women did take hold in England. Many thousands were inoculated, including a young boy named Edward Jenner. He went on to develop the first vaccine, also against smallpox.

— An Old Effort To Stop The Smallpox Virus Has Lessons For COVID-19 Today

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So here’s to the unsung heroes who took the first steps into the unknown, the practitioners lost to history, and those who passed their knowledge down in the hopes that we would use it to build something better, like the slave who shared what he knew and the aristocrat who used her status for good. 

“One takeaway for everyone, whether it be scientists or nonscientists, is that we’re not nearly as smart as we think we are,” he says. “We have much we can learn from others.”

— An Old Effort To Stop The Smallpox Virus Has Lessons For COVID-19 Today

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* Here are a couple of articles if you’re interested in the background: How mRNA went from a scientific backwater to a pandemic crusher and How mRNA Technology Gave Us the First COVID-19 Vaccines.

** That really should change, and I hope the Nobel Prize Committee agrees with me. Katalin Karikó, Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci in particular come to mind.

*** No, I’m not happy about this either, but I am very grateful that Onesimus was willing to share.

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vials of Covid-19 vaccine
Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

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Today is International Women’s Day, and I’m feeling fine. If you’re interested in learning more about the sorts of women who are often shunned by history, check out this sampling of women who dared greatly:

Historical awesome:

And in a bit of modern-day awesome, NASA has named the Perseverance landing site after Octavia Butler. How cool is that?

Speaking of NASA:

Inspiration much? Yes, thanks!

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In related news, we finally watched Terminator: Dark Fate and enjoyed the heck out of it. I’ll admit to avoiding it, a bit. Lackluster reviews, messed-up timeline issues (which earlier movies were we supposed to ignore and which not? oy), plus the “Yeah, you’re not the threat. It’s your womb” series concept kept me from watching it sooner. 

Now that I have, what did I think?

Let’s just say that the ladies kick ass.

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Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

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From the Library of Congress:

Today in History – February 7
On February 7, 1867, Laura Elizabeth Ingalls, the author of the beloved semi-autobiographical Little House series, was born in Wisconsin, the second daughter of Charles and Caroline Ingalls.

Little House on the Prairie etc. were some of the first real books I read.* They were also where I learned (among many other things) to make candy from maple syrup and snow, twist straw into logs, cast bullets, make candles, that nails were once a precious commodity, and that life before modern medicine was often hard and sometimes deadly.
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Speaking of modern medicine, I’ve been following the new measles outbreaks. Here’s a little public service announcement:

“Are you feeling all right?” I asked her.
“I feel all sleepy,” she said.
In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.
— Roald Dahl, on his daughter Olivia and Measles

 

Now, some people can’t be vaccinated.** That’s why the rest of us should. “You are a human shield”! (I love that, and I love being a real-life superhero and all-around good neighbor.) Thank you to the researchers who made vaccines possible, to the public policies making it a requirement, and to my parental units for helping me be part of a healthy community by keeping my vaccinations up to date!

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* Ok, Hop on Pop and other such books are real too, but these had chapters and everything! Also Little House was only semi-autobiographical and had some race issues, but acknowledging that lets us know how far we’ve come.

** For more on the “don’t” rather than the “can’t,” check out this TED Talk: Why (Some) Parents Don’t Vaccinate.

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(today I bring you a dispatch from the wilds of suburbia)

I just mowed the front lawn. I hate mowing. We have an electric mower that’s great, it’s a small yard, no big deal, but it is not my cup of tea.

English estates popularized lawns, but it took America to democratize the things. I’ll cite a few lines from a nineteenth-century book based on Frederick Law Olmsted‘s work (via this excellent article by Michael Pollan), but the real push for lawns started in the 1950s.

“Let your lawn be your home’s velvet robe, and your flowers its not too promiscuous decoration… A smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house.”
— “The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds,” Frank J. Scott (1870)

Pretty? Sure, if you like uniformity. But in terms of land use, water use, and pesticide chemical use, lawns are terrible for the environment. They are also a massive time suck. Don’t get me wrong, I love Olmsted’s take on keeping nature in cities and improving society through physical design, etc. But there has to be a better way.

We planted a clover-grass mix (yes, on purpose:), but by the time the clover is tall enough to flower, the grass is twice as high and seeding. The neighbors have beautiful, chemically-induced perfections of green. They look askance at our “grass plus” mix, and at the way we wave the weed control van on when it comes around.

And so to keep the peace, I mow. Even when the clover is flowering and the bees are buzzing and can’t understand why I would take away their glorious buffet. I’m not sure why either. I ask the bees for understanding, and I mow in slow motion to give them time to leave the all-you-can-eat-restaurant-turned-food-desert and under my breath I’m asking myself “What’s the flipping point?” I mutter it as I mow the clover, the edible wood sorrel and lamb’s quarters, and the wild strawberries that spring up under the bushes.

Except I don’t say “flipping.”

We’re still looking for ways to shift our lawn to something more useful, but it’s a process. Want to save time, money, and the planet? Here are a few ideas to get you started.

The back yard doesn’t get as much sun, and only patches of clover flower there. I let them grow anyway.

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Because Presidents’ Day

Happy Presidents’ Day!

If you’re wondering what presidential life and history was like before Twitter, check out:
Because democracy didn’t just miraculously happen and, sadly, is not guaranteed.

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Slate has invited ten writers to envision the possibilities of a Trump future. As Ben H. Winters, author and the editor of this series explains, “fiction has a special power to clarify, galvanize, prophesy, and warn.” Writers include Héctor Tobar, Ben H. Winters, Nisi Shawl, Saladin Ahmed, Lauren Beukes, Jeff VanderMeer, Kashana Cauley, J. Robert Lennon, Edan Lepucki, and Elizabeth Bear.
Because as the motto says, it’s best to be prepared.

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Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!

Want to bone up on your history? Kid President is here to help:)

 

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Every so often I am struck with the realization that I live in what is, to me, a foreign country. How cool is that?

There I was, about to start up the old treadmill desk and get to work when I looked out the window and had one of those moments. You may know the kind I mean (at least I hope you do), where suddenly everything you see shines with crystal clarity.

Oh, you may think, I hadn’t realized that the neighbor’s maple was quite so magnificent this Fall, and every leaf stands out. I think of it as seeing with a child’s eyes, before “this thing” and “that thing” become a group of “the usual things” that can be ignored without conscious attention.

Do we see each blade of grass when we walk past the lawn? I don’t. In fact, it would be an almost impossible way to live, I think, and I say that with the full knowledge that I am the sort of person who pays attention to the curbs when in Athens. (What? They’re made of marble. And oh yes, The Parthenon;)

I like the everyday, appreciate the curbs and libraries and sidewalk trees that we interact with on a daily basis. The common shapes our daily experience, even as it remains largely invisible. Even so…

I live in a foreign country! Part of my realization was the sudden understanding that I’ve accomplished one of the goals I set when I was a child.

I might have been twelve years old, the details are a bit fuzzy now. There was a group of friends in the room, all of us paging through an atlas (oversized, hardcover, with glossy paper). We argued over where to go, calculated the costs, plotted impossible strategies to get there.

Living in another country seemed the height of adventure. And now here I am.

Canada is lovely and wild, with an often thin edge of civilization anchoring this vast swath of often frigid territory. Approximately 75% of the population lives within 100 miles of the U.S. border, and the continent looks very different up here at night.

North America at night

That mostly dark bit mostly north of the U.S.? Yeah, not water. I’m waving!

Canadian history is much different than the version I grew up with. It captures an ongoing friction between very different cultures and the relatively peaceable integration of those worlds into a single entity. No flashy Revolution here. There are reasons for signs that list both French and English versions of the word “street.” There are reasons for the populations’ deep-seated love of Tim Horton’s coffee, and gravy-drenched poutine. This country has its own twists, its own heroes, its own storied and shadowed chapters.

It’s true that I can shop for groceries in my native language, read most of the signage and do not need a plane ticket to visit my parents, but I no longer live in the place I was born. It’s also true that even Canadians can be crotchety, the bread often has too much flour in it, and there really is only one road connecting the East and West halves of the country. (And they still won’t shut up about that time they burned down The White House…;) But for me, here and now, it’s all a bit magical.

Pay attention, I remind myself. You just might find that the world is a far more beautiful and astonishing place than you remember. You might also realize that in spite of the knowledge that there is always more to do, if you work hard* and you keep moving even when it feels as though you’re going in circles, dreams can come true.

How cool is that?

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* Need some motivation? I recommend the PBS Great Performances documentary Hamilton’s America. Both Alexander Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda are inspirational as heck. It’s available online for U.S. viewers. The rest of us may be lucky enough to catch it on our PBS stations. (See? Not the 51st state after all;)

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