Friday, April 13, 2018

Fun Friday Facts #138: Did Cats Domesticate Themselves?

You may not have realized this, but I like cats.

And they like me.

But how did we get so lucky as to be blessed with a world in which cats exist? Out of all the animals that we could have domesticated, how did we end up with God’s perfect killing machines shedding all over our sofas?

For some time, it was believed that cats were first domesticated in Egypt about 4,000 years ago – something about all those cat mummies. But in 2004, that theory was put to sleep when archeologists discovered the remains of a 9,500-year-old domesticated cat in a grave in Cyprus. While these cat remains weren’t exactly wearing a collar at the time of discovery, scientists deduced that the cat was domesticated because it was found alongside human remains. I like to think that they both died at the same time, of natural and painless causes.

In 2007, a study published in the journal Science found that domestic cats originated, not from North Africa, as previously thought, but from the Near East in a little region called the Fertile Crescent, aka, the cradle of human civilization. Early domestic cats may also have appeared in Central Asia. DNA from the European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris), traditionally believed to be the ancestor of the domestic cat due to their similar appearance, was compared to DNA from several subspecies of F. s. silvestris, including the central Asian wildcat, F. s. ornata; the Near Eastern wildcat, F. s. lybica; the Chinese desert cat, F. s. bieti; and the Southern African wildcat, F. s. cafra.. The researchers found that the Near Eastern wildcat specimens, which came from the deserts of the UAE, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, shared mitochondrial DNA with the domestic cat specimens, as well as other genetic similarities that point to the Near Eastern wildcat being the most likely ancestor of the domestic cat. The researchers think it’s likely that cat domestication is as old as human civilization itself – or at least 10,000 to 12,000 years.

F. s. gordoni, a subspecies of the Near Eastern wildcat.

So, how did we domesticate cats? Early farmers’ food stores attracted rodents, and scholars believe that those rodents attracted cats. Presumably, as time passed, those cats realized that humans could offer warmth, affection, and a greater variety of easier-to-obtain vittles -- thus, a beautiful friendship between two species of bloodthirsty killers was born.

Some argue, however, that we didn’t domesticate cats, so much as they domesticated themselves – we were just kind of doing our thing, and cats just kind of showed up and started benefiting from that. Some even argue that cats are not yet fully domesticated. They point to the fact that domestic cats often survive just fine in feral colonies, without human intervention, and that feral domestic cats continue to interbreed with European, Near Eastern, and other closely-related wildcats, to such an extent that this interbreeding is threatening some species. Even a domestic cat that has lived all of its life with humans could, at least in theory, strike out on its own and make a life for itself just by killing and eating things, although I think it totally depends on the cat, and also why would it do that when it can just get some other schmuck to feed it, I mean, come on, that’s what they do.

You may have noticed that, unlike some domesticated species, like dogs, cats all kind of look the same. Sure, some have long fur and some have short legs, and some are completely bald, and some have pushed-in faces. And, of course, domestic cats have all different kinds of markings – they come in tabby, marmalade, calico, tuxedo, black, white, gray, tortoiseshell, and any combination of rosettes, stripes, spots, and points. But, when compared to different breeds of dogs, different breeds of cats are all pretty similar – they’re all roughly the same size, they mostly have the same kind of tail (except when they don’t), the same kind of ears (except when they don’t), the same face (except when they don’t), the same air of casual disdain, and the same obsession with pointless murder.

When early humans domesticated most other animals, they, the humans, needed them, the animals, to do specific things that the animals weren’t otherwise inclined to do, like herd sheep, or kill rats, or bring back dead waterfowl from the middle of the lake, or look stupid. No one really needed cats to do anything, except kill mice and rats, and they were already doing that. Domestic cats probably became a lot more social through domestication; they’re not only much friendlier to people than they might otherwise be, but they also bond more readily with other domestic cats and even other domestic species, like dogs and goats. But they may very well have self-selected for that trait, so for many millennia, there was really no need for humans to selectively breed cats the way that we have other domestic animals. They've remained pretty much the same, while we’ve become more and more interested in opening their cat food cans and stealing their poop. If anything, they’ve domesticated us – with a little help from their old friend, Toxoplasmosis gondi.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Fun Friday Facts #137: Is White Chocolate Even Chocolate?

A couple of weeks ago, I bought a bag of what I thought was my favorite Easter treat, Cadbury Mini Eggs. When I got home, I was dismayed to discover that I had bought, not delicious milk chocolate Cadbury eggs, but disgusting white chocolate Cadbury eggs. How could Cadbury do this to me?

In the interest of 100% pure journalism, I ate a few of them anyway. So when I say they were disgusting, you know I’m telling you the truth. White chocolate is not chocolate.

Or is it?

There is apparently some debate about whether or not white chocolate is chocolate. While Wikipedia remains appropriately neutral on the matter, publications as august as Mental Floss and Huffington Post assert that white chocolate is not chocolate. It doesn’t contain any of the delicious cocoa solids derived from the cocoa bean and used to make milk and dark chocolates. It is made with cocoa butter, the vegetable fat extracted from cocoa during the (real) chocolate-making process. As the beans are processed, cocoa nibs are removed from the bean, roasted, and then crushed into a paste known as chocolate liquor. This paste is further processed in a cocoa press, which separates the cocoa butter from the cocoa solids. The cocoa solids can then be reincorporated with cocoa butter to create milk or dark chocolate; or the cocoa butter can be mixed with milk fat, milk solids, sugar, emulsifiers, and other flavorings to make white chocolate. Cocoa butter is also valuable in the cosmetic and pharmaceuticals industry; I’ve got a jar of cocoa butter Vaseline upstairs, but I’m not going to eat it, because cocoa butter isn’t food.

A block of not-food. ~Image by David Monniaux from Wikimedia Commons

I mean, okay, it’s food. But only technically.

Of course, the people who make and sell white chocolate would have you believe that’s it’s chocolate. Cookbook author, pastry chef, and presumed member of the White Chocolate Illuminati, David Lebovitz, told the Chicago Tribune that saying white chocolate isn’t real chocolate  is“bickering over nomenclature” because, after all, it’s made from cocoa beans. I’m squinting real hard at this assertion, by the way.

But, apparently cocoa butter doesn’t even have a flavor of its own; the flavor of white chocolate comes from added milk and sugar, because who doesn’t love sweetened milk. As a matter of fact, I’mma go pour myself a nice refreshing glass of sugared milk right now. Yum.

Nestlé, purveyor of sh*tty chocolate and pure evil, invented white chocolate in the 1930s, marketing the world’s first white chocolate bar, the Milkybar, to European customers. It’s believed, or at least widely repeated, that Nestlé needed to use up a surplus of powdered milk left over from World War I, which…ewwwww. World War I ended in 1918; if Nestlé started selling white chocolate in 1930, that means they were using 12-year-old powdered milk. I know powdered milk lasts a long time, but it does go bad eventually -- after about five years, according to members of this survivalist forum -- and this website claims the Milkybar (marketed in some countries as the Galak bar, after the sound you make when eating it) was introduced in 1936. That means they were using 18-year-old powdered milk. If they’d just been patient for another couple of years, they could have used that powdered milk for World War II and saved the rest of us the trouble of existing in a world in which white chocolate is a thing.

A Milkybar.

If you like white chocolate, though, you’ll be happy to know it’s improved in quality somewhat. Prior to 2004, the sale of white chocolate wasn’t regulated in the U.S., so some manufacturers were just using vegetable oil or some other, cheaper, even grosser vegetable fat instead of real, genuine, tasteless and yellow cocoa butter. Thanks to Standard of Identity regulations passed by the FDA in 2004, products labeled white chocolate in the U.S. are required to be at least 20 percent cocoa butter, 14 percent milk solids, and 3.5 percent milk fat – and no more than 55 percent sugar and sweeteners. Milk chocolate may have added flavors, such as vanilla, the most interesting flavor of them all, after milk sugar itself, that is.

It is alleged that there is such a thing as good white chocolate. Artisanal white chocolate appears to be taking off, and high-quality white chocolate is yellowish, just like pure cocoa butter and my Vaseline.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Fun Friday Facts #136: The History of Bras, Part 3

Last week, we left off in the 1960s, which I thought was a good place to disembark the bra train, because the history of the bra takes a new turn at this point.

For the first half of the decade, bullet bras remained very much in vogue; according to some, their shape made them comfortable for all-day wear, although others argue that the bullet bra’s popularity stemmed from its ability to increase the size of a woman’s bust by a full cup size. If you have worn a bullet bra, let us know in the comments how comfortable it is.

Changing social mores in the 1960s saw mastectomy and maternity bras get more popular, as society began to consider that having a baby or a disfiguring, potentially fatal disease (one and the same, if you ask me) was not a cause for deep and abiding shame, but rather perhaps a more superficial and transient shame. Girdles went out of fashion, much to the apparent chagrin of my aunt, the nun, who would, when I grew breasts of my very own, go off on a tirade about how, if you didn’t wear a girdle to middle school in the 1950s, you were a hussy. I tried to explain that it wasn't the 50s anymore and that I couldn't wear a girdle under my flannel shirt and baggy jeans any more than Kurt Cobain could, but there's no getting through to Auntie Nun when she's got her mind made up. In any case, Kurt Cobain probably would have worn a girdle under his jeans if he'd thought of it, and I just googled "did Kurt Cobain wear a girdle" so now I'm probably on some kind of list. I hope you guys appreciate the things I do for you.

But I digress. Multiple phenomena in politics and fashion coincided to change the bra. First, the birth of the first-wave feminist movement, if you can call it that, called the bra into question as an object of patriarchal oppression. On September 7, 1968, outside the Atlantic City Convention Hall, 400 women protesting that year’s Miss America pageant staged a symbolic act that would forever after be known as the impetus for the bra-burning movement, although the women also burned girdles (fair), corsets (also fair), high-heeled shoes (still pretty fair), false eyelashes, curlers, makeup, hairspray, and other symbols of appearance policing, including Playboy and Vanity Fair magazines (definitely fair). At least one other public bra-burning event took place, on June 2, 1970, in Berkeley, California, where a single bra, a copy of Redbook, a package of birth control pills, and a pair of nylon stockings, among other items, were symbolically burned. If you’re inclined to question why feminists chose to burn a package of birth control pills, it’s because those early pills weren’t as safe as the pills we have today (which still occasionally kill people).

Turns out 10 mg of hormones is kind of a lot. ~ Image by user Tirante on Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t just the feminist movement that changed the way women support their breasts – fittingly, haute couture had a say as well. Fashion designer Rudy Gernreich, of topless swimsuit fame, followed up on this questionable success with the No Bra, a wire-free, seamless, and sheer bra for A and B cups, because who was he kidding? No one, that’s who. This design, perhaps more so than the topless swimsuit, is credited with introducing the era of natural shapes and comfortable fabrics, a development that came not a moment too late. Further designs from Gernreich included the backless bra, because we weren’t quite at the point where you would just wantonly go around braless in a backless dress, and the All-in-None, a bafflingly-named bra that allowed the wearer to don a (probably scandalously) low-cut top. That same year, 1964, saw the invention of the Wonderbra, which traded in lift-and-separate for lift-and-push together.

Through the next several decades, bra manufacturers would increasingly focus less on function, and more on form, as bras became less a foundational or protective garment and more a fashion statement. This development would lead at least one op-ed writer to blame the prevalence of unsupportive, itchy, and uncomfortable bras for the increasing popularity of breast implants, which, she claimed, women were getting because their bras weren’t offering them enough support anymore. If you have breast implants, let us know in the comments whether you do or do not need a more supportive bra as a result.

The next great innovation in over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders (ha ha, I can’t believe I haven’t been calling them that this whole time) came with the invention of the sports bra. The first sports bra was invented by costume designers at the University of Vermont’s Royall Tyler Theater, but the item was not widely marketed until the 1990s, with the introduction of the JogBra. Sports bras were bra of choice as an adolescent, because my mother insisted on sizing my bras by stretching the cups over my breasts right out on the middle of the sales floor. It was over my shirt, but still. This kind of thing is why I needed so much therapy.

Today, I wear real bras, because my breasts are so big that I can’t find sports bras to fit them – I just have to buy XXL and hope for the best. Oh, sure, I could probably find a sports bra that fit if I was willing to spend more than I spent on my entire professional wardrobe at Goodwill, but no one will give me a job because I bought my professional wardrobe at Goodwill, but also most likely because I blog about my boobs. Bras have grown from two handkerchiefs sewn together in a teenager’s bedroom to a $15 billion industry in the U.S., and as the average woman (and her breasts) gets larger, so too are the bras. The average American cup size has ballooned (teehee) from a 34B to a 34DD in the past 20 years, a phenomena that writers blame on the obesity epidemic, despite the fact that 34 is still not a very big band size.  

Probably all those breast implants.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Fun Friday Facts #135: The History of Bras, Part 2

So, here we are with Part 2 of the history of bras. I have to apologize because, yet again, it’s been a couple of weeks since I blogged. I have a good reason for not having blogged the Friday before last. I was traveling all day, as I had been in Seattle visiting a sick friend, and when I finally got back to the Pittsburgh International Airport, it was to discover that I’d left a light on in my car and drained the battery. It was completely dead. I couldn’t even use the fob to unlock the door. When I got off the shuttle, I did what I always do when I’ve lost my car in a large parking lot – I pressed the panic button, because everything knows the word PANIC in this context means, “Help, I’ve lost my car!” But the panic alarm didn’t go off, and that’s when I panicked. It was colder than a cast-iron commode on the far side of an iceberg, and I had lost one of my gloves in Seattle (I would later find it in the bottom of my bag, only to discover that I had lost the other, previously-unlost glove, somewhere in transit), and I was alone at night in a massive parking lot, walking back and forth with my big wheely duffel bag, and muttering, “I know I left it here somewhere, I clearly remember parking it in this section,” but for once in my life I hadn’t taken a picture of the sign, so I couldn’t be certain. I did eventually find my cold, dark, lifeless car, which I recognized by the alligator foot I have hanging from my rearview mirror, to protect me from voodoo curses. Thankfully I was able to huddle in it for the two hours it took for AAA to arrive, at which point the tow driver informed me that I could have called airport customer service and gotten a jump right away. I guess I’ll know that for the next time I leave a dome light on in my car while it’s parked at the airport for two weeks.

As for last Friday, I don’t have an excuse. I just forgot. Sorry.

But, I digress. After centuries of corsets, halter tops, cloth bands, and, um, nothing, women finally started getting modern bras in the 20th century. While Mary Phelps Jacob is credited with inventing the first bra by sewing two handkerchiefs together with some ribbon and string in 1910, the first mass-produced bra was developed in Germany in 1912. Many things perished in the Great War, and the corset was one of them. By the end of the war, women throughout Europe were wearing bras, and I recall reading somewhere that the food shortages caused by the war contributed to the flapper fashions of the Roaring Twenties by starving most women half to death. But that’s neither here nor there. When the U.S. got involved in the war in 1917, the U.S. War Industries Board asked American women, too, to stop buying corsets, which is said to have freed up enough metal to build two battleships.
While some credit the war with the bra’s boom in popularity, others point out that corsets were already getting shorter by the time the war started, and shorter corsets provided less support to the bust. Early bras were of the bandeau style, which flattens the breasts and pushes them down, leading to the flapper styles of 1920s. If you were a small-chested woman in the Flapper era, you might wear a bandeau bra, a camisole, or no bra at all under your step-in, a short, slip-like undergarment that buttoned between the legs. But, if you were a curvy girl, you’d strap those puppies down with a Symington side lacer, a minimizer bra with laces down the sides that allowed busty women to literally calm their tits.

This early minimizer bra had laces in the front, back, and sides. I think. I'm not so great at interpreting patent diagrams.

But it didn’t take long for innovators to lift and separate the competition. In 1922, Russian immigrants Ida and William Rosenthal founded Maiden Form, a company built on the radical idea that women should appear to have breasts. Women liked the idea, and throughout the 1930s, multiple companies started producing bras, including nursing bras, full-figured bras, and “uplift” bras. Innovations of this decade included adjustable bands with multiple sets of hooks and eyes, and the introduction of cup sizes, adjustable shoulder sizes, padded bras for smaller-chested women, and the use of elastic.

Porn was really boring back then.

The 1940s saw women enlisting in the military for the first time, and donning uniform bras. Female factory workers had the indubitable privilege of wearing the SAF-T-BRA, which is a hard hat for your tits. I’m serious, it was a plastic bra, because back then, people thought of bras and girdles as protective gear, and factory dress codes required women to wear bras for the sake of “good taste, anatomical support, and morale,” because nothing discourages a production line like nip slip.

A female factory worker displays her SAF-T-BRA for posterity.

It was at this time that bras because weaponized, or at least their names did – the torpedo bra and bullet bra offered the eras Sweater Girls “maximum projection” and pointyness. 
The cantilever bra, as worn by Jane Russell in The Outlaw, employed underwire technology for the first time. By the 1950s, women were routinely wearing cone-shaped bullet bras, and by the 1960s, marketing campaigns tried to convince women to wear their bras 24 hours a day. Try wearing a bullet bra to bed tonight, and let us know if you stab your bed partner to death in your sleep.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Fun Friday Facts #134: The History of Bras, Part 1

A few days ago I was watching something set in the Roaring Twenties and, of course, there were all these women walking around in flapper dresses. Naturally, my first thought was, I am way too busty for a flapper dress, but my second thought was, None of these women seem to be wearing bras. I wonder if they had bras back then.

My great-grandmother is long dead, which is a shame, because she wouldn’t have hesitated to regale me with stories of her old-fashioned undergarments and all the most exciting times she got to take them off, which is exactly why I wasn't allowed to sit in Grandma's room unsupervised when I was a kid. So, I had to turn to the Internet instead.

I’d remembered hearing or reading somewhere that, back in the day, women relied on their corsets to both squeeze the life out of them and support their breasts. The earliest bras date back to the Minoan civilization of ancient Greece, where, about 3,000 years ago, female athletes were said to compete whilst wearing garments similar to the modern bikini. Later, Greek women wore breast bands called apodesmos, which consisted of a strap of wool or linen that was wrapped around the breasts and tied at the back. Roman women adopted a similar garment, seen here depicted on a fresco at Pompeii:

However, these garments didn't always cover or hide the breasts; sometimes the breasts were left exposed, with the breast-band supporting and accentuating them from underneath, as seen in this statue of the Snake Goddess:

In the Middle Ages in Europe, women did wear garments to support the breasts. These linens, like the 600-year-old underclothes discovered during renovations of an Austrian castle in 2012, looked exactly like the wire-free bras women wear today, right down to the decorative lace. Prior to the discovery of these bras, it was thought that women did not wear bras in Europe during the Middle Ages, but instead relied on the structure of their gowns to provide support. By the Renaissance, corsets had become popular among upper class European women, and around the same time in East Asia, Chinese and Vietnamese women began wearing a dudou (Chinese) or yếm (Vietnamese), a square or diamond-shaped silk bodice worn in the manner of a halter-top.

A child-sized dudou on display at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.
Image by Michelle Pemberton from Wikimedia Commons
The corset saw a temporary decline in popularity during the years of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, due to its association with the aristocracy, but enjoyed resurgence during the Victorian Era, when tightlacing became a popular way to emphasize the female form. By the 20th century, however, women’s increased interest in physical activity led to the development of more modern, supportive bra-like undergarments, and the production of shorter, more girdle-like corsets that served to control that age-old nemesis, tummy fat. The late Victorian period saw the emergency of the Clothing Reform Movement, driven by concerned health professionals and early feminists. Organizations such as the Reform Dress Association, the Rational Dress Society, and the National Dress Reform Association fought for women’s rights to breathe and move normally. As more women became interested in sports, especially bicycling, feminists like Elizabeth Stuart Phelps encouraged women to “Burn up the corsets!...Make a bonfire of the cruel steels that have lorded it over your thorax and abdomens for so many years and heave a sigh of relief, for your emancipation I assure you, from this moment has begun.”

Who invented the modern bra? That’s up for debate. Multiple bras were patented throughout the 19th century, although the credit for the first modern bra patent often goes to Mary Phelps Jacob, who dissatisfied with the interaction of her whalebone corset and her large breasts, fashioned a bra from two silk handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon. 

 Jacob's bra, as pictured in her patent application.

When other women expressed interest in the bra and one offered Jacobs a dollar for the garment, she decided to try selling them, but had little success. Eventually, Jacob would sell her patent for the design to Warners Brothers Corset Company for the equivalent of $21,000. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

Fun Friday Facts #133: Can Knitting Treat PTSD?

Image by user Johntex from Wikimedia Commons
I’ve really been getting into crochet lately, which is an ideal hobby to indulge in when one has cats. My mother taught me how to crochet years ago, but I hadn’t done it in quite some time before I decided to make Jim a tentacle scarf for Christmas. Making the scarf rekindled my interest in the hobby, which gives me something productive to do with my hands while Jim and I are watching TV, and is a lot less frustrating than coloring extremely intricate pictures in adult coloring books.

What am I supposed to do with this, Dr. Coloring Book???
Indeed, journalist Temma Ehrenfeld, writing in Psychology Today, speculates that the post-modern urge to constantly play with our phones stems, not from a deep moral failure as my last boyfriend would have you believe, but from a desire to make or do something with our hands. Researchers have found that knitting (and I’m going to lump in crochet with that, which is not the same as knitting, BECAUSE IT’S BETTER), like yoga and tai chi, can elicit a meditative state of mindfulness. The repetitive motions involved in knitting and crocheting are physiologically soothing, slowing the heart rate and breathing, but the activity itself is complicated enough to distract the brain from the intrusive thoughts that often come with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder; knitting and crocheting can even relieve chronic pain, because it distracts the brain from processing pain signals.

Image by user flora from Wikimedia Commons
That’s according to Betsan Corkhill, whose research with Cardiff University in the UK found that, the more time people spend knitting, the happier they are. Corkhill surveyed 3,500 knitters for a paper published in the British Journal of Occupational Therapy; 81 percent of those surveyed reported feeling happier during or after a knitting session, while 54 percent of respondents suffering clinical depression said that knitting made them feel “happy or very happy.”

Occupational therapist Victoria Schindler tells CNN that knitting’s repetitive motions quiet the parasympathetic nervous system, to quell the fight-or-flight response that’s out-of-control in so many patients suffering from anxiety and PTSD. Knitting may further stimulate the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, accounting for the feelings of happiness knitters reported to Corkhill.

Of course, it’s not just the knitting or crocheting itself that makes us happy. The hobby brings with it a host of other mood-boosting activities, such as choosing pretty yarns, attending knitting circles (or, as I like to call them, stitch-and-bitches), producing finished products, gifting or donating knitted items, and receiving praise for one’s skill. In addition, knitting, crocheting, and other crafty hobbies boosts your feelings of self-efficacy, or your perception of how capable you are in the face of challenges and disappointments. Knowing that you can crochet your boyfriend an awesome tentacle scarf will leave you feeling more confident in your ability to nail that big job interview, or at least that’s the idea, but I’m still awful at job interviews so check and mate, science!

Perhaps the most interesting part of all this is that it’s not a new idea. In the aftermath of World War I, shell-shocked soldiers lay in hospital wards, knitting their cares away as they contributed to the war effort. Of course, that may have had more to do with the fact literally everyone was knitting stuff for the soldiers in the trenches than with any attempt to treat combat-related neurosis, but whatevs, I'm taking it.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

I Want to Have a Bear Complaint

Image by Malene Thyssen from Wikimedia Commons
A friend of mine recently moved to Alaska, and I am jealous. I would love to move to Alaska. It would be cold, dark, miserable, snowy, and full of embittered, unmarriageable alcoholics – just the way I like it.

My friend, Beth, recently posted on Facebook a picture of her local Alaskan newspaper’s crime report. Apparently, during the third week in January, her local police department investigated zero bear complaints. She was delighted that “bear complaints” are a standing category in this report. Further conversation revealed that she is looking forward to someday lodging a bear complaint of her very own.

Now, let me tell you that all my life, I’ve wanted to see a bear. Growing up in West Virginia, it seemed like everyone I knew had a bear story. Chuck, my mother’s boyfriend when I was a teenager, told a story about getting between a mother and her cubs which, surprisingly, didn’t end with him getting eaten, which was unfortunate because him getting eaten would have made the world a better place. Herb, the boyfriend before Chuck, told a story about sleeping on the front porch on a hot summer night and waking up to one of his hunting dogs licking his face. But when he went to shove the dog away, he was surprised to discover that it was not a dog, but a black bear.

Image by Diginatur from Wikimedia Commons

“That’s why you should always wash your face before you go to bed,” said my mother, who liked to tell me that ferrets would eat my lips in the night if I didn’t wash my face before bed. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I’ve been not washing my face before bed for at least fifteen years, and nothing has eaten my face or lips yet. Technically, that bear didn’t even eat Herb’s face, it just licked it a little bit. Also, I feel like if there’s a lesson to be taken from Herb’s story, it’s “don’t sleep on the front porch,” not “wash your face to keep bears from eating it in your sleep.”

But I digress. In spite of the fact that everyone around me seems to have seen, shot at, run from, been licked by, eaten, or married a bear, I have never seen a bear. I mean, I’ve seen bears in the zoo, but that doesn’t count. For all I know, those aren’t even real bears. They’re doing all kinds of things with technology these days.

I want to see a bear, but I guess they’re more elusive than I’d been led to believe. Another friend of mine hiked the whole Appalachian Trail and only saw one bear, and that one was in Maine. Imagine walking in the woods for six months  straight and only seeing one bear.

My mother often took me camping on my grandparents' land when I was a girl, and on these trips, I kept my eyes peeled for bear. My mother encouraged this by saying things like, "Guy Phillips saw a bear down here yesterday," or, "See that path? That was definitely made by a bear." Eventually I realized that bear didn't live on my grandparents' land, the outskirts of which was relatively well-settled.

Jim and I recently visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where I had hoped to finally see a bear. I insisted that we go to Balsam Mountain Campground, because online reviewers had posted photos of bear wondering amongst the campsites. I want to see a bear, but I don't want to work for it.

I made Jim go on a hike with me, ostensibly to enjoy the outdoors, but I wouldn't have minded if we'd seen a bear. I said as much to Jim: "I hope we see a bear."

"I hope we don't see a bear," Jim replied.

Spoiler alert: We didn't see a bear. I was disappointed. Jim was disappointed, too, but for different reasons – he hates camping.

Monday, February 5, 2018

My DIY Treadmill Desk Is Working Out, More-or-Less

Several weeks ago, I put together a DIY treadmill desk. I used two bungee cords and a leftover shelf I had lying around from a wooden shelving unit that I bought at K-Mart, when there was still a K-Mart, and put up in my bedroom and, later, my kitchen.

Yes, I know that there shouldn’t normally be leftover pieces lying around when you finish putting something together, but knowing that doesn’t change the facts of this situation, which is that there’s a leftover shelf. I actually bought two short shelving units and combined them into one tall monster of a shelving unit, so the extra shelf is just the bottom shelf of the top half. I probably should have left it on there so that I could more securely nail the two units together, but whatever, it’s fine. I stuck the extra shelf in the back of my closet because I knew I’d find a use for it someday, and what do you know, I did.

The structure of the shelf is perfect because I didn’t have to screw any giant hooks or eyes into it in order to have somewhere to attach the bungee cords, although I could have because I’m pretty sure I have some of those lying around, too, from when I was going to put a clothesline up in the garage but then I never did. Because the shelf isn’t really high enough to allow me to type or write longhand comfortably, I needed something to prop up my laptop and also to write on. After all these years, I’m proud to say that buying those middle school yearbooks has paid off.

Now I can kill two birds with one stone by walking on the treadmill while I work on stuff. I have to admit that I don’t actually get that much work done at the treadmill desk, but it is useful for petting cats while I work out.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Fun Friday Facts #132: Hobbits Were Real, Sort Of

I got the idea to write this post because I was talking to Jim a couple of weeks ago and he didn’t believe me that hobbits were real. I tried to prove to him that hobbits were real by googling Homo floresiensis, but he didn’t seem that interested.

H. floresiensis was a species of mini-hominids that lived on the Indonesian island of Flores from about 190,000 to 50,000 years ago. The Tolkien Estate would prefer that we not call them hobbits.

Which is fair, since they probably looked like this.
Image from Wikimedia Commons by Cicero Moraes et alii
In 2003, the remains of a female individual, who would have been about 3’7” or 1.1 meters tall, were discovered in a limestone cave known as Liang Bua. The remains were discovered by a group of Australian and Indonesian scientists who were looking for evidence of Homo sapiens’ migration from Asia to Australia. Instead, they discovered what is now widely believed to be a whole new species of human.

The cave in question.
Image from Wikimedia Commons by user Rosino
The discovery of this almost-complete skeleton was shortly followed by the discovery of the remains of seven other individuals, as well as the discovery of a number of small, primitive stone implements. The scientists also uncovered the bones of an extinct elephant, Stegodon florensis insularis, a species descended from the full-sized S. florensis florensis which experienced island dwarfing, a phenomenon in which a large species confined to an island or other isolated area evolves to a smaller size over time.

So, were these tiny humans originally regular-sized humans who shrank over generations of life on Flores? Perhaps; the Wikipedia page on insular dwarfism lists Flores Man as an example of the phenomenon in primates, putting it in such illustrious company as the Nosy Hara dwarf lemur (named after an island called Nosy Hara, not after a guy called Hara who couldn’t mind his own business) and the early inhabitants of the island nation of Palau, who may or may not have been unusually small members of the species Homo sapiens, depending on who you ask.

It’s possible that H. floresiensis is not a discrete species at all, but is instead a smaller version of Homo sapiens. Some scientists point to the modern-day existence of a light-skinned pygmy people in the Flores village of Rampasasa as proof that the specimens labeled H. floresiensis could in fact be early examples of this same modern tribe. Others argue that the small individuals found in the cave are not early examples of modern pygmy peoples, but a separate species. H. floresiensis is a full foot smaller than the average height of most modern pygmy peoples, and possesses other physical features that are very different from those of modern humans. The structure of the arms, shoulders, teeth, and especially the wrists are such that scientists think this hominid was more closely related to great apes and early hominids, like Australopithecus, than to modern humans or even earlier human species like Homo neanderthalensis or Homo erectus. Some scientists believe that H. floresiensis evolved from the same hominid ancestor as Homo habilis, making it an older species than Homo erectus; if this theory was correct, it would mean that Homo erectus was not the first human species to leave Africa.

However, others believe that H. floresiensis was descended from Homo erectus. Still others believe that the unfortunate individuals found in the cave were normal, garden-variety Homo sapiens who had the misfortune to live a long time ago and suffer from debilitating illnesses like Down’s syndrome, microcephaly, Laron syndrome, or endemic cretinism, a condition in which one is born without a thyroid. Researchers including Dean Falk argue that, despite having a brain the size of an orange, H. floresiensis possessed cognitive powers sufficient to make and use the stone tools found in the cave (which are technologically on par with the more sophisticated tools made by Homo sapiens of the Upper Paleolithic or Late Stone Age), to use fire, and to hunt cooperatively to bring down admittedly small elephants, although I suppose even a cow-sized elephant would be as big as an elephant-sized elephant if you’re three-and-a-half feet tall. Scientists attempted to extract a DNA sample from the teeth of one of the specimens in 2006, which would have presumably settled the debate and revealed the nature of the specimens, but the attempt failed, so the debate rages on.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Fun Friday Facts #131: The History of Working Out on Purpose, Part 4

Alright guys, last week we discussed the beginning of the gymnastics movement, in which people began to realize that exercising on purpose might be good for you. We learned that the nascent fitness movement was born of the nationalism that sprang up in many European countries in the 19th century, as budding patriots believed that exercise would help produce strong citizens who would be good at fighting Napoleon. The current nationalist movements sweeping the U.S. and Europe could probably use a little bit more of that attitude – fitness, I mean, not fighting Napoleon – but we probably don’t need to be making white supremacists healthier.

But, anyway, I digress. It’s time to wrap this series up with some funny photos of old-timey exercises.

Like this torture device that is exactly the sort of thing my mother would have forced me to use if we'd lived in the 1920s.
As the 20th century dawned, doctors began to suspect that daily exercise was necessary in order to prevent degenerative disease. In 1915, a doctor with the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office, Dr. F.C. Smith, reported that individuals not engaged in manual labor jobs were more vulnerable to disease. In 1918, with the close of the First World War, a report was released regarding the condition of soldiers drafted for combat. It was found that one in three drafted men had been unfit for combat due to poor fitness levels. It was time for compulsory physical fitness programs in public schools.

The nation needed more of whatever this was. Source: The New York State Archives
But wait! Individual state governments had already started legislating mandatory physical education programs in public schools after the Civil War, beginning with California in 1866. In the decades that followed, a handful of other states legislated physical education in public schools, including Ohio in 1892; Wisconsin in 1897; North Dakota in 1899; Pennsylvania in 1901; Michigan in 1911; and Idaho in 1913. Meanwhile, new sports were being invented: lawn tennis in 1874; softball in 1887; basketball in 1891; and volleyball in 1895. Around the nation, professional sports teams were forming, and leagues and associations dedicated to the playing of sports like bowling, baseball, lawn tennis (is lawn tennis just tennis? I think it is? Why not just call it tennis?), and gymnastics. The Boy Scouts were founded in 1907 to promote the sharing of heteronormative physical recreation between young boys and grown men. And, when in the aftermath of the War to End All Wars, it became clear that Americans were woefully unfit, more states passed legislation requiring mandatory physical education in public schools: eight in 1915 through 1918, and 21 between 1919 and 1925. That was probably all the states there were back then, but I’m not sure because counting is not my forte. I’m a writer, you do the math.

You can also do this, I guess, because I can't.
By the mid-20th century, doctors were discovering the link between exercise, fitness, and good health. Pioneers in this research included Jerry Morris, a Scottish epidemiologist whose research established the link between sedentary lifestyles and cardiovascular disease. By studying the cardiovascular health of double-decker bus drivers, conductors, postmen, clerks, and telephonists, Morris established that regular, vigorous physical activity could prevent heart disease, publishing his seminal paper on the topic in 1958. Dr. Ken H. Cooper, regarded along with Morris as the founder of the modern fitness movement, also advocated for the prevention of disease via exercise, a healthy diet, and stress management. Both men apparently practiced what they preached; Morris died in 2009 at the age of 99. Dr. Cooper is 86 years old as of the time of this writing.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Film Review: "Sex Education Films" on Amazon Prime

A few weeks ago, Jim and I were sitting on the couch, looking for something to watch on one of our multiple streaming services, when we came across a video on Amazon Prime entitled Sex Education Films. The description read, “A collection of sex education films from the 1950s and 1960s.”

Jim and I enjoy ridiculing the hard work of others, so we thought we’d have fun watching the old sex ed films and making fun of the weird, old-fashioned advice we believed they’d contain. I don’t know what we expected, but the videos were surprisingly comprehensive. We learned all about the development of primary and secondary sex characteristics, how babies are made, what menstruation is, and what’s the deal with those racy dreams about naked ladies.

The videos weren’t all about puberty, however. Some of them were about growing and maturing into your role as a well-adjusted, heterosexual adult, preferably by the age of eighteen so you can get married and move out of your parents’ damn house, already. More than one of the videos concerned itself with the young protagonists’ baffling urges, and the roles they would one day be expected to play in society.

Here are some of the things we learned:
  • It’s normal for a red-blooded, maturing young woman to have [dramatic pause] desires. But you mustn’t act on those desires, or else you’ll end up like poor Elise – ostracized from polite society, whispered about by her former peers on the school paper, and raising a baby in a cramped, untidy apartment with the grudging help of a young husband who shows his unhappiness with his body language, and good thing, too, because he never actually speaks. That said, just because you get a little hot-and-heavy with a boy in the back seat of his car on Saturday night, doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a bad guy who doesn’t care about you. It might also mean you’re a bad girl who doesn’t know when to put on the brakes. You’d better hope your best friend Betty wasn’t lying about that Coca-Cola douche.
  • When a boy asks you out for a swimming date at the reservoir, and you accept and respond with, “I’ll bring some food, what would you like?” be prepared for him to respond, “A whole chocolate cake.” This is an appropriate and acceptable item to include in a picnic meal, and, for that matter, to request that your date, whom you are taking out for the very first time, spend all evening making from scratch because you know her uptight mother refuses to buy box mix.
  • It’s perfectly safe and even encouraged to take a bath every day during your menstrual cycle. Daily hair shampooing is also extremely important.
  • Adolescence is an exciting time in the life of a young girl, when she learns about herself and the world, gets to know many fine young men in an entirely chaste and appropriate fashion, brushes her extremely clean hair, listens to records, and wears a sanitary belt.
  • You could catch cold if you go swimming during the first few days of your period. How you’re supposed to swim while wearing a sanitary belt was not discussed. 
  • A menstruating girl or woman should wear her prettiest dress, spend extra time on her hair, and generally try to look her best while the Communists are in the fun house. But don’t worry, girls, no one will know that you’re on your period. When someone asks, “What’s the occasion?” just tell them you’ve got a cake-eating date with Fat Ben.

All in all, Jim and I (and Mark, who showed up about half-way through the video collection) enjoyed watching Sex Education Films. We’re still not sure why they’re available on Amazon Prime, but maybe it has something to do with the appalling lack of any sex education in many schools nationwide. So, if you live in one of those districts that teaches “abstinence-only” sex education or no sex education at all, and you want to give your pimply, clumsy, self-centered, and emotional teenage children the same uncomfortable, vaguely misogynistic sex education that your parents received, Sex Education Films is for you. 

Monday, January 22, 2018

I Kind of Want to Eat Tide Pods

When I first heard people were eating Tide pods, I thought it was a joke. I had seen the eating Tide pods meme on Reddit, and I thought I understood the joke, which is that they look delicious.

A few weeks later, when one of my Facebook friends posted a status lamenting the younger generation’s eating of Tide pods, I assumed it was one of those things like rainbow parties or poisoned Halloween candy – i.e., not something that ever actually happens, but that people freak out about anyway.

But no, it turns out kids are actually eating Tide pods. It’s called the Tide pod challenge, and knowing about it adds a whole new layer of humor to the meme.

The thing is, I can kind of understand why someone would want to eat a Tide pod. They tell you to keep them away from kids for a reason. Tide pods are small, round, plump, squishy, shiny, brightly colored, and slightly sticky; everything about them calls to my scavenger instincts and harkens back to the colorful sweets of my childhood, and that, according to neuroanthropologist John S. Allen, is exactly why they look so scrumptious. I mean, just look at this little guy and tell me you’re not at least a little bit tempted to eat him:

Image by Soulbust from Wikimedia Commons.

Apparently, the Tide pod challenge involves filming yourself biting into a Tide pod. I thought, it’s only soap, it can’t be THAT bad for you, can it?

It can. The super-concentrated ingredients in Tide pods will burn your stomach lining if you swallow the pod or its contents. There’s probably not enough poison in one Tide pod to kill an adult, and you’ll probably only need to spend one night in the hospital if you eat one, unless you aspirate some of the detergent into your lungs, in which case you’re probably going to die.

Plus, there’s the taste. I’ve never tasted laundry detergent, but I can’t imagine it tastes nice. Actually, I can. That’s the problem.