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00:01: From WHY in Philadelphia, this is Fresh Air Weekend. I'm Dave Davies.
00:07: Today the inside story of Clarence Thomas' path to power. As controversy swirls around
00:12: revelations of gifts to Thomas, we'll speak with award-winning filmmaker Michael Kirk,
00:17: director and producer of the frontline documentary Clarence and Jenny Thomas, Politics, Power
00:23: and the Supreme Court. Also, if it seems like your seasonal allergies are getting worse
00:29: over time, you're probably not wrong. Today writer and medical anthropologist Theresa McFail
00:35: tells us that allergies have risen dramatically in recent years, both in the US and around the world.
00:41: Her new book is allergic, our irritated bodies in a changing world.
00:49: And Jazz Critic Kevin Whitehead reviews Arturo O'Farrill's new album, Legacy's.
00:59: That's coming up on Fresh Air Weekend.
01:03: This is Fresh Air Weekend, I'm Dave Davies.
01:06: US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is the most senior member of the conservative supermajority that now dominates the court.
01:14: him a level of influence he'd never seen in his 32 years as an associate justice.
01:19: But controversy has swirled around Thomas, and his wife Jenny in recent weeks, with
01:23: revelations by the investigative news site ProPublica that a conservative Texas billionaire has
01:29: lavish Thomas with expensive vacations and other financial benefits for many years, benefits
01:34: that were never reported on Thomas' financial disclosure forms.
01:39: Those benefits included trips on private jets and a luxury yacht, the purchase of and renovations
01:45: to the home Clarence Thomas' mother lives in, and private school tuition for a grand nephew of Clarence Thomas.
01:51: Our guest today is veteran filmmaker Michael Kirk, who is the director of co-writer and
01:56: co-producer of a new frontline documentary about the lives and formative influences on
02:01: Clarence and Jenny Thomas and their path to power in Washington.
02:06: Colonel Kirk was the original senior producer of the PBS Frontline documentary series in the 1980s.
02:11: He's written and directed more than 100 hours of frontline documentaries and is won
02:16: for Peabody Awards, for DuPont Columbia Awards, two George Polk Awards and 16 Emmy Awards.
02:23: His new documentary titled Clarence and Jenny Thomas, Politics, Power and the Supreme Court
02:29: is available to stream for free on YouTube, Frontlines, website, and in the PBS app.
02:35: Michael Kirk, welcome back to Fresh Air.
02:38: It's great to be here Dave, thanks for having me.
02:40: So let's talk about the early life of Clarence Thomas.
02:43: It's hard to witness the hardship that he suffered as a child and not have some sympathy for him.
02:51: He was born in Penn Point, Georgia.
02:53: Tell us about the community and his relationship with his family in those early years.
02:58: One point is on the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia, this is Savannah, Georgia in the 1950s,
03:07: as Clarence is growing up, very Jim Crow South, very racist undercurrents in everything Clarence
03:17: would have done coming from pinpoint into Savannah or even in pinpoint, which was largely
03:23: fishing village. The vast majority of people there are black. They speak a kind of dialect of
03:31: of people who were slaves that had slavery imposed on them all those generations ago.
03:39: And it's a kind of dialect called Gici Gula Gici. And it has a little bit of a French flavor,
03:46: were almost like Creole down in Louisiana.
03:50: He lived about the worst kind of life.
03:52: You could imagine for a little kid, even in that time, poverty, a father who was gone,
04:00: so a fatherless life, mother barely scraping by,
04:05: not even really in lots of ways.
04:08: And Clarence and his little brother were
04:10: that lived in just the way Clarence describes it
04:13: in his book, which we use sections from.
04:15: It's just horrible, no running water, no toilet in the place they lived.
04:23: And on top of the Jim Crow parts of the white racism,
04:27: there was also, as we discovered, kind of to my surprise,
04:32: this idea that his friends talk about the idea of racism inside the black community
04:37: as being even more corrosive than white racism on the streets of Savannah,
04:43: because you could avoid it if you didn't go into Semana.
04:46: But in your neighborhood, if you were very black,
04:50: and as he describes himself with a broad nose
04:54: and curly hair, you were subject to failing
04:58: what they called the Brown bag test.
05:02: And the kids just mocked him with the cruelest insult
05:04: they could come up with, which was ABC,
05:08: America's blackest child.
05:10: So at some point you report that his mom gave the boys up.
05:14: She simply couldn't manage it.
05:16: And they went to live with their grandfather also in Savannah,
05:20: who was less poor, but it was a hard life in other ways.
05:24: Tell us about that.
05:27: Her father was a tough guy,
05:31: also carried a lot of the racism about the internal racism
05:37: inside the black world of Savannah and pinpoint.
05:42: Ran of fuel oil business, and I think ice and coal kind of business,
05:47: where in the summer you deliver ice and in the winter you deliver fuel oil
05:51: in a kind of old truck, and he made a pretty good living compared to a lot of
05:57: other people. As I say, very opinionated, strong Catholic, stern Catholic,
06:05: didn't want the boys, didn't want his daughter to bring the boys there, but his wife at
06:10: the time, not Clarence's mom's mother or their natural, their biological grandmother.
06:18: But that woman that was married to Clarence's grandfather really wanted the kids and they
06:24: gave them something the kids had never really had.
06:27: Running water, they could take a bath, they could use a toilet, and they could go to public
06:32: school in the neighborhood. So had to do a lot of work for his grandfather, had to tow
06:37: the line, but at the same time had at least the basics of what the rest of us would recognize
06:45: as a life and a lifestyle that involved food and sleep and shelter and, if not love.
06:51: So he ends up going to a high school seminary where he lived in a dormitory where there were
06:58: two black students, the rest of them were white. He was had ambitions to become a priest, was that the plan?
07:05: Well, the nuns were the ones who thought they saw that spark. One of the things I learned
07:11: from going to Catholic school and being from a Catholic family in a kind of rural area
07:15: was every family was looking for a vocation in their family. You'd pray, in my family,
07:20: pray after dinner for a vocation among my brothers and me. And in Clarence's world, the nuns
07:28: were looking for the first black priest for Savannah. And Clarence got the seal of approval from
07:37: Sister Mary, Virgillius, and others. This was going to be, and they told him this, and they told
07:42: everybody this. This was going to be the first black priest, and his name was going to be Clarence Thomas.
07:49: And so living in this dormitory with a bunch of white boys, it's kind of an unusual arrangement for kids back in the 50s.
07:58: What was that experience like for him?
08:01: He had never really been around white people in this way in the sense that you're sleeping
08:07: in a room with 20 others or 15 others or maybe more.
08:13: together, hang it around. Clarence didn't exactly have a plethora of social skills.
08:23: And was mocked and ridiculed. And all you have to do is look closely at the pictures that we've
08:30: found of him in classes and at the seminary and as a little child. And he has this
08:37: look, some of it is from that dialect accent he had, some of it is because he's the only black student
08:44: there, and this is the racist deep south in the late 1950s or early 60s, all the way through that
08:56: very, the rise of the civil rights movement in the south. All of that is happening around him,
09:03: and Clarence is not smiling in virtually any of those pictures.
09:06: And he is the subject of derision and mocking and taunts at night.
09:12: Clarence smiles so we can see you.
09:16: Certainly didn't surprise me to hear the darkest racial names you could imagine
09:20: called out to him all night long to keep him awake.
09:24: And then there was one critical moment when Clarence knew,
09:28: Okay, I've got to get out of here.
09:31: And that was the assassination, the murder of Martin Luther King.
09:35: When he heard white seminarian say,
09:39: King had not been murdered, had not died yet.
09:43: And the seminarians said,
09:45: I hope the SOB dies.
09:47: And for Clarence, that was the high school student clearance, that was the final straw.
09:54: So he left the seminary and went back
09:56: who lived with his grandfather who did not particularly welcome that decision.
10:01: He basically told them to go back out the door.
10:04: He was not welcome there.
10:06: His feelings and his, I think, probably, I hate to get it in his grandfather's head, but
10:12: I others talk about it in a way that it was that he was so proud that Clarence might
10:18: end up being the black priest of Savannah.
10:21: And when Clarence didn't cut it, that was against the rules as far as his grandfather was concerned.
10:27: You always cut it when the going gets rough, the rough get going, the tough gets going or whatever the saying is.
10:34: That was certainly the way he felt.
10:36: And he felt that Clarence had betrayed him.
10:40: And basically he said to Clarence, you're going to end up just like your no good father.
10:46: You're no good at school.
10:48: You can't finish anything.
10:50: out and go out and feel what it's like to be out in the world alone. And so, you know,
10:56: in his teens, Clarence Thomas can't live with his mom and his out on his own to find
11:03: ways to make a living, to eat, to find a meal, to find a flush toilet again. All the things
11:09: that Clarence Thomas had become kind of used to. He now had to start over. It was back
11:16: could see Rowan. He was a teenager and his grandfather and he never really mended that breach after that.
11:24: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Michael Kirk.
11:28: He is an award-winning filmmaker, his documentary, Clarence and Jenny Thomas, Politics Power
11:33: and the Supreme Court, is available for streaming on YouTube, Frontlines, Website and in the
11:38: PBS app. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. I'm Dave Davies, and this
11:43: his fresh air weekend. Our guest is veteran filmmaker Michael Kirk, whose latest work is a
11:49: PBS frontline documentary about the lives and influences on US Supreme Court justice Clarence
11:55: Thomas and his wife Jenny, a conservative political activist. So Clarence Thomas eventually gets
12:03: a scholarship to Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. And there he becomes a militant activist. I mean,
12:13: he was very, very troubled by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, which occurred a few months
12:18: after the assassination of Martin Luther King. What shape did his activism take?
12:27: So here's a guy who never really has hung out with a group of like-minded, maybe even
12:35: open-minded, black kids his age, and he goes off to Holy Cross, and there's 2,000 white kids,
12:43: all Catholics and 28 black students, the first kind of real class or among the first classes
12:51: of affirmative action class at Holy Cross that it was an idea sort of sweeping the country at
12:57: the time. This is 1968, 1969. Clarence sees the explosion in the streets, the fights that are
13:05: happening about the war and Vietnam, the fights that are happening around the civil rights crisis,
13:11: the murders of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and he there he is living with all these
13:18: other angry and frustrated, self-described angry and frustrated black men, through
13:27: our form, whom we've interviewed. And in that process, clearance really finds an identity.
13:35: And the identity is the Black Panther movement.
13:40: He adopts the clothing, hairstyle,
13:43: the combat boots, the military style, uniform,
13:48: the wears of beret, and finds an idol.
13:53: And the idol turns out to be Malcolm X.
13:56: And it is Malcolm's speeches,
14:00: Malcolm's arguments for separatism.
14:04: Malcolm's stride and strength that Clarence is drawn to, the way he tells the story or the way
14:14: people who know him tell the story is that Clarence decides to memorize many of Malcolm's
14:21: speeches and is himself a sort of self-styled campus radical.
14:29: believing, I think, that there was a way to fix the world that he had, we would find
14:36: acceptance in the anti-war and pro-civil rights movements.
14:44: In his junior year at Holy Cross, Clarence Thomas went to a protest in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
14:50: where Harvard students were protesting at the time.
14:54: It got pretty lively.
14:56: What happened and what was the effect?
14:59: He and some of his friends from their group at Holy Cross drove the 40 miles down to Harvard
15:07: Square.
15:09: I drank a lot of beer.
15:11: I joined a march.
15:12: There's 31 colleges in New York cities and Massachusetts.
15:16: And there are a lot of people on the streets that night marching toward Harvard Square from Boston Common.
15:23: And it all got out of control.
15:25: There was glass broke, then arguments with the police, then tear gas, then the usual
15:33: malaise, but much on a much larger scale than anybody expected that it had happened certainly previously.
15:39: And while those kind of things were breaking out every night, Clarence leaves Cambridge
15:44: four in the morning, gets back to campus and has a kind of epiphany where he says to
15:50: himself, at least in his book, this is what he reports, he says to himself, why was I doing that?
15:57: What was I doing? I came so close to being arrested. I think 40 students had been arrested, so
16:03: close to ruining my life, and for what? So he has this kind of crisis. And instead of becoming more
16:14: radicalized. He decides to shed the panther, the uniform, put on a coat and tie at times.
16:22: You could find clearance in the library, not on the streets or anything like that. And he finishes
16:35: college near the top of his class with a 3.75 grade point. He's obviously a super bright guy.
16:43: He applies himself and it does very, very well and manages to graduate from all across the first
16:53: person in his family to do so. And his grandfather, of course, does not come to the ceremony.
16:59: That's a pretty radical turn to go from somebody who's wearing, you know,
17:03: fatigues and army books and has a poster of Malcolm X in his room to buckling down and being a more conventional student.
17:12: Did you talk to folks or did you get insights from Thomas' book about whether he changed
17:18: his thinking about the United States and race relations and, you know, the big issues that had radicalist item?
17:28: And people we talk to, one of them, a friend of Clarence Thomas, Glenn Lowry, also a black
17:35: academic and a very well-known speaker and a conservative black man, Glenn Lowry.
17:44: One of the things that Glenn says is it's very hard to fix an ideology to Clarence Thomas
17:49: and it was equally hard then or this is just another great example of it.
17:55: It's almost an ideology-free zone around him.
17:58: If you go back if you're a filmmaker or a biographer or a friend and you go back and
18:04: look at Clarence Thomas' things he said and things he acted on, looking for a political hints of a political ideology.
18:15: It is very, very, very complicated and not strongly articulated by Thomas.
18:23: In terms of why did he move away from the idea of separatism and other stalwart phrases
18:31: or longstanding phrases of a lot of the black radicals at the time, he was there, but
18:38: not really there, thinking about it, defending it, but not really.
18:42: But one thing was becoming obvious, he was not happy about the implications of affirmative action.
18:49: And it was among the first times that he would, of course,
18:54: throughout his life be a recipient, a beneficiary
18:58: of what became known as affirmative action,
19:00: but at the time he was the first strong feelings of, do I belong here?
19:06: Why am I here?
19:07: Am I here for merit or am I here only because I'm black?
19:10: And if so, will I spend the rest of my life
19:12: with an asterisk next to my name that says, early beneficiary of affirmative action.
19:19: So his objection to affirmative action was that he was perceived as someone who didn't earn his way, right?
19:26: That he was getting preferential treatment.
19:29: Even though he demonstrated that he had earned his way with his grades and his hard work,
19:34: so you can posit a theory that he decides, I'm going to go ahead and make contribution
19:39: after the so-called riot in Harvard Square,
19:44: is it possible that he went back to school and said to himself,
19:49: I, you know, that was a no-win deal for me.
19:53: I want to make my name, I want to make a contribution,
19:56: I want to do something, and I want to prove that I belong in this world.
20:01: And I think that is a sort of strain of Clarence Thomas,
20:04: which is an ambition that grows out of such a strong desire
20:11: to find acceptance and to, in a way,
20:15: a live down the challenge his grandfather gave him
20:18: when he said, you're just like you're no good dad,
20:20: you're never going to amount to anything.
20:23: I think if there was an ideology for Clarence Thomas
20:26: around that time, it might not be political,
20:28: but it certainly was a mixture of ambition and revenge.
20:35: So clearance Thomas gets a scholarship to Yale Law School
20:39: and elite institution with a lot of very strong traditions,
20:43: one of very, you know, a smattering of black students there.
20:47: How does he fit in?
20:48: What is life like for him?
20:50: I think he really is surprised that,
20:53: I mean, he thinks what he's good at is a ticket to ride.
20:57: You get a law degree from Yale, you're going to become a big time lawyer in New York City
21:02: on Wall Street and make a lot of money.
21:05: That was his ambition, that was his reason for doing it, and that was his expectation.
21:11: He was surprised by what it was like to be there.
21:14: You're surrounded by him.
21:15: He's one of his married student housing, roommate, was John Bolton, Bill and Hillary Clinton
21:21: or one class ahead of him, but in a lot of his classes.
21:24: As Bolton tells us, it was a place where people expected to run the world someday and they
21:29: were just there, gathering whatever they needed to do that.
21:33: Well, that was certainly not the case for Clarence Thomas.
21:36: And he was heartbroken when he discovered, once again, so obviously to him that the students
21:44: did not believe that he belonged there because of affirmative action.
21:49: And in some cases, even the professors thought he was getting a free pass.
21:54: He basically never talked in classes or anything like that.
21:58: He was in some form of shell shock during his years at Yale Law School.
22:05: And at the end, when folks were getting invitations to join as associates in big law firms,
22:14: he didn't get offers and you report that he kept these rejection letters.
22:19: What is kind of a motivation?
22:22: Exactly.
22:23: I mean, even today, this is a man who, for whom revenge is one response to the lack of acceptance of him and his efforts.
22:34: So yes, when he doesn't, he arrives at what he thinks of as the pinnacle.
22:38: He graduates from Yale Law School and he realizes it's not going to yield.
22:44: kind of a job that he had aspirations for. He says he has the degree, the A.O. Law School
22:50: degree, framed with a 10 cent price, one of those stickers that says 10 cents, and he
22:56: stuck it on the diploma frame and said, that's basically what that A.O. Law School degree was worth to me.
23:05: Well, Michael Kirk, thank you so much for speaking with us.
23:09: My pleasure, Dave. Thank you.
23:12: Kirk is an award-winning filmmaker. His documentary Clarence and Jenny Thomas,
23:16: Politics Power and the Supreme Court, is available to stream for free on YouTube,
23:21: Frontlines, website, and in the PBS app.
23:30: Cuban Mexican American Arturo O'Farrell has led New York's acclaimed Afro Latin
23:34: jazz orchestra for two decades. Before that, he'd run the Latin big band of his father,
23:40: composer Chico O'Farrow. Back when Arturo started out, he just wanted to be a jazz pianist.
23:46: Jazz Critic Kevin Whitehead says his album puts piano in the foreground.
24:20: Arturo O'Farrill, on the 1935 tune obsession, written by the great Puerto Rican Balero
24:26: composer Pedro Flores while he was living in New York.
24:30: On one level, O'Farrill's new trio and solo album Legacies is about intersections of jazz
24:35: and Latin Caribbean music that reached back nearly a century.
24:39: Like so many before him, the pianist steers between formal Cuban dance syncopations and
24:45: and jazz's spontaneous liberties with the beat.
25:27: The honest Arturo O'Farrell with his son, Zacko Farrell, on drums, who, like his father, caught the jazz bug early.
25:34: When Arturo was 19, composer Carla Blay heard him playing a bargag and drafted him into her 1980s big band.
25:41: He plays one of her elegantly simple ballads from that period.
25:45: Norwegian title translates as, development song.
26:18: Arturo O'Farrell shows commendable restraint there, but he goes the other way, playing
26:34: Philonius Monk's Well-You-Needin' does a solo.
26:38: Monk was a less-is-more type guy, but his interpreters don't have to be.
26:42: O'Farrell is an orchestra leader.
26:44: He likes big gestures and a busy sound.
26:47: But sometimes, who gets so swept up in the moment, he forgets to come up for air.
26:52: non-horned players need to take breath pauses.
27:29: Arturo O'Farrow balances freedom and discipline, covering a 1951 tune where pianist Bud Powell
27:36: made his Afro Cuban influences clear, from Max Rocha's Cal Bell to its Spanish title,
27:42: Un Poco Local.
27:44: O'Farrow really flies on his version.
27:46: All that history he knows doesn't weigh him down.
27:49: Liani Mateo is on bass.
27:51: She also plays in Arturo's Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra.
28:42: Here are there on the solo pieces, Arturo O'Faro nods to Jelly Roll Morton, who encouraged
28:47: Latin influences and jazz, and hints at Limber, Early Jazz, Stripeyano.
28:53: of the solo ballads is pure emotion by Arturo's band leader father Chico O'Farrell.
28:59: So counting drummer Zach, three generations of O'Farrells are represented on the album
29:04: Legacy's. Reminding us what tradition is at heart. Our ongoing conversation with those
29:11: who came before us and those who come after.
29:47: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book Play the Way You Feel, the essential guide to jazz stories on film.
29:54: He reviewed legacies, the new album by Arturo O'Farell.
29:58: Coming up, we talk about allergies with medical anthropologist Theresa McFail.
30:03: Her new book is A Lurgic, our irritated bodies in a changing world.
30:08: I'm Dave Davies and this is Fresh Air Weekend.
30:12: Hey, this is Seth Kelly, producer at Fresh Air.
30:14: And this is Molly C.V. Nesbert, digital producer at Fresh Air.
30:17: We co-write the weekly Fresh Air newsletter.
30:20: It's recaps of the week, staff recommendations, gems from the archive,
30:24: and a glimpse of who's coming on the show soon, all in one place.
30:27: It's also a fun peak behind the scenes, what goes into the producing and editing of the interviews,
30:32: and a chance to meet the people who make Fresh Air.
30:34: You can subscribe by going to WHYY.org slash fresh air.
30:38: You'll hear from us soon, now back to the show.
30:42: When my guest, author and medical anthropologist Theresa McPhale
30:46: finished researching and writing her new book, she made some lifestyle changes.
30:51: She stopped taking daily showers and changing her sheets
30:54: as often, along with eating more natural food
30:56: and making sure to get enough sleep and exercise.
30:59: Her book is about allergies, which
31:02: a growing challenge for humanity as our environment changes.
31:07: In the US, nut allergies in children, hospital admissions for asthma, and prescriptions for
31:12: epipens which treat extreme allergic reactions have all tripled in recent years.
31:18: Estimates are that 30-40% of the world's population now have some form of allergy.
31:23: Some allergic reactions are anusense, the congestion and burning eyes that come with a high
31:28: pollen count, and some are deadly, like anaphylaxis that can follow a bee sting, something McFail has had
31:35: personal experience with in her own family. There are allergies to airborne irritants, food allergies,
31:41: and skin allergies. McFail found the causes of allergies to be complex and often misunderstood.
31:48: For decades, they were thought to mainly afflict people who were nervous, anxious, or temperamental.
31:53: While there's new science on the causes of allergic reactions, effective treatments are
31:57: hard to come by and expensive when one shows promise.
32:02: Theresa McFail is an associate professor of science and technology studies at Stevens
32:06: Institute of Technology in New Jersey.
32:09: She researches and writes about global health, biomedicine, and disease.
32:13: She holds a PhD in medical anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, San Francisco.
32:21: Her new book is allergic, our irritated bodies in a changing world.
32:26: Theresa McFail, welcome to Fresh Air.
32:29: Hi, thanks for having me.
32:31: Speaking generally, allergic reactions are a product of our immune system, right?
32:37: I mean, what do we know about why our immune system, which protects us from disease, sometimes
32:43: reacts to bodies in a way that gives us these troubling symptoms?
32:49: It's a really interesting question.
32:51: I think a lot of people in general are confused about what an allergy really is.
32:58: And what sensitivity is or an intolerance is.
33:03: And the basic difference is that your body can react to a whole host of things and the symptoms can be similar.
33:10: But with an allergy, it's really triggering your immune system itself.
33:16: So your immune cells, there are billions in your body, they're reacting to foreign objects that it comes into contact with.
33:26: So that can be anything from a tree pollen to a dust mite.
33:31: And their jobs are basically, we've heard that they're like police officers.
33:35: I prefer to think of them as bouncers or curators.
33:40: job is to kind of scan the crowd and make split-second decisions about whether or not that thing is
33:49: okay to hang out or can become a part of us in the case of food or needs to go in the case of a virus.
33:56: And then what happens when pollen comes in, for example, or ragweed?
34:02: The way I like to think of it is an allergic reaction is usually driven by a class of antibodies called IgE.
34:09: And if you think of, we usually hear about T cells, which those are the police officers of our body.
34:16: They're constantly circulating and finding things in our body that shouldn't be there.
34:22: So if a T cell comes in to contact with an oak pollen say, and it says, you know, I don't like the looks of this.
34:28: It's got to go.
34:29: It gives that information to a class of cells called B cells and think of them as nightclub managers.
34:37: in your body, on the street, that the T-cell is patrolling.
34:42: And he shows a picture of this oak pollen and says,
34:45: hey, I really don't like this guy.
34:47: If you see him, you gotta let me know.
34:50: Let's contact some people.
34:51: We gotta get it out.
34:52: And so these B-cells who are like these nightclub managers, basically they go to IG.
34:58: They produce cells called IgE or little proteins,
35:01: Y-shaped proteins.
35:03: And those are like the bouncers.
35:05: But if you like to think of this metaphor as in,
35:07: like every IgE is unique to the perp.
35:11: So at the nightclub entrance, you've got a bouncer there ready to spot Oak Pollen,
35:17: but you've got 50 bouncers at the door, all looking for specific things.
35:23: And so when they see it or something similar to it, they send out the signal.
35:30: So they alert all of the other immune cells
35:33: that something's up, you gotta come and take care of this guy.
35:37: So that's basically going on in your body all the time.
35:40: So the things can either stay,
35:42: have a great dance party in the club
35:44: with all of your cells or they've gotta go.
35:47: But you can already see the problems
35:50: because say there's a guy who's six two with brown hair,
35:54: he might look similar to something else
35:57: and that anybody is still gonna react to it.
36:00: So that's why you get a lot of people
36:02: allergic to one tree nut will be allergic to all of them. If that makes sense, it's because of the
36:07: similarities in their protein. And once the bouncers take action, then we have a rumble and your
36:14: eye water and use these or your skin breaks out or something worse. Yeah, it's not a very fun night
36:19: club to be in after that. There are interesting theories that help or that may help explain why we
36:27: We see so many more allergies in the United States and around the world.
36:31: One of them you say is the hygiene hypothesis.
36:34: We're just too darn clean.
36:36: What's going on here?
36:38: Right.
36:40: The hygiene hypothesis, if you've heard about it, you've probably heard that we don't let kids eat enough dirt.
36:47: They don't play in enough dirt.
36:48: They're not around enough germs.
36:51: And that's part of it.
36:52: So what ended up happening is in the 1970s, this British researcher did a meta-data study.
36:59: So he kind of looked at all the factors involved in developing an allergy.
37:05: And what he found was that in families that had multiple children, you tended to have
37:10: the youngest children had much lower rates of allergic disease.
37:16: And so he posited that that was probably because they had older siblings who got sick a lot.
37:24: And so they would bring home all of these bacteria and viruses and the little list ones
37:30: would be exposed to a whole bevy of things that maybe the oldest didn't have the same exposures to.
37:37: And so that there was something about this.
37:39: There was something about being the youngest that was protective.
37:43: And in fact, we have seen that people who send their children to daycare centers, there's
37:51: something about being in a daycare center that is also protective.
37:55: And it's probably the same theory that you're just getting exposed to more germs on a day-to-day
38:01: basis and that at a young age, that's actually helpful because it helps to train your immune system.
38:09: And so it's not going to be over sensitive when the kid gets a little bit older.
38:14: Yeah, this is interesting.
38:15: So our immune system kind of needs to learn the neighborhood.
38:18: It needs to, I mean, to distinguish, get to know the various antigens and either how
38:25: to handle them or how not to worry about them.
38:28: I don't know what happens here exactly.
38:30: Yeah, that's exactly the theory.
38:34: It's basically to go back to the the bouncer and the police officer.
38:38: You're absolutely right.
38:39: It's getting familiar with everything in your neighborhood.
38:44: So it's your body learning, oh Bob just lives down this street.
38:48: He's fine.
38:49: I don't have to worry about Bob.
38:52: And if you get that training prior to the age of three, there's something that happens in early childhood development.
38:59: By around three, your immune system is kind of set up and it's very hard to change it after that point. is very malleable before that point,
39:10: which is why early exposures to things seems to be so protective.
39:14: So the landmark study is that support the hygiene hypothesis
39:19: were done actually in Switzerland and Germany,
39:22: where they found that children who were regularly exposed to dust in animal barns.
39:29: And it's interesting because the animals seem to be a key component.
39:33: So if you're living on a farm with livestock,
39:36: You tend and and your baby,
39:38: and you're being carried by your mom
39:39: in and out of this barn where there are pigs
39:41: and cows and ducks and dogs and whatever.
39:44: You tend to have very low rates of sensitization
39:49: and allergic response in those adults once they grow up.
39:54: So there's something happening.
39:55: And so the theory is, it could be anything.
39:59: It could be the allergens in the air mixed
40:01: with certain types of bacteria that would be in a barn. but the animals do seem key.
40:08: And I will say that if you grow up with a dog in particular, dogs seem to be protective.
40:13: So people who grow up in a household with a dog
40:16: also tend to have a slightly lower rate of allergies
40:20: than people who grow up in a household without pets.
40:23: Right, but you want that dog when the kids are little, right?
40:26: Right.
40:27: I want to talk a little about treatments.
40:30: You say the most common treatment for typical respiratory allergens is simply avoidance, right?
40:36: Keep an eye on the pollen count, try and avoid it.
40:41: Beyond that, you say, thorough household cleaning
40:44: is something that is done, washing all of the bedding,
40:47: some showering as soon as you come home
40:50: on a day when the pollen count is high.
40:53: That would seem to contradict the earlier advice about tolerating the microbes around us. the microbes around us.
41:02: Right, but if you wash right when you come in
41:07: during the pollen season, you're getting the pollen off of your body.
41:10: You're basically coated in pollen.
41:12: If I take a walk through Central Park right now
41:15: and I come in, I'm coated in multitudes of pollen.
41:19: So just getting that off of you,
41:20: if you happen to be pollen allergic is a great idea.
41:25: The treatments that we have for allergy are not great until recently.
41:31: They've been the same for approximately 200 years.
41:36: There hasn't been much advancement in allergy treatments.
41:42: And avoidance or stopping the reaction
41:45: before it even starts is the gold standard.
41:48: So, but that's increasingly difficult,
41:50: like where are you supposed to go if you're allergic to tree pollen?
41:54: I mean, I guess you could move to the desert,
41:56: but even as I discovered when I was researching this book,
42:00: the desert, they have their own problems right now.
42:02: I mean, Bermuda grasses and certain trees that we've imported into the desert.
42:07: So there really isn't anywhere to go
42:10: to escape some of our allergy problems or allergens.
42:15: Yeah, plus we love trees.
42:16: You know, you know, you're just...
42:17: Yeah, exactly.
42:19: I know I don't want to sound like I'm down with trees.
42:22: Love trees.
42:23: Somebody pointed out that that that in some cases,
42:26: municipalities when they import and plant trees
42:29: will plant all do I have this right?
42:31: All male trees and this can create a problem.
42:34: Are you aware of this?
42:36: So because female trees, they tend to be messier.
42:43: So they have seeds falling and things like that.
42:47: So they're harder to clean up after.
42:49: And so for years it was thought, oh, well, let's just
42:51: the trees that don't have that problem, except that they're pumping out pollen to pollinate
42:56: the female trees. So you accidentally got this imbalance of pollen producing trees that I'm
43:07: not actually sure. One of the most interesting things is that I couldn't get anyone from any
43:12: parks department to talk to me. Because I wanted to know, do you still plant the same way? Like,
43:18: like if you're planting trees now, I constantly am seeing new trees being planted in my neighborhood
43:24: and I want to know, are these trees that produce a lot of pollen?
43:28: Like have you thought about that and I couldn't get anyone on the phone?
43:31: So I have no idea if we're still making the same mistakes.
43:34: Probably yes.
43:37: A few other things I wanted to get to.
43:40: You know, seasonal allergies can be annoying.
43:44: Are there long-term effects from dealing with them
43:47: or treating them, you know, you're in, you're out?
43:50: Yeah, one of the most interesting things
43:53: when I was researching this book is,
43:55: so I would ask to talk to regular people
43:59: about their allergies and everyone initially was like,
44:03: why do you want to talk to me about my hay fever?
44:05: That's so weird.
44:07: And I was like, well, I want to understand how you live your life with it.
44:12: And it was almost like being a priest because once they got talking,
44:17: it was like I was in a confessional booth.
44:20: And these things really do affect the quality of people's lives.
44:25: That is something that I absolutely learned
44:28: in the five years I was researching this book.
44:31: It doesn't matter if it's a mild allergy to a severe allergy.
44:36: Everyone's basic quality of life suffers when they have an allergy.
44:41: You're spending, first of all, you're spending a lot of money on treatments.
44:45: So you're taking Zer attack or whatever you're taking, you're anti-histamines, you're buying
44:50: them, you're taking them on a regular basis, you're buying air purifiers, you're doing all of these things.
44:56: You're buying allergy free foods, if you've got food allergies, you're spending a lot of money.
45:02: The second thing is, you just don't feel well.
45:05: You don't feel at your best.
45:08: So most people with mild allergies don't sleep well.
45:13: So their sleep is affected, which means they're not as productive.
45:17: Their mental health suffers, like most people with moderate allergy have some form of depression or anxiety.
45:26: We can say that that's correlation and not causation, but if you're constantly lacking sleep and
45:32: you're constantly not feeling your best, that it takes a toll after a certain amount
45:38: of time. And does it grind down the body in any way physical, physically or do absolutely?
45:48: I mean, people that have allergies, seasonal allergies, especially, you're more likely to
45:55: get sick because think of it as say you're at a gate at Yankee Stadium and you're immune
46:02: cells like we're back to the bouncers. The bouncers are there, everybody's there trying
46:06: to stop viruses from coming in. If you're being, if millions of opal and particles are trying
46:15: to come in and you're dealing with them, are you really going to spot the SARS-CoV-Virus
46:22: when it comes in? No. Your immune system is distracted. It can only do so much. And so
46:28: If it's busy responding to one thing, it could lead to you missing something else.
46:35: So we really want healthy immune systems.
46:39: That being said, I will say a little positive.
46:42: There's not much positive here.
46:45: I wanted the things I'm really aware of is when I talk.
46:48: It can sound pretty depressing.
46:51: But people with allergies, actually you should feel happy because your immune systems are
46:56: strong and functioning. And it turns out that people with allergies actually can have lower
47:04: levels of certain cancers like leomas, partially because your immune system is so strong and
47:12: it's on the alert. So there's downsides, but there's a small upside.
47:17: Well, Theresa McFail, thank you so much for speaking with us.
47:20: Thank you. I've enjoyed it.
47:23: Theresa McFaillth is a medical anthropologist who writes about global health, biomedicine, and disease.
47:29: Her new book is A Lurgic, our irritated bodies in a changing world.
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