28 April 2011

I must be a visual learner

I keep looking around for blog inspirations and have repeatedly come to the realization that I tend to interpret the first clause of this sentence in the most literal possible sense.  The minute I turn my head to thinking up some inspiration, I find myself looking at something and wanting only to describe to you the awesomeness of that visual thing.  The yellow glow of afternoon sunlight through saguaro needles.  The spiderweb pattern of cracks in weatherworn asphalt.  These would make for a whole lot of really boring one-liner blog posts.

I do have one daily visual that I want to tell you about, mostly because like I said I see it daily.  I promise you I have no other motive than that.  This visual brain of mine sees things and wants to tell you about them.  This one is bathroom tiles.  You know the little 1-inch tiles they always have in bathrooms?  Whenever I look at them my mind makes crucifixes out of them, four tiles down and three across.  Like this:

I’m very conscious of the age-old adage, and I’ve no interest at all in talking religion or politics at this dinner table.  I’m just going to leave this one as it is, a visual.  But it does remind me of all sorts of cool stories about vision and perception and how your brain makes things out of other things...

Meh.  I’ll get to all that later.  I’m too lazy to make a big post now.  Enjoy your bathroom floor picture.

Who needs sleep?

So I kind of promised you a sleep post.  Why not do it while sleep deprived?

Mostly I’m going to do this without looking anything up at all, which means it’s coming straight off the top of my head and is probably hugely incorrect.  But that’s fine because you’re the one taking sleep advice from a writer.  Okay, a neuroscientist.  Maybe because of that whole ‘science’ bit you think I have some sort of authority on this matter and my words are truth.  Well, until I’ve got that ‘Dr.’ in front of my name you better be careful what you believe.  My current degree’s a B.S.  Work it out.

So sleep.  It’s really a good thing for you to have.  Have a lot of it.  But not too much.  Don’t be afraid to take naps.  Even a six-minute nap can help you consolidate—

Ooh, consolidate.  That’s a good word.  In memory-research-speak, the word ‘consolidate’ means ‘take a freshly-experienced new memory and work it into something more permanent and solid in your head.’  You need sleep to do this really effectively.  Sleep-deprived study subjects suck at all sorts of cognitive tasks compared with their well-rested peers – even if we’re just talking about a short nap between learning and test, you see this effect.  And everyone’s heard about how sleep deprivation is equivalent to being super drunk in terms of reaction time and critical thinking skills.  This is why our culture is so disastrously misguided for pushing our pilots and doctors as hard as we do.  I don’t get it.  No one wants to die of Sleepy Pilot Syndrome, right?  (That’s a real thing.  Look it up.  If it’s not a real thing, make it one by searching it a zillion times in Google.  We could make a Wikipedia page or something.  Or put in on Facebook.  Then it really will be real.)

Let’s just talk about how totally out of whack you get when you don’t sleep, eh?  That’s the fun part.  There was this guy Peter Tripp, he worked for some radio station (I told you I was doing this from memory…) in the fifties I think and for the March of Dimes charity he decided to break a world record and stay up the longest anyone had ever stayed up before.  I think he stayed up for like nine days.  Okay, I lied.  I looked it up and it was 201 hours.  That’s 8.375 days (full disclosure – I looked that calculation up, too).  But by the time he was through he was hallucinating all sorts of things and getting really kind of paranoid and whatnot, and people who knew him said he just wasn’t quite the same afterward.  Like ever again in his whole life, afterward.  This is not an uncommon experience for people who stay up really, really long periods of time.

In a way the long-term effects of extreme sleep deprivation look kind of like a frontal lobe lesion (I am writing this note to myself: I must talk about lobotomies in a future post).  People lose their critical thinking abilities, they become more ‘irrational’, they make poor decisions on all sorts of things from a mundane to a life-altering scale, and they seem kind of socially impaired in that they’re uninhibited and impulsive.  Sleep is such a magical thing, isn’t it?

You know what, it’s as simple as this: If you stop sleeping, you die.  There are real disorders out there like this, where people stop sleeping and die.  I looked up the one I couldn’t remember the name of: Fatal Familial Insomnia.  It’s even got the word ‘fatal’ in the name!  (Can you imagine getting that diagnosis?  “Yes, we’ve looked over your charts and we feel that you most likely have Fatal Familial Insomnia.  I’m sorry to say your prognosis is not all that good.  But you probably figured that out already…”) 

This is seriously very serious stuff.  That’s why psychologists make such a big deal out of insomnia.  Get your insomnia checked out.  Don’t die prematurely.

To drive this point home I’m going to cheat again and tell you something I told a really fantastic group of adolescents in a talk once:
Rats kept awake indefinitely develop skin lesions, hyperphagia, loss of body mass, hypothermia, and eventually fatal septicemia.[37]
I think I stole this from Wikipedia (oh, yes I did, that’s where all the links go!).  The point is that all these things are terrible horrifying things to have happen to you and I’m not kidding, if I don’t get a good night’s sleep then by two a.m. I’m bloody starving and my face feels somewhat akin to what a cratered moon surface would feel like if it was simultaneously swampy and flaky.  That’s not a good feeling.  After just one all-nighter I’m all of two commas away from fatal septicemia.

Okay, I’m tired of writing and I’m tired in general.  And being tired is clearly to be avoided.  So I’m off to bed!  Thanks for listening.

Sweet dreams!  This little love’s name is Nippet, by the way.  Yes, like the baby ewok.  She’s an absolute doll but alas, she’s not mine.  Fawning is nevertheless appreciated.

27 April 2011

Two precious seconds of every morning, wasted...

I think the world is conspiring to get me to be all legal and stuff and bike on the actual road rather than on the sidewalk.  Do you see this?  This is my sidewalk.

 What you may not have noticed is that all those little bitty black dots, those are ants.

I hate dragging my bicycle the whole extra two feet over to the actual street to start my morning commute.  But how can I bicycle on my sidewalk in good conscience when I have a chance of running over one of those poor little ladies?  They’re just minding their own business, going about their daily, and here comes me with a big old bike tire to end it all in one big unceremonious fell swoop.  It’s just mean.  Especially when I know they’re really this cute:

Stupid bugs.

26 April 2011


I said Sunday I was going to write about sleep yesterday.  That clearly didn’t happen.  I’m kind of super busy at the moment.  So I thought I’d share a post I wrote a while back – I’ve been waiting for the right time to share it, when I really felt like I was in the mood for it.  I’ve been in the mood for a long while now but I haven’t had me a classic attack so I thought, nah, I’ll wait.  But a series of recent events just conspired to make me realize I might as well post what’s been constantly nagging at me this semester.  So here goes:

You would not believe how many people in this world have never had a panic attack.  I was shocked.

I know very few people have them because it is something I have asked people as part of a medical screen for a psychology study.  We do MRIs in this study and apparently you really shouldn’t have an MRI if you have panic attacks.  (This is crap.  We’re mostly concerned about claustrophobic anxiety, so get as many MRIs as you want.  But we have to ask so our subjects know it’s a consideration.)

And would you believe I’ve only ever gotten a rare handful of people to say yes, they’ve had a panic attack?  And even the majority of those people are just burgeoning hypochondriacs because what they’re describing is nothing more than a bad stress day.

What I want to hear about is something real.  I want someone to describe something insanely damn petrifying that clamps onto your heart and stops your breathing and paralyzes all your muscles and focuses your attention down to a pinpoint of overwrought terror.  I wish I could say that was hyperbole.

I want everyone in the world to have one of these so they can understand what I mean when I say I’m terrified of death.  Fellow psychologists, please don’t bloody argue with me that it’s not a true panic attack if it’s triggered by something consistent and real.  I don’t think that’s true and I don’t care if it is.  What I have are panic attacks and no one’s going to convince me otherwise.

I don’t think it’s fair to say that you can’t understand my fear of death if you haven’t had a panic attack.  But whenever I try and explain to anyone how I feel I never get a reply that gives me the sense people get it.  You know?  I think my sister probably gets it, and I think my husband tries really hard to get it.  I guess if I were a more selfless person I would be exceedingly grateful if no one ever got it.  It’s a painful and awful thing to get.

But I want you to understand me and my writing and why it’s important to me.  For a long time I didn’t quite know what was wrong with me and particularly what exact concatenation of stimuli was setting off these waves of attacks, so I started writing an anxiety diary in the hope of seeing something in the patterns.  And just before I gave it up, I wrote this:

“Sure, everyone’s scared of dying.  To some degree.  A lot of people are.  It’s just they don’t perseverate on it, see it in everything…  I’m seeing it in more and more these days and I don’t know why.  Every time I see [husband’s] face I’m reminded that he’s older, that I’m older, that we’re advancing steadily toward one inevitable end… every time I’m in front of the television all I can wonder is how long it will be like this, in this configuration in this house the way it is now – how long before it changes, before we move to another phase, before the advance occurs?  I see plane crashes and homicides and bicycle accidents all the time.  I imagine how I’ll react when my family is dead.  I’ve envisioned every single one of their deaths.  I’ve thought what I’d say to them, our last words, I’ve imagined what I’d say at their funerals.  I hear phone messages and I wonder if I shouldn’t delete them because it’s a record of these people who could disappear from me at any moment.
 “Halt there.  Am I worried people will disappear from me because for the first time people are disappearing from me?  Granddad died.  Kaycee [my dog] died.  Things that I’ve treasured are forever missing.  I prepared myself for Kaycee.  For years I predicted what it would be like to have her dead, for years I sat and watched her, petted her while she slept, memorized every inch of her so that I still have her with me now that she’s almost two years gone.  I distanced myself from Granddad admirably.  I didn’t really know him, not really.  But I watched him die, I saw through him and Kaycee what death was, up close, I watched those last breaths and the stillness and the way the world goes and goes afterward.  I saw that miraculous moment.  I thought about my own moment, I think of it constantly, I fear it with abandon.  I see it like a train I can’t stop, and I freeze in front of it and it hits me and there’s nothing I can do.  I’m powerless against it.  There’s nothing I can do.”

I dreamed about my moment, once.  I dreamed that I was dying in a hospital and all my family was around me, sympathizing, teary-eyed, counting down the seconds until my death.  The closer the seconds got to zero the more terrified I became, and by three…two… one… I was so insanely terror-stricken I actually woke myself up.  And I sat there in bed thinking about it, and I realized that the reality was even worse than the dream – because one day I will be there, counting down my seconds, and I won’t be able to wake myself up.

I use writing as an escape from my perseveration on the inevitability of my own death, the certain cessation of my consciousness.  Panic is no small part of what makes me write.  Sometimes it forces me to write.  The husband is always warning me to get to bed rather than stay up typing because all I’m doing is making it worse trying to escape it.  He’s such a good husband.

I guess what I’m saying is that of course I care what you think and I want you to love me.  Of course.  But I’m not doing this for you.  I’m doing this for me.  And actually, if you’re sitting there reading this right now and you hear a long-sought grain of empathetic truth, then I’m writing for you too and I hope that what I’m saying touches you and I’d love for you to touch me, too.  (Okay, I can’t let that slip by without acknowledging the double entendre like the middle schooler I still am!)

Recently I went to a PostSecret exhibition at our university art museum (PostSecret: Confessions on Life, Death and God – if you haven’t experienced PostSecret I encourage you to look it up!) and I read a postcard.  It had a plain lavender-gray background, and on it was written simply, “I’m terrified of nothingness.”

I cried.  That person gets it.

21 April 2011

It's diabolical!

Oh my God.  You will never believe what I just found out!

So I have a problem with buying a fountain drink every single day because it’s a waste of cups, so I decided to start reusing my cup.  I went to Burger King today and asked the lady for a large iced tea, and could she put it in the cup I brought with me?  I didn’t tell her the cup was two weeks old but I was prepared to pay for the iced tea – but she just handed back the refilled cup and said,

“Oh, honey – we don’t charge for iced tea refills.”

Do you know what this means?!  You guys – I could get free iced tea refills for life!

This is insane.  I don’t – I don’t even – I can’t handle this kind of power.  Is it immoral to go in every day with my cup and get a free refill?  Do I have a responsibility to explain my case?  Will they catch on if I don’t?  Isn’t this against some sanitation code somewhere?  What should I do?!

UPDATE (October): After months of blissfully free iced tea refills, I think they’ve caught on to me.  They’re now charging 55c for iced tea refills just like they do for the soda refills.  It was good while it lasted.

UPDATE (the following summer): Yes, I’m still at the university getting Burger King iced tea, don't remind me.  BUT the coolest thing just happened to me today.  I went to get my usual refill and also some lunch, and when they called my number I went up to the counter to find that all of the employees had crowded around and were waiting for me.  And the woman who’d taken my order informed me that they’d all discussed it and now they’re all on the same page and will give me free refills every time I bring my cup in for the rest of the summer!  I would be embarrassed that they all know me by now, but free iced tea!

Home on the Range

I had a minor epiphany about the song Home on the Range today on my bike.  I used to love that song as a kid – I grew up in a land with 360 days of sunshine a year, and though I live nowhere near any buffalo (and they’re not buffalo, by the way, they’re bison – does North America even have wild buffalo? Anyone?) I did see a wild deer in the nearby desert once and I’m pretty sure if one were omniscient one could readily locate an antelope within 500 miles of my house.  So the song was clearly tailored for my region.

But there was that one pair of lines, “Where seldom is heard / a discouraging word…”

I totally read that wrong as a kid!  I thought they meant that the word ‘seldom’ was somehow seen as discouraging to the types of people who make their homes on ranges.  Of course the sentence construction was a little off, but I put it down to lyrical constraints and my ineptitude with the English language, having so few youthful years behind me at that age.  I came up with all sorts of whimsical reasons why range people might not like ‘seldom’ – maybe the word was too hoity-toity for them, or they were the kind of people who would always say ‘yes’ to everything because they were so generous and kind (I’d been reading a lot of Little House on the Prairie and I had built up a very fanciful idea of what prairie living was like, and further assumed that prairies and ranges were the same thing), and so on and so forth.  Obviously none of these made any more sense than my initial assumption, now that I think of it.

So anyway I sort of dropped the song somewhere along in my childhood, and woke up with it stuck in my head this morning and only just realized how the line is supposed to be read whilst I was valiantly conquering the infuriatingly persistent fire hose mud pit on my bike on the way in to work.  Hey, it only took me 20 years to figure it out, right?

P.S. I apologize if you can’t get the song out of your head, now.

EDIT:  See, this is why I need an editor.  I have no idea when I’m being totally ridiculously unclear.  So it’s like this:

The line is supposed to be interpreted as follows: Discouraging words are almost never heard on the range.

My childhood interpretation: The word seldom’ is considered discouraging to people on the range.

I hope I have clarified this post.

UPDATE:  The greatest thing happened this morning – and I totally foreshadowed it in this post!  I happened to be at the creek by my parents’ house taking some pictures, and look who happened into my camera view!  They were far away, so forgive my blurriness...

19 April 2011

I had a mental meltdown

I just had a minor mental meltdown when I tried to write the word ‘forgived’ in a story.  It took some serious cogitation to figure out what was wrong with it.  And the experience reminded me of a story I wanted to tell you guys about a major mental meltdown I had earlier this year.

So I wrote that post a while back about my two favorite books, and I mentioned I have two copies of Catch-22 – my lovely mostly-still-pristine new one and my practically-rabid tattered old one.  So here’s the mental meltdown, ready?

While constructing the post, I had an inspiration to quote the quote that I quoted to you in that post.  So I went and grabbed the new book off the shelf and found that I had actually bookmarked the quote with an overlarge envelope a few months earlier.  Score.  So I quoted it and put the new book back on the shelf.

Then I got another inspiration.  I thought to myself, Surely everyone will want to see a picture of my books!  I’ll take pictures of them!

So I grabbed the old book off the shelf and put it down excitedly next to the camera in preparation.  And then I went back to the bookshelf for the new one.

And I couldn’t find it.

I wasn’t much bothered by that yet.  I rarely put things where I think I put them, and I was pretty sure I’d probably seen it recently, so I was sure to find it soon.  I scanned the rest of the bookshelf and found nothing.  I looked at my other bookshelf.  Nothing.  I checked husband’s bookshelves, and the living room, and even the bathroom, and still NOTHING.  I couldn’t remember where the hell I’d last seen it, that was the problem.  A million possibilities began crowding my head the longer I tried to reason my way through this minor calamity.

I’m not going to lie, I kind of started freaking out.  That was my almost-pristine copy.  I liked that copy.  I had loaned it out recently and I was pretty sure I got it back because I only knew it was only almost pristine after I loaned it out and got it back and saw that it was no longer pristine.  So I was pretty darn sure I had it somewhere in the house.  But maybe I was wrong.  Maybe I loaned it out again to someone else?  Maybe my loanee still had it?  Maybe I only went over to loanee’s house and saw that it was no-longer-pristine and didn’t take it back?  Maybe it was still at work since I did bring it there two years ago?  I started to convince myself with perfectly reasonable arguments of solid crystalline logic that it probably wasn’t in the house after all.

But I wanted the book NOW.  My picture was going to be ruined if I didn’t have that stupid book!  It had to be here, in my house, it had to.  I rechecked everything.  I went back three times to the shelf I was sure it had to be on because I’d recently reorganized all my books and Catch-22 had to be on the shelf of Favorites, right under the Religious Works / Literary Classics shelf and above the Math / Art History Textbooks shelf (yes, this system is fully logical).

I couldn’t find it.  Anywhere.  I searched for ages.

Finally, I claimed pathetic defeat and went in to where the husband was working and asked with a pitifully overwrought pleading meek little voice for him to pretty please come and solve all my worldly woes for me by just checking one more time with fresh eyes for my book.

He walked in, glanced at my bookshelf (he doesn’t even know my organizing system), and without even so much as a dramatic pause he reached in and grabbed the book off the Favorites shelf.  Right where I’d put it back not half an hour before.  It still had the stupid bookmark in it, even.

18 April 2011

Skunky wines and aliens

Husband and I had a very weird few minutes at a fancy dinner out last night.  The weirdness was catalyzed by the most horrendous bottle of wine we’ve ever had the displeasure to taste.

 (Although now that I think about it... a couple years back we opened a family-size bottle of wine husband had gotten for his twenty-first birthday and I have a video that proves it was a noxious toxic bottle of ungodly nasty.  See video shot below; note sickly brown color.  In said video I declare that it ‘tastes like s---,’ and husband cries ‘oh, f---ing hell’ upon first taste but says it ‘probably still has alcohol,’ and I further attempt to describe it as ‘halfway between, like, rigatoni and – ugh, it’s just—’ and then I try to throw it out before husband stops me because he got it for his birthday.  So maybe that wine wins.  But this new wine was a close second and it was especially bad because we wasted half a bottle of it trying to convince ourselves it was good because we bought it at a restaurant and had no reason to suspect foul play.)
This still wins as the worst wine we ever attempted to drink.

Husband is too meek and gentle and kind a creature to tell the waiter last night that the first trial taste was hideously horrendous, so we got stuck trying to finish off the whole stupid bottle.  I won’t say what winery this bottle came from.  But it was supposed to be a 2007 chardonnay, and maybe it was a 2007 but it was most definitely not a chardonnay.  It was a Mountain Dew-colored bright yellow cloudy concoction that smelled like the underside of a deceased skunk.  Not even slightly kidding.  

Sometimes, in the better times, we could convince ourselves it merely smelled like manure or a really musky cigar.  And even when we plugged our noses and even though as humans we only have five different types of taste bud, I can tell you that all five types were rebelling against this wine.  It was also 14.4% alcohol, so as the bottle wore on and we started figuring out ways to consume it without really experiencing it (“Ooh, ooh ooh, take a really deep breath and exhale the whole way through the sip!” or “If you chug like a really big swallow of it the taste kind of overpowers the smell for a moment!”) we started getting more inventive about describing it.

I think in the end we were including phrases like skunky zombie spunk, pustule, yeast infected, and many more colorful terms I can thankfully no longer recall, which I’m sure at 14.4% -OH we were saying loudly enough to turn off some of the far more genteel patrons at surrounding tables.  But this stuff was awful.  And I’m pretty sure it probably included some weird Amazon poison dart frog slime, because I was seriously tripping out at the vision of the other total weirdness of the evening.

See, there was this geriatric table across the restaurant, right in our line of sight.  And it was getting dark out.  And one of the ladies had these really nifty reading glasses with LED lights which totally helped her see and were very functional for menu-reading in low light:

But dude.  They totally made her look like an alien.

I refuse to divulge how long it took me to find examples online that even vaguely capture the bizarreness of this sight.  But if you take these pictures and you make the eyes blue-white and you set them far apart on the subject’s head like if E.T. was wearing night-vision goggles or something, then you start to approach a vision of the kind of creature we had facing us across the restaurant.  

The Ready Set's Love Like Woe video

 Some picture related to the game Splinter Cell

And the skunky zombie wine wasn’t helping.  I was seriously in duck-and-cover mode trying to figure out what it all meant.  Lucky for me, I’d already mapped out all the best escape routes and was prepared to drag husband with me if it turned out to be necessary.

This story does not have an exciting ending.  We eventually raised the white flag with the wine and asked to see the wine menu again, and even though we assured the waiter we’d pay for the bottle we couldn’t stomach, he took it off our tab anyway.  And about five minutes later the LED alien turned back into a lovely elderly lady when she finished reading her menu, and we got on with our evening.  All in all it was a lovely dinner.  The end.

15 April 2011

Earrings! Oh, how I love thee!

I mention in my “About” page that I am a fan of earrings.  This is a factual statement.  Actually it’s a gross understatement.  I like my earrings so much that I thought I’d make you guys a collage of them!

So without further ado I give you…. my earrings!  Well, about half of them.  Most of the coolest ones:

Thank you to all of you who have contributed to my collection over the years.  I hope I’ve represented you all properly!

13 April 2011

Surviving the Apocalypse

As usual, after watching some apocalypse television my mind has been entrenched for the last few days in planning how best to handle every style of total disaster emergency I could possibly ever encounter, and coming to the sad but inevitable realization that I am woefully underprepared for apocalypses of pretty much any sort.

A zombie apocalypse would do me in pretty quickly.  We don’t own any guns.  I have depicted below our entire zombie-fighting arsenal, which consists of all the things we’d have thought to use on a moment’s notice.  Not depicted are, for instance, frying pans or a shovel, which only occurred to me after the fact and would have thus gotten left behind in zombie-emergency-mode.  Actually I don’t think I own a shovel.

 click to enlarge

And let me tell you, I have almost no confidence in my ability to wield a baseball bat with enough force to liquefy zombie brains.  Even if we’re only talking about marauding fellow humans, I’m not really sure I could even knock someone out. 

(To give myself credit, I did play a lot of softball as a kid and I could hit pretty hard.  But I’ve never had any direct practice in concussion induction.  If anyone wants to volunteer as target practice I’d be much obliged!)

(You know, I think someone should make some sort of instructional head-bashing tutorial.  You could put it in a science museum or a zoo or something – like a fake head that you hit as hard as you can and Peter Coyote’s automated voice tells you, “Good job, you could kill a zombie with that swing!” or “Better keep practicing!”  Like when I was a kid, we went to the zoo by my grandparents’ house and it had this seriously awesome educational kids’ playground where you could test your speed against various animals.  You’d hit the button and this light would flash down a row of red bulbs at exactly the top speed of the animal you chose.  I learned that I have not the remotest chance of ever outrunning an alligator.  Which did not help to soothe my terror of alligators.  And which does not lead me to believe I could outrun a brain-hungry zombie – especially if it’s a rage-infected zombie.)

 This was apparently not a confidence building exercise.

Anyway, our house is also not the world’s hardest thing to get into.  We have bars on most of the windows – except the three massive living room ones.  But the bars for those windows are in the back yard so theoretically we could run around and grab them and… yeah, not put them up because we don’t have big enough bolts.  Okay, plan B – we definitely have enough wood and nails to board those windows up. 

The problem is really getting out of any of the barred-up windows should a break-in actually occur.  I’m already mortified in anticipation of the day some rapist breaks his way into my bedroom only to find me still flailing about comically trying to open my damn bathroom escape window.  This is another one of those things I should probably consider testing.

So my fortress is really a rat trap.  And we don’t even have a peephole in the door to be able to tell whether we’d be letting in friendlies or zombies.  This is a serious problem.

Outside of the zompocalypse scenario, most other cataclysmic events require being able to hunker down for a long while and self-sustain.  Totally screwed there.  Even now that we’re eating in we’ve got maybe a dozen meals in the house and enough water to last a week or two if we push it.  And that’s if we use the toilet water.  But at least we have purifying tablets.  And I think us desert rats can handle a little drought better than most.

So unless the apocalypse is something entirely innocuous like a one-day blackout, we’re like sitting ducks – we’d be the one of the multitude of extras in a Hollywood disaster movie.  I shall count aliens in with zombies as inescapable certain death.  There’s also no possible way we’d survive a nuclear holocaust or an asteroid impact.  We could maybe avoid a volcanic eruption, and I don’t think an earthquake would hurt too terribly.  We don’t have a good plan for floods or tornadoes or freak hurricanes, and like I mentioned my fire extinguisher’s really old and probably couldn’t hold off a forest fire for terribly long.  But we have no forest around for miles.  So… we win?

12 April 2011

The Problem with Zompocalypse Television

So the husband and I have just finished watching The Walking Dead.  For those of you unfamiliar, it’s a (thus far) six-episode-long AMC show about the zompocalypse. 

It was… it was good.  Parts of it were stellar.  Parts of it made me want to claw my eyes out.  And all of it made me wonder what we’re doing as a society, running this show on a cable channel.  I’ll give you a flavor of what I mean.  Keep in mind there are only six episodes of this show out so far.

Things I saw and/or heard in The Walking Dead

-        A small child being shot in the head.
-        Lots of people being shot in the head with various instruments.  We’re talking close-ups.  Lots of blood.  Slow-mo.
-        A half-eaten festering corpse crawling on the ground.
-        Obviously, lots of walking corpses in various states of putrefied decay.
-        A close-up of rotted, dessicated eyelids covered in flies.
-        The gruesome remains of a suicide-by-rifle.
-        Multiple beheadings.
-        A bloody sawed-off hand.
-        A crowd of people disemboweling and eating a live, struggling horse.
-        A decaying body being hacked apart with an axe (complete with squish sounds).
-        A man beating his wife and then getting royally beaten himself.
-        That same man’s head repeatedly bludgeoned with a pickaxe (complete with even grosser squish sounds).
-        People having passionate sex (under covers).
-        A crowd of terrified people massacred in the hallway of a hospital.

Things I did not see and/or hear in The Walking Dead

-        A breast or any other genitalia.
-        A cuss word.

(NOTE: I might be wrong about the cussing.  I’ve a sailor’s mouth and I often miss that stuff.)

(EDIT: Husband has reminded me they definitely say the N-word.  If you can say the N-word you can certainly get away with all the other words.  I don't know why AMC is allowed to say the N-word.)

Yes, this argument has been made before.  Yes, I was watching a zombie show and it’s a cable network and I should expect most of that.  Yes, yes, yes.  I got it.  But give me just a minute to plead my case.

Even though The Walking Dead is a zombie show, most of the violence in it was egregious.  Husband and I were comparing The Walking Dead to 28 Days Later and came to the conclusion that 28 Days Later managed to terrify us plenty, and with a lot less gore.  The Walking Dead thrives on gore for the sake of gore.

As a neuroscientist I have a major problem with this being shown on television.  The makers of The Walking Dead are trying their damndest to make this stuff look real, and they did a very good job.  Do I want to have these images in my head?  Should I?  Go ahead, make your argument about me being a pansy and a sad-sack pacifist, I can take it.  What I can’t take is you getting a big hard-on for gory violent massacres all the time.  I get it - it’s arousing, it’s a thrill, you get over-stimulated watching people get eaten and shot and beheaded and such.  Why do you have to get your arousal fix via exploding eyeballs and crap like that?  What the hell is wrong with you?

This brings me to a very important point about arousal.  It’s pretty easy to mis-wire arousal in our brains.  The act of getting all hot and bothered triggers a distinct set of neural circuitry, almost regardless of the stimulus.  So what I’m saying is that getting aroused by violence shares some neural features with getting aroused by sex.  Also, I said that The Walking Dead has sex in it.  It has a whole damn love triangle in it.  And then they go and intersperse all the sex with chunks and bits of people.  It’s gross.  I don’t need all of that wiring into one big arousal-stimulus in my head.

You think this sounds crazy and weird and of course your brain’s not doing that, and maybe that’s true.  That you’re not doing it, I mean.  But I worry about all the people.  Some people are getting some very disturbed notions in their heads watching these things.

And The Walking Dead isn’t the best example of this anyway.  How about Rolling Stone magazine, which in a recent issue had delicious pictures of that red-headed temptress Rihanna just pages away from graphic (and, importantly, real) images of some of the Iraq Kill Team’s scores?  How about the multitude of internet sites which host all sorts of porn right alongside hangings and explosions and beheadings?  Regardless of your opinion about those media, they’re out there and a whole lot of people are watching them and it’d behoove you to take that into account the next time you get a weird feeling about that creepy guy sitting next to you in the library.

But all this talk about sex and violence brings me to another point.  How on Earth does a man shooting a child in the head get past our censoring system but a bare nipple does not? 

If I had to make a bet, if I was to ask my sweet, innocent grandmother whether she’d rather see a blood-spurting violent beheading or a woman’s nether region, she’d choose the latter.  If I asked her whether she’d be more offended by a man cussing a blue streak or hacking up a dead body, well, I think the answer’s obvious.

Ooh! and and and – keep in mind that The Walking Dead had plenty of sex in it!  Yes, there was a blanket involved but that was definitely, definitely sex and there was no mistaking at all what was going on.  People were having heated sex and we were watching it.  We just couldn’t see the boobies. 

If there were any breasts shown in this show at all, they were rotting off of walking corpses.  Wow.

Why do we do this to ourselves?  What’s wrong with us?

I also want to say that The Walking Dead’s depiction of the CDC was an absolute joke and those writers and directors should be ashamed of themselves.  They bend over backward to accurately render every single detail of a half-eaten face, but they can’t get a single damn thing right about scientists and their instruments and lab spaces and capabilities and the state of the art in their respective fields?  WHY EVEN BOTHER to scientifically explain the zompocalypse if your explanation makes so pathetically little sense that all you’re doing is humiliating yourself??

To give The Walking Dead some credit, they did a fantastic job with most of the humanitarian aspects of the survivors’ various plights.  I quite liked all the moral dilemmas.  Some were sillier than others, and some of the characters’ moves were utterly ridiculous (if the zombies are attracted to noise, why are you always yelling?!), but there were many scenes that made me cry.  The story of Morgan and his wife was heart-wrenching.  I can’t stop thinking about it.

So for all my reservations, I guess it’s best to keep in mind that all my love-hate vacillations with this show had a binary decision output – I could watch it or not.  Even with all the ooey gooey nasty over-the-top unnecessary grossness, I didn’t stop watching.  It’s pretty addicting.

09 April 2011

Why yes, I am a proud member of the MCRmy!

I’ve been talking a little about things I’m taking out of my book, Canine (well, okay – things I’m pretty sure will not end up in Canine), and how I’m going through the mourning process for these things here on my blog. 

I mentioned the band Ludo and how they make a cameo appearance in the novel.  I said that I’ve traveled far and wide to see Ludo because they regularly vie for the top spot on my carefully crafted Favorite Artists list.  What I failed to mention is that there’s only one other band in contention for this top spot: My Chemical Romance.

I went 916 miles (round-trip) to see Ludo’s Broken Bride live.  I’m about to travel 984 miles to see MCR because MCR has decided to protest our state’s psychotic immigration rules.  I can’t blame them really, except that their form of protesting hurts no one but their fans, and that’s sad.  But like a kicked puppy I’m still driving the 984 miles with my sister and our friend to see them.  And we’re thinking of going to both of MCR’s back-to-back concerts that weekend, just in case Saturday ends up being cooler than Friday.

I wrote Ludo into Canine as a plot point.  MCR features much less prominently in Canine, but they show up everywhere in all my other stories.  My characters regularly use MCR lyrics as a way to talk to each other and express their love for each other.  This is in part because my dear sweet husband, who would never naturally be inclined even to tolerate this kind of music, has learned that throwing contextual lyrics into his conversations is the fastest way into my heart.  It really works.  I am incapable of staying mad at him when he pulls out MCR lyrics.

For those of you unfamiliar with My Chemical Romance, they’re a self-described punk/emo band (though they often bemoan the term ‘emo’ and how it’s used colloquially).  One of my characters once described their music in the following way:

“I mean I know it’s probably a standard of the genre that everyone says they like it for some reason counter to that of everyone else, but I always say it’s hilarious.  It just cracks me up – throw in three chords and a high pitched voice and a vocabulary limited to blood and corpse and vampire and I hate my mom and dad because no one understands how not okay I am… It’s great.  And you gotta be able to throw yourself around to a song or it’s not worth the bother.”

That’s just about MCR’s entire MO in a nutshell.  My favorite song of all time forever (This is no contest.  I doubt this will ever change.) is the combination of My Chemical Romance’s It’s Not a Fashion Statement, It’s a Death Wish and Cemetery Drive.  I can’t tell you why this pair hits me the way it does, except perhaps with some convoluted psychobabble about my clenching fear of death and simultaneous love of irony.  I won’t bore you with all that.  But you have to love these lyrics:

Well in the end we’ll fall apart
Just like the leaves change in colors
And then I will be with you,
I will be there one last time and
When you go
Just know that I will remember you.
I’ve lost my fear of falling,
I will be with you,
I will be with you.

MCR has been my love since I heard their song Welcome to the Black Parade on the way back from my parents’ house (strikingly similar to my Ludo story, eh?).  I already knew of and liked them, but on that particular day I’d been fixing my car with my dad and having a great time of it and it was just one of those weird nostalgia-trip kind of glowing afternoons, and then this song comes on and it has like a single line about this guy’s interaction with his own dad and while nothing at all else is remotely related, that similarity struck me and I went and bought the CD.  And so began my hard, fast fall into MCR fandom.  Like I said I’m a proud member of the MCRmy and I will be as long as it exists.

But I have this dilemma, see.  I love MCR.  But I also love Ludo.  I can’t figure out my Favorite Artists list because I can’t decide between these two bands.  So I made a chart to help me decide which one is better:

click to enlarge

And as you can see, this was no help.  I am apparently equally in love with both bands, for entirely different reasons.  And that’s just how it has to stay.

08 April 2011

More cake woes

I’m getting a cake this weekend.  It is an epic cake.  It’s got two tiers and is decorated with cherry blossoms.  The cake is Italian rum and the filling is champagne mousse with fresh strawberries.  I have been longing for this cake for almost three whole years, ever since I first tasted it and decided this was the best cake I’ve ever had in the whole of my entire life.  This is seriously not overstating it.

Which helps to explain why I was a bit annoyed yesterday when the girl called me and said she was just decorating it now and did I want the fondant flowers? because that’d be $15 extra. 

Excuse me?  $15 extra?  Here’s the way I ordered this cake.  I walked into the bakery and said, “I want that cake,” (pointing to a cherry-blossom-covered cake up on the top shelf) “except I want it with Italian rum cake and champagne mousse and fresh strawberry filling.  I would like the top tier to be a 6” round and the bottom tier to be an 8” square.  Please ring that up and I will pay in full now.”

You can appreciate my confusion when this same girl calls me two months later to inform me that in fact she did not apparently understand my request to have that cake with different innards.  That cake was sitting right there.  She was facing it the entire time.  I would love to know why it didn’t occur to her that the flowers on that cake were fondant flowers and that she was going to have to squeeze even more money out of me for that.

Alas, I’m too meek a person.  Yesterday I said yes, bring on the extra-cost fondant flowers.

But that’s not the worst part.  While I had her on the phone yesterday I asked for an extra cake, 6” round, because I realized I can’t be putting my friend into anaphylactic shock from eating strawberries.  It’d kind of put a damper on the day.  Plus I’d been telling so many people about my awesome cake that I was worried I wasn’t going to have enough for all the people (and most importantly, me) to eat.

So I order this second cake, and as I’m asking about it the girl is talking to her supervisor.  And she comes back on the phone and says,

“Yes, of course we can make you a second cake.  But also, I’m just wondering – I was just talking to my boss and she made your cake with cream cheese filling.  Would you be willing to take that cake and we’ll drop the $15 charge for the fondant flowers?”

WHAT??!?!  This is my cake we’re talking about here!!  My cake, the one I’ve been waiting for three whole years to have and you’re telling me that you’ve gone and screwed up one of my trifecta of perfect ingredients?  You’re trying to pass cream cheese off on me?  And to compensate me for that you’ll waive the fee you just threw on me at the last minute because you couldn’t be bothered to look at that cake I was pointing at two months ago and which you’ve been staring at day in and day out ever since?  Oh, and by the way, if you hadn’t been calling me when you noticed this I might have just gotten the wrong damn cake this weekend?!  What the hell kind of bakery establishment are you running where you manage to mess up both the price of the order and the order itself and then try and make a meek little soul like me feel bad for not taking your shoddy craftsmanship at extra cost, thank you ever so much for the buggery?

Cream cheese.  Ugh.  Normally I don’t have a problem with cream cheese, but not in my cake.  The flavor trinity would be shot all to hell.  So no, no thank you, I’m sorry but I want the cake I ordered.  And frankly, I’m going to be enjoying the hell out of this cake because I’m not sure I’m interested in ever ordering it again. 

But I'll surely post pictures of my radical awesome cake this weekend!  Stay posted!

UPDATE:  I got my cake!  And it’s official, I am never going back to this bakery again.  Remember how I said I wanted it to look exactly like the cake on the wall?  Yeah, so the cake on the wall was two colors: pink and brown.  This decorator decided to add green and yellow to my cake like I’m a five-year-old. 

I understand how snobby I’m coming off right now, but you have to understand.  I never front for a cake like this.  This was like a one-time splurge on some serious awesome, and the total lack of professionalism or attention to detail on the part of the bakery did nothing but remind me why I ought to just do it myself if I want it done right.

At least it was delicious.  Even if they did slather on a full inch of frosting (I hate frosting, I always take it off) just to get all the edges to line up.

07 April 2011

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

A few things I’ve learned because I was writing about vampires and werewolves (keep in mind I’ve been writing about them a long time):

-          The Parthenon took less time to build than the original U.S. Capitol building

-          The speed of sound is 1,225 km/hr at sea level

-          All the full moons have names (and most have many names)

-          Not too many websites allow you to calculate the date and time of the full moon out to the year 2200

-          The entire midsection of the United States used to be a large inland sea

-          There are very few country borders across which a dog without papers and vaccination records can easily travel

-          ‘Bemused’ and ‘amused’ are not synonyms

-          ‘Nonplussed’ does not mean unimpressed

-          The word ‘psychology’ was invented in Latin in the late 15th/ early 16th centuries

-          One of the more famous chess games in history, the so-called Immortal Game, was played between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky in 1851

-          One can usually get a discount on dog licenses if one neuters one’s pet

This seems like depressingly few facts, come to think of it – but I’m tired of searching through these endless reams of story pages.  I’m sure I’ll come up with more later.

05 April 2011

The amazing X chromosome

I mentioned the X chromosome a while back and I just want to take a second to discuss mosaicism and how awesome it is that women are mosaic for the X chromosome.  Seriously, this is really, really cool.

As I’m sure we all remember from biology class (unless we were falling asleep like I tended to do – that was actually the only candid photo of me in my high school yearbook, me sleeping through physics)… our DNA is housed in chromosomes – 46 of them, to be exact.  We get 23 from Mom and 23 from Dad, so what we really have is two copies of each of these 23 chromosomes.  And one of them is the sex chromosome, which comes in flavors of X and Y – men get XY and women get XX.

Human chromosomes.  The sex chromosomes are outlined in red.
Note how much smaller the Y is...

Well.  Lots of species have a sex chromosome.  And there is a problem with sex chromosomes.  The X is a total gargantuan beast – it’s way, way bigger and houses a lot more genetic information than the measly Y.  It’s so much bigger, in fact, that you can essentially disregard the Y size-wise – females basically have double the dosage of sex chromosome material that men do.  We take care of this difference between sexes with dosage compensation.  How we do it, though, that’s the cool part.

So let me preface by saying not all species operate the same way.  Take insects, for example.  Male flies dosage compensate in a pretty dull way – they just transcribe twice as much RNA from the DNA on that single X chromosome, so it looks like they’ve got the same amount as females do.  Blah.  Who cares.  Boring.

Well, female mammals do a much cooler thing.  In each cell in our bodies, we condense one of our two X’s down into an impenetrable mass called a Barr body – the transcription machinery can’t access the genes on the Barr body and it’s forced to use only the remaining X.  But here’s the coolest part – beware, your mind is about to be blown! – each cell gets to choose which X to condense!  

I know, right?  This means that in a woman’s body, each of her cells is expressing either her mom’s or her dad’s X chromosome, but not both.  And once this process has occurred, it stays that way for life.

Every woman is therefore a mosaic for the X chromosome, almost like she’s two different people smashed into one – at least with regard to her X genes. 

This is totally cool.  Don’t believe me?  Check out a calico cat.  Bam. 

Calico cats are almost exclusively girls – why?  Because of our astounding Barr bodies.  The gene for coat color is on the X chromosome, and calico cats have inherited the orange version of the gene from one parent and the black version of the gene for the other.  When these lovely ladies’ cells go to work and condense one X or the other into Barr bodies, suddenly you get splotches of each color in their coats.

This image was taken directly from http://www.bio.miami.edu/dana/dox/calico.html,
which gives a great explanation of what I'm describing.

‘But I’ve seen a male calico cat, I swear,’ you tell me.  I will bet you a bazillion dollars he’s XXY. 

And this is the very best part about biology.  Nothing in biology is ever straightforward, and the only rule that doesn’t have exceptions is the one stating that every biological rule has exceptions, and that’s why I love it and think everyone in the world needs to study it.  After enough biology you give up on ever trying to defend absolutes.  Imagine how much better the world would be if we could learn from biology not to construct absolutes and defend them to the death…

Anyway, because it is biological sometimes genetics is mucky, and sometimes Mom or Dad gives you more chromosomes than you need.  And these poor calico boy kitties got two X’s and a Y.  And the presence of two X’s necessitates condensation of one or the other into a Barr body.  So these XXY boys are also calico cats (…and calico dreams…  Anyone?  Alien Ant Farm?  No?  Oh well, worth a shot).

Okay, okay, I give in, I won’t be too sexist today.  Girl mammals may be super awesome with our mosaicism and all – but boy mammals are kind of cool too, and here’s why. 

That XXY cat?  He’s a boy.  If that was an XXY fly?  She’d be a girl. 

XXY: boy kitty, girl fly. (Cat picture taken from here)

Insects determine sex by how many X’s you have.  Mammals only care about whether you’ve got a Y.  So guys, that little nothing piece of genetic dirt your daddy gave you, well, I guess it’s kind of important for some things.

P.S. – While I’m on the subject, I wrote that while-back post about red-green colorblindness.  I said the gene for colorblindness was on the X chromosome.  And I said that women, who have two X’s, are able to compensate for the loss of color discrimination in one gene by having a functional copy on their other chromosome.  But wait!

I just said women are mosaic for the X chromosome.  So, half of the color-detecting cone cells lining the back of these women’s eyeballs can detect color just fine, but half are colorblind!  Whoa, I know, I just blew your mind again.  And I didn’t give you any warning.  Sorry. 

Luckily, I’ve just kind of lied about how eyes work.  I should probably define what I mean by a ‘colorblindness’ gene. 

You have three types of cone cell – red, green, and blue – and they detect these colors using specific red, green or blue receptor proteins.  The genes required to make red and green receptors lie right next to each other on the X chromosome and they look very similar to each other in terms of sequence.  In most cases of red-green colorblindness, one of these two genes goes missing or mutates – and suddenly that receptor can’t be made, so the person has no red cones or no green cones.

In a woman who has one ‘good’ and one mutant X, half her cells trying to make green receptors are failing, but the other half are succeeding just fine.  And all the cells trying to make red or blue receptors are chugging along like normal.  So she’s got enough cells of all types to discriminate colors as usual.

The reason there are still some colorblind women is that they have inherited mutations in both of their receptor genes.  The chance of getting two mutant X genes is a lot lower than getting one, and that’s why male colorblindness is far more frequent.

04 April 2011


This post promises to keep it short and sweet. 

I’m just wondering if anyone else out there ever wishes we were more tolerant of contractions.  Especially compound contractions.  We use them all the time in speech but I never see anyone typing them.  So I will type them.

Here are some compound contractions I wish I could use in term papers:

You’ll’ve – you will have
Example: You’ll’ve seen by now that these contractions are super useful.
Y’all’re – you all are
Example: Y’all’re ridiculously awesome.  
He’sn’t – he is not, he has not
Example: He’sn’t showered in at least a week!  
I’d’ve – I would have
Example: I’d’ve eaten over 9000 hot dogs.  
Couldn’t’ve – could not have
Example: She couldn’t’ve described just how cute that ocelot was, so she took a picture!  
I’dnt’ve – I would not have
Example: I’dnt’ve believed you could make a three-apostrophe contraction, but I just did.  That’s right.
I’d’nt’ve – I would not have
Example: I’d’nt’ve written the above contraction that way if Id realized I could have said its got FOUR apostrophes in it.  FOUR.

See?  Aren’t those useful?  You’dn’t think there’d be so many practical applications for compound contractions, eh?  You’re welcome.

UPDATE ABOUT THE CORRECTION: I still stand by my three-apostrophe contraction.  If your intention is to say, I wouldn’t have, there’s no apostrophe between the d and the n.  You’re not replacing a letter with that fourth apostrophe, which is the convention in a contraction.

That said, Google currently gives only 177,000 results for I’dn’t’ve, whereas I’d’n’t’ve has 2.8 million hits.  So it seems the language has moved beyond convention here and popular opinion has won.  And I’m fine with that.  I concede.

But no matter how popular opinion shifts, I will never accept your in the place of you are.  Never.