31 March 2011

Why everyone should know about the hippocampus, Part I

I’ve been thinking about how to tell you about the hippocampus.  I had never even heard of it before four years ago, but it’s now my favorite brain region.  I have no less than four pairs of seahorse earrings expressing my dedication to this brain region (explanation to follow).  I don’t want to lose your attention by talking about the hippocampus, so I decided a limerick would make it more palatable.  Here it is:

HM was a man in great pain –
Epilepsy was killing his brain.
With hippocampi removed,
His epilepsy soothed,
But his memory he never regained.

Ta da!  Did you like it?  If you remember any of it by the time you reach the end of this page, you can thank your hippocampus.

Henry Gustav Molaison (or HM, as he was known to science before his death in 2008) was arguably the most studied man in the history of brain science.  In 1953, at the age of 27, his epilepsy was so intractable and profound that it was ruining his life.  The focus of his seizures turned out to be the hippocampus – the two hippocampi on either side of his brain were affected.  So, after all other efforts to quiet his seizures failed, the decision was made to remove both of them.

This was not uncommon practice – well, removing one was not uncommon, and it seemed to have little detrimental effect.  So the tissue surrounding and including both his hippocampi were removed in the hope of relieving his epilepsy.

From the moment HM woke up from anesthesia, he could no longer translate any of his experiences into memories.  If he stayed engaged he could hold onto a thread for minutes at a time, but as soon as he got distracted he lost it.  From the time of his surgery until his death at the age of 82, he lived in increment spans of a few minutes.  And his memories of times before the surgery were partly lost as well, with a preference toward sparing of his oldest, farthest-back memories.

There’s a lot of argument about exactly what the hippocampus does, how it does what it does and what that means for our memories and our ability to retain and later recall them.  I won’t bore you with that (no matter how much I want to!).  So here’s what you need to have under your belt at cocktail parties (or at least the dork-fest kind of cocktail parties I prefer to attend):

-          The hippocampus is a seahorse-shaped structure embedded in the temporal lobe (the lobe on the side of your head, above your ears and behind your temples).  Because it is shaped like a seahorse (genus: Hippocampus; from the Greek hippos, horse, and kampos, sea monster), it is called a ‘hippocampus’.

Stolen straight from Wikipedia

-          The hippocampus is the brain structure that allows you to encode ‘episodic memory’ – your memory for events or episodes.  This kind of memory is what most people generally mean when they talk about memory.

-          Not surprisingly, the hippocampus is one of the first structures damaged in Alzheimer’s disease.

-          People with hippocampal damage generally experience (a) anterograde amnesia: the inability to form new memories; and to some extent (b) retrograde amnesia: the inability to recall episodic memories formed before hippocampal damage took place.

-         These individuals seem to have intact knowledge of any facts (‘semantic memory’) learned prior to hippocampal damage, but are impaired at – if not incapable of – learning new semantic information.  For instance, even after decades testing with the same experimenters, HM never learned their names or even recognized them when they entered the room.

-          People with hippocampal damage can learn new tricks, so to speak.  They have intact ‘implicit’ or ‘non-declarative’ learning – things like riding a bike or more readily seeing patterns one’s been shown before.  After a lot of practice HM became quite skilled at a mirror-drawing task in which he had to trace the outline of a picture he could only see through a mirror.  When asked how he was so good at it, he guessed it was just one of those things, maybe he just had a talent for it – he had no memory of having ever performed the task before!

As humans, we place a great deal of stock in our memories – so much so that it’s not uncommon to hear it said that our memories make us who we are.  The hippocampus – this tiny little seahorse-shaped brain structure resting so unobtrusively in our skulls – is no small part of what makes us who we are.  And that’s why it’s important to know about it.

28 March 2011

Is this going overboard?

I had a thought as I was washing my hands just now that perhaps I should keep my own hand-drying towel on my person to avoid having to use the paper towels or my jeans every time a public bathroom fails to have a blow dryer.

If you can’t tell, I’m getting to be a reduce-reuse-recycle freak.  But is this too far over the line?  Should I just sacrifice my pants? (my trousers, for those of you who just laughed at that question?)

In the same ‘I probably had a stroke today because my sense of loving kindness for the whole world and everything in it is currently annoyingly gargantuan’ vein, (that was the best segue I could come up with for this non sequitur), I feel really, really sorry for Rebecca Black and I want her to know I wish her all the very best.

I will assume you are one of the millions upon millions of people who’ve already seen the Friday video.  If not, if you’ve missed this meme, this girl is getting hammered over this song.  She’s thirteen years old.  I had a very, very fragile ego at thirteen and I’m not sure I know anyone who would bear this kind of scorn pleasantly.  All things considered she is a picture of grace and ought to be applauded.

There’s no reason to be an asshole to this girl.  No reason to berate and tease.  She has other kids telling her she should slit her wrists and die.  What kind of world are we living in?

I could go on and on about revolutions and shark finning and global warming and wars and domestic violence and so many other things I can’t list them, but today all the weight of the world seems embodied in this poor, overtaxed soul.  I can’t imagine being her and I see people being hateful to other people so often and it just hurts my heart.

I don’t know quite why I felt the need to say this.  I know I said I wasn’t going to post every day.  Apparently I lied.

27 March 2011

Literary loves and why editing sucks

This is a long post.  But it’s the only one you might be getting for a day or two because I’ve been posting quite enough too much already.  So settle in…

When I first wrote Canine I put a lot of personal references in it (cf. my Ludo post).  I fear that most of these will be removed.  If they are, I will be sad.  And you won’t know what you’re missing when these references are gone.  So I’m going to just tell you about two of my favorite books of all time, Catch-22 and Confederacy of Dunces.  I love these books and everyone should know it and everyone should love them just as much as I do. 

I want you to love Catch-22.  I want you to go to bed dreaming wistfully of Yossarian, and Milo Minderbinder, and Colonel Cathcart, and Major Major Major Major.  I want you to laugh with me every time you read about crab apples.  I want you to think long and hard and carefully about Snowden and his secret.  I want you to go out and search for everything else Joseph Heller ever wrote and fall in love with all of it, I want God Knows to be the best version of King David’s story you ever heard.  I want to quote a line from Catch-22, if I may, because it still wins for the most eloquent, fantastic description of the avid self-preservationist’s condition I’ve ever had the pleasure to run across:

“Yossarian felt much safer inside the hospital than outside the hospital, even though he loathed the surgeon and his knife as much as he had ever loathed anyone.  He could start screaming inside a hospital and people would at least come running to try to help; outside the hospital they would throw him in prison if he ever started screaming about all the things he felt everyone ought to start screaming about, or they would put him in the hospital.  One of the things he wanted to start screaming about was the surgeon’s knife that was almost certain to be waiting for him and everyone else who lived long enough to die.  He wondered often how he would ever recognize the first chill, flush, twinge, ache, belch, sneeze, stain, lethargy, vocal slip, loss of balance or lapse of memory that would signal the inevitable beginning of the inevitable end.”

I don’t care who you are or what you say, this is prose at its finest and Joseph Heller is a god.

Whether he gets to tell you about it or not, my character Galen has two copies of Catch-22: “There’s the torn and frayed one, the dog-eared one, the battered and bruised one he reads religiously and whose every fingerprint smudge he greets with warm familiarity… and then there’s the other one, the untouched one, the one he might have read once but decided to save as a memento, the one that’s remarkably pristine and particularly susceptible to defilement-by-perusal.”

Galen’s books, those are my books.  I just about threw a fit when I loaned out my pristine copy and it came back all water-stained.  I know better than to loan my books out if I want to keep them nice, but damn.  Now if there’s a zombie apocalypse and the whole functioning world stops, all I’m going to have left to pass on to future generations is this mucky, warped paperback.  And that would be a terrible tragedy.  My other copy is nowhere near fit enough to carry on a legacy to future generations – it practically is a zombie apocalypse all by its lonesome.  I finally lost one of the half-dozen unglued unbound pages I’ve been meticulously arranging at the front of the book for years, and for the life of me I can’t figure out how I did it.  If I could still hold that book without the expectation of accidentally shredding the whole thing by turning a page, it’d be my preferred version.

Because let’s face it, books are old friends and we always remember them the way we first met them.  I don’t judge books by their covers but I certainly know them that way.  When I ruined my husband’s copy of Confederacy of Dunces (see? told you I know better than to loan my books out!) and replaced it with a book of a different cover, he insisted on searching every other store in town in a failed attempt to regain his dear original illustration.  In the end he kept the old broken version and now we can’t find the new one.

Stephenie Meyer, I’m happy for you, and Imma let you finish, 
but John Kennedy Toole was one of the best writers of all time.

And that brings me to Confederacy.  This novel is potentially the only one my husband has ever finished.  Okay, that’s a lie.  But it’s really not far off.  (He didn’t even finish Catch-22.  I know, right?)  You will love this book absolutely to pieces and it will make you laugh out loud and cry inside and sink into a black depression lamenting the great catastrophic calamity that is John Kennedy Toole’s far-too-premature death.  Ignatius Reilly is far and away the most obnoxious, best-developed anti-hero ever written (sorry, Yossarian), and the depth of Toole’s hilarious and florid depictions, his delicious weaving of seeming-unrelated plotlines, and his full cast of profoundly endearing characters will all make you yearn with a desperate and unquenchable fervor for more.

But there is no more.  Because John Kennedy Toole killed himself long before his doggedly persistent mother finally managed to find a publisher who would take on a dead man’s work.  Confederacy of Dunces is his first and last, and as the pages close on Ignatius Reilly it is tempting to think you understand why – insofar as one can understand these sorts of things.  And it’s really so very heartbreaking because the man was truly a genius and he should have been around to receive the accolades. 

If you care, the novel won a Pulitzer.  And it’s always on Top 100 Must-Read lists.  But if you do care about that then you’re the kind of person I don’t want to associate with.

I end up liking just about every book I read.  Certainly every book I finish.  But these two, they’re my loves.  They’re the ones I force everyone and their mom to read, the ones I refer to most often, the ones comprising almost all of my literary inside jokes.  They’re the best.  And if you don’t like them, well, then I feel very, very sorry for you.  You probably shouldn’t read my book, either.

26 March 2011

Material I've jettisoned

I made a page to keep you updated on Canine – you can check it out using the tab at the top.  Meanwhile, here’s something I really wanted to put in that novel, but I took it out long ago because I cannot fathom anyone wanting to read it, ever.  Be thankful and bear with me:

“In wolf form, I live in a world that to a human would look very bizarre indeed.  Take color, for instance: the entire spectrum from red to green all blends into shades of yellow, and blue-green becomes white, and violet stands out vividly.  Take a moment to appreciate how much different your average rainbow would appear from a canine perspective.  Actually, most born werewolves are red-green colorblind in their human forms, so the world doesn’t look all that much different to them color-wise either way.  I’m one of the fantastically unlucky ones that gets his vision thrown wildly out of whack with every transformation.

“And damned if canines don’t have a whole host of other perceptive issues – shit visual acuity, fantastic night vision, renowned sense of smell, insane auditory range and sensitivity, frankly abysmal tactile sensation – that all add up to make me feel both blessed and cursed for being able to experience the world in two wildly different modalities.  Invariably there are times when one form is far advantageous to another, and you can’t imagine how phenomenally frustrating it is to find yourself in a situation in which the other form would be just perfect, if only there weren’t people around to witness your transformation…”

I am such a sucker for pedantic over-description. 

I wanted to go farther even than this.  I was so excited to be able to build into my story that werewolves are genetically red-green colorblind.  Because, see, after centuries of consistently being wiped almost off the face of the planet, they’ve got this founder effect thing going and red-green colorblindness is one consequence of their regular evolutionary bottlenecks.  And that’s why most werewolves wouldn’t be bothered visually by changing into their wolf form which is basically red-green colorblind.  And our protagonist is extremely unlucky because the gene is carried on the X chromosome (it really is, and side note, that’s why men are far more likely to be colorblind than women – because they’re only working with one X so if they’re given a colorblind X by their mother then they can’t compensate for it with a functional X like women can), meaning that his well-bred mother was miraculously, after all this time, still harboring a functional X.  It was pure genius.

I do still mention in my story the flicker fusion threshold of canines.  I don’t think I call it that, though.  A flicker fusion threshold is the frequency at which a brain starts to perceive a series of discrete images as a seamless continuum.  For humans, the flicker fusion threshold is variable but it’s as low as 15-20 Hz (images per second) in low light and as high as 60 Hz with increased brightness.  This means that so long as something flickers faster than that, we fuse it together in our heads and we see a seamless video.  Your TV and computer monitor and fluorescent lights take advantage of this effect and most refresh at 60-100 Hz.  Generally movies are recorded at 25-30 frames per second.

But dogs, their flicker fusion threshold is higher than ours is – 70-80 Hz – and it’s probable that they can see a TV refreshing.  Think about that.  Think about what your dog sees.  Let’s say it’s not the TV, say it’s your kitchen light.  The one light you have on in the house all night and it’s going off like a bloody annoying strobe light.  (Birds tend to have an even higher flicker fusion threshold than dogs do, by the way, so it’s even more likely they can perceive this effect.  And they’re trying to fly through that.)

And think about what your poor animal hears!  Our human range of hearing sucks.  And even then my TV annoys the crap out of me with that high-pitched buzz.  I guarantee you your dog can hear that.  And I’m sure your cat can, too. 

We tailor our entire world to our unimaginably pathetic senses.  We’re not bothered by planes and boats and sonic blasts.  And we know other animals are.  We can measure it.  And as a species we don’t give the slightest shit (excuse my French).  And that is so awfully wrong of us.

Can I soapbox on behalf of animals even more for a moment?  It’s kind of scary to think that every animal on this planet has a nervous system.  We use rats as models for pain because they react to what we call ‘painful’ experiences in the very same way we do.   As I already confessed I anthropomorphize everything, and I hate that as a collective species we can’t take a step back and try to perceive what we’re doing from the perspective of the things we’re doing them to. 

Please don’t get me wrong.  I’m an animal-studying biologist and a meat-eater.  And I’m not saying of course I know my dog so well that I can tell exactly what she’s thinking and feeling all the time and it’s like she talks to me and her energy is aqua-green or whatever. 

But you can’t deny that when you step on an ant you extinguish a life.  One life.  That’s as much as you’ve got, too.

23 March 2011

Failing the Turing test

Sorry, I know I wrote a post today already, but this must be said.

I have decided I am a robot.  After trying to write posts on numerous other blogs over these past few weeks, I now realize that I seriously suck at figuring out what the stupid CAPTCHA things are saying to me and I regularly screw them up and need to ask for another and another and another until I get it right.  (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ve stolen a picture off the internet and reposted it below.  That is a CAPTCHA.  For the record, I think I can read these ones, but if tested I would probably end up failing all of them.) 

Since these are supposed to weed out robots, and I can’t do them, by the transitive property I must be a robot, right?

If I am a robot, I will class myself with robots like replicants and cylons that haven’t yet been told what they are.  And I plan to be really freaking pissed when someone finally gives me the big reveal.  Because that’s not very nice, and people should be more careful about making sentient machines that don’t know they’re machines, because it clearly never ends well.  (At least, I assume I’m sentient…)

This is all tangentially applicable to my post tomorrow, in which I will mention how I may have been fooled by a chat robot-troll when I was younger.  I want to prepare you for this post because you may end up getting creeped out, because I was a creepy thirteen-year-old.  There.  Consider yourself warned.

Camping is scary

Whenever I go camping, all I can think about is cougars and gun-toting hill people.

By cougars I don’t mean older women.  That kind of cougar would probably be pretty enjoyable – you can see it now: some hot, busty older woman sashaying up the trail of an evening in a taut cocktail dress and ridiculous red pumps, catching sight of a lonely little tent pitched off in a little clearing… 

Okay, I’m getting off topic.  I mean our local mountains are crawling with… well, all of probably two very territorial mountain lions and they scare me. 

Cougars are scary big cats and sometimes they eat people.  I believe I have catalogued every single incident in which people have been mauled or killed by cougars in the U.S. in the last decade, and it may not be a lot but it is also not zero.  Getting my spine cracked open from behind is probably one of my least favorite ideas of a surprise.

Also, it’s a well-established fact but bears really are scary too.  And we don’t even have grizzlies in this neck of the woods, but back when I was a little girl scout there was this other girl scout troop what went up the mountain for a camping trip and one girl had food in her tent – don’t ever do that! – and a black bear literally mauled her to death.  It was tragic and horrifying and I think about it every time I zip up a tent at night. 

And now I keep every shred of scented anything in a sealed bag at least fifty yards from the tent whenever I go to sleep and I’m still pretty sure this is useless because someday soon someone’s going to discover bears and cougars are actually attracted to the smell of sleeping bag stuffing.  I lie awake for hours magnifying every snap and creak out there beyond the pathetically diaphanous walls of my tent.  I was once mind-numbingly terrorized by an oblivious snuffling skunk.

(Can I digress for a second?  This is something I’ve never understood about the geography and ecology of my region.  There have to be more than two mountain lions, right?  And more than just a bear or two?  Here’s my concern: these critters are living on sky islands – a few dozen square miles of cool, forested mountains surrounded by vast quantities of inhospitable desert.  So needless to say their ranges are pretty damn limited.  But I can’t see these guys deciding to go wandering across miles and miles of intractable wasteland chasing new and exciting tail.  So they’ve got to be getting with their sisters and stuff, right?  It has always completely baffled me how on Earth these big predators can keep up a steady population with so little real space to roam.  I mean how the hell do they even eat?  It’s no wonder they go searching for granola bars.  And that’s why sky island cougars are even scarier than you thought.)

And then there’s the hill people.  I don’t know that we really have hill people here.  I guess what I mean by ‘hill people’ is ‘people who think secluded mountain trails no one ever walks on are good places to murder other people whose screams won’t be heard.’  So serial killers, let’s go with serial killers.  I am really freaking terrified of outdoorsy serial killers.

Yes, I am only blowing out of proportion every single horror movie and ghost story I’ve ever seen and heard.  But you know what?  That stuff is real.  I mean not like The Ring or 28 Days Later or anything like that, but don’t Wikipedia ‘Phantom Killer’ if you ever want to park your car in a secluded spot ever again.  That happened.  And people died.

So I think I’m perfectly justified for wondering just who the hell thinks they can fool me by pretending to be out for a bit of a run through the mountains at six in the AM.  (This has actually happened to me.  Took us four hours to hike in, but people are already out jogging past our tent just as dawn’s breaking.  Kind of makes you just want to claim defeat and head back down in time to catch the Saturday afternoon matinee.) 

If I was out jogging at six in the morning a good couple miles out of earshot of the rest of humanity, I’m not going to lie – I might be feeling a little homicidal.  In fact the only likely way this turn of events could transpire is if I was coming off a really bad, dark kind of bender and my day had really started many Earth rotations ago.  I’d probably be mountain-bound in an attempt to flee the rest of humanity and find just one place – any place – that wasn’t inhabited…

And then I’d see your tent.

And you still think camping is safe.

22 March 2011

Things you can’t unthink

Everyone has those things they maybe wish they’d never heard, seemingly innocent little things which somehow come to modify their entire perception of the universe, things they can no longer unthink no matter how hard they try.

These are some of the various things that’ve given me pause throughout my life and which I can now never unthink…

-       Everyone you have ever known gets naked.  They have probably been naked today.  Many of them will also have some sort of sex this month (probably with someone else, who also gets naked).

-       Because all the various particles around us are recycled, every time you breathe in you might as well be letting a dinosaur pee in your mouth, or something.

-       The Hudson River once had a deranged Great White shark swimming in it.  And it ate people.

-       When people clap into microphones, it’s hard not to compare that sound to the sound of that same person masturbating (works best for men).

-       In order to accurately render Dr. Manhattan for the recent Watchmen film, someone had to sit for hours staring at a screen trying to make a blue penis look just right.

-       Blue cheese contains bacteria which have the capability of boring through cell walls.  In an extremely unlikely but not totally impossible scenario, these bacteria could make it all the way to your spinal column and cause meningitis.

-       While we’re on bacteria…  Let’s say the average generation time in humans is 20 years.  That means your family has produced 100 generations since year zero, two millennia ago.  E. coli ‘families’ manage that same feat (100 generations) in a little over half a day.  If they started at midnight, they’d finish the job by 5 PM.  And by then there would be at least 10^29 (that’s a 1 followed by 30 zeroes, or more than a trillion trillion) times more of them.

-       There is a restaurant in my hometown that once served us a dish in which we found two used band-aids.  After the husband almost ate one.  Chewed on it and everything.  No, I will never tell you what restaurant this is because I still love it.

-       There was a time in your development when you were breathing your mother’s bodily fluids.

-       When you eat a lobster you’re eating something that got boiled alive.

-       Imagine the sound of teeth scraping along a chalkboard.  Just really take that in.

-       Because sunlight takes 8 minutes to reach Earth, if the Sun did something heinously bad and devastating for all humankind right this second we wouldn’t know it for another eight minutes.

-       Naomi is “I moan” backward.

-       Time machines as we know and love them are probably impossible.  (Holodecks, though, they’re entirely possible.  And if you had a holodeck, would you really give a damn about time machines?)

-       Mayonnaise is made from the contents of the lunch lady’s back pimples (This one may not be true, but I can attest that it never leaves you – even if you’re now content to eat mayo).

-       If there’s intelligent life out there, it either (a) is not smart enough or (b) doesn’t care enough to make itself known to us.

-       Consciously speaking, you are incapable of perceiving anything at the exact same time it happens.  If there is an objective reality, you will always be a few fractions of a second behind it.  Always.

-       There may not be an objective reality.

-       Rule 34.

-       When we had our house broken into, some stranger was walking around my living room.  S/he walked into my bedroom and saw all my personal effects strewn about there.  S/he stole my computer which was chock full of even more important, personal, and private things.  And s/he probably didn’t even care.  But mostly, s/he was walking around my damn house.

-       Fruits are really plant ovaries.

-       Apparently all chocolate bars contain ground-up spider legs and anyone who lives an appreciable amount of time will eat a spider in his or her sleep.

-       Lobotomies were considered good medical practice by many healthcare professionals as little as fifty years ago.  They are not a good idea.  Never.  Not for any reason.  I don’t care what anyone tells you.  And they are by no means the last insane medical remedy we try on sick people.

-       John Harvey Kellogg (co-inventor of Kellogg’s corn flakes) ran a sanitarium and was a big proponent of yogurt enemas.

-       Angler fish.  There are angler fish down there in the ocean.

So – what things do you wish you could unthink??  Comment them – I’m anxious to know!

The many uses of a vampire/ werewolf obsession, Part III

When a Super Moon comes to town you’re pretty dedicated to taking good shots…

7 P.M.

9 P.M.

10 P.M.

4 A.M.

6 A.M.

21 March 2011

Ludo: Best. Band. EVER.

I’ve been on a Ludo kick again lately.  If you don’t know Ludo, you should.  In fact, I will direct you straight to http://www.ludorock.com to go visit them personally.  As the band states on their Facebook page, “Trying to get a handle on Ludo’s music is a little like forcing six blind men to describe an elephant having felt just one side of it.”  So I won’t try to describe it.  Their music is alternately highly amusing and deeply moving.  It’s the kind of music that makes your chest swell so big you think it’ll break, it makes you grin until you’ve got tears welling in your eyes you’re so overcome with happy fandom.

This band regularly vies for the top spot on my carefully weighed list of all-time favorite bands.  Those of you who know me, you know I take this list very seriously.  I have traveled 458 miles (one way) to see this band.  I own more Ludo merch than any other kind of merch.  Some of it is signed.  The picture on my profile page is one of me at a Ludo concert.

I’ve seen people tattoo Ludo lyrics on their bodies, but I don’t get tattoos.  So I made the best tribute I could think of – I made Ludo a nontrivial plot point in Canine.  They are my best character’s favorite band.  I hope they don’t mind.

I felt the need to plug this band for many reasons.  Like I said above, their music makes me feel.  End of story.  You can find a Ludo song to create any mood.  Feeling fun and a little macabre?  Try Love Me Dead.  Dark and heartfelt?  Horror of Our Love.  Epic?  Save Our City.  Love-struck and devotional?  Anything for You.  (P.S. my sister didn’t go for it, but if Anything for You had been out when I got married I would have gotten a guitarist to play it during our wedding ceremony.  Sister is still definitely playing it at the reception.)  (Also, apologies to the band for not linking to official videos for some of those!)

Also, they wrote and composed a rock opera, a whole five-part rock opera, called Broken Bride.  I’ve cried many times at the end.  This is what my sister and I traveled 916 round-trip miles to go see, because that was the nearest Ludo was getting to us on the Broken Bride tour and we sure as hell weren’t going to miss it.  My pterodactyl fan shirt (see below) is a reference to this opera (and that’s how good this band is – they seamlessly imbue swarming pterodactyls with deep tragedian pathos).

Also, I have a thing for people with thick-rimmed glasses.  At one time (not coincidentally, about the time I was getting into Ludo) lead singer Andrew Volpe wore such glasses.  When I say I have a thing, I’m not really invoking the standard colloquialism here – I mean that I have a serious need to win the approval of people wearing these glasses.  I don’t know why.  I feel a weird sense of urgency to please when I am in contact with these people.  I feel ashamed when I don’t know and sing every single word to every Ludo song played live, even if I’m about to die of asphyxiation.

Also, their concerts are by far the most fun I’ve ever had listening to live music.  Some of the most fun I’ve had ever.  I think I can blame them for some of my tinnitus (I’m now that doofus wearing bright green earplugs at the front of the crowd).  They’re the best because they’re insane and fun and wild and so are their fans.  The last concert tour involved a lot of whipped cream and choreographed crowd dancing.  I’m still saddened that I missed one of their concerts in my hometown because I had to present a poster at a conference that same day in D.C.  I was sorely tempted to skip the job obligation and go anyway.  If I hadn’t already bought the ticket when the concert was posted, I would have.

Also, their name derives from The Labyrinth.  I mean, come on.  Can you get sicker than that? 

Here’s how quickly I knew I loved Ludo.  I was driving home from the parents’ house one Sunday night and switched to the local rock station.  And this insanely crazy fantastic satiric song I’d never heard before was on, and it hit every trigger I’ve created over the years for song awesomeness: tragic love, melodrama, vivid poetic imagery, death references, lots of well-timed bass, sick guitar solo, perfect climax.  I almost never fall for songs on first listen, but I fell hard.  Hard.  I was sitting there begging the station aloud in my car to tell me who it was, trying to hold onto chorus lyrics so I could Google them later, and miraculously afterward the announcer said, “And that was Ludo with Love Me Dead.”  I couldn’t believe my ears.  I told myself, If that band meant Ludo like from The Labyrinth, I will love them forever.  And I got home and made a beeline for the computer, and now I will love them forever.

Ludo… they’re great.  They’re just great, and you should check them out.  I mean it.

20 March 2011

Anthropomorphizing is bad for you

So the husband and I were at lunch yesterday eating our sandwiches and we got to talking about how easy it is to get an emotional attachment to anything.  He and I both have a very strong anthropomorphic sense – we apply human emotions to every damn thing.  I mean everything.  

We can’t throw things away – we have learned not to buy anything because when we do we keep it forever because if we can’t give it to Goodwill then we sure as hell can’t just send it to the dump because that would be cruel.  And we can’t give anything with eyes away even to the Goodwill, because we’re pretty convinced some film student is just going to round it and a whole bunch of other eye-bearing items up as part of some piece on the destruction of all that is wholesome and good, and our poor things with eyes will get tortured to death.  We have ants crawling around on our kitchen counters and as long as they’re not getting into what meager supplies of food we have lying around the house they’re welcome to stay (come to think of it, I’m not sure the landlord would be happy with this decision).  Most importantly we have Domo, our travel buddy, to whom I am sure I’ll be introducing you soon.  He and his two buddies, the dudes, are a veritable folie à deux of anthropomorphic mania.

And I don’t know why husband felt the need to reinforce just how pathetically love-struck I am with all things inanimate, but yesterday to prove some sort of point he reached into the paper bag his sandwich came in and poked arm holes in it and called it ‘Baggy’.  And I warned him Baggy was just going to end up living on our couch like Domo and the dudes if husband wasn’t careful, because frankly Baggy was really kind of cute.  He had a band of blue ink on his ‘face’ that looked like old-model cylon eyes and he had grease stains all over like a Dalmatian and stapled-on receipts which were apparently his only concession to decent attire, and seriously I felt quite bad having to go put him in the trash at the end of the meal.  Not even recycled.  It was horrible.

Anthropomorphizing is clearly very bad for you.  But it can make you a better person.  I have no doubt in my mind that the crazier I get about this the more empathic and eco-conscious I get overall.  And that’s got to be a good thing, right?

The many uses of a vampire/ werewolf obsession, Part II

Costume tip:  If you are going to dress as a werewolf for Halloween, do it in 2020.  That’s the next October 31 full moon.

(Please ignore that in the United States that full moon actually peaks in the AM.  Having just sat through both nights on either side of a similar 11 AM full moon, I can attest it still looks very full).

I should never be given control of anything

I have pretty much taken over my poor sister’s wedding.  She just let me have too much free rein, what am I supposed to do?  She knows me better than that.  She knows I can’t handle offers to be even more anal-retentively obsessive than I already am.  I need boundaries.  The instant you give the slightest inch I’m right there to fill it with crazy.

I haven’t been too bad, yet.  I got to design the invitations (did I mention I am the goddess of powerpoint?  That’s right, powerpoint.  I made that bitch in powerpoint.  And it looked awesome.), and the groom’s cake topper (I’m officially a sculptor, now, because this time I added a wire armature underneath and I actually read the baking directions!), and the cocktail napkins, and I helped pick out the cake flavors and all the dresses and gave non-trivial input on the date and the venue and the flowers and the colors.  And then she gave me the candy table arrangement.  I’m like a fat kid in a magic chocolate forest.

I didn’t even have this much fun with my own wedding.  I mean my wedding was awesome and all, don’t get me wrong, but it frankly didn’t matter to me until a few months after the whole thing was over and I realized I was never, ever going to get to do that stuff again.  But now I do.  Get to do it again, I mean.  Kind of.  And that is fantastic.

Oh, did I mention the wedding is still three months away?  Plenty of time to vault ever higher into even more ridiculous echelons of planning crazy.  Maybe when it’s over she’ll let me post the pictures of my totally professional cake topper…

UPDATE: As promised, here it is...

I can see this totally replacing standard divorce proceedings.

18 March 2011

Sometimes I have trouble with urban fantasy

Much as I love vampires and werewolves, their physiology is like this constant nagging frustration for me.  This is not helped by the fact that the field has not converged on an operational definition for either of them.

Does this bother anyone else?  Just about the only thing common among all vampire myths (okay, all modern ones – man, it gets worse!) is that vampires drink human blood.  At least sometimes.  They may or may not need it to survive.  And werewolves are probably people that turn into dog-like things once a month.

Yes, this gives me a lot of room to play.  No, this is not a good thing.

Because how exactly does one turn into a dog on a moment’s notice?  Do you have any idea what kind of massive morphological overhaul we’re talking about here? 

I always pictured it kind of like a genetic cascade.  Step one, maybe you have a protein that reacts to moonlight—

And here comes logic fiasco number one. 

Let’s say you turn into a wolf in reaction to moonlight.  Moonlight but not sunlight.  Moonlight but not artificial light of equivalent wavelength.  What the hell magical property does this moonlight have, exactly?  And many werewolf-theorists claim wolves still turn on cloudy full moon nights or while they’re under the protection of, say, an awning or a thick tree canopy.  What the hell?

Okay, so maybe it’s not moon light, maybe it’s something about the gravitational effect of having the moon and the sun on opposite sides of the planet when you’re closest to the moon-side, or something, like a bizarre tidal effect.  But then any time you pulled some weird G’s like in a plane or something you’d expect some massive side-effects, wouldn’t you?  This makes just as much nonsense. 

And let’s not forget that many people (including me because it’s the only way my plot is going to work) confuse werewolves with shape-shifters and declare that these guys can turn outside of the full moon, too – at will!  Well, then you’re tacking on some additional conscious control mechanism, too, and this is starting to get really ridiculous. 

So let’s just give up and assume that there’s something super special about something to do with the light of the moon and the alignment of heavenly bodies and the electrochemical signature of your conscious desire to be a dog right now that triggers a chemical reaction in your body.  Like you turn a switch and every cell shrinks or grows or starts producing different proteins and whatnot. 
I can almost buy that part.  There are a fair few precedents for it – cephalopods (especially cuttlefish) can change colors at insanely fast speeds, fly pupae practically turn their whole bodies inside out in a matter of minutes (seriously, like well under an hour) during metamorphosis.  I don’t have much of a problem with the morphological pole-vaulting that has to go on, here, and if I want to speed up my characters’ shape transitions by a couple orders of magnitude for the sake of the story then so be it. 

But this makes an assumption that you have a genetic switch.  So let’s go back to a story like the one I’ve constructed, in which some people are born wolves and some are made via a wolf bite. 

Obviously it’s easy for born wolves to have a genetic switch in place.  But to make a wolf, you have to assume that the saliva of a werewolf contains some sort of infectious agent like a virus, and somehow this only works if that agent gets into a human bloodstream and from there spreads to all the rest of the cells in a human body, transfecting them with additional genetic material.  And this only works on humans and doesn’t even work on chimps (and don’t anyone ever comment anywhere on my blog that we’re not related to chimps.  I will reach out through your monitor and slap you). 

Okay, fine, I can pretty much buy these shenanigans too – viruses are very good at inserting their own DNA into host cells, and humans have a lot of biological anomalies that no other species have (like Alzheimer’s disease).  But it’s pushing the limit.

And if werewolfish physiology is a pain to construct, then vampires are an absolute ungodly nightmare.

My characters are pretty much invariably annoyed by this, too, and while their annoyance can get annoying I think it’s justified.  The reason vampires and werewolves work in urban fantasy settings is because they’re unbelievable.  They stay hidden because no logical person could rationally believe they exist.  And characters have every right to doubt their sanity when they learn the truth.  I understand this.

But I want some level of plausibility.  I’m that guy that sits in the back of the theatre going, “Yeah, but could you really get a flux capacitor operational with that kind of shoddy mechanic work? – why would the Cylons only make twelve models? – did the creator of the Avada Kedavra curse consider people with really thick accents, I mean wouldn’t that give some people an obvious advantage?” – and when you’re that guy, it can be very difficult to write about creatures that seem to attract supernatural powers like manure attracts flies.

This would be a lot easier if I could just study one of them.  If anyone knows where I can acquire a sample I’d greatly appreciate it.

At least I’m not writing about superheroes.

17 March 2011

St. Patrick's Day

Normally on this blog I strive to be witty and lighthearted, and on St. Patrick’s Day of all days you’d think I could find some great fodder for blogging.  I enjoy St. Patrick’s Day, I like dressing up in green and drinking beer and hanging out with people I love, making great memories.  But I think it’s apropos to spend one good blog refraining from wit and sarcasm to tell you about my most important St. Patrick’s Day.

In March 2009, a friend of mine called to say she was back in town and she wanted to meet for drinks.  I hadn’t seen her in almost a year and I was thrilled to hear from her.  We agreed to meet at noon on St. Patrick’s Day, she and her fiancée and I, but I got waylaid by some grading I couldn’t escape and I had to meet up with them later that afternoon.  I hated having to delay but when I arrived they were waiting pleasantly, not bothered at all, and we had a fantastic afternoon and evening together catching up.  I told her that I’d just finished the first draft of my first novel, I explained what it was about and what I planned to do with it.  At that point I was still very scared of my writing and what people thought of my writing, and I told very few people about it.  I told them.  And in perfect character, my friend was hugely supportive and encouraged me to pursue it.  I don’t know that she understood just how inspiring that support was for me.

That St. Patrick’s Day turned out to be the last time I saw her alive, and I couldn’t have asked for a better last memory.  The world lost a light the day she died.  She was a wonderful, caring, beautiful soul and I feel humbled and honored to have known her.  I feel very small when I think of her, when I think of how profoundly she moved everyone she met and how deeply all those who knew her loved her.  She had a strength of character that I wish I was good enough to emulate.  I regret failing to show her how much I appreciated her while she was alive.

Since 2009 St. Patrick’s Day has a different connotation for me, and I feel the need to raise a glass to her and reflect on how best to walk in her footsteps, to be the better person she was and I want to be.  I want to make sure I follow through on the things I told her I would do, and two years later I’m finally moving beyond my own shortcomings and starting to do it.  This year’s going to be different, I can feel it.

I’m thinking of you today.  Wish you were here.

14 March 2011

Weird Juju Weekend

Sometimes you have one of those weekends that makes you intensely aware of the interconnectedness of the universe and it makes you think that Someone loves you intensely and simultaneously has it in for you.  This was one of those weekends.

The husband had a bad juju weekend.  I had pretty much a good juju weekend.  And when our forces combined… it was just weird juju.

Quick back story: He had to go to Irvine, CA to meet with his post-doc advisor.  I flew out Saturday to meet him.  End back story.

Husband:  The husband says his weekend of bad juju was foreshadowed by an oil change that had the capacity to morph into a $400 radiator overhaul.  He chose to ignore the mechanic and save himself some cash… and so began his bad juju.  (Just so we’re clear, I don’t know what the juju object(s) is (are) in this multiply-interwoven tale.  We may never know.  Just go with it.)

On Friday evening, the husband left work and found a parking ticket waiting for him on the windshield – even though he had his hard-earned parking pass (he had to wait behind five people to get it!) clearly displayed.  And this was after his advisor spent the day making fun of his Vibram Five Fingers (even though they are awesome).  And then Saturday he got a tomato-red sunburn on his face even though he wore SPF 45 sunscreen.  And he didn’t even catch any good waves.

And then the big one happened.  The mac daddy of awful, the major catastrophic event.  His computer died.  Actually died, kicked the bucket, gave up the ghost, bought the farm, died.  Right before he had to submit applications to two different places and finish revisions on a paper so he could discuss it with his advisor in the two days he has left in Irvine.  And he has no access to any other computer anywhere in California.

(Oh, and he says he’s had a three-day stomachache and headache and he can’t sleep and he’s pretty sure this freckle on his back is really cancer because it “looks suspect” and his stomach hurts and he hasn’t been getting sleep.)

Enter me.  My juju is good this weekend because I earned it with a hiccup just before I left: I braved the fire hose mud pit on my bike (in my best clothes, no less!) to go to the Festival of Books which I was otherwise going to have to miss this weekend, and I fought my way past the hordes of children and meandering parents in the kids’ area and raced down to the lecture hall with ten minutes to spare only to find a kindly white-haired attendant lady barring the door, who said that the lecture on “Social Media Marketing” was completely full and I couldn’t attend.  (If this blog fails, I can now trace it back to that exact moment.  Thank You, Universe.)

Anyway, I had a lovely flight with no problems whatsoever and didn’t even get plane sick (this is a true, honest-to-God for-the-books miracle), and I updated my blog and Facebook in Vegas to find even more fantastically awesome wonderful followers and fans moving to support my endeavors, and some lady on the second plane was reading Bless Me, Ultima (which is a book I had until then completely forgotten about and which has way more cuss words than my high school sophomore grasp of Spanish could fully appreciate – how could they let us read that book in class? – and which I came to feel, in my airplane-fear-induced delirium, represented some cosmic sign that I will succeed on my path to writing glory), and my bag was even waiting for me at the baggage claim.  (Husband with bad juju nevertheless circled the airport at least a dozen times waiting for me to emerge from Arrivals)—

And then our jujus met.  I brought with me a fresh laptop which would later be used to access what turned out to be the husband’s totally functioning hard drive… and he brought with him a wall of bad juju that knocked my phone out of my purse and onto the Arrivals lane, where it apparently stayed after we pulled away.

We keep having these juju oscillations ever since.  Here are my favorite examples:

-          Husband leaves to go talk to advisor one last time at 9:00, but calls at 10:00 to say he’ll be longer.  I say, “Great, I’ll ask for another day at the hotel before the noon checkout.”  Husband hangs up, I find out the hotel is full up.  I don’t have a phone, he doesn’t have a computer.  I run around packing and vacillating about how long to wait before wasting money on a long-distance call from the hotel. I send e-mails to all husband’s addresses and waste 20 minutes searching AT&T’s site for that elusive free text message sender they used to have and apparently no longer do.  Less than one minute before my self-imposed deadline, husband just happens to call anyway and we depart just in time.

-          Airport has my (intact) phone!  We spend the whole car ride there discussing whether to park or to save money and have the husband go circling the airport again.  Despite protests that it may send him spiraling into some fit of mad hysteria, he finally gives in and we pull up to the terminal… only to remember I have no phone and no battery left in that phone and that meeting up will be ridiculously difficult.  We park, go inside, ask ten people and get ten different answers about where to find the Lost and Found (it is definitely more Lost than Found), and search the same wall three times before finally locating the magic disappearing-reappearing Lost and Found service window (I swear it wasn’t there ten minutes ago.  If this was a Terry Pratchett novel my cell phone would now suddenly possess thaumaturgic powers that would open holes to the Dungeon Dimensions or kill Death or something)… And when I get my phone back I turn it on and find it miraculously fully charged.

-          Panera Café has free internet and tasty food.  Only after logging in does the husband find out the internet has a half-hour usage limit during the midday “peak time”.  We arrive smack in the middle of peak time.  Husband races to finish editing his CV and Research Interests so he can send them off… and misses the half-hour cutoff by two minutes.  I go to get a $2.39 muffin of consolation and find it’s only $.99 because we ate lunch there.  Five minutes of muffin-eating later, peak time surprisingly ends and husband may internet surf at his leisure.

On any other weekend these might be glossed over as silly and coincidental.  But on a weird juju weekend… it’s fate.

P.S. – the Weird Juju continues!  We’ve just changed hotels on Pi Day (3/14).  Bizarrely, we get room 314!

And then, when we get up to the room, we look at the clock and it’s 3:14!!!

I’m not joking.  Husband is gesticulating wildly about the lattice of coincidence and that pi only has to do with circles and therefore things must be turning around for us and something about Fortuna’s wheel and the ouroboros.  Obviously I’m not quite following.