Monday, July 28, 2014

The Paris Morgue

In working on my article on Zola, I came across a really interesting chapter in a really interesting book by Vanessa Schwartz called Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris (Berkely, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press, 1998).

In 19th-century Paris, the public could visit the morgue--as a guest, not a "client."  In fact, it became an extremely popular tourist attraction.

Historians estimate that, at the height of its popularity, thousands of people visited the morgue daily--as Schwartz points out, street vendors sold fruit and pastries outside (in case you felt a bit peckish before or after looking at a series of decaying corpses) and one guy actually sold homemade ointment (63). 

When the morgue finally closed its doors to the public in 1907, "forty merchants from the quartier Notre-Dame petitioned the second commission of the municipal council, claiming the closure had damaged their business" (64).

Inside the morgue itself, corpses were displayed on slabs in front of a large window.

Morgue interior, from Leopold Flameng, Paris qui s'en va et qui vient (1860).  Musee Carnavalet, copyright Phototheque des musees de la Ville de Paris.
(Source: Theodor Hoffbauer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

And crowds just... walked on by.  And stared. 

During particularly busy times--when a particularly gruesome crime had been played up by the Parisian press, for example--guards had to ensure that people kept moving.  Women and children visited; it was free and open to the public.  (In Zola's novel, Thérèse Raquin, the protagonist Laurent drops in on his way to work every morning for several weeks--and he is by no means the only one to do so.)

Source: http://victorianparis.wordpress.com/2012/06/23/paris-morgue-in-emile-zolas-words-warning-gruesome/

The victim's clothing was hung up on display behind the corpse itself, and the corpses were naked, except for a cloth that covered their genitals.  Zola makes it clear that quite a few people--men and women alike--came to stare at the naked bodies (he depicts men and young boys gaping at the breasts of naked female corpses in particular).

Image: A crowd, including a mother and her young son, gathers to view the grisly sight of the bodies at the Paris Morgue circa 1820. Credit: Wellcome Images, Wellcome Library, London. (Source: http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2014/05/19/the-biggest-tourist-draw-in-paris/)

In the first half of the nineteenth century, there was no refrigeration, so the longest a body could be displayed was about 3 days.  The clothing--or a picture of the victim--was often displayed for longer.
in 1877 the morgue staff began photographing all its inhabitants and posted the photos of the corpses that had been buried but remained unidentified on the wooden barrier at the entrance, thus prolonging the display of any unidentified corpse long after the usual three days of display. (58)
They also began making wax replicas of particularly famous cases, so that people could then view the wax reproduction, once the corpse itself had decayed beyond the point of being "presentable."

In the case that became known as "the woman cut in two pieces"--her corpse had been cut in two, packaged separately and dumped into the Seine--authorities estimated that "in the afternoon between five and six thousand people filed through in one hour" to view the body, which had been placed "one one of the slabs closest to the glass ... a cloth smock of the material in which the body had been wrapped was thrown over it so that only the head and feet were exposed" (72).  The morgue stayed open late so that viewers could see the body, and when they could no longer display the body itself, they commissioned a "wax reproduction of the head" which was "then placed on a mannequin covered with a white sheet" (73).

Crowds now gathered to see how accurate the wax reproduction was.

The morgue was, in essence, free theater.  The press would speculate about the story behind a particular corpse, and lines would form at the morgue.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, this trend was fueled by the morgue administrators themselves: believing that a murderer confronted with the sight of his victim's corpse would confess freely, they often staged a "confrontation."  Crowds "knew to go to the morgue to witness the criminal on the day of the 'confrontation,' because they anticipated its enactment as part of the newspaper crime narrative with which they were quite familiar" (81).

In short, they went to see the story associated with the corpse in the Paris Morgue play out in "real" life.

In case you're wondering--and really, I kinda hope you are--why on earth anyone would open the Paris morgue to the public, there were several reasons.  As both Schwartz and historian Alan Mitchell point out, the nineteenth century witnessed the dawning of modern medicine, the rise of positivism, and a general belief in the virtues of science.

So in effect, the opening of the Paris Morgue to the public was a way to put science on display.  Sort of.

The other cover story was, of course, that the display of unidentified corpses would lead to their eventual identification.  As Schwartz points out, however, this was probably not all that effective as an investigative strategy.

The fact that thousands of people were filing by the bodies on a daily basis--many of them tourists from out of town--suggests that people didn't really visit the Paris Morgue because they thought that maybe they could help identify a victim.

As Schwartz points out, an August 29, 1892 article in L'Eclair indicated that
the random visit rarely provided a positive identification.  Of the 750 adults admitted the year before, 680 had been identified.  405 had been made through the special investigation by the morgue.  165 had been "recognized on admission" (forensic autopsy, etc.), "55 by their clothing after the corpse's burial, 10 through photographs, 5 by l'anthropométrie and 40 through display.  Of these 40, the paper argued that it was likely that they were all 'intentional viewer identifications and not the product of chance.' (84)
When the Paris Morgue finally closed its doors to the public in 1907, a one-hundred-year-old spectacle came to an end.  As Schwartz notes, "[t]he morgue transformed anonymous corpses into Parisian sensation, and a large public gathered to consume this spectacularized reality" (87).

Ultimately, the Paris Morgue was a spectacle fed by other contemporary forms of spectacle and sensationalism--the popular press, police memoirs, and wax museums--and as such, it was a fascinating historical phenomenon that marked the transition to modern popular culture.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Feeling of Triumph

I've conquered kale.

Yes, kale.  The leafy green vegetable.

For months now, my lip has curled into an irritated sneer whenever I hear people go on and on about how wonderful kale is, how it's "sooooooo healthy," how it's their "new addiction," blah, blah, blah.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I actually told Rachel Ray to shut up one morning.  I was sick of hearing about kale. 

I love spinach.  I just do.  It is one of the best foods in the world, and for me, kale was just never going to be like spinach.  I'd eat kale and think, "I could have had spinach.  Why am I not having spinach?"

To me, kale has a funny taste.  And yes, I know spinach kind of does too, but I like the funny taste of spinach.  It tastes like iron.  That's why Popeye got all those muscles and could beat up Bluto.

(For the record, even as a child it really bothered me that Bluto couldn't take a hint and take a hike.  I mean, Olive Oyl was not interested.  Everyone could see that.  The only cartoon character who made me angrier was Pepe Le Pew.  HOLY COW that kissing skunk was annoying.  I told my mom once, "He needs to LEAVE those kitty cats ALONE.  They don't like him and they're NOT SKUNKS.")

But back to the kale.  I found a way to eat kale that works for me.  Two words: pizza and garlic.

Unlike spinach, kale isn't quite as watery, so while you can't really plunk spinach down raw on a pizza and bake it--I find I have to cook the spinach first and then wring it out before I can put it on a pizza--you can actually do that with kale.

Case in point.  Pictured to the right is the pizza, pre-cheese.  (Yes, that's a Boboli crust under there.  I find that, when I want pizza, I want it quickly and making my own pizza dough is not quick enough to suit me.)

Under the mound of baby kale and the roasted peppers are onions and an entire head of roasted garlic.

Yes, that's right.  A full head--not a clove or two--of roasted garlic.  If you haven't roasted garlic and then cooked with it, well, you haven't fully lived, my friend.

I put cheese on the pizza (yes, I use packaged cheese--see above about "quick") and put it in the oven.  You have to take a bit of a leap of faith and really mound that kale on there, because it will shrink down once it's cooked.  I brushed the crust with olive oil before putting on the kale.

You can also drizzle oil over the kale, but I opted not to in this case, since I was using roasted peppers: they tend to have a bit of oil, and I didn't want a watery pizza, because otherwise, I would end up thinking, "If I wanted watery pizza, I could have just used spinach," and I'd be back in that vicious cycle that I described above.

So here it is, cheese added and ready for the oven.  I took a side-view shot so you can see how high I had the kale piled. 

I added a bit less cheese this time around than I normally do, and although it came out just fine, you kind of do want to make sure you get a bit sprinkled to the edges, otherwise the kale just dries up like the leaf that it is.

But for the most part, it was fine.  Here it is, out of the over and ready for the eatin'.


Very colorful and pretty, and it tasted really good too.  The garlic did the trick for me when it came to kale--I like the way those two flavors blend, and it helped to mellow out the "funny" taste of kale (in my opinion, anyway).

I have another triumph to talk about.  My tomato plants.  LOOK at these beauties.


They're ready for their close-up:



The best part is, I planted an assortment of heirloom seeds, so I have no idea what they tomatoes themselves will look like when they finally ripen.  Some may be purple.  Some may be green.  Some may be yellow.  There may be a few paste tomatoes in there as well.

And when the season ends, unlike hybrid plants that you buy at the store, these will reseed themselves.  Personally, I find that plants that grow spontaneously from last year's seeds tend to be heartier and healthier than the ones you buy.  

I actually have 5 additional tomato plants that I "found" in my garden beds this year.  Almost all of them are yellow pear tomatoes, so that's good, because those are quick and easy to eat.  (Good for snackin', is what I'm sayin'.)

People think I'm insane because I a) start my garden from seeds, and b) plant so many tomatoes.  But I find that, if you grow things from seed, you're going to have to be prepared to lose a lot of plants.  Rabbits happen.  Dampening off happens.  Nature happens.

Speaking of which, my third and final triumph is a triumph born of tragedy.  I had two rosemary bushes that I really liked and this winter killed them both.  They just can't survive the kind of cold we get in the Northeast sometimes--mine had weathered several winters, actually, but I think the fact that it was extremely wet and then it became extremely cold... that was all she wrote for my rosemary, in short.

So in my strange state of gardening determination, I decided that I would grow more rosemary.  From seed.  (My neighbor, who is an avid gardener herself, stared at me for a full minute when I told her this.)

But here it is: success.  I can't tell you how tiny and fiddly rosemary is when it first gets started.

The seeds are miniscule, and the seedlings are the most fragile things I've ever seen.  I couldn't quite fathom how something so tiny and sensitive could end up producing the kind of stems that you chop off and use to cook with.

But here they are.  They've taken hold and, this winter, I'll be playing it safe: they're going inside once the weather gets colder.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Going...Gone!

I really don't know where the weekend went, much less the entire last week.

I remember writing the previous post and thinking that the entire week was ahead of me, and then I remember falling asleep last night at around 9:00 p.m.

It's berry-picking season.  I think that's part of it.  I've got blueberries and raspberries and in a few minutes, I'm heading out to get some more of each.

I was interviewed--and photographed--at yet another local farm event by yet another reporter.  Something about me draws in the reporters, apparently.

I should run for office.  I'm joking, of course.  I already have a day-job that I like just fine, and absolutely no need to make a complete spectacle of myself.

I finished yet another pair of socks.  It only sort of counts, because it's a child's size.  What does count, though, is the fact that I made significant headway on a blanket I'm making as a thank-you present for my neighbor, for service above and beyond the call of duty.

She followed the ambulance to the ER the night I had to be hauled in, so that I would have a ride home.  And then she waited for 2 hours while they convinced my immune system to stop imploding.

If nothing else, this deserves a blanket, one that's being knit with a whole bunch of eternal gratitude.

And once again, Mother Nature approves of this project, because usually, you can't knit blankets in July.  But this year, you can.

I also took advantage of the cloudy and cool weekend to do a massive amount of weeding.  I really should have taken before and after photos--it was that dramatic.  And, by next weekend, I'm sure the weeds will be right back where they were.  Such is the nature of... Nature.

I also fixed parts of the ceiling paint-job that I had done last January by that... well, let's just call him a "guy," and be done with it.  I used a lot of other words to describe him this weekend, as I was doing my best to avoid getting a crick in my neck and reliving the trauma that was his time in my home.  (I blogged about it here.  Oh, and here, too.  It was so bad, it needed 2 blog posts for me to get over it.)

I finished Marya Hornbacher's memoir, Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulemia (P.S.).  It was beyond intense.  I can't say I "recommend" it, because much of it was extremely disturbing.

I'd say, read Madness first, and then read Wasted, if you decide you want to read them.  Wasted was really dark and disturbing and didn't have the kind of hope that was threaded through the last portion of Madness.  (I think you need that hope to make it through reading about her experiences, which is why I'd say, read the second memoir first.)

I also started Kathyrn Schultz's book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error (2011), because I really liked her TED talks about regret and error.  She's coined the word "wrongology" (and quite a few reviewers on GoodReads have certainly blasted her for it) to describe the study of why it is that we are so inclined to believe that we are right and so un-inclined to want to admit that we're wrong.

It's an interesting study.  I really liked her discussion of mirages and optical illusions: it's a great way of showing how our basic biology and the physics of the world around us can be deceiving--and it helps to drive home her point that, in the end, there's nothing wrong with admitting that you're wrong.

At least, occasionally.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Contagion

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I am so very glad I deleted my Facebook account last August.

I've been mulling over the recent Facebook controversy.  In case you missed it, it has recently come out that, in January of 2012, Facebook manipulated the News Feeds of approximately 689,000 Facebook users, adjusting what they did or did not see in their News Feed, for a week.

The goal was to test--on a large scale--the theory of "emotional contagion."  The resulting article, "Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks" was published in Volume 111, Issue number 24 of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on June 17, 2014.  (I'd get a different acronym for that journal.  Say it out loud: "PNAS."  See what I mean?) 

The concept of "emotional contagion" can best be summed up with an image:


Saturday Night Live's "Debbie Downer" is essentially a comic take on the concept of "emotional contagion."  You're happy, Debbie Downer shows up and is... a downer... and pretty soon, you're not feeling so happy either.

You've probably heard a variation of the theory of emotional contagion coupled with Facebook many times in the past.  It goes like this: people check their Facebook when they're feeling blue and end up feeling even worse.  Several research studies have attempted to explore and explain the effects of Facebook on overall mood: Maria Konnikova's September 13, 2013 article in The New Yorker, "How Facebook Makes Us Unhappy," cites several prominent studies that explore the interconnections between Facebook use and mood (both positive and negative).

The latest concerns have been sparked by a study conducted in January 2012, when members of Facebook's "Core Data Science Team" and "News Feed Team," in conjunction with researchers at Cornell University, conducted an experiment to see if emotional contagion could be spread over a network, without direct interpersonal interaction.

Theories of emotional contagion have been hotly disputed, because it's extremely hard to divorce emotion from context.  So, doubters have suggested that, if someone tells you about their grandma's funeral, you may feel sad, not because you've been "infected" by that person's sadness, per se, but because their story reminds you of your own grandma's funeral.  The sadness you feel isn't "theirs," it's "your own," but it is sparked by your shared experience with another person.

In lab experiments designed to measure the existence and/or effects of emotional contagion, it is extremely hard to rule out the effect of "shared experiences"--or to predict when they might occur.

Similarly, it may be the interaction itself that influences your emotional state, not the precise emotion that the other person is feeling.  A happy person is usually fun to talk to and hang out with--and this can alter your own mood.  Debbie Downer brings everyone down, not so much because she's sad herself, but because her responses in conversations are always about things like death and disease and natural disasters.  Her interaction with others--her contribution to the conversation--shapes the overall mood.

Moreover, as the authors of  June 17th article in PNAS note, "To date ... there is no experimental evidence that emotions or moods are contagious in the absence of direct interaction between experiencer and target" (8788).  The assumption has been that emotional contagion can only occur when people interact directly.

The "benefit" of Facebook (for this experiment, that is), is that direct interpersonal interaction can be eliminated.  You're not chatting with someone or connecting with them in any way, you simply log into Facebook (heaven help you) and your News Feed pops up for you to see.

The News Feed is already filtered.  You don't see everything that's available, you see what one of Facebook's many, many algorithms decides that you "want" to see, based on your Facebook-behavior overall.

So, for one week in January, Facebook decided that they would test what happens when you see what they want you to see--not what they've decided you want to see based on what they see that you've seen.  (Got that?)
The experiment manipulated the extent to which people (N=689,003) were exposed to emotional expressions in their NewsFeed. This tested whether exposure to emotions led people to change their own posting behaviors, in particular whether exposure to emotional content led people to post content that was consistent with the exposure thereby testing whether exposure to verbal affective expressions leads to similar verbal expressions, a form of emotional contagion. (8788)
To achieve this manipulation, researchers conducted two, parallel experiments: on the one hand, they reduced Facebook users' exposure to positive emotional content in their News Feed,  and on the other hand, they reduced users' exposure to negative emotional content in their News Feed.

This only affected the News Feed: if you were selected to participate in this study and you visited friends' walls or pages, you'd see their postings, positive or negative, even if they had been filtered out of your News Feed.

But of course, most people on Facebook have hundreds of friends.  So this is a bit of a non-issue: you typically rely on the News Feed so you don't have to go to friends' walls or pages.

The researchers found that, when News Feed content was filtered in this way, it appeared that yes, there is evidence of "emotional contagion."
The results show emotional contagion. ...for people who had positive content reduced in their News Feed, a larger percentage of words in people's status updates were negative and a smaller percentage were positive. When negativity was reduced, the opposite pattern occurred. These results suggest that the emotions expressed by friends, via online social networks, influence our own moods, constituting, to our knowledge, the first experimental evidence for massive-scale emotional contagion via social networks. (8789)
If you're thinking, "Well, I didn't know anything about this, so I guess I wasn't part of the study," not so fast, my Facebook friend.

You didn't know if you and your News Feed were part of the experiment, because Facebook didn't tell you.

Facebook didn't tell you, because they don't have to.

Users agree to let Facebook conduct psychological experiments like this one when they accept the terms of service.  And since Facebook is a private company, they are not bound by Institutional Research Board (IRB) standards, which exist to protect human subjects in research studies.

If you tried to conduct this kind of experiment in an academic setting, you'd have to get IRB approval.  You can't just experiment with people's emotions in order to see what happens, because such experiments have potential real-world consequences that people will have to live with, both in the short-term and in the long-term.

It's called "informed consent" or the "common rule," and it's a federal policy.  You need to know what you're getting into.  To know that, experimenters need to tell you and give you the chance to say, "No thanks."  Researchers are also required to ensure that there are safeguards in place so that you don't unwittingly suffer the effects of an experiment--this is what IRB approval is all about.

Facebook isn't required to do any of this.  They're a private company, and you agreed to use their services.  They told you they'd be collecting data and you gave them permission to use it as they see fit. It's all included under their "Data Use Policy."  Your emotions and your friends' emotions--as manifested in status updates and "likes" and other expressions on Facebook--are "research" and "data," as far as Facebook is concerned.

And your "opt-out" option was given to you up-front: don't sign up for Facebook.  If you do, you've given informed consent--or so they argue.

If you go to this page, scroll down to "How we use the information we receive" and look at the bullet points, it very clearly states, "for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement."

An "Editorial Expression of Concern" accompanies the article in PNAS.  As Editor-in-Chief Inder M. Verma notes, "the collection of the data by Facebook may have involved practices that were not fully consistent with the principles of obtaining informed consent and allowing participants to opt out."

So, now you know.  How does that make you feel?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Rendez-Vous

I had a minor crisis erupt on Friday, which involved a whole bunch of driving and a fair amount of stress.  I was operating on a whopping 4 hours of sleep on Saturday, which is not something I'm good at.

What I am good at, for better or for worse, is deciding that if a problem is fixable, I'm gonna fix it.  I get disturbingly determined on that front.

I think it comes from having dealt with problems that weren't fixable for a bunch of years. If it can be fixed, I'll be fixing it.  Immediately.

But that isn't what I want to blog about.  What I want to describe is how this problem could have gone unfixed and escalated exponentially until it became a really serious problem, if not for a series of random coincidences.

I only discovered it because I happened to be looking for something else.

I wouldn't have been looking for something else if I hadn't bumped into that reporter on Wednesday and given him my name for his story.

I wouldn't have bumped into the reporter if I hadn't decided to go blueberry picking in spite of the fact that my car's AC was broken.  A reporter in a berry patch at 8:30 in the morning.  Think of the odds.

Because my car's AC was broken, I took it to be fixed on Friday morning.  They tried to fix it and couldn't--the parts they had ordered actually didn't work.  So, they had to order the parts again.

They called to tell me this when the other crisis was unfolding.  And then they told me that they were going to give me a loaner car, to use all weekend, free of charge, and I could simply come pick up my own car on Monday.

They gave me a hybrid.  It gets 50 miles to the gallon.  This is what pulled into my driveway just as I was discovering that I was going to have to embark on an 8-10 hour drive.

I told my best friend yesterday that I think that I have guardian spirits out there and that, although the rule of thumb seems to be that they can't prevent bad things from happening, they can sure as shootin' arrange the surrounding circumstances so that things work very much in my favor.

Because this has happened before.  The day I found my house--the perfect house for me, exactly where and what I wanted, totally in my price range--I found it the morning after the guy I had been seeing was a total jerk to me.

It became clear that "it" was "over," I got all of about 3 hours of sleep, and then I had to get up and go house-hunting.  I didn't feel up to it, initially, but let's just say that, two hours later, I was a very happy camper, smiling and signing papers right and left.

My friends still chuckle over the fact that I went on and on and on about how perfect this house was, and when they said, "So, how's What's-His-Name doing?", I said, "Oh, that's over."  When they said, "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," I said, "Yeah... hey, did I tell you this house has a fireplace and hardwood floors?"

That kind of karma has my dad written all over it.  He would know exactly what would cheer me up and distract me instantly: the perfect house.  I can even hear him saying, "Okay, get rid of that guy and get her a house."

The closing was the day before the 4-year anniversary of my dad's death.  I didn't pick the date: that's what was given to me.  I'm just sayin'. 

A similar thing happened when I went to donate to my best friend's Ultimate Hike last year.  She hikes every year in memory of her son, Ezra.  I tried to use my credit card and it wouldn't go through, wouldn't go through, wouldn't go through.

Finally, I began to get nervous that it would go through--three times.  And that I'd have all of the attempts  racked up to my account.  So I went online to check.

When I did, I saw an odd little charge on my credit card that I hadn't made.

Nothing big.  Just a weird little $30 charge to a phone company in the middle of a bunch of other small charges that I knew that I had made.  I hadn't made any $30 phone calls...

Turns out, my credit card number had been stolen.  This is what they do: they get the number and then they "test" to see if it works.  The fraud rep. said, "They watch the card and bury a small charge in the middle of a bunch of other activity.  If it goes through, then the next charge they make is usually made in the middle of the night.... for thousands of dollars."

I told my best friend, "I think Ezra was looking out for me."  Because actually, the only reason my card wouldn't go through was because the credit card company thought the Hike donation looked like "suspicious activity" and blocked it.  They hadn't spotted the actual fraudulent charge--and I wouldn't have caught it if the Hike donation hadn't been blocked.

On Friday night, in the middle of my drive, a silly, feel-good, Elton John song from the early 1990's came on the radio.  I hadn't heard this song since... 1990, I think.  It always made me laugh--I'm not sure why.  Probably because it's pretty silly.

The video is even sillier, but for good reason.  Elton John's record company wanted a video for the song, but he was busy spending time with Ryan White, the Indiana boy who was expelled from middle school in 1984, when it was discovered that he contracted AIDS from a contaminated blood transfusion.  (White died in April of 1990.) That's why the video is entirely animated.

For some reason, when I heard the song, I started to laugh and I knew, "This problem is fixable, and it will get fixed."  And I started to think about all of the strange circumstances that put me in a position to fix it.

"Me and you, rendez-vous."

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Meandering

This is going to be one of those random, follow-the-train-of-my-thoughts posts.  Please make sure your seat belts are buckled and keep your hands inside the car at all times.

Last night it dawned on me that I may have spelled "teetotaler" wrong in my previous post, so I went and checked and no, I didn't.

Did you know that there is a hard core punk movement called "Straight Edge" that also consists of people who don't drink or do drugs?  I did not know this, and now I do.

Ted Nugent also doesn't drink or do drugs either.  I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this is probably pretty much the only thing that Ted Nugent and I have in common.

This then led me to reminisce about "The King Biscuit Flower Hour" on Sunday nights on the radio back in the late 70's and 80's.  They used to broadcast major concerts every Sunday night.  It was an awesome way to wind down a weekend-- and just about the only way I'd be willing to do homework on a Sunday night: with the radio on.

I then spent a bit of time remembering Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels--what good music.  And then I had that great little intro, "Fee fee fi fi fo fo fum..." in my head for a while.

I hummed that to myself while gazing at this enormous rash on my arm that I got from trimming an evergreen bush near my house.  My neighbor calls it "the Cousin Itt bush" because that's kind of what it looks like.

I really don't think that rash is going to go away anytime soon.  It doesn't itch or hurt, so that's good, but it's definitely there to stay for a bit.  

Did you know that Felix Silla, the actor who played the character of Cousin Itt on The Addams Family was also the stunt double for "Short Round" in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom?

I did not know this, and now I do.

I know that, as a small child, I loved the Munsters and the Addams Family.  Why don't they put quality shows like that on anymore?  My favorite time of the day was when the theme song played and I'd try to snap my fingers along with the Addams Family.

I wanted to be Wednesday.   I even loved that name, "Wednesday."  And her middle name was "Friday," for heaven's sake--how cool is that?  Why didn't my parents think of a name like that for me?  I just loved that she was definitely... different.

Wednesday Addams knew how to bring it.  Even as a small child, I felt that about her.

Her headless doll had a matching outfit.  Wednesday took the concept of My American Girl Dolls to a whole other place--and she did this before anyone even came up with the idea of My American Girl Dolls.

Hey, don't judge.  We didn't have Barney or Blues' Clues or Pee Wee Herman.  Looking back, I suppose it's not a huge surprise that I now read and write about gothic literature.

Did you know that Lisa Loring, the actor who originally played the character of Wednesday Addams, was at one point married to a porn star?  I did not know this, and now I do.

I discovered that if you put frozen blueberries, a frozen banana, some watermelon and (if necessary) a little bit of simple syrup in a blender, add ice and then push "grind," you will end up with a frozen slushie-type drink fit for a goddess.  Holy cow, is it good.  I could do that all day.  (There is absolutely no connection between this paragraph and the one that precedes it.  I warned you: we're meandering.  And when we accidentally meander in the direction of "porn," we quickly change direction.)

I went blueberry-picking this morning, even though I didn't think I would because the AC in my car has crapped out.  To the tune of mega-money needed to fix it.  It's going to get fixed on Friday, because there really isn't another option.

Somehow, we used to drive cars without AC and not care.  My first car didn't have AC.  Those days have clearly ended.

But blueberry picking started yesterday, and for some reason, I assume swarms of people will descend upon "my" blueberry patch and then I won't have any.  This has never happened, but that doesn't stop me from believing that it could.

And in the realm of all things unbelievable, I was actually interviewed in the blueberry patch by a reporter.  This really happened.  A reporter was doing a story on berry-picking and he wanted to interview me.

At first, I really didn't want to give him my name.  Once you've been stalked and e-pestered, you're kind of reluctant to give out any information about any place you frequent, for fear that you'll bump into people you'd really rather not see.  You just never quite get over that.  It changes your way of interacting with the world.  You feel like you're always scanning the horizon or looking over your shoulder and thinking about who will find out where you go and what they might do with that information.  Even years later.  It kinda sucks.

But then, after I chatted with him for a bit, he really wanted my name for his story.  I think it was because I began talking about all the great things you can make with blueberries.  Specifically, salsa.  I know he wanted that reference to blueberry salsa in his story.  I could feel it in my bones.  And I have friends who are reporters, so I know it helps if reporters can quote you by name. 

So I gave him my name.  And if I have to deal with any unfortunate encounters in my blueberry-patch as a result of this, I'm not gonna be happy.  I'll channel my inner child--and remember, we're talking Wednesday Friday Addams.

Breathe in... "I'm a flower"... Breathe out... "I'm a butterfly".... okay, the "angry moment" has passed.  Right now, I'm just thinking about the blueberry salsa that's resting in the fridge.

This is why there is a July.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Declarations

In keeping with the post-4th of July spirit, I thought I'd devote this blog post to various declarations I've decided to make.  (None of them require dumping tea in a harbor.)

I've become a teetotaler.  Again.  It was just getting too troublesome trying to manage the histamine imbalance issues and figure out what was causing what, and it was increasingly clear that if I was ever going to get things back on an even keel, the booze would have to go.

Some days it bothered me, some days it didn't.  On the days when it did, I'd have to be on antihistamines.  Those dehydrate you.  So then I'd end up having problems stemming from that.  And on and on.  It just isn't worth it.

All that, just to have a single cocktail in the evening?  No thanks.  

It's not a radical change for me, really.  Once I gave up wine last January, it was pretty much on its way out anyway.  For the first 30 years of my life, I didn't drink, so it's just back to that again.  It's healthier anyhow--even for people who aren't allergic to food the way I am.

I've also decided that I'm going to try to write an article in the next three weeks--before August 1st.  I think I can do it.  I've been rereading Zola's Therese Raquin, which, if you haven't read it, is definitely a novel you should read if you want to read something that's pretty damn weird.

It's a trip.  Seriously.  Zola tried to argue that there was no such thing as "psychology," that all human responses are purely "biological."  (Don't ask me to defend it, I'm just telling you what he tried to argue.)

So this novel is about two people who have an affair.  It's quite racy in spots, once that biology stuff gets cookin'.

But it is also beyond weird.  At times, you just start to laugh.  It's like... a gothic novel on laughing gas.

There's a lot of staring that goes on in this novel: people who stare off into space, people who stare at each other, people who stare at dead bodies, people who just sit and stare because they're bored.  I'm thinking I can find something to write about the role that staring plays in this odd novel, based on the work of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson that I blogged about last week.

Basically, I'm giving myself a paper topic and telling myself that this is my assignment.  I do this every now and then: treat myself like a student, so I remember what it feels like to have a specific assignment and a given deadline.

Because, given our druthers, most lit. professors would really just prefer to wander aimlessly from book to book, talking about the day when we'll sit down and pull it all together in a truly marvelous tome of literary criticism that will somehow manage to sell like hotcakes.

But I've spent a fair amount of time reading journalism and hanging around with journalists, and I must say, they have a focus that is really quite helpful.  You need to write the thing.  Now.  It's due.  Get it done.

And when faced with that, I must say, it typically gets done.  The dithering dries right up.

So that's the plan, and I've started on it today, so we'll see how it goes.  I've already promised myself that if I do a solid afternoon's worth of work, I can bike to the beach for a sit-and-knit session, followed by a sunset swim.

Off I go!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

A Fifth

The 4th came and went in a funny way, because of the storm.  Now it's breezy and beautiful, like the sky has had a nice, thorough cleaning.  (Something my house desperately needs.  Three cats shed a lot when it's hot and humid.)

I did manage a bike ride yesterday morning, early.  When I did, I actually saw people setting up picnic areas in the park.

I thought of them during the 9:00 a.m. Arthurian deluge.

For my part, I worked all day on my promotion application.  I'm applying for promotion to "Professor" next fall. (Right now, I'm an "Associate Professor," which means I have tenure and all, but the last phase of the academic process is "Full Professor.")

So this has involved gathering a lot of materials, baby-sitting the printer, using the hole punch and the stapler more than I have in the past 15 years, and reflecting on my various and sundry accomplishments in writing, in a way that sounds impressive but not arrogant.   It's not difficult, but it is kind of time-consuming, so I decided last year that whenever we had a day of bad weather, I would devote it to working on this.

Remember how many snowstorms we had last winter?  Yeah.  Basically, I'm nearly done, and it's due in mid-September.  So, thanks for all the help Mother Nature, but at this point, I think I got this.

But I am glad I did it in the way that I did, because ye gods there is a lot of time spent clicking "Print" and praying that you don't have to deal with a paper jam.

I also finished a pair of socks.  Here they are:

I have a lot of this particular yarn (Felici's "Shamrock") because it was being discontinued and I like green.

So does my best friend's son, so I'm either going to give him this pair, if it fits him, or if it doesn't, I'll work on making a pair the next size up for him, once I know what size his feet are (more or less).

Apparently, his feet are growing at a somewhat alarming rate, so any and all measurements are pretty tentative and subject to change tomorrow.  This will definitely complicate the sock-making process.

But the good new is, if he outgrows this particular size, no worries.  It's the size that fits me, and it's the size that fits his mom.  These socks will never go to waste.

And if--when--he outgrows the next size up, it's the size that fits his grandmother.  Basically, the women of the family are set, regardless of what his nearly twelve-year-old feet decide to do. 

And I know what you're thinking, but really: what nearly-teenage boy doesn't want a pair of hand-knit socks from his mom's wacky friend?  Again, if--when--he balks, the socks will simply default to whatever female family-member they fit.  (We're all fine with wacky.  As long as its our own kind of wacky.)

I also made a 4th of July pizza yesterday--roasted peppers and spinach with herbed goat cheese and mozzarella.  It was quite nice.  Better than burgers or hot dogs from the grill, which simply weren't going to happen, given the weather.

I also finished an interesting book by Marya Hornbacher, Madness: A Bipolar Life (2009).  It's intense. Seriously.  I spent the first third of the book being really, really worried about her.

Hornbacher was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her previous memoir, Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia (1998, reprinted with an updated afterword in 2006).  She suffered from anorexia and bulimia throughout most of her teenage years and became a severe alcoholic.  Eventually, she was diagnosed with rapid-cycle bipolar disorder, type I.

So you can probably see why I spent a fair amount of reading time being really, really worried about her.  Her memoir isn't for everyone.  Unlike Kay Redfield Jamison's An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness (1997), Hornbacher's book doesn't attempt to "organize" her experience and make sense of it--at least, not for the first half of the text.

Instead, you're simply in it, with her.  This is what bipolar looks like, from the inside out and the outside in.  Hornbacher is an amazingly good writer, I think--which is also why I was really, really worried about her.

I don't want to lose any great writers.  We need them.

Hornbacher's memoir isn't simply a tale of darkness, though.   At times, it's terribly funny.  She sees the humor in her illness--"through a glass, darkly," of course--but she sees it nonetheless.
I woke up this morning and things were a little off.  I went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee and stopped in the doorway.  Glass covered every surface.  I vaguely remember throwing the coffeepot at my husband's head.  Hell.  No coffee.  There was blood on the floor; I checked my feet, which were covered with shallow cuts that were more or less painless.  I wondered absently if they were really painless, or if I was numb.
It occurred to me that I had to leave immediately, and I went upstairs to collect my purse and shoes.  I made it as far as the car when I noticed that I wasn't wearing any clothes.  Oh, for goodness' sake, I thought to myself, and went back into the house shaking my head... (71-72)
In the end, she makes what can only be characterized as a mind-bogglingly impressive effort to manage her illness.  And she insists on the place of hope in that process.
I relish my life.  It is a life of which I am fiercely protective.  I have wrested it back from madness, and madness cannot take it from me again.  I will not throw it away.  So what if it isn't a normal life?  It's the one that I have.  It's difficult, beautiful, painful, full of laughter, passing strange.
Whatever else it is, whatever it brings--it's mine. (280)
Like her life, Hornbacher's memoir is "difficult, beautiful, painful, full of laughter, passing strange."  As I said, it isn't for everyone, but everyone should read it.  

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

You've Got the Look

People of a certain age may remember the title of my blog post--it was part of an ad campaign for Jordache jeans, back in the day when Jordache jeans were enormously popular (because Brooke Shields modeled them).

I've been reading Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's book, Staring: How We Look (2009).  Garland-Thomson, a scholar of disability studies and feminism at Emory University, examines how we react--both politically and psychologically--to the sight of others, particularly when those others appear very different from ourselves.

Garland-Thomson argues that "staring is an interrogative gesture that asks what's going on and demands the story"--it "begins as an impulse that curiosity can carry forward into engagement" (3).

What I find really compelling about Garland-Thomson's book is that she takes a gesture we take for granted--the "what the...?" that we do as we walk or drive by someone or something on the way to work in the morning, for example--and analyzes the nuances of what it means to do and to think this.

She examines staring as an act of reading.  Garland-Thomson argues that "Stares are urgent efforts to make the unknown known, to render legible something that seems at first glance incomprehensible" (15).  The act of staring inaugurates an interesting interpersonal interaction--as she points out, "we prefer to stare for our own reasons and on our own terms rather than be forced into a stare by something or someone stareable" (19).

Being stared at ourselves can be bad... or it can be good.  And while we're the object of that stare, we experience an awkward moment of indecisiveness as we decide how to react.

Unless, of course, we're individuals with noticeable physical differences.  In that case, as Garland-Thomson notes, we need to learn how to negotiate staring on a daily basis--how to grapple with the looks of others and their reactions to (and occasionally judgments of) our appearance.

In this case, staring is perhaps a reminder of something human beings would rather not know:
The functional and formal conditions of our bodies that are termed disabilities are one of hte most unpredictable aspects of life.  Like death itself, disabilities come to us unbidden as we move through a world that wears us down even while it sustains us... This inconvenient truth nudges most of us who think of ourselves as able-bodied toward imagining disability as an uncommon visitation that mostly happens to someone else, as a fate somehow elective rather than inevitable. (19)
"That could never happen to me."  "Thank god that never happened to me."  These are often the thoughts that accompany the stares at people with disabilities and, as Garland-Thomson argues, such looks force their recipients to navigate a complex exchange.

How do you respond to a total stranger--someone who knows nothing about you-- who nevertheless looks at you and thinks, "I would never want to be you"?   How do you navigate this on a daily basis?  How does it affect your sense of self and your relationship to the world?

Garland-Thomson also analyzes the cultural history of staring--the injunction, "Don't stare!" that Americans are all raised with, a prohibition that operates side-by-side with a world of selfies, viral videos, rubbernecking, and Looky Lous.

In particular, I found her analysis of the role of appearance in American history interesting.  Garland-Thomson notes that, as the American middle class emerged and capitalism and egalitarianism shaped our organizing social structure, we "required new ways of looking at one another" (66).

European aristocracy relied on appearance to communicate social status: you knew "who" someone was and "where" s/he "belonged" by the way they dressed and behaved.
Citizens of democracy, in contrast, supposedly had the opportunity to change their status at any time.  Appearance needed to reflect this ideal of equality.  To realize this promised social fluidity, people's appearances should not lock them into a particular status but should accommodate aspirations toward social mobility. (67)
In short, "What you looked like... should suggest who you were to your anonymous visual interlocutors but not reveal enough information to trap you into any particular fixed identity" (67).

Garland-Thomson also examines how appearance has shaped the cultural landscape of the contemporary United States.  In particular, she notes a significant paradox that underwrites American culture: corporations market "individuality" even as they sell us mass-produced fashions.

I find this point really interesting.  Because if you think about it, if we each made our own clothes--the way most people did in the 18th and 19th centuries--our individual appearance would be far more distinctive than it currently is.

Instead, we all crave Armani, in order to show the world "who" we are--and express our individual sense of self and preference.  I think Jordache's old slogan encompasses this paradox amazingly well: by telling us, "You've got the look" ("the Jordache look"), it suggests an approval of our appearance.  If we've bought "the look" that they're selling us, then of course we "have" it.

And yet, the commercial side of the exchange is muted.  Everyone will like our look, if we buy their product and wear it.  And of course, they're telling us this because they're trying to convince us to buy their product.

Garland-Thomson cites the observation of philosopher Charles Taylor: "The need to have our individuality validated through civic recognition of our uniqueness is in conflict with our need to be similar to our fellow citizens" (74-75).

Garland-Thomson's work, in my opinion, is always provocative and always intriguing.  She makes you think about subtleties of human perception and social interactions that you might not otherwise have even noticed--her scholarship encourages her readers to look, to think, and then to look again.   

Staring is no exception.