November 29, 2007

Itch Niche.

For many of us who went to high school outside of Kansas, the second neatest thing about evolution is those crazy species that evolve to fill even the most difficult biological niches, like the eyeless fishes that can live in the near-freezing dark a billion feet below the ocean surface, or the spiders with antifreeze in their blood that live on top of the Andes and wait for frozen bugs to blow by. And how interesting tandem evolutions happen, where one species will evolve to fill a niche created by another, like those moths with the foot-long suckers to get at the pollen way inside the orchids with the foot-long flowers.

[For those who went to high school in Kansas, the neatest thing about evolution may be that itâs a word youâve never heard before. It means that since 1925 you've been allowed to find out that your ancestors were monkeys â monkeys who had developed super mental powers and amazing abilities, like something in a comic book. Dude, how cool is that?]

The first neatest thing about evolution for everyone, of course, is the way itâs managed to result in you. Interesting how it never fails to do that, and in theory, it should mean that everyone walking around right now represents their own little evolutionary pinnacle.

But now that weâre all feeling good about ourselves, Iâd like to focus on the dark, sinister underbelly of evolution. This is the bit where, for every notch of progress the lion makes toward being a better hunter, the gazelle clicks one notch further into its niche of being tasty and helpless. Or, to return to the overused moth example: the orchid evolves a foot-long bit with the pollen at the bottom (the name of which I clearly cannot be bothered to look up), and so the moth evolves a foot-long proboscis to scoop it out. Moth gets food; orchid gets tickled and pollinated. A beautiful, complete circle. Yin and yang. Right? Wrong. Because what you canât see in this lovely National Geographic photo is that right over there, standing just out of the shot, for some damn reason thereâs a guy whoâs evolved a debilitating histamine reaction to the pollen which the moth is now distributing all over the place.

This is apparently my evolutionary niche: to be the person whose response to the evolutionary processes of every other thing on the planet is to be made violently ill by them. My inner eugenicist would at this point like to take the floor, in order to demonstrate that it is for the good of the progress of the species that my sister and I both actively intend not to procreate:

Between Dianna and me, we are allergic to every single thing on this planet. You think Iâm exaggerating? Well, Iâm mildly allergic to many fruits, including all squashes, berries, and melons, and almost every vegetable (which is great for a vegan). Itâs ridiculous: Iâm allergic to cucumbers and some lettuces, which I donât think are made of anything you can be allergic to. Theyâre just water and cellulose, like an edible kitchen sponge, but they make me itch. Iâm also allergic to nuts (but not peanuts) and an impressive range of nonfood plants, including aloe. Who the fuck is allergic to aloe? Itâs the thing you use to soothe allergies, but it makes me itch. Itâs like being allergic to calamine lotion. Itâs bullshit.

Speaking of things you might put calamine lotion on, the animals Iâm allergic to include spiders, which means that when they bite me, which they really like to do, I get a violently itchy and painful swelling the size of a ping-pong ball under my skin. Chickens: the eggs and the feathers make me itch and sneeze, although itâs possible that I would be OK interacting with plucked adults. Dianna can attest to what happens to me in the presence of cats; apparently itâs not pretty, although I canât see it because my eyes are so watery and glued shut. We neednât go through the rest of the kingdom Animalia; I am apparently allergic to every animal except, according to allergy tests, cockroaches, which I suppose means that I could go ahead and move to New York if I liked cities, or go back to Japan at some point where the cockroaches are everywhere and the size of my hand. Now, cockroaches evidently hit their evolutionary pinnacle millions of years ago and are hanging out in their niche quite comfortably, but for every other species and breed thatâs still splitting off and working on its super-furry coat or its blue-raspberry-flavor venom or its rainbow-colored butt, I already have a corresponding histamine reaction coded into my genes.

That covers animal and vegetable, folks, but who the hell is allergic to minerals? Thatâs where Dianna comes in. I canât remember what animal & plant allergies she does or doesnât have, but sheâs managed to be allergic to every metal except the purest gold. Unlike all of my stupid allergies, which seem like they should have been eliminated long ago in some ancestral rodent who was sneezing too loudly to hide from a predator, hers is kind of neat. Not useful in an everyday life that involves things like using spoons, counting out change, and wearing jeans with zinc on the back of the button, but I like to think of it as proof that, despite our pasty white skin, weâre distantly descended from some vengeful and finicky Mayan sun god. âThis is alloy!â I can see him thundering from behind his glowing golden mask (and probably pausing to scratch beneath one of the cheap rings turning his finger green). âThis is not fitting tribute for ME! I demand twenty additional sacrifices to make up for it, and next time bring me a chest of 24 karat gold or itâs conquistadors for your village, so help me ME!â

I bring all of this up because I have had a mystery malaise for the last three months, and I havenât been able to shake the symptoms for more than a day or two at a time. The background feeling that I have every day lately is one of exhaustion, dizziness, and total mental fogginess, the way you might feel if youâre running on three or four hours of sleep a night for several nights in a row, even though Iâve been sleeping 10 hours a day, often without meaning to. Then, every few days when it flares up into its worse mode, I get sneezy and coughy. I thought for a while that I was getting the same cold over and over again, and that something was way out of whack with my immune system and keeping me from ever getting better. I even tried the extreme approach of altering my behavior, like staying home and drinking tea and going to bed early instead of going out and drinking whiskey and crawling into bed at 2 AM, but it made no difference at all in how I felt the next day. No matter what, the pattern seemed to hold: two days merely feeling exhausted and unfocused, three days feeling sick; repeat. After four or five doctor appointments and labwork sessions weâd ruled out everything from thyroid problems to carbon monoxide poisoning to Hepatitises A through H (which evidently they have now). Nothing.

I got kind of excited when my doctor started doing blood tests for vitamin deficiencies, which seemed like a possible answer since Iâm vegan. I try to stay on top of the vitamins and to eat pretty balanced meals, and Iâm not wasting-away-skinny by any stretch of the imagination, but I was starting to think that maybe Iâd let some nutrients slip and that my immune system was having a hard time. I was starting to fantasize about getting a doctorâs note requiring me to eat crab cakes and steak. And fried chicken. And bacon, because even though my last experience with bacon was disappointing, I canât seem to stop living in a fantasy world in which bacon and I had a much better relationship than I think we ever really did. I pictured myself heroically mustering all of my will and, swallowing my principles, tearing into a plate of Beef Wellington.

Nah. My vitamin levels range from great to really great. My immune system is terrific; actually, itâs too terrific, because apparently it just doesnât know when to quit or how not to fight. Turns out that I have an absolutely off-the-charts, broke-the-scale, out-of-control allergy to the most common grass and the most common mold in Santa Cruz county. For some reason it picked this year to get out of hand, and for the last three months I havenât been a sickly person, Iâve been an incredibly efficient histamine-producing robot, Sneeze-Tron 3000. I didnât realize, because all of my other allergies seem to manifest as localized itching, that allergic reactions could make you so fuzzy, foggy, and out-of-it, unable to concentrate on a single thing, but apparently thatâs the way a lot of people respond to this leaf mold in particular. My theory is that it happens because little bits of your brain are actually being pushed into your sinuses and then sneezed out your nose; watch for me to get measurably stupider as I commence my new regimen of sinus irrigating and so forth. I canât figure out through the brain-fog what evolutionary purpose these allergies could possibly serve â unless itâs somehow my genetic destiny to have to drop out of grad school and relocate to a climate where nothing grows and no animals live â but I am kind of pleased that Iâm continuing to keep pace with all the organisms around me. Plants and mold develop super-spores? Katie develops Super Spore Recepticon Attack.

I also donât like taking antihistamines, not just because they make me deranged and unable to drive a car or ride a bike, but because I donât like introducing a wasteful middleman into this process. Itâll just force me to develop an outrageous histamine response to antihistamines. Instead, Iâm going straight for homeopathy, which is essentially like vaccination, wherein you give your body tiny bits of the things itâs bothered by to provoke a solid, preventative immune response (wellness) against the bad immune response you donât want (illness; allergic reaction). Apparently, Iâm such a highly evolved allergy machine that I can actually mount a full-blown allergy attack in response to the 0.0000000000001 cc of ragweed pollen in homeopathic allergy pills. Katie: evolutionary superbeing or appallingly weak link? You decide, but no matter what you say we ain't making any babies. I'm allergic to children.

Posted by katie at November 29, 2007 04:30 PM

Dude, I am terribly sorry that you are so devastatingly well that you feel like crap. On the other hand, you do write so delightfully about it. Perhaps, says the Good Of Our Human Race, you should stick with the no-babies plan but consider adopting a child and training it in the elegant wrangling of the English language. The excellent book I am presently reading seems to suggest you should start this process before the age of 2, by which I mean the child's age of 2 and not your age of 2 which, I don't care what you try to tell me, I know very well is past.

Also, since you bring it up, as far as I know I have no animal or plant allergies except the itchy spider one. I could have more, but if so they've yet to be identified or even generally noticed. So essentially you got all of the animal and vegetable kingdoms and I got only the mineral, which means that by the best-of-three rule you win.

I think you get the Grand Prize, though, unfortunately. Sorry about that. It's not that much of an incentive when you think about it.

Posted by: Dianna at November 29, 2007 07:20 PM

A poke in the eye with a pollen- and leaf-mold-covered stick? Oh goody.

Even though we must have talked about this a thousand times, I still thought you got more than just the metal and spiders thing. I mean, good for you -- just watch out for giant metal spiders, I suppose. Like the one outside your window. Mwaaaa.

Also, I forgot to mention wool, which also goes in the WTF category. How can a Scottish person be allergic to sheep? Did you try your canned vegan haggis yet?

Posted by: katie at November 30, 2007 06:48 AM

While I was growing up my family hospiced a dear, sweet, stupid golden retriever/yellow lab mix named Fred, who was highly, strenuously and immediately allergic to two things: flea saliva and grass.

These twin bains set off a merciless cycle of misery for Fred, since when a flea would bite him, the flea would inject flea saliva into his skin, causing an allergic reaction. To assuage the resulting itch, Fred would roll in the yard, exposing his poor doggie-dermis to grass, setting off another allergic reaction. From a distance, he looked liked a yellow dalmation with incarnadine spots, which, when you got close, were bald spots.

Hmmmmm. Maybe the implicit analogy isn't helpful here, but I hope you feel better soon!

Posted by: DelightfulFormerHousemate at December 1, 2007 09:01 PM