Julia Scott

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What Makes San Francisco Sourdough Unique?

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

If bagels are a New York thing, San Francisco definitely has sourdough. And probably no one has convinced more people that our sourdough is unique than Boudin Bakery, where tourists line up at Fisherman’s Wharf for a taste of that moist-tangy, fogbound delight.

Bay Area native (and KQED staffer) Peter Cavagnaro has been eating local sourdough all his life. It’s his favorite bread. And that got him wondering about something. He asked KQED’s Bay Curious….

“What makes San Francisco sourdough so unique?”

Here at KQED, we’ve always heard there’s something in the water or the air that makes our sourdough special. But is that really true?

It turns out that this is as much a science question as it is about the history and local mythology of our “authentic” local sourdough. By the time I had the answer, I also had 2 pounds of smelly homemade sourdough starter fermenting at home, and the results of a lab test that described the microbes living in it.

Taste the Microbes

To understand what makes our bread taste the way it does, you need to know how bread gets started. My investigation began in the fermentation room at Semifreddi’s bakery in Alameda, one of the best-known local producers of sourdough, along with Acme Bread Company and Tartine Bakery.

The fermentation room is the inner sanctum of the bakery. It’s a very cold, stainless-steel vault where 300 yellow buckets brim with slow-bubbling beige goop: future sourdough. I stood there, shivering in a hairnet, with co-owner Mike Rose and head baker John Tredgold.

Rose is a soft-spoken man who talks about sourdough with wonderment, as if it’s alive — which it is, with millions of microbes.

“Can you hear it? It’s hungry,” Rose said. “It will be fed later today. It gets fed once a day. Equal parts flour and water.”

Before sourdough gets baked, it has to be grown. Born as a primordial glop, aptly called starter. All it needs to grow, as Rose said, is flour and water. And time. That’s it. If you add anything else, it’s not real sourdough. Eventually, the sugars in the flour start to break down, and fermentation happens on its own.

Tredgold handed me a plastic spoon and pointed me to a bucket. I could see bubbles rising to the surface of the bucket — a sure sign of microbial activity. The starter tasted like very sour yogurt to me, but Tredgold treated the experience like tasting a fine wine, smelling and savoring.

“This is more like creme fraiche,” he said. “It makes you salivate, it makes you excited to eat more.”

The author’s starter, looking healthy with lots of air pockets.

Flour, Water, Temperature, Time

Semifreddi’s produces 9,500 loaves of sourdough each day. But no two loaves taste exactly alike. And that’s because the starter is alive with millions of wild yeast cells and naturally occurring bacteria. The yeast makes the bread rise. And the bacteria create the acids that make the bread sour.

The flavors vary from day to day, and batch to batch. Sourdough is one of the most ancient breads, dating back at least 5,000 years. It’s reasonably easy to create a starter from scratch, but tricky to master the triple arts of crust, crumb and flavor when baking. So much depends on capturing enough wild yeast to make the bread light and airy. (Adding commercial yeast is not a permitted technique at the baking stage if the goal is authentic, old-fashioned sourdough).

“We try to control it by temperature and time. And our hands. It’s never fully totally under control, because we’re dealing with natural organisms,” said Rose. “I love it,” he added with a grin.

Rose was so passionate that I decided to try growing my own sourdough starter at home (more on that below).

The Boudin Lore

A little voice nagged at me, though. Anyone can make sourdough, but would it be authentic if it wasn’t born in San Francisco? (I live in Oakland).

No one has convinced more people about the unique qualities of San Francisco sourdough than Boudin, which says it’s been selling the same loaf of bread for 168 years. According to the Boudin Bakery museum at Fisherman’s Wharf, the company’s mother dough follows an unbroken line back to the Gold Rush in 1849. Louise Boudin even saved the starter from a burning building in the 1906 earthquake.

A museum docent told me the starter is so special and irreplaceable that the Boudin mothership sends its retail stores fresh starter every 23 days. Without it, they say the sourdough those stores produce would stop tasting like San Francisco sourdough and start tasting like San Diego or Sacramento sourdough.

Why? Well, according to the museum, Boudin bread owes its special flavor to a strain of bacteria that thrives only in San Francisco’s climate. Scientists identified it here in 1970, so they named it Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis.

 

Not That Unique, Actually

It’s a great story. Too bad it’s not quite true.

Scientists did identify Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis here. But recent studies have found it in up to 90 percent of countries where sourdough is produced. So from a biological standpoint, San Francisco sourdough is not all that distinctive.

“It’s something that everyone thinks is unique to San Francisco and that is not true at all,” said Ben Wolfe, a microbiologist at Tufts University in Boston. His lab studies fermentation full time … including the microbes you find in sourdough.

So, case closed? Not quite.

Boudin Bakery says their decades-old starter is the key to the bread’s flavor.

 

Science is still learning about the lactic acid bacteria (like L. sanfranciscensis) that give sourdough its main sour flavor. Other fermented foods have lactic acids, too, like miso, yogurt and kimchi.

But scientists don’t know where they come from. Or how they get into your sourdough starter when you make it in your kitchen.

One explanation is that the bacteria could be in the flour to begin with. So when you go to the store and buy a bag of flour, it’s not sterile. They could also be on your skin or floating around your kitchen, but Wolfe says those are less likely to become the dominant bacteria in your starter.

“This is one of the big questions we’re trying to answer in our story of American sourdough: Where are the lactic acid bacteria coming from?” said Wolfe.

The Sourdough Project

There’s never been a large-scale study in home kitchens to really identify the sources of bacteria at home.

Until now.

Wolfe’s lab has partnered with the Rob Dunn Lab at North Carolina State University on the Sourdough Project, the first comprehensive effort to test the DNA of sourdough starters across America — and understand the evolutionary biology that underlies the differences among starters.

The Sourdough Project is soliciting hundreds of sourdough starter samples from amateur and professional bread bakers across the country. (To participate in this public science project, get started by filling out this questionnaire).

Scientists will analyze samples to answer the baseline question: How variable are the microbes from region to region? And how much variability can be attributed to the grain of the bread, versus the air, the water or the humans involved?

There are so many factors. Wolfe ticks them off.

“It could be the time that people ferment their breads. It could be the temperature. It could be a special set of recipes used in San Francisco than in other places.”

When I told him I was growing my own sourdough starter, he offered to analyze it.

So while science may yet discover something special is lurking in our sourdough, Wolfe isn’t holding his breath.

Not even the bakers at Semifreddi’s, a company that has been in a position to benefit from the reputation of local sourdough, embrace the cachet.

Semifreddi’s head baker Tredgold says it’s pure marketing.

“It sells the city. It’s one of the things the city’s known for. The bridge, the bay, the sourdough.”

And Rose, the co-owner of the bakery, added: “If we take our local starter and bake with it in Los Angeles, I think it will taste very similar to what we’re making here,” he said.

Blasphemy! But possibly … true.

My Kitchen Sourdough Experiment: Results

My own sourdough experiment lasted more than a month. I used King Arthur whole wheat flour and kept my mixture on the kitchen counter. As it grew, it smelled distressingly like vomit before it mellowed. At one point it almost spilled out of the Tupperware I’d been keeping it in.

As my starter matured, it needed to be fed twice a day on a regular schedule. I raced home from work to give it more flour and water, spoke to it, and pampered it with field trips out to the balcony to give it some exposure to the Oakland atmosphere. (In spite of what I learned about the uncertainty of the science of microbes in sourdough, I still pictured my starter capturing beneficial wild yeast and bacteria from the atmosphere.)

I don’t have pets or children, so I took photos of my starter’s regular maturity and forced my friends to admire them.

But the most important question was: How did it taste? I baked two little loaves and brought them into the KQED newsroom to get some brutally honest feedback from fellow reporters.

Julia Scott, left, and Bay Curious podcast host Olivia Allen-Price enjoy the fruits of Scott’s labor in the KQED newsroom — some homemade sourdough bread.

Being a first-time baker, you can imagine how this went. The loaves were so dense they had almost no air pockets. They weighed at least 3 pounds and were nearly rock-hard. My colleagues at KQED charitably praised the taste, but it was clear something had gone wrong in the baking process … or with the starter itself.

A few weeks later, I got my sourdough DNA results back from Ben Wolfe’s Tufts lab. My starter had two bacterial species: Lactobacillus brevis and Lactobacillus plantarum; and one yeast species: Wickerhamomyces anomalus. All of which are very commonly found in sourdough starters made around the world, according to Wolfe. It’s also common to have no more than a few species of yeast and bacteria in any given starter.

But that one bacterium once believed to make our bread so special — Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis? My bread didn’t have any. Would things have gone differently if it had shown up? I may never know.

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Heavyweight episode: “Julia”

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

 

What happens when you go back and open the door to a time in your childhood that you tried to forget? Heavyweight host Jonathan Goldstein and I found out together.

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The Loneliest Man in Belize

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

‘Rozco! Love you, hon!” cried a man in baggy jeans. His shout, insincere and taunting, was aimed at the back of Caleb Orozco, a 41-year-old man walking along a row of tarp-covered souvenir stands near one of Belize City’s ferry terminals. Orozco’s only acknowledgment was to walk a little faster, car keys clutched in his hand. It was a hot December afternoon, a week before Christmas, high season in the city’s tourist zone. Two policemen appraised Orozco but said nothing as more taunts flew. “Saw you on TV!” a woman dressed in white jeered from her craft stand, where she sold carved wooden boats. Farther down the sidewalk, two men snickered. “Caleb! You done rub too hard!” leered a man in a blue baseball cap, pointing to Orozco’s crotch.

Batiman!” someone called from the shade of a food­-cart umbrella.

In Belize — a small Anglophone Caribbean nation tucked into the eastern flank of Guatemala and Mexico — “batiman” (Creole for, literally, “butt man”) has long been the supreme slur against gay men, the worst possible insult to their personhood and dignity. But now another slur is beginning to take its place: “Orozco.”

Caleb Orozco. Photo credit Julia Scott

Caleb Orozco. Photo credit Julia Scott

Five years ago, Orozco’s lawyer walked into the Belize Supreme Court Registry and handed over a stack of papers that initiated the first challenge in Caribbean history to the criminalization of sodomy. Caleb Orozco v. the Attorney General of Belize focuses on Section 53, a statute in the Belize criminal code that calls for a 10-year prison term for “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” If Orozco won, his supporters hoped, it would establish a moral precedent across the Caribbean and even create a domino effect, putting pressure on other governments to decriminalize sodomy. But it took three years for the Supreme Court to hear the case; two years later, the nation still awaits a verdict.

In the meantime, Orozco operates the United Belize Advocacy Movement, or Unibam, the only gay ­rights advocacy and policy group in Belize, out of his home in a thick-walled compound on Zericote Street, where stray dogs nose for food scraps in the dirt. The walls are topped with broken shards of glass and rusty, upside-down nails. A seven-foot-tall security gate barricades his driveway. When home, he must remember to lock all six locks — two for his house, two for his office and two padlocks on the gate for good measure. Those precautions do not prevent Orozco’s neighbor or people walking by his house from throwing rocks and bottles over the walls, shouting, “Aala unu fu ded” (“All of you should die”). Other residents have picked up two-­by-fours and chased him in the street. People stone Orozco’s house frequently enough that he rarely bothers to call the police at this point. (This being Belize, a country with a population of just 360,000, he sometimes knows whoever is throwing the rocks on Zericote Street anyway.)

Orozco’s natural habitat, the place where he feels powerful and at ease, is in front of his pink laptop in his office, a squat outbuilding with barred windows. Inside these walls, no one will disparage his manner of dress: snug graphic tee, stylish camo-print shorts and black Keds that hug his feet like shapely hooves. No one will comment on the way he styles his hank of hair, with a flip to the left and some highlights that tend to come out looking gray. He greets clients and funders with a soft handshake and a wry joke — usually at his own expense. When they leave, he spends hours online in the growing dark, sometimes past midnight.

“Did you know we caused the floods in Belize?” he remarked airily, scrolling through headlines on a local news site. “There’s an actual comment from a man who says so.” Later he double-­locked his office doors and led the way across a yard strung with empty clothing lines, dry grass crackling underfoot. He paused for a few moments, listening for unrest from his neighbor’s house, before mounting the heavily sagging steps. He jerked open the sticky door. The floor tipped at an angle, and the ceiling was patched and moldy. One window had holes big enough for him to poke his head through. “My house is like my life — a hot mess,” he said, making his favorite joke with a wan smile.

He is Belize’s most reviled homosexual and its most ostracized citizen, a man whom fundamentalists pray for and passers-by scorn; a marked man at 30 paces. His weary face is on the evening news and in newspaper caricatures, which have depicted him in fishnets and heels. His name is now a label, one used to remind other gays that they are sinners and public offenders. Win or lose, Orozco’s fight for his fundamental rights and freedoms will follow him for the rest of his life.

Americans and Europeans visit Belize for all the things that make “the Jewel” an ideal place to relax: coral reefs, paradisiacal white beaches, a green-azure sea. It is a deeply Christian country, with a Constitution that proclaims the “supremacy of God” as a first principle. Recently, it has seen a surge in Pentecostalism and other proselytizing strains of faith. Although bounded on two sides by Latin American countries with more liberal attitudes toward same-sex relationships, Belize retains a culture more closely aligned with Caribbean countries whose perspectives were colored by 200 years of British occupation. There is an ethos of “live and let live,” but only as long as the gay community remains invisible. Gay couples cohabitate and quietly raise children, but without demanding legal recognition. Couples don’t hold hands in public. No hate-crime laws exist to punish targeted assaults.

Formerly British Honduras, Belize gained independence in 1981, inheriting most of its governing documents from its former master. Section 53 is an artifact of Belize’s colonial past dating to the 1880s. The British bequeathed similar “buggery” laws to all 11 other Caribbean countries once ruled by the crown. (The Bahamas has subsequently removed them.) Buggery became a criminal offense in the England of King Henry VIII in 1533. Of the 76 countries that still criminalize sodomy around the world today, most do so as a holdover from British colonial rule. (Britain repealed its buggery laws in 2003.) In Belize, anti­gay laws extend beyond the criminal code: Homosexuals are still technically an explicit class of prohibited immigrants, along with prostitutes, “any idiot,” the insane and “any person who is deaf and dumb.”

Much as with Lawrence v. Texas, the case whose resolution in the United States Supreme Court invalidated anti-­sodomy laws still on the books in 13 states, Orozco’s challenge is less about sodomy than about discrimination. Even the most zealous Christian leaders, the ones leading the crusade to keep Section 53 on the books, acknowledge that law or no law, sodomy does happen in the privacy of bedrooms in Belize — and not just between gay men, either. Despite the fact that the law is rarely enforced, Orozco and his lawyers say that the threat of indictment encourages public harassment, threats and occasional violence against many gays and lesbians, who have little recourse. The police sometimes charge hush money not to turn people in, according to Lisa Shoman, one of Orozco’s attorneys. The Belize attorney general told me that he personally believes that Section 53 is discriminatory, though his office is obligated to defend it in court.

Orozco is an unlikely instigator of this challenge. He wasn’t politically galvanized until he was 31, when he went to a workshop for gay men and people living with H.I.V. at a public health conference in Belize City. One by one, the men stood up, spoke their names and added, “I have H.I.V.” or “I have sex with men.” Orozco was bowled over. “I got up and said, ‘By the way, I like men.’ I realized that you perpetuate your own mistreatment by remaining silent. And I decided I would not be silent anymore.”

A year later, he helped found Unibam as a public-­health advocacy group for gay men. Until that point, Orozco had never paid much attention to the H.I.V. epidemic in his country. Even after one of his uncles, who was gay, died from complications related to AIDS, Orozco didn’t fully grasp what had killed him. He couldn’t acknowledge being gay — to others or himself — until well into his college years. “People would ask me, ‘Are you gay?’ And I would say stupid things like: ‘I’m trisexual. I’ll try anything just once,’ ” he recalled. “The truth was, I wouldn’t try anything.” He didn’t have sex until he was 23, and when he did, he felt pressured into it. He has never had a long-­term boyfriend. The men Orozco knows won’t be seen with him. “There was one man who would only want me to pick him up after 8 o’clock at night,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I think about it all the time — is this the price I’m paying? To have no love life? To be the one publicly gay man in Belize? To be the most socially isolated?”

Caleb Orozco in Belize City. Photo credit Julia Scott

 

Orozco did not have litigation on his mind at an H.I.V. conference in Jamaica in 2009 when he spoke to two law professors — one Jamaican, one Guyanese — with the University of the West Indies Rights Advocacy Project, which they had recently founded with a colleague to focus on human rights in the Caribbean. They had been studying bans on same-­sex relationships, laying the groundwork for a test case that, if successful, could encourage similar legal challenges in neighboring countries. Belize was ideal: It had a Constitution with stronger personal privacy and equality protections than other Caribbean countries. From a human rights point of view, it was a case they thought they could win.

When Orozco heard this, he recalled, “I put up my hand — literally — and said: ‘What about me? I’m ready since yesterday. How can we do this?’ ” But even as he signed the legal papers, litigation itself was never the point. “I realized the case was simply a tool to create a national dialogue,” he said. “It isn’t just Section 53. It’s adoption. It’s Social Security. It’s not having the first say of the health of your partner. There’s the dignity issues, which haven’t been recognized.”

The legal challenge was a controversial move in Belize’s gay community, where the question of gay rights — what they are and how to get them — is a conversation that has just barely begun. Belize has never had an inciting incident to catalyze a movement, like the 1969 Stonewall uprising. There is no annual Gay Pride parade. No member of government or other prominent figure has ever come out. No gay bars or ritual “safe spaces” exist as places for people to meet, just carefully organized house parties and private encounters on Facebook. The L.G.B.T. community in Belize, with the exception of a dedicated corps of organizers and supporters, remains timid, fractured and apolitical. Unibam itself has only 128 members, in part because of people’s concern that their names could be made public. “Don’t ask, don’t tell — that’s the way with just about everything here,” said Kelvin Ramnarace, a Unibam board member. “It doesn’t mean progress. It’s one thing to not have rights and know it. Here you think you do, because it’s not so hard to live here. But we don’t.”

But Orozco’s lawyers had reasons to hope that a softening was at hand. The tone had already begun to shift across much of neighboring Latin America, where activists were laying the groundwork for a string of victories. Today, six Latin American countries recognize same-­sex marriage or civil unions. Eleven countries have banned employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and seven countries protect L.G.B.T. citizens against hate crimes.

“Even though people said they anticipated some backlash in Belize, almost all the groups I spoke to seemed favorable,” said Arif Bulkan, the Guyanese lawyer Orozco met at the H.I.V. conference. Bulkan and his colleagues spoke to a range of Belizean civil-­society groups and local leaders, including those in the church establishment. He recalled an important meeting with the president, at the time, of the Belize Council of Churches, which encompasses Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians. “He said they wouldn’t support us openly,” Bulkan said, “but they wouldn’t oppose us either.”

So Orozco had few reasons to think he might regret putting his reputation, and Unibam’s, on the line. Today, he shakes his head like a man in a dream. “I just thought it was going to be some litigation,” he said. “I didn’t expect opponents, didn’t expect propaganda and all that other stuff that happened.” He paused. “I really didn’t.”

In Belize, church leaders are granted deference in the press and by lawmakers on social issues. But in large part, the ecclesiastical focus has always been on the spiritual rather than the political realm. So Orozco was blindsided by the announcement, soon after the suit was filed, that the Roman Catholic Church of Belize, the Belize Evangelical Association of Churches and the Anglican Church had together joined the case on the government’s side as an “interested party,” a legal distinction that allowed them to hire lawyers, file motions and be heard during the trial. More than 400 church leaders and ministries came together to mobilize their adherents in the name of public morality. In another first for Belize, church leaders founded a nationwide activist campaign, Belize Action, and began drawing thousands of believers to rallies that denounced the “homosexual agenda.”

The churches also flexed their legal muscle in a pretrial motion to remove Unibam as a claimant in the case; as an organization, they argued, it had no standing to challenge the law. Their motion succeeded. Suddenly Orozco was the sole claimant. The case would come down to whether Orozco’s personal human rights had been violated. He was hounded for interviews, and his name was broadcast all over the world. Someone posted a video to YouTube called “[Expletive] Unibam dis da Belize,” with a photo of Orozco. He received death threats when his name was printed. Shoman, an opposition senator in the National Assembly of Belize as well as one of his lawyers, received explicit rape threats. One day, Orozco was walking downtown, alone, when a man on a bicycle, shouting antigay slurs, threw an empty beer bottle at Orozco’s head. It smacked him on the jaw and cracked two of his molars. After taking his statement, “the police said, ‘If you find who did this, tell us, and we will pick them up.’ Why is that my responsibility?” he asked me with a sardonic smile.

Before the churches joined the case, Orozco allowed three organizations to join forces as an interested party on his side: the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, the International Commission of Jurists and the Human Dignity Trust, major transnational nongovernmental organizations with global standing, large budgets and access to the best human ­rights lawyers in the world. “I thought that using interested parties from the international community would have brought some kind of leverage,” he told me.

But the presence of these foreign groups, even on paper, allowed Orozco’s enemies to reframe the case as an act of cultural aggression by the global north. According to Bulkan, “a lot of the negative press after that was about foreigners coming in.” Prime Minister Dean Barrow told a local news station: “One of the things that we have to be grateful for in this country is the culture wars we see in the United States have not been imported into Belize. Well, obviously, this is the start of exactly such a phenomenon.” The United States and Europe were meddling colonizers, Orozco their traitorous pawn. Orozco’s religious opponents referred to victories for same-­sex marriage in California and Canada as further evidence of the true agenda at work in Belize. “It puts a lot of pressure on us,” Orozco said. “When we started this, we weren’t thinking about gay marriage.”

Opponents made much of the fact that Unibam receives all of its budget, around $35,000 a year, from foreign governments and foundations, including the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives, the Swiss Embassy in Mexico City and the Open Society Foundations. “Is Unibam being used for a foreign gay agenda?” one news station asked. The Amandala, the nation’s largest newspaper, published a page-­long editorial under the headline “UNIBAM DIVIDES BELIZE.” “Homosexuals are predators of young and teenaged boys,” wrote the editor in chief, Russell Vellos, in a separate column. “Woe unto us, Belize, if homosexuals are successful in our court. Woe unto us! In fact, since ours is a ‘test case,’ woe unto the world!”

The headquarters of Unibam. Photo credit Julia Scott

 

Six days a week, Orozco drives to his mother’s squat rental in a Belize City suburb and sits down at her glass kitchen table. Perla Ozeata, a matter-­of-fact woman with the same dark eyes as her son’s, serves up his favorites: steaming dark bowls of chimole, a Belizean specialty; escabeche with chicken and whole jalapeños; and her special cheesecake. Strangers have cursed her for “encouraging” her son to be gay, but she is proud of him. The first day Orozco went to court, he wore clothes his mother bought him. She ironed his shirt and tied his tie. Sometimes when she looks at him, she still sees the friendless schoolboy who played in the yard by himself, catching lizards and trying to avoid his bullies and his father’s chronic disapproval. She intends to one day tear down the house on Zericote Street and rebuild, so she can move back in with him and protect him. “Somebody have to live with Caleb, because people take advantage of him,” she told me one afternoon. “Caleb no fighter. He can fight out the mouth, but he can’t fight physical.” At one point, when Orozco was out of earshot, she said in a low voice: “Every time he walk the street, they promise to kill him. Win or lose the case, they’ll kill him.”

These days Orozco leaves his compound on foot for only two reasons: to walk to the bank (10 minutes) or to the market for groceries (five minutes). On good days, he can make the 10-minute walk in seven and the five-minute one in three. But even inside a place of commerce, things can go awry. “A gentleman said he wanted to push his bat up my you-­know-­what,” Orozco told me at one point. “I was at the bank. I had my nieces with me.”

He was sitting on his messy bed, his knees pressed together. His clothes were jammed into a dresser decorated with peeling children’s stickers. Twice a day, Orozco brushes his teeth over the tub because he doesn’t have a sink. The walls are a single run of wooden slats with holes like gapped teeth, so pests are a problem. “Compare rats to spiders, and I prefer spiders,” he said.

Coming out is supposed to broaden your world. Orozco’s world has narrowed to the space between these walls. Some days the tension in his neck hurts so badly that he resorts to painkillers. Other days he just feels numb. He doesn’t answer his cellphone when it rings and just watches TV until he drops off to sleep. “I don’t like feeling trapped,” he acknowledged. “But I cannot afford to lose myself in this work. I create my own social space, completely.”

Once in a while he takes a chance on a night out at Dino’s, a dance club in downtown Belize City. But he never goes without a friend. At midnight one Saturday, Orozco parked near a faded billboard with a picture of a sad-looking woman and the message “ABORTION: ONE DEAD, ONE WOUNDED.” With his sister Golda, her husband and a friend, he ascended a narrow concrete stairwell to a long, dark room with earsplitting Caribbean dance music. “This is what we do,” Orozco said, shrugging. It’s an in-­joke that Belize City’s only gay-friendly club is on Queen Street. Drag queens have performed as dancers and singers, but on most nights, like the night we visited, the club is filled with straight couples grinding up against the plywood walls. “Not a lot of gays here,” I said. Orozco replied, “That’s the challenge.”

There were a lot of watchful eyes at Dino’s. Camo-clad security guards, grim-faced and armed, scanned the crowd for troublemakers. Hand-painted brontosaurs and stegosauri stared out from the walls, rendered with cartoon menace in Day-­Glo colors under black light. As the dancers watched one another, they took in Orozco, taller than most Belizean men at 5-foot-11, as he stood by the door for a long time in burnt-­orange slacks and natty brogues, sipping a Coke over ice. He watched them back, seeming very ill at ease.

Orozco counted eight members of his tribe in the room that night. He knew all their names, professions and stories. But in four hours, only one, a contractor who had done some work with Unibam, approached Orozco and his group to say hello. Orozco approached no one at all. “I don’t have many friends,” he acknowledged later on. “You turn left, you have criticism. You turn right, you have indifference.” He has warm relationships with his clients and colleagues, but he doesn’t socialize.

Ramnarace, the Unibam board member, told me that he supports Orozco as a leader, but that others in the gay community have their doubts. “Internationally, I think he is more accepted than he is locally,” Ramnarace said. “Because when he says certain things here, he doesn’t always come across well.” In interviews, Orozco can appear peevish or overly cerebral, seeming impatient with his interviewer or else resorting to the programmatic lexicon he uses at human rights meetings. “But still,” Ramnarace went on, “he’s a brave little bitch to go do that, even to fumble. It isn’t easy to do, not here, not alone, a little Hispanic guy.”

Orozco used to love going out dancing late at night. One memorable time at Dino’s, he made out with a man in public, right there on the dance floor. Tonight, he and his small group formed a circle in the darkest part of the room. Golda began to dance in her gold sandals and light flowered dress, smiling at her older brother in an encouraging way. Her husband and their friend danced at her sides. Orozco, expressionless, planted himself near a pillar and began moving in place, gazing down at the floor. “As long as I don’t see an eye looking at me, I can lose myself in the music,” he said. “I just don’t want to be conscious of anyone’s eyes looking at me.”

It has now been 24 months since the hearings on Section 53, with no word on when Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin will deliver a decision. The Supreme Court does not have a calendar for decisions, and sources close to the case have refused to speculate as to the cause of the unusual delay. The Supreme Court Registry did not answer a request for comment. “Unfortunately, civil matters in this country do proceed at a very slow pace,” Shoman said. “But I could never have imagined that something of this magnitude, a case regarding the personal liberty of the citizens, should take so long.” She and the rest of Orozco’s legal team have sent multiple letters to the registrar general but received no reply.

Caleb Orozco in his office. Photo credit Julia Scott

Caleb Orozco in his office. Photo credit Julia Scott

Jonathan Cooper, the chief executive of the Human Dignity Trust, is just as eager for results. “The ramification of the Belize decision will be felt across the Commonwealth, if not beyond,” he told me. Because either side is likely to appeal any decision all the way to the Caribbean Court of Justice, the highest court for not only Belize but also Barbados, Dominica and Guyana, the controversy (and Orozco’s notoriety) is likely to spill over into those nations as well. And then there is the matter of international human rights law. The legal groups invoked the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights in their argument, with the knowledge that should the appeals court rule in Orozco’s favor on that basis, other jurisdictions would find the criminalization of sodomy very hard to justify.

After waiting so many years, Orozco has made a decision of his own. Shortly after the court hearings, he quietly stepped down as the president of Unibam. He stayed on as its executive director, but he told me that he hopes to leave that post next year. “I’ve come to realize that I’ve sacrificed my life to this work,” he said. “And I wake up to an empty bed and a pillow. And what does that say about me?”

These are not the words of a Harvey Milk revolutionary, and in fact Orozco doesn’t see himself in the mold of Milk, who was murdered at 48. But Orozco has believed for some time now that he won’t outlive his middle age. “My larger goal is to survive to the end of my case,” he said. “They said that if something should happen to me, the case would be over. I’ve invested seven years of my life in this thing, and I don’t want to throw that away.”

Orozco has come to the conclusion that the big changes he thought were within reach five years ago are actually a generation away. Living in Belize as a gay man or woman is like peering across a demilitarized zone with a pair of binoculars. If he took a four-­hour bus ride to Chetumal, Mexico, Orozco would enjoy the right to marry. Someday, Orozco may tear down his house and rebuild it. He may go to law school or pick up the business-administration career he left behind. But he has ruled out leaving Belize. He loves his family too much. He hopes that with time, most of his fellow Belizeans will learn not to judge. “Our opponents have been fear-mongering,” he said. “Most people could care less what I do in my bedroom.”

One afternoon, Orozco took his least favorite walk, to the bank. He rose from his office chair, turned off the fan, cut the lights, locked all six locks and stepped out in a brown tie-dye button-down and knee­-length cotton pinstripe shorts. The narrow downtown streets were clogged with cars short on mufflers, long on horns. He passed bakeries and pharmacies and street vendors hawking bags of peanuts and dried fruit and discount clothing stores blaring pop music.

Stoop-­sitters on Central American Boulevard nudged one another and gestured. A man in a truck driver’s uniform, smoking a cigarette, quietly watched Orozco go by, then spat and uttered a profanity. Two adolescent girls turned to look back at his retreating form, then doubled over with laughter. Three construction workers, legs dangling in a muddy trench, looked up as Orozco walked past. “Hey, Belize bwai!” they shouted. “Hoo da fayri, butt bwai?”

A few steps from the bank, Orozco passed two women alongside a young girl with her hair tied back in braids, wearing gold sandals and a flouncy white dress. She gazed at Orozco with curiosity. Then she looked up. “Mama,” she said, “that’s a batiman.”

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My Bed Runneth Over

Sunday, February 15th, 2015

“So are you guys in an equilateral triangle, or are you more of a V?”

A dark-haired woman leans over to an eager-looking young couple seated next to her and holds up her thumb and forefinger. Each of the V signifies a person; the fleshy connective tissue between them stands for the partner to whom they’re both sexually connected. Her hand gesture is intended as an icebreaker, but the couple pause awkwardly, as if they don’t know exactly how to answer.

Courtesy San Francisco Magazine

In polyamorous relationships, knowing where you stand is crucial, but often hard to figure out. Whether you have 2 partners or 10, managing multiple liaisons can feel like walking a tightrope—which is perhaps why the perplexed couple have come to this unmarked warehouse on Mission Street that houses the Center for Sex and Culture. Tonight’s Open Relationship Discussion Group is exploring “Threesomes and Moresomes.” The attendees—a total of 22 men and women, a commendable turnout for a Monday night in November—sit in a neat circle, jittering with the same blend of excitement and anxiety that you might find in a roomful of people training for their first parachute jump.

Coats still on against the chill of the unheated room, the gathered polyamorists try not to stare too obviously at the painted nudes on the wall, rendered in various poses of masturbation and frottage. It’s a hip-looking crowd, mostly in their 30s and 40s, white, and flying solo, though there are a few couples and one triad: two women and a man who stroke each other’s hands and listen, but never speak.

When Marcia Baczynski, a relationship coach and tonight’s discussion leader, asks how many people are new to the group, nearly half raise their hands. Some of them are new to poly altogether, including one smartly dressed woman who met the love of her life—a married man—on OkCupid six months ago. With his wife’s consent, she and the man started a passionate affair. Little by little, the two women grew to care for each other as well, to the point that the three of them now sleep in the same bed.

“If I hadn’t fallen in love with him,” the woman says, “I wouldn’t have been able to develop feelings for her. They’ve been together 17 years, and sometimes I see them as the same person.” She gestures toward the man on her left, who smiles and takes her hand. Then her face falls: The wife, who is not present tonight, is pregnant. “There’s this other large need that I have,” the woman confesses, “to get married and have kids. There’s a huge guilt in me for wanting to date other men. I’m afraid I’ll hurt him if I do.” She starts to cry. The room is silent until the man speaks up: “I’ve told her that the last time I loved someone this much, I married her. I don’t know what to do with this.”

Someone asks whether the two of them have talked about having a child together. They have, and they may. “But that’s the hard part for me,” the woman says. “It’s so not what my parents wanted for me. It’s not the social norm.” Everyone nods.

 

“Jealousy, time management, and lack of clarity around what you’re doing.” Baczynski ticks off the three most common pitfalls that beset practitioners of poly. We’re seated close together on a lipstick-red velvet chaise at Wicked Grounds, a kink-friendly café on Eighth Street where you can purchasee hand-carved rosewood butt paddles with your peppermint tea. Curly-headed and bright-eyed, Baczynski exudes friendliness that inspires a tangible intimacy. A decade ago, she gained fame in the alt-sex community as the coinventor of cuddle parties, which began in 2004 with clothed strangers caressing each other in her Manhattan apartment and have spread to thousands of living rooms across the United States and Canada. Now she’s one of the Bay Area’s most sought-after relationship coaches in the poly sphere, thanks in part to the prominence of her online curriculum, Successful Nonmonogamy, which helps couples open up their relationships without imploding them.

Twenty-four years after Sonoma County pagan priestess Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart conceived the word “polyamory” (meaning “many loves”), the Bay Area poly scene is still the biggest in the country and very much in the vanguard of a movement to disrupt monogamy. Many of its members are more aptly described as “monogamish,” Dan Savage’s term for couples who stay committed to each other while having sex on the side. (Polyamory also extends to couples who date each other and single people who date around a lot—although poly types tend to dismiss cruisers and commitment-phobes as not part of their tribe.) But the variations only spin out from there. The aforementioned V becomes an equilateral triangle when a threesome commits to sharing sex, love, and face time among all three partners. Two couples, or a couple and two singles, make a quad. If a fivesome is connected via a common partner, that’s a W. Partners may be primary, secondary, or tertiary, though some polys reject those terms as too determinative. A distinction is made between lovers and metamours (a partner’s partner), the latter often a close friend who steps in to resolve conflicts, cook dinner for everyone, and help raise the kids.

The concepts behind these words are constantly being hashed out in homes throughout the Bay Area, long known as polyamory’s petri dish. New additions to the vocabulary often bubble up here before filtering out to polyamorists in the rest of the country. “Compersion,” for example, defined as taking pleasure in your partner’s pleasure with another person (the opposite of jealousy), emerged in the Kerista Commune, a Haight-Ashbury “polyfidelitous” social experiment that used a rotating schedule to assign bed partners.

William Winters, Anna Hirsch and their partners. Copyright San Francisco Magazine.

Dossie Easton, a Bay Area therapist who wrote the landmark poly bible, The Ethical Slut, in 1997, gets emotional when she talks about how far the poly world has come since her arrival here as a sexual revolutionary in 1967. “I see people who start out where I fought for years and years to get to. They think that they should be able to come out to their families, that their parents should accept them and welcome all their various partners and their various partners’ children for Thanksgiving.”

This isn’t the polyamory of your imagination, filled with ’70s swinger parties and spouse swapping in the hot tub. In fact, the reality of polyamory is much more muted, cerebral, and, well, unsexy. Generally speaking, self-identified poly types aren’t looking for free love; they’re in search of the expensive kind, paid for with generous allotments of time and emotional energy invested in their various partners—and their partners’ children and families. All of that entails a lot of heavy lifting, and a lot of time-consuming sharing. “There’s a joke,” Baczynski says, laughing: “Swingers have sex, and poly people talk about having sex.”

If it all sounds inordinately complicated, that’s because it is. What do you do when your partner vetoes a potential lover? How do you handle it when your spouse starts dating your ex? To cope with jealousy and the thorny subject of sexual boundaries, the poly community relies on an excess of communication—hence, discussion groups like tonight’s. The community calendar offers nonstop opportunities for support, conversation, and debate, including potlucks, workshops, coffeehouse socials, political discussions, and book readings. As one woman tells me, people here like to geek out on relationship philosophy as much as they like to geek out on software (and, in fact, the polyamory world has considerable overlap with the tech community).

In the poly world, uncoupling monogamy and sex leads not only to casual sex but also to uncasual sex and, sometimes, uncasual unsex (that is, ritualized cuddling). “I have the freedom to do whatever I want—and what I want includes taking on a lot of responsibility,” says Baczynski, who is in long-term relationships with one woman and two men. Polyamory isn’t about destroying a beloved institution, she argues. Instead, it’s about casting people in the roles that they actually want to play. “There’s an assumption in our dominant culture that the person you’re having sex with is the person who has all the status and has the mortgage with you, too,” she says. “Why do sex and mortgages go together? I’m not sure.”

But freedom comes with a multitude of challenges, many of which were voiced by the following sampling of local poly practitioners. Collectively they provide a glimpse of what it’s really like to be “open.”

 

Gloria and Alex and Luna and Joe

Gloria Schoenfeldt wasn’t particularly drawn to polyamory, just to people who happened to be polyamorous. First the 31-year-old school-teacher got used to having a polyamorous best friend in Luna Murray, a 25-year-old event planner. Hearing of Luna’s sexual adventures may have made it easier for Gloria to open her heart to a man named Alex, a 45-year-old photographer and relationship coach who identifies as not only poly but also pansexual.

At first, Gloria didn’t want to know about Alex’s other liaisons, other than their names—she couldn’t take the details creeping into her imagination. But that changed when she realized that she wanted to be a part of his “joys and sadnesses,” even if they weren’t with her. “It’s always worse in my head than it is in real life. It’s always bigger and scarier and more intense and more likely to cause the end of our relationship,” Gloria says. Now she comforts Alex through breakups and heartaches—and enjoys dating other men as well.

When Gloria introduced Alex to Luna, she was happy to see that they hit it off. The couple also got along well with Luna’s boyfriend Joe. So well, in fact, that eventually they all became lovers. Last February, the two couples decided to cohabitate, renting a two-bedroom apartment in Berkeley. For the first time in her 31 years, Gloria tried on the poly lifestyle in earnest, taking care to schedule her dates at the same time as Alex’s so as not to feel abandoned. She shares an occasional sexual four-way with her husband and housemates (they call their state of emotional intimacy a “quasi-quad”). Most of the time, though, they’re plain old housemates, two linked couples who pool money for groceries and get into tiffs over keeping the house tidy. “We live together, we have this loving family connection, and I don’t know what to call that,” says Alex.

Does it work? It does for now—one year in is too soon to declare it a permanent success, although the couples are talking about having children of their own. And both couples married last July, in jubilant back-to-back weddings in Orinda and Berkeley (they served as each others’ witnesses). What keep things stable are the poly-relationship standbys: limits and communication. While they sometimes couple off or have collective sex in the same room, it’s not an orgiastic free-for-all. There are boundaries. Gloria’s never had one-on-one sex with either Luna or Joe. When dating outside their marriage, Alex and Gloria only have protected sex. Luna and Joe won’t bring home a date who hasn’t been vetted by their respective spouse, as well as by Alex and Gloria. Everyone keeps a lid on when Alex’s 12-year-old daughter from a previous relationship comes to stay, although she knows that her dad is poly and has seen him kissing his housemates in a non-housemate-like way.

Still, the arrangement has its challenges. Joe, a 25-year-old server at an upscale Berkeley restaurant, used to get so jealous of his wife’s lovers that they developed a system: Before she left on a date, she would sit him down and tell him all the things that she loved about him and promise him that she was coming home. Over time, “it got easier and easier,” says Joe. Now the tables have turned. Joe has several lovers, while Luna’s sex drive has plummeted. It’s made her insecure and sad. “I used to be this sexual beast, and I’m feeling very fragile about my sexuality and my body…. He’ll talk about how much he loves his partner’s body, and I’ll start crying,” she says.

But as far as Gloria’s personal plunge into poly goes, she considers it a success. She was skeptical of monogamy prior to meeting Alex (“It doesn’t provide the security it claims to, because it can’t”), but had questioned whether she had the emotional capacity for an open marriage. Seven months in, the answer is yes, this is a good life. So far.

“The abandonment stuff still comes up,” Gloria says. “When that happens, I cry. And we talk. And he holds me and he reassures me.”

 

Ian

Ian Baker became a practicing polyamorist the hard way: He fell in love with a girl who told him that she didn’t want to be monogamous—and then slept with his housemate. “I freaked out,” recalls Baker, but he wanted to be with her nevertheless. “I had to do a lot of work for it to be OK,” he says, “for my particular psyche to be OK with it.”

That he faced such a difficult adjustment was surprising to Baker, for whom polyamory was hardly a new concept: He’d grown up in a poly family with three parents—his dad, his mom, and his dad’s girlfriend—who bedded down together every night. They were poor, living in a small cottage in the woods in Sonoma County. Baker, who believes that the arrangement helped keep them all housed and fed, likes to use his story to counter the perception of poly as the domain of oversexed, affluent people with way too much time on their hands. “When I was a kid, my parents’ relationship made perfect sense,” he says. “Whatever situation you grow up in is the situation that makes sense.”

Baker, a developer and CEO of the Y Combinator–backed startup Threadable, describes his younger self as an insecure fellow who looked to his girlfriends for validation. He started reading books about jealousy, and slowly it dawned on him that polyamory could help him outgrow his core anxiety. And so he tapped into the poly community for emotional support. “The only reason that I ever wanted monogamy,” he says now, “was because I was insecure.”

Baker is in love with Lydia (not her real name), his partner of four years. He doesn’t date much outside the relationship, he says, because he’s basically fulfilled. “But that doesn’t mean I want to be monogamous,” he quickly adds. “I like the connections that exploring sexuality brings to my life.”

Lydia, on the other hand, does have other lovers. “She wants to see other people, and I want her to have what she wants,” Baker says. But every time she takes a new lover, he admits, “I have some anxiety. So when that’s the case, I have to do a little work. I’ll call someone and chat with them about it for a few minutes, and then I’ll feel better. It’s not a big deal.”

For poly practitioners like Baker, self-improvement and sexual exploration are overlapping preoccupations. It’s well-nigh impossible to handle the emotional agitation of concurrent relationships without facing one’s own self-relationship, they say—your resilience must be equal to the task. “There’s a bunch of different ways that you can learn to be emotionally self-sufficient, and it happens that I learned those lessons by having my girlfriend sleep with my friends,” says Baker, chuckling. “But since then, it’s been wonderful.”

 

Sherry

Bespectacled and wearing pink yoga pants, her hair wet after a shower, Sherry Froman leads me up the rainbow staircase to her bedroom and stretches out on her cozy sheepskin rug like a cat in the sun. She has hosted play parties—featuring touching and, sometimes, sex—for years on these sensuous carpets, beneath tapestry-draped ceilings that evoke four-poster beds. Some of the parties begin with an opening ceremony that resembles a personal-growth workshop: Participants practice communicating boundaries and desires, gaze into each other’s eyes, reveal the body part that they want to be touched, practice saying yes and no, explore the mattresses laid out on the floor. But, Froman hastens to add, “not everything is like that—New Age, woo-woo spirituality. The poly scene is very diverse.”

When Froman falls for someone new, someone she wants to date for a while, she skips the elaborate lingerie and whips out her calendar—not because she wants to keep her multiple suitors from colliding, but because she wants them to meet. If they form a copacetic bond, she believes, someday they all might cohabitate in the big house that, for now, resides solely in her imagination. That dream was a reality once, 20 years ago at Harbin Hot Springs, just north of Napa Valley—Froman would walk from house to house visiting friends and lovers who were studying tantric techniques and the full-body orgasm. “I was 23, and all these older men wanted to pleasure me and were fine with me not giving anything back,” she says. “I thought, that’s different from college boys.”

Since then, Froman has dated her share of supposed polys who hypocritically wanted their women to be monogamous with them. “I think a lot of men have a difficult time with polyamory, because the fantasy looks nothing like the reality,” she says. “Because if a man has several female lovers in his life, chances are that the women are going to talk about him to each other. And they’re all going to want him to be comfortable talking about his feelings.”

In the two decades since her time at the hot springs, Froman has learned to resist the pull of NRE—that’s “new relationship energy,” a poly term for the fizzy bubble of endorphins that envelops the newly besotted. While NRE feels great, she says, the high highs usually lead to the opposite. “You’ve got to think sustainably,” she says. “How is this person going to work for you over a period of time?”

Froman describes herself as having been a “very” sexual person since puberty. (When she decided to lose her virginity at age 16, her mother reserved a honeymoon suite with a heart-shaped Jacuzzi for the occasion and took her lingerie shopping.) After years of casual encounters, she stumbled onto the poly world and started choosing partners for different reasons—love, friendship, community. But lately she has again been hankering for more male partners in addition to the long-term beau with whom she shares this four-bedroom in Glen Park—it’s called “adding on.”

Froman, who met her live-in boyfriend on OkCupid (where users can self-identify as nonmonogamous) more than five years ago, believes that her schedule could support three other live-in men. But how to find them? She used to make promising friends by hosting Open Relationship Community potlucks at her house, but now she’s trying to explore new social venues to unearth men. “Once I find them,” she says, “then all of us being in the same bubble with each other is going to be a lot easier. It’s like having a family.”

 

William and Anna

Anna Hirsch thought that William Winters was going to be her first one-night stand. She ended up marrying him. When they met in Baton Rouge, their relationship styles—his casual connections, her commitment to monogamy—seemed as mismatched as their temperaments. Then they discovered poly, which squared their deep, if idiosyncratic, love with their desire to avoid the mistakes of relationships past. They agreed to experiment, and when Hirsch left town for several weeks, Winters slept with someone else. He didn’t tell Hirsch until she got back.

“She cried for two consecutive weeks,” recalls Winters. “It was totally fucking horrible. I remember saying, ‘Anna, if it is this hard, we do not have to do this.’ It was she who said, ‘No. There is something in this for me. I’m choosing this. But we cannot do it your way.’”

Eight years later, Hirsch, a writer and editor, and Winters, a progressive activist and organizer, are one of the most socially conspicuous poly couples in the Bay Area. In honor of the poly potlucks that they organized for a time, the Chronicle went so far as to dub Winters the “de facto king of the East Bay poly scene”—if you ask, he’ll show you a playing card, designed by his friends as a joke, that depicts him as the king of hearts.

Hirsch and Winters live in the Oakland Hills, in a studio apartment attached to a house occupied by several other poly couples. These days, Winters hosts private play parties and enjoys mingling with women. Hirsch is in a four-year relationship with a married couple (she’s more serious with the husband than with the wife) and has a boyfriend as well. Doing things Hirsch’s way means that Winters has the freedom he needs to play, while she puts down roots with the people she loves. Although she’s legally married to Winters, she likes to “propose” to her partners as a way of acknowledging their importance to her. When she mock-married a platonic friend back in Baton Rouge, Winters was her date to the wedding. “I have this whimsical image of myself old on a porch somewhere, someday,” Hirsch says. “And I would like William to be on that porch. And I think it would be amazing if there were other people on that porch, too.” This process—fitting together relationships without elevating them or putting them in special categories—is described by the couple as “integrating.”

So why did they marry at all? Winters frowns. “I feel like that question itself comes from a scarcity model that says we only have time for one major relationship. That kind of underlies the dominance of monogamy.” Hirsch has a more practical answer: They were in love, and she needed health insurance. “But what do I care about what marriage means?” she says. “It’s not a promise. It’s a celebration of what’s possible.” On their wedding day, she and Winters nixed vows and simply made a toast.

On the poly success scale, Winters rates their relationship as a 9.8 out of 10. Jealousy? Never a problem. Boundaries? The couple’s only rules concern safe sex and date disclosures (each a must). Even so, their marriage has been shaken this past year by the same temperament and communication problems that have plagued them since they got together—at one point, they put their chances of splitting up at 50-50. For all its laboriousness, polyamory is a deeply gratifying lifestyle for Winters and Hirsch, and the effort that it requires—the sometimes Augean task of maintaining multiple messy arrangements all at once—is more than paid off by the emotional rewards. Still, the day-to-day upkeep of a relationship can test anyone’s fortitude. “The poly stuff? So easy,” Winters says. “And the rest of it is like, sometimes, why does it have to be so fucking hard?”

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A Wash On the Wild Side: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love My Microbiome

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

For most of my life, if I’ve thought at all about the bacteria living on my skin, it has been while trying to scrub them away. But recently I spent four weeks rubbing them in. I was Subject 26 in testing a living bacterial skin tonic, developed by AOBiome, a biotech start-up in Cambridge, Mass. The tonic looks, feels and tastes like water, but each spray bottle of AO+ Refreshing Cosmetic Mist contains billions of cultivated Nitrosomonas eutropha, an ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) that is most commonly found in dirt and untreated water. AOBiome scientists hypothesize that it once lived happily on us too — before we started washing it away with soap and shampoo — acting as a built-in cleanser, deodorant, anti-inflammatory and immune booster by feeding on the ammonia in our sweat and converting it into nitrite and nitric oxide.

In the conference room of the cramped offices that the four-person AOBiome team rents at a start-up incubator, Spiros Jamas, the chief executive, handed me a chilled bottle of the solution from the refrigerator. “These are AOB,” he said. “They’re very innocuous.” Because the N. eutropha are alive, he said, they would need to be kept cold to remain stable. I would be required to mist my face, scalp and body with bacteria twice a day. I would be swabbed every week at a lab, and the samples would be analyzed to detect changes in my invisible microbial community.

Artwork by Dan Cassaro

In the last few years, the microbiome (sometimes referred to as “the second genome”) has become a focus for the health conscious and for scientists alike. Studies like the Human Microbiome Project, a national enterprise to sequence bacterial DNA taken from 242 healthy Americans, have tagged 19 of our phyla (groupings of bacteria), each with thousands of distinct species. As Michael Pollan wrote in this magazine last year: “As a civilization, we’ve just spent the better part of a century doing our unwitting best to wreck the human-associated microbiota. . . . Whether any cures emerge from the exploration of the second genome, the implications of what has already been learned — for our sense of self, for our definition of health and for our attitude toward bacteria in general — are difficult to overstate.”

While most microbiome studies have focused on the health implications of what’s found deep in the gut, companies like AOBiome are interested in how we can manipulate the hidden universe of organisms (bacteria, viruses and fungi) teeming throughout our glands, hair follicles and epidermis. They see long-term medical possibilities in the idea of adding skin bacteria instead of vanquishing them with antibacterials — the potential to change how we diagnose and treat serious skin ailments. But drug treatments require the approval of the Food and Drug Administration, an onerous and expensive process that can take upward of a decade. Instead, AOBiome’s founders introduced AO+ under the loosely regulated “cosmetics” umbrella as a way to release their skin tonic quickly. With luck, the sales revenue will help to finance their research into drug applications. “The cosmetic route is the quickest,” Jamas said. “The other route is the hardest, the most expensive and the most rewarding.”

AOBiome does not market its product as an alternative to conventional cleansers, but it notes that some regular users may find themselves less reliant on soaps, moisturizers and deodorants after as little as a month. Jamas, a quiet, serial entrepreneur with a doctorate in biotechnology, incorporated N. eutropha into his hygiene routine years ago; today he uses soap just twice a week. The chairman of the company’s board of directors, Jamie Heywood, lathers up once or twice a month and shampoos just three times a year. The most extreme case is David Whitlock, the M.I.T.-trained chemical engineer who invented AO+. He has not showered for the past 12 years. He occasionally takes a sponge bath to wash away grime but trusts his skin’s bacterial colony to do the rest. I met these men. I got close enough to shake their hands, engage in casual conversation and note that they in no way conveyed a sense of being “unclean” in either the visual or olfactory sense.

For my part in the AO+ study, I wanted to see what the bacteria could do quickly, and I wanted to cut down on variables, so I decided to sacrifice my own soaps, shampoo and deodorant while participating. I was determined to grow a garden of my own.

Week One

The story of AOBiome begins in 2001, in a patch of dirt on the floor of a Boston-area horse stable, where Whitlock was collecting soil samples. A few months before, an equestrienne he was dating asked him to answer a question she had long been curious about: Why did her horse like to roll in the dirt? Whitlock didn’t know, but he saw an opportunity to impress.

Whitlock thought about how much horses sweat in the summer. He wondered whether the animals managed their sweat by engaging in dirt bathing. Could there be a kind of “good” bacteria in the dirt that fed off perspiration? He knew there was a class of bacteria that derive their energy from ammonia rather than from carbon and grew convinced that horses (and possibly other mammals that engage in dirt bathing) would be covered in them. “The only way that horses could evolve this behavior was if they had substantial evolutionary benefits from it,” he told me.

Whitlock gathered his samples and brought them back to his makeshift home laboratory, where he skimmed off the dirt and grew the bacteria in an ammonia solution (to simulate sweat). The strain that emerged as the hardiest was indeed an ammonia oxidizer: N. eutropha. Here was one way to test his “clean dirt” theory: Whitlock put the bacteria in water and dumped them onto his head and body.

Some skin bacteria species double every 20 minutes; ammonia-oxidizing bacteria are much slower, doubling only every 10 hours. They are delicate creatures, so Whitlock decided to avoid showering to simulate a pre-soap living condition. “I wasn’t sure what would happen,” he said, “but I knew it would be good.”

The bacteria thrived on Whitlock. AO+ was created using bacterial cultures from his skin.

And now the bacteria were on my skin.

I had warned my friends and co-workers about my experiment, and while there were plenty of jokes — someone left a stick of deodorant on my desk; people started referring to me as “Teen Spirit” — when I pressed them to sniff me after a few soap-free days, no one could detect a difference. Aside from my increasingly greasy hair, the real changes were invisible. By the end of the week, Jamas was happy to see test results that showed the N. eutropha had begun to settle in, finding a friendly niche within my biome.

Week Two

AOBiome is not the first company to try to leverage emerging discoveries about the skin microbiome into topical products. The skin-care aisle at my drugstore had a moisturizer with a “probiotic complex,” which contains an extract of Lactobacillus, species unknown. Online, companies offer face masks, creams and cleansers, capitalizing on the booming market in probiotic yogurts and nutritional supplements. There is even a “frozen yogurt” body cleanser whose second ingredient is sodium lauryl sulfate, a potent detergent, so you can remove your healthy bacteria just as fast as you can grow them.

Audrey Gueniche, a project director in L’Oréal’s research and innovation division, said the recent skin microbiome craze “has revolutionized the way we study the skin and the results we look for.” L’Oréal has patented several bacterial treatments for dry and sensitive skin, including Bifidobacterium longum extract, which it uses in a Lancôme product. Clinique sells a foundation with Lactobacillus ferment, and its parent company, Estée Lauder, holds a patent for skin application of Lactobacillus plantarum. But it’s unclear whether the probiotics in any of these products would actually have any effect on skin: Although a few studies have shown that Lactobacillus may reduce symptoms of eczema when taken orally, it does not live on the skin with any abundance, making it “a curious place to start for a skin probiotic,” said Michael Fischbach, a microbiologist at the University of California, San Francisco. Extracts are not alive, so they won’t be colonizing anything.

To differentiate their product from others on the market, the makers of AO+ use the term “probiotics” sparingly, preferring instead to refer to “microbiomics.” No matter what their marketing approach, at this stage the company is still in the process of defining itself. It doesn’t help that the F.D.A. has no regulatory definition for “probiotic” and has never approved such a product for therapeutic use. “The skin microbiome is the wild frontier,” Fischbach told me. “We know very little about what goes wrong when things go wrong and whether fixing the bacterial community is going to fix any real problems.”

I didn’t really grasp how much was yet unknown until I received my skin swab results from Week 2. My overall bacterial landscape was consistent with the majority of Americans’: Most of my bacteria fell into the genera Propionibacterium, Corynebacterium and Staphylococcus, which are among the most common groups. (S. epidermidis is one of several Staphylococcus species that reside on the skin without harming it.) But my test results also showed hundreds of unknown bacterial strains that simply haven’t been classified yet.

Artwork by Dan Cassaro

Meanwhile, I began to regret my decision to use AO+ as a replacement for soap and shampoo. People began asking if I’d “done something new” with my hair, which turned a full shade darker for being coated in oil that my scalp wouldn’t stop producing. I slept with a towel over my pillow and found myself avoiding parties and public events. Mortified by my body odor, I kept my arms pinned to my sides, unless someone volunteered to smell my armpit. One friend detected the smell of onions. Another caught a whiff of “pleasant pot.”

When I visited the gym, I followed AOBiome’s instructions, misting myself before leaving the house and again when I came home. The results: After letting the spray dry on my skin, I smelled better. Not odorless, but not as bad as I would have ordinarily. And, oddly, my feet didn’t smell at all.

Week Three

My skin began to change for the better. It actually became softer and smoother, rather than dry and flaky, as though a sauna’s worth of humidity had penetrated my winter-hardened shell. And my complexion, prone to hormone-related breakouts, was clear. For the first time ever, my pores seemed to shrink. As I took my morning “shower” — a three-minute rinse in a bathroom devoid of hygiene products — I remembered all the antibiotics I took as a teenager to quell my acne. How funny it would be if adding bacteria were the answer all along.

Dr. Elizabeth Grice, an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the role of microbiota in wound healing and inflammatory skin disease, said she believed that discoveries about the second genome might one day not only revolutionize treatments for acne but also — as AOBiome and its biotech peers hope — help us diagnose and cure disease, heal severe lesions and more. Those with wounds that fail to respond to antibiotics could receive a probiotic cocktail adapted to fight the specific strain of infecting bacteria. Body odor could be altered to repel insects and thereby fight malaria and dengue fever. And eczema and other chronic inflammatory disorders could be ameliorated.

 

According to Julie Segre, a senior investigator at the National Human Genome Research Institute and a specialist on the skin microbiome, there is a strong correlation between eczema flare-ups and the colonization of Staphylococcus aureus on the skin. Segre told me that scientists don’t know what triggers the bacterial bloom. But if an eczema patient could monitor their microbes in real time, they could lessen flare-ups. “Just like someone who has diabetes is checking their blood-sugar levels, a kid who had eczema would be checking their microbial-diversity levels by swabbing their skin,” Segre said.

AOBiome says its early research seems to hold promise. In-house lab results show that AOB activates enough acidified nitrite to diminish the dangerous methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). A regime of concentrated AO+ caused a hundredfold decrease of Propionibacterium acnes, often blamed for acne breakouts. And the company says that diabetic mice with skin wounds heal more quickly after two weeks of treatment with a formulation of AOB.

Soon, AOBiome will file an Investigational New Drug Application with the F.D.A. to request permission to test more concentrated forms of AOB for the treatment of diabetic ulcers and other dermatologic conditions. “It’s very, very easy to make a quack therapy; to put together a bunch of biological links to convince someone that something’s true,” Heywood said. “What would hurt us is trying to sell anything ahead of the data.”

Week Four

As my experiment drew to a close, I found myself reluctant to return to my old routine of daily shampooing and face treatments. A month earlier, I packed all my hygiene products into a cooler and hid it away. On the last day of the experiment, I opened it up, wrinkling my nose at the chemical odor. Almost everything in the cooler was a synthesized liquid surfactant, with lab-manufactured ingredients engineered to smell good and add moisture to replace the oils they washed away. I asked AOBiome which of my products was the biggest threat to the “good” bacteria on my skin. The answer was equivocal: Sodium lauryl sulfate, the first ingredient in many shampoos, may be the deadliest to N. eutropha, but nearly all common liquid cleansers remove at least some of the bacteria. Antibacterial soaps are most likely the worst culprits, but even soaps made with only vegetable oils or animal fats strip the skin of AOB.

Bar soaps don’t need bacteria-killing preservatives the way liquid soaps do, but they are more concentrated and more alkaline, whereas liquid soaps are often milder and closer to the natural pH of skin. Which is better for our bacteria? “The short answer is, we don’t know,” said Dr. Larry Weiss, founder of CleanWell, a botanical-cleanser manufacturer. Weiss is helping AOBiome put together a list of “bacteria-safe” cleansers based on lab testing. In the end, I tipped most of my products into the trash and purchased a basic soap and a fragrance-free shampoo with a short list of easily pronounceable ingredients. Then I enjoyed a very long shower, hoping my robust biofilm would hang on tight.

One week after the end of the experiment, though, a final skin swab found almost no evidence of N. eutropha anywhere on my skin. It had taken me a month to coax a new colony of bacteria onto my body. It took me three showers to extirpate it. Billions of bacteria, and they had disappeared as invisibly as they arrived. I had come to think of them as “mine,” and yet I had evicted them.

– – –

BONUS: Eavesdrop on Julia’s conversation with The 6th Floor blog at the New York Times.

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The Last of the Iron Lungs

Monday, July 15th, 2013

 

 

Martha Lillard is one of the last American polio victims who still rely on an iron lung respirator to breathe. Ten years ago, she was one of 30. Today, a dozen. But Martha, like other survivors, says she would rather end her life in her iron lung than risk using a modern replacement. THE LAST OF THE IRON LUNGS brings listeners inside an archaic machine – and a way of life – on the brink of extinction.

Martha Lillard in her iron lungThis program is part of the STEM Story Project — distributed by PRX and made possible with funds from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Special thanks to the March of Dimes for its archival newsreel. The March of Dimes Foundation is a United States nonprofit organization that works to improve the health of mothers and babies.

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BON VOYAGE

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

 

The BBC Public Radio Partnership and producer Julia Scott present BON VOYAGE, the story of a same-sex couple from California who try to meet death in style.

Paul Perkovic and his husband, Eric Trefelner, have lived in style for 36 years. When they find out that Paul has inoperable pancreatic cancer, they decide he should go out in style, too. Eric plans a lavish, quarter million-dollar “Bon Voyage” party at a fine arts museum in San Francisco. Paul and Eric aren’t just planning a party; they’re trying to choreograph a death. But the couple soon discovers that death has its own agenda. BON VOYAGE brings the listener along on the intimate, emotional journey of a same-sex couple coping with mortality.

bon-voyage-1

 

Praise for BON VOYAGE:

BON VOYAGE wins 2013 Excellence in Journalism award from the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association!

BON VOYAGE was nominated for Sony Radio Academy Award, Britain’s biggest radio honor.

RAVE REVIEW: The Guardian calls BON VOYAGE “Vivid and beautifully told… A tremendous listen: you felt as if you knew both subjects within moments, and got an insight into the hardest moments a relationship will face.”

BON VOYAGE is part of Real America, a new series from the BBC World Service that enlisted four American producers to tell stories found only in America. BON VOYAGE’s executive producer is Anne Donohue.

DURATION: 23 minutes.

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Julia Scott

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