Saturday, June 29, 2013

Fun Friday Facts #78: Unicorn Edition

A Mother Life

I know unicorns aren’t actually real and that I therefore can’t technically write facts about them, but screw you, this is my blog. If I want to blog about unicorns, I can.

That's not a unicorn, it's a goat.

The earliest historical mention of unicorns can be found in the 5th century BC writings of Ctesias, a Greek historian. It’s important that I mention he was an historian because the Greeks, much like the North Koreans, totally believed in unicorns. He described the animal as having a purple head, a white body, blue eyes, and a horn that was white at the base, black in the middle and red at its tip.

Alexandrian merchant Cosmas Indicopleustes wrote in the 6th century of an Ethiopian one-horned animal that, “When it finds itself pursued and in danger of capture, it throws itself from a precipice, and turns so aptly in falling, that it received all the shock upon the horn, and so escapes safe and sound.” Sounds like the elusive unicorn cat to me.

Unicorns found their way into the King James Bible in 1611, due to a mistranslation of the Hebrew word “re’em,” defined as an untamable wild animal of great agility and strength, “with mighty horn or horns.” The animal was most likely an aurochs, which often appeared in Mesopotamian and Indus Valley Civilization art and seals in profile, so it looked like it only had one horn.

That's not a unicorn, it's an extinct cow.

The belief that virginal women have the power to control unicorns originated in the Middle Ages, when the creature appeared in allegories as a symbol for Christ. Unicorn horn, or alicorn, was believed to have medicinal properties and to be capable of detecting poisons. No king worth his beard fleas was without an alicorn horn, which would presumably stop him from being poisoned. Powdered alicorn was sold in pharmacies up until 1741, which you will recognize as a year that is uncomfortably recent in terms of people hawking magic horse horns. The unicorn horns were, of course, elephant, walrus and narwhal tusks, none of which species proliferated in the face of everyone’s best efforts to kill them and chop their horns off. The Throne Chair of Denmark was made entirely of alicorn.

That's not a unicorn, it's a fish.
Image credit: Chris Corwin

The unicorn is widely used in heraldry and is the official national animal of Scotland since the 12th century. The Unicorn of Scotland symbolizes purity, joy, healing powers, life, power, and masculinity. The royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom contains a unicorn in reference to the union between Scotland and England.

Medieval traveler Marco Polo famously described a unicorn as “very ugly brutes to look at,” with a “head like a wild boar’s” and a predilection for “wallowing in mud and slime.” It was a rhinoceros.

In 1663, mayor Otto Von Guericke of Magdeburg used some random bones from the Unicorn Cave in the Harz Mountains of Germany to construct a unicorn skeleton. It had two legs and was part narwhal, part mammoth and part woolly rhinoceros.

And part nightmare.
Image Credit: Wilfried Wittkowsky

In 2012, the North Korean government announced through the Korean Central News Agency that they had found evidence of the unicorn ridden by ancient Korean king Dongmyeong. The unicorn was found buried near a temple in Pyongyang. The grave was conveniently labeled “Unicorn Lair.”

Seems legit.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

What the DOMA Ruling Means to Me

The year is 1997. The place is Buckhannon, West Virginia. The person is me. I've come out as bisexual.

SPOILER: It does not go well.

This is the part where I get tongue-tied, where I don't know how to proceed. Where my mind screams, I'M FUNNY, I HAVE TO BE FUNNY. This is the part where I don't mention the boys who lined up along the hallway to spit on me as I walked to class. I don't mention anything about the person who shot out my porchlight one light. I don't talk about the people who threw bottles and bricks at me as I walked down the street. I don't mention my mother telling me not to talk about it, that I should keep it secret, that if I were to live with a woman one day, I should tell people she's my sister.

Like all of my gay friends, I hit refresh refresh refresh as I waited for the DOMA ruling to come out. Unlike my gay friends, I had to write a story on it. It was the hardest story I ever wrote, because I'd put my fingers on the keys, and I'd burst into tears. I'd pull myself together, and I'd put my fingers on the keys, and I'd burst into tears again.

Bisexual is not the same as gay, it's true. Bisexual is half straight, isn't it. I could pretend not to like women. I could make the choice to live my life halfway.

But now I can be my whole self. I can fall in love with whoever I want.

That's what the DOMA ruling means to me.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

My Favorite Urban Legends: Giant Catfish

I’m starting a new series about my favorite urban legends, which will appear on an irregular basis whenever I’m in between really good ideas. You’re welcome.

The myth of the giant catfish is one of my favorite urban legends, although I must admit that I was shocked to discover that the giant catfish weren’t real because my granddad first told me about them, and I didn’t think he’d lie. When I was a little girl, I visited Sutton Lake with my grandparents, and my granddad told me all about how the lake was infested (infested, I say) with catfish “bigger than a man.” I was like eight so I foolishly believed the old man’s tall tales.

Damn him.

Between my granddad’s subterfuge and the documentary Jaws, I am terrified of the water. Big things live in it and they will eat you. Also, I’m pretty sure zombies live under the water (well, “live”), which is why you never see them.

But I digress. I know that guy on River Monsters managed to catch a catfish that is arguably the size of a half-grown child, but my grandfather specifically told me that the catfish in Sutton Lake are big enough to swallow a person, and even the Mekong giant catfish only gets about 10 feet long, tops, which is pretty long, but I don’t think it’s long enough to eat a person. Also, they eat algae, not people, and live in Thailand, not West Virginia.

Minor details.
Image credit: Carkuni

According to the Internet’s biggest hotbed of liberal propaganda, Snopes, the giant catfish of legend are said to be found in lakes and streams all over the rural United States. Stories of their massive fishness have been circulating since the 1950s. Early versions of the giant catfish legend have the fish frightening divers as they attempt to rescue people who have imprudently driven into lakes infested with huge fucking fish. The catfish are said to be the size of Volkswagens and are described as “guarding” the sunken cars and the people trapped inside.

Over time, the legends began to describe the catfish as bigger and bigger, until, by the 80s, they were the size of Winnebagos. I’m thinking my granddad would have been referring to one of the 1950s giant nonexistent lake catfish, because even as a kid I would have called bullshit on some catfish the size of a Winnebago, even though I didn’t yet know what a Winnebago was.

I would've thought it was a type of bear.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Fun Friday Facts #77: History of Glassmaking

I was super good this week and actually wrote my Fun Friday Facts in advance, instead of leaving it till the end of the day on Friday, because I knew I’d be really busy this Friday and wouldn’t want to do it. I just chose this topic because I was still thinking about mirrors and also because I haven’t covered it yet.

Roman cage cup.
Image credit: Matthias Kabel

The cup pictured above was a luxury item. It is an example of a diatretum, or “reticulated cup,” and is said to represent the apogee of Roman glassmaking technology. Only 50 of these cups survive today. Some of the cups have inscriptions and flanges and some even have figures sculpted into the reticulation, like the Lycurgus Cup, which now belongs to the British Museum.

The foot and rim were added later.
Image credit: Johnbod

It’s uncertain whether the reticulation was carved and then fastened to the body of the cup, or whether the whole thing was carved out of one block of glass, or even whether different techniques were used on different cups. It’s likewise uncertain whether the cups were used for drinking, or were used as hanging oil lamps; it’s possible that some smaller, more cup-like specimens were used for drinking, while wider, bowl-like specimens were used as lamps.

Glass was probably first made in Ancient Egypt, Syria or Mesopotamia, around 5,500 years ago (if I got my math right). The first glass objects made were beads. Glass making technology really started taking off around 1550 BC, when people figured out how to make glass vessels by wrapping ropes of hot glass around a form made of clay and sand and reheating it over and over again to fuse the coils. Early glass workers also carved and ground cold slabs and blocks of glass to form shapes.

In the early days of glass production, the techniques required to make the glass were closely guarded by manufacturers in Crete, Western Asia, and Egypt. Glassmakers created ingots of glass for export. Clear glass was discovered in the 9th century BC, and techniques for glassmaking were first written down in about 650 BC. Glass-blowing was discovered in the first century BC, and glass vessels become considerably more affordable. According to Wikipedia, “Glass became the Roman plastic[citation needed].”

The Roman plastic was somewhat less durable than the plastic plastic.

By the Middle Ages, colored glass had become an important commodity in Europe, insofar as it was used to create stained glass windows. The earliest decorative Church windows were made from thin slices of alabaster and date back to the 4th and 5th centuries. Stained glass windows date back to the late 7th century.

Stained glass windows were an important feature of medieval churches, because they depicted Biblical scenes and teachings to parishioners who weren’t capable of reading the relevant passages. Sadly, much of this glass was destroyed during the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution. The art of stained glass making fell to the wayside until the 19th century, when churches in Britain and on the Continent were restored with new windows.

The art of making stained glass arrived in the United States with the inauguration of J&R Lamb Studios, the first American decorative arts studio, in 1857. Later innovators like John La Farge and Louis Comfort Tiffany created not only a bunch of windows, but also a bunch of lamps.

Tiffany...where have I heard that name before.

In the 20th century, a number of well-known artists worked with stained glass, like Piet Mondrian and Marc Chagall (I know who those people are because I studied art history). Today, stained glass still occupies a central place in churches and temples, but it’s as varied in style and subject matter as any other art form.

Not pictured: Jesus.

Monday, June 10, 2013

I’m Afraid of Mirrors

They really creep me out. I’m so afraid of mirrors that I brush my teeth in the kitchen, so I don’t have to stand there looking into the mirror for two minutes. It’s not as if I need the mirror anyway – I know where my teeth are.

I’ve been afraid of mirrors ever since I was a little girl, when I first realized that nine out of ten murder-ghosts pop out of mirrors (the tenth one is posing as a hitchhiker). I know most of these killings are associated with summoning a murder-ghost on purpose like an idiot, but I’m not taking any chances. Even though I’m a grown woman in the 21st century and I should “know better,” I’m convinced that someday something is going to leap out of a mirror and eat my head.

According to an informal survey of my Facebook friends, I’m not the only one who’s afraid of mirrors. Dozens of superstitions and legends about mirrors have sprung up over the centuries, in cultures across the world, so I guess it’s part of the human condition to hate mirrors even as we feel compelled to peer into them several times a day.

Mirrors are supposedly capable of showing a person’s soul, which is why vampires don’t have reflections. Some cultures have believed that mirrors are capable of trapping a soul, either after death, during sleep, or even in the course of normal mirror use, which is why the ancient Romans believed (and we still believe today) that breaking a mirror will bring seven years of bad luck – because breaking the mirror damages your very soul, WHICH IS NOW INSIDE THE MIRROR AND NO LONGER IN YOUR BODY, EEP. That’s why people in some cultures cover their mirrors when someone in the home is sick, or has recently died – because they don’t want the person’s soul to be trapped in Mirror Land, which is probably not the happenin’ place that Through the Looking Glass made it out to be. I guess the need to comb, fold, fasten, plait and glue your hair into unnatural positions every morning trumps the need to protect your very essence. On the plus side, if your house is haunted, you can just hang up some mirrors, and they’ll suck the ghosts right up.

This mirror is stealing the soul of a dog.

Creepily enough, as I was writing this, the wall mirror in my bedroom fell off the wall ALL BY ITSELF and scared the crap out of Shoe aka Fatty. I leapt to conclusions and yelled at him, which didn’t help matters.

He says it fell because I fastened it to the wall with "mirror-hanging tape." He may be right.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Fun Friday Facts #76: Why Do We Cry?

A Mother Life

In the very last post I complained about people shoving their writing ideas at me, so this makes me a hypocrite, but I chose this topic because one of my Facebook friends suggested it. Now, normally I don’t take Fun Friday Facts suggestions from people because they come up with topics that aren’t broad enough, but I guess this just goes to show that sometimes I do get good suggestions.

So, for the one person who asked, here is your information about crying.

You're welcome.

While most animals produce lacrimal fluid that keeps the eye moist, humans are the only animals that shed tears out of emotion or pain. No one is sure why humans cry in response to strong emotions, although science has discovered that emotional tears have a different chemical makeup from other types of lacrimal fluid. Emotional tears contain higher levels of hormones like Leu-enkephalin (everybody knows what that is), prolactin (that old thing), and adrenocorticotropic hormone (pfft, that again), as well as manganese and potassium.

We've been crying bananas all along.
Image credit: Steve Hopson

The hormonal makeup of emotional tears has led some scientists, like William H. Frey II, to believe that we cry in order to release excess stress hormones during times of high emotion, whether joyful or sad. Some feel that the release of stress hormones could be why people always seem to feel better after a good cry. Others, however, believe that the feelings of relief we have after crying occur due to social conditioning – we expect to feel better after crying, so we do. It would also appear that not everyone feels better after crying – in one Dutch study, people who suffered from depression or anxiety reported feeling worse after a cry.

Crying might also have served an evolutionary purpose in early humans. Sobbing may have evolved as a cry for help or a means to help parents find their children if they were separated. Evolutionary biologist Oren Hasson believes that tears evolved as a way to show weakness and vulnerability, which could have served many of the same purposes for early humans as they do for humans today. Early humans could have used tears to signal submission or ask for mercy when attacked, display a need for help, appeal to others’ sympathy, or even display affection. In all of these scenarios, tears could potentially strengthen social bonds. Further research shows that, in cultures across the world, crying serves to strengthen emotional relationships.

Few people will be surprised to find that, according to research, women cry far more often and for longer periods of time than men. The average woman cries between 30 and 64 times a year, for an average of six minutes per cry. Men cry just six to 17 times a year, for an average of two to four minutes per cry.

Women’s weeping progresses into full-on sobbing in 65 percent of cases, but just six percent of men’s weeping episodes progress that far. Women and men also cry for different reasons. Women report crying when they have problems they can’t solve, when they think about upsetting events from the past, or when they feel inadequate, which is pretty much constantly for some of us. Men, on the other hand, report crying in sympathy with others or when they’re mourning the loss of a relationship.

Under all that chest hair and bravado lies a sensitive, tender heart.
Image credit: Philip Kromer

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Things People Say When They Find Out I’m a Writer

Writers are some of the most misunderstood peeps of all time. Maybe it’s because everyone thinks they can write, and almost everyone thinks they’re a writer. Everyone has a certain set of assumptions about what a writer does, how they function and what their lives are like, and these assumptions lead them to say some asinine things that I should probably not be such a bitch about. For example:

“This must be a great place to write!”

People say this if the location we’re in happens to be particularly stunning in a cultural or natural-wonder sense. People said this to me when I lived in Paris, because shit, that’s just so interesting, and they said it to me a lot when I lived in Chamonix, because of this:

In the presence of such natural splendor, I couldn’t help but be inspired, right? Wrong. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my many travels, it’s that you can be uninspired anywhere.

People who don’t write act like literary inspiration is geological in origin. It’s another natural resource to be dug up and exploited, like petroleum or gold – find a big enough deposit, and you’re Shakespeare.


I’m not saying there’s no such thing as “good place to write,” because there is. It’s a place where the rent is cheap and there's no cable.

“Sooo…do you, uh, ever publish any of your articles?”

No, I print them off and wipe my ass with them, champ.

“Wow, you’re just all over the place, aren’t you?”

Said to me with a mix of wonder, condescension and condescending wonder whenever I mention my Twitter following in an offline conversation, or whenever I just mention that I’m on Twitter. I don’t have much of a Twitter following. I have about 1,000 Twitter followers, on a good, zombie-attack-free day, but I guess that’s a lot for someone no one’s ever heard of and who also doesn’t follow anyone back.

Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that the person saying this is always someone who doesn’t use social media at all or they use it sparingly and they look at those of us who are “always on Facebook” with a mixture of pity and contempt, because we “can’t hack it in the real world.” Right, because I write something, throw it up on some backwater blog, and then wander off to stick my thumb up my ass and twirl while thousands of people magically find what I wrote all by themselves. That’s how this works.

“Oh, you mean you have paying work?”

Said in a tone of astonishment when the person I’m talking to realizes that the “work” I’m always on about is typically done in exchange for American currency. I don’t know what’s so hard to grasp about the work-money exchange when the work in question is writing. Restaurant menus; magazine articles; newspapers; product descriptions; advertisements; corporate newsletters, websites and blogs; spam emails; user manuals and the instructions on the back of your gas bill – nobody got paid to write any of those things. All of those things wrote themselves.

Actually, the spam emails probably did write themselves.

"I have this great idea! You should totally write this!"

Okay, so other people's great ideas are kind of a pet peeve of mine. I have enough great ideas of my own, thanks. It's hard to get with someone else's idea, because it doesn't speak to me and I don't give a fuck. Ideas are like children -- the people who have them always think they're great, because they're theirs. Where you see a special little snowflake, we see a shrieking brat swinging from the ceiling fan, harassing the cat and leaving sticky fingerprints all over our vintage upholstery. Even if your idea really is as great as you think it is, it's yours. You understand it. You see where it's coming from and where it's going and what it needs to do to get there. I don't. Write it yourself.

“Oh, you’re an author?”

No, unfortunately, I am not an author. I say “unfortunately” because, not only would I totally love to be an author, but also because you know what an author is. If I were an author, I could say “Yep, I am, I wrote Blah Blah Blah and Yada Yada and This Thing,” and it would save precious minutes of both of our lives that I must instead spend explaining what I actually write while you stand there with that “but I thought all those things wrote themselves” look on your face.

Probably still easier than explaining the plot of a story I haven't written, however.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

What Can You Do When a Freelance Writing Client Doesn’t Pay?

UPDATE: A few hours after I published this post, I was contacted by the VP of Workforce for, Jayme O'Renic. She volunteered to call me and discuss my non-payment complaint, so I made an appointment for her to call me today, 5 June 2013. Ms. O'Renic apologized profusely and assured me that she had spoken with Amazon on my behalf to resolve my payment issue. At the time of this writing, almost half of the money ($476) has been deposited into my Amazon Payments account. I am scheduled to speak with Ms. O'Renic again tomorrow to make sure that the rest of the money comes through.

UPDATE: The rest of the money was deposited in my Amazon Payments account as promised in the days following my initial phone call with Ms. O'Renic. It has now been transferred safely into my bank account. Ms. O'Renic was very apologetic and polite and I feel she worked very hard to resolve my issue.

I don’t talk much about my freelance writing work over here, but today I’m going to take the time to share an experience I’ve had recently. Some of you will probably be aware that, over the past six months, I’ve been having some payment issues with a corporate client,, which is a subsidiary of Crowdsource. I’ve made the decision to go public with this story, for the sake of others who also depend on writing work for some or all of their incomes. While it doesn’t look like Crowdsource is going to pay what they owe at this point, I hope that I can at least protect others.

I started working for Crowdsource/ on 26 January 2013. They use the Amazon Mechanical Turk system to handle content creation and management, and they pay via Amazon Payments. On 24 February, Amazon closed my MTurk and Amazon Payments accounts, for reasons of which I remain ignorant. I have been in touch with Amazon about it (more on that later), but they didn’t give me their reasons. I think it hardly matters at this point.

After realizing that my accounts had been closed, I contacted Crowdsource/ to ask about alternative payment methods. I was pretty concerned about it because I was (and still am) owed $973.00 for more than 90 articles I wrote or edited between 31 January and 21 February, 2013. Someone named Kristin responded to tell me that, “Unfortunately, this is a decision that we cannot bypass. This is an issue with Amazon. Thank you.”

I let Kristin know that I still expected payment for the work I did. She did not respond.
So, I posted some angry messages on their Facebook page about it. Not much later I received a message to my Gmail account from a Sammie Schweissguth, Director of Client Services. She said, among other things, “CrowdSource is in absolutely no way withholding your funds. We have done our duty to make payment on behalf of your work.”

Some back-and-forth ensued, in which I endeavored to make Ms. Schweissguth understand the following points:

  1. You will have done your duty to make payment when, you know, the payment is actually made;
  2. I did the work, you accepted the work, and now you owe me the agreed-upon payment;
  3. You owe me the payment whether or not I have an Amazon Payments account;
  4. You cannot convince me that Crowdsource/ isn’t capable of writing a check.

Ms. Schweissguth continually insisted that it was Amazon, not Crowdsource, withholding my payments, which strikes me as funny since I’ve never received any of these alleged payments to my Amazon Payments account in the first place. After a few days of arguing about it, she asked me to contact Amazon and see if they wouldn’t reopen my Amazon Payments account. I called them on 11 March; they apologized and re-opened my account the next day, 12 March 2013.

I contacted Ms. Schweissguth right away to let her know that my Amazon Payments account had been re-opened. She made noises about paying me and asked me to forward my worker ID number, assignment ID numbers, and screenshots of failed payments (there were two, totaling $503, which, you’ll notice, is a number considerably smaller than $973). I did so. Three weeks passed and I received no payments, no re-issued payments, and no further word from Ms. Schweissguth or anyone else at Crowdsource. I contacted Ms. Schweissguth again, and she responded that I had been paid in full. I have not, obviously.

At this point, I contacted Angela Hoy at, because I was aware that, in the past, she has investigated nonpayment complaints lodged by freelance writers. She doesn’t do that anymore, but she did answer my complaint with a lovely email detailing some further steps to take. In a nutshell, Ms. Hoy advised me to write a final letter to Crowdsource/, in which I’d lay forth my complaint one last time, with the caveat that if I didn’t receive payment within five business days, I’d send my complaints to the authorities and go public with them. I wrote and sent such a letter, but I decided to give them ten business days, just so no one could say I didn’t give them enough time. I sent this letter on 26 April 2013, a couple of weeks after I’d heard from Ms. Hoy, because I needed some time to cool down.

Ms. Schweissguth did not deign to respond to this final letter, but I did receive a response from someone named Sam. He or she assured me that he or she had checked into the matter and that all but three of the assignments in question had been paid for. You will notice a slight variation in Crowdsource/’s story here.

Since I still hadn’t been paid, I was left with no choice but to carry out the threats I made in my final nonpayment complaint to Crowdsource/, namely, to begin contacting the authorities and go public with my story. At this point, I have reported the incident to the Illinois State Attorney General, since Crowdsource/ has its offices in Swansea, Illinois, as well as the FBI Internet Crime Division. I’ve also filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau, Writer Beware (haven’t heard back from them yet), Preditors & Editors (don’t know if they’re going to post about it or not), RipOff Report, and Freelancers Union. I’m also, of course, posting about it here.

So, that’s my story. Please keep it in mind if you or someone you know is working for Crowdsource/, or considering working for them. I’m sorry this post wasn’t funny, but I promise to return to your regularly scheduled content shortly.