Friday, May 29, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #108: Chewing Gum

Last week, I offered my friend Theodore Webb a stick of gum and he suggested that I write this blog post. So here it is. You’re all welcome to suggest ideas, btw. It’s not always easy to come up with these things.

As I’ve mentioned before, the oldest known piece of gum is 5,000 years old. It was discovered Kierikki, Yli-li, Finland, by archeology student Sarah Pickin, age 23. Professor Trevor Brown told the BBC that the lump of ancient gum bears “well-defined tooth imprints.” This Neolithic chewing gum was made from birch bark tar, which contains antiseptic compounds. The gum may have been used for medicinal properties or at the very least, may have offered unintentional health benefits to the ancient chewer.

Other ancient societies, including the ancient Aztecs and the ancient Greeks, also chewed gum. The ancient Greeks chewed the aromatic resin of the mastic tree. The ancient Aztecs chewed gum made from chicle, which is made from the sap of several Mesoamerican trees and became prized among European settlers for its high sugar content and flavor. The word chicle has found its way into modern Spanish and is reflected in the Portuguese, chiclete, and in the Chiclets brand of chewing gum.


In North America, native peoples made chewing gum from the sap of spruce trees. That sounds disgusting, but the stoic settlers of New England adopted the custom, which led to the development of the first (probably disgusting) commercial chewing gum, dubbed The State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum, which went on sale in 1848. Other early commercial gums were made with chicle or paraffin wax, which also sounds less than agreeable. When I was a little girl my Grandpa used to give me bits of honeycomb to chew, so I know what chewing on wax is like, but I guess it was the olden days when people had to wipe their asses with corn cobs and go around chewing on lumps of wax. That’s the kind of thing that drives progress, amirite?

Today, most chewing gums are made with synthetic polymers, including styrene-butadiene rubber, isobutylene, and isoprene copolymer, as well as petroleum and paraffin waxes. Sugar-free gum sweetened with xylitol can help prevent tooth decay when chewed after a meal, because it stimulates the production of saliva. Don’t let your cats eat it, however; xylitol is toxic to cats.

No gum for Fatty.

While chewing gum may be good for your teeth, it may be bad for your GI tract. Excessive gum chewing could cause you to swallow too much air, and experience pain and bloating, according to Dr. Patrick Takahashi of LA’s St. Vincent Medical Center, who has apparently never heard of burping. Artificial sweeteners can cause diarrhea or gas. Chewing gum could also contribute to ulcers, since it stimulates the creation of unnecessary digestive acids. None of these are an issue, however, unless you chew a lot of gum. On the plus side, gum chewing tends to both increase saliva production (as mentioned) and boost swallowing, which could neutralize stomach acid in the esophagus to combat the effects of gastroesophageal reflux disease.

The popular urban legend that swallowed gum will stay in your stomach for seven years is, as you might guess, simply not true. For the most part, gum passes through the digestive tract at the same rate as anything else you might swallow. However, if you swallow enough gum at once, you could run into problems. This often happens with young children, who may swallow multiple pieces of gum in one day, and who may also make matters worse by swallowing other things at the same time. When swallowed together with small objects, gum can form a bezoar, or indigestible mass, in the stomach that could cause a GI blockage. This happened to an 18-month-old girl who had to have a bezoar consisting of a blob of gum and four coins removed from her digestive tract. Other children have been known to swallow so much gum in such a short period of time that the gum itself coalesces into a massive “taffylike” ball that causes a blockage. Another child swallowed sunflower seeds, shells and all, along with his gum, which created a mass that surgeons described as “prickly…like a porcupine.” This is why you shouldn’t give gum to young children, or if you do, you should regale them with stories of how it will stay in their stomach for seven years if they are so imprudent as to swallow it.

Put it on the Gum Wall, as God intended.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Remembering Sergeant Stubby, Hero Dog of World War I

I’ve blogged about Sergeant Stubby before, but that post was published all the way back in 2012 which, in Internet years, is so long ago that it might as well not even exist anymore. Since today is Memorial Day I wanted to blog about Sergeant Stubby again, because he was awesome. I mean, you really can’t write enough blog posts about Sergeant Stubby IMO. I would make this whole blog about Sergeant Stubby if I thought you guys would let me get away with it. Just kidding…not really.

Sergeant Stubby’s military career began when he befriended Corporal Robert Conroy, a member of the 102nd Infantry. The unit trained on the parade grounds of Yale University, where the dog lived as a stray. Conroy named the stray “Stubby” on account of its short, stubby tail, and as he and the other men got to know the animal, they realized it was smarter than the average dog. According to accounts, Stubby learned to identify the bugle calls, and taught himself to execute marching maneuvers alongside the men. Corporal Conroy even taught Stubby to salute his superior officers by raising his adorable little paw to his adorable little forehead – a trick that would eventually earn Stubby an official place with the 102nd, when he used it to charm Corporal Conroy’s own CO.

When the company shipped out, Conroy smuggled the dog aboard the troop ship and, when the ship reached France, Conroy smuggled the dog off again by stuffing him under his greatcoat. Stubby quickly became the official mascot of the 102nd, and while he certainly did his part to raise morale among the troops, that’s far from the only thing Stubby did. By the time he returned home at war’s end, Sergeant Stubby had become the most decorated dog of the entire war and remains, to this day, the only dog to achieve the rank of Sergeant through feats of heroism performed during combat.

During the 18 months that Stubby served in the trenches of France, he took part in 17 battles and four offensives, including those at Meuse-Argonne, St. Mihel, Champagne Marne, and Aisne-Marne. During February of 1918, Stubby found himself under heavy artillery and sniper fire for a full month; he became known for flying into “a battle rage,” barking and howling when enemy shots were fired. He sustained his first wound that very month, when he inhaled mustard gas and nearly died.

But Stubby didn’t die; instead, he became a badass mustard-gas-sniffing machine, taking it upon himself to warn the men whenever he smelled mustard gas in the trenches. No one knows how many lives Stubby saved by running through the trenches, barking and biting the soldiers to prompt them to put their gas masks on. Thanks to his ultrasensitive dog ears, Stubby saved countless more lives by warning the men of incoming artillery fire before the shells had a chance to explode. Stubby also learned to warn the American sentry when German troops were closing in for a ground attack. How did he do it? History insists that Stubby learned to tell the difference between the sounds of English and German being spoken, an ability he also used to help rescue wounded American soldiers stranded in No Man’s Land.

Stubby sustained his second wound in April 1918, when a German grenade peppered his chest and forelegs with shrapnel. He survived, and spent some time boosting morale in the field hospital during his convalescence. The French women of Chateau Thierry presented Stubby with his very own chamois coat, decorated with the flags of the Allied countries, to show their gratitude when the dog helped liberate the town. The men of his unit outfitted him with his very own American military uniform, from which he hung his many medals, including a Purple Heart, the Medal of Verdun, the Republic of France Grande War Medal.

Once, during the Meuse-Argonne campaign in September 1918, Stubby (literally) sniffed out a German spy on a mission to map the Allied trenches for the enemy. Stubby barked wildly, and when the German spy tried to run for it, Stubby chased the man down, dropped him with a bite to the leg, and then sank his teeth into the man’s rear end, holding him there he could be arrested. That’s how Stubby earned his promotion to Sergeant – and claimed the soldier’s German Iron Cross for his medal collection.

Corporal Conroy smuggled his dog/superior officer back to the States after the war, where fame and glory awaited him. Sergeant Stubby met three presidents, visited the White House twice, joined the American Legion, and enjoyed a lifetime supply of free dog food bestowed on him by the YMCA. When Corporal Conroy attended law school at Georgetown University, Sergeant Stubby accompanied him. He became the school football team’s mascot and inspired the team’s present-day mascot, a bulldog. During halftime at the team’s games, Sergeant Stubby entertained the crowd by pushing the ball around the field with his adorable nose. Some call this diversion the first-ever halftime show.

Sergeant Stubby died at the age of about 10 in 1926. His obituary in the New York Times was longer than those of many famous humans of the era. Corporal Conroy had the dog preserved via the magic of taxidermy, and donated him to the Smithsonian in 1956. Today, he can be seen at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #107: What Causes Heartbreak?

As some of you may have noticed, several months ago now I got a new boyfriend. Well, that new boyfriend is now an old boyfriend because we broke up. As usual, I was super-fucking-stoked about the relationship, and also as usual, I was super-fucking-wrong. I chose to respond to the crushing feelings of despair in the only logical way – by eating a banana split for dinner. And then I decided to blog about it.

According to a 2005 study led by neurologist Lucy Brown, psychologist Art Aron, and anthropologist Helen Fisher, romantic love causes a rush of dopamine into the region of the brain associated with goal-seeking behavior and feelings of motivation. The process of falling in love is neurologically identical to the process of becoming addicted to drugs. Love is not a feeling; it is what scientists refer to as a “goal-oriented motivational state” or, to put it bluntly, an addiction. Perhaps unsurprisingly, learning this does not make me feel any better.

In 2010, the researchers set out to discover what causes the sobbing, wailing, drinking too much, eating of banana splits for dinner, etc. that occurs in the wake of a breakup. They gathered up several people who had just been dumped and who reported spending at least 85 percent of their time thinking about the lost object of their affection and pining for reconciliation. These people admitted to an inability to control their emotions and behavior, resulting in everything from crying for hours, to getting drunk, to calling, texting, or emailing the ex, to turning up at the ex’s place of work to have a go at them. I’ve been on the receiving end of that last one before, though not this time around, so there’s that to be thankful for.

After popping the heartbroken individuals into fMRI machines like slices of weepy bread into a big magnetic toaster, the researchers discovered that the lovelorn test subjects were still showing plenty of activity in the reward centers of their brains. Like a newly ex-smoker chewing desperately at a lollipop, the lovelorn study participants were still seeking the “fix” of their lover’s affection. The researchers also found signs of activity in other parts of the brain, such as those linked to controlling emotions and behavior. Someone was lying in that fMRI machine fighting off the urge to take a big revenge dump on the hood of someone’s Porsche. Let’s hope they were successful.

But what causes the feelings of physical pain so commonly referred to as a “broken heart”? Well, the short answer is, no one knows. But according to a 2009 study from researchers at the University of Maryland and the University of Arizona, activity in the parts of the brain related to emotional reactivity, especially related to a particularly stressful experience like heartbreak, can cause a “biological cascade” that overstimulates the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve begins in the brain stem and travels down the neck into the chest and abdomen. The researchers believe that overstimulation of this nerve is responsible for the chest pain and nausea called “heartbreak.”

Still others think that the emotional pain of a breakup could simultaneously trigger both the fight-or-flight response and the lesser known opposite response, hilariously dubbed the rest-and-digest response. The chest pain, then, would be a result of the heart struggling to cope with hormonal commands to speed up and slow down at the same time. It’s worth noting that it’s possible to die of a broken heart, perhaps due to the hormonal effects of emotional stress. While science doesn’t yet fully understand the cause of the physical sensation of heartbreak, it’s clear that the pain of social rejection originates in the same part of the brain as physical pain, so that, in the words of author Meghan Laslocky, “As far as your brain is concerned, the pain you feel is no different from a stab wound.”

I know how you feel, Tesco Pineapple juice.
Image by NOGG3R5 from

Friday, May 15, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #106: Weird Insect Behaviors

There are about 950,000 known species of insects – compared to only about 60,000 species of vertebrates (mammals, fish, reptiles, birds, and amphibians), and about 297,000 species of plants, including lichens and red and green algae. Most scientists agree that there are more unknown (unnamed, undocumented) species of insects than there are known ones – between two and 30 million species of insects have yet to be named by scientists. At any given moment, there are ten quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) living insects on the planet.

And most of them are doing really weird things.

The pine processionary is a moth that lives in North Africa, Central Asia, and southern Europe, where it is most destructive to the pines and cedars of the region. It gets its name from the odd behavior of its caterpillars, which do this:

A single generation of these caterpillars is capable of destroying as much as 73 percent of a pine forest. Though they’re only about 20 millimeters long when they first hatch, they are capable of biting through pine needles at birth. Though the baby caterpillars stick to eating only the needles within their tent-like cocoons at first, they eventually emerge to eat the rest of the forest, forming this caterpillar train in order to bust through the cocoon walls.

Most species of ants are foragers. They pick up whatever food they can find lying around, or maybe they milk some aphids or something. The Allomerus decemarticulatus, an Amazonian species, sets traps for its prey, because of course it does. They do this by cutting plant fibers from the stem of a plant to build a raised, hollow platform that looks like a normal deformity. Holes in the platform allow the ants to hide beneath it, and when an unwary insect ventures onto the platform,  the predatory ant darts out and snatches it by the leg.

The ant then wedges itself in place beneath the platform, a maneuver that allows it to hang on to prey up to 13,000 times bigger than it, and releases a pheromone signal that calls others of its species to its aid. Other ants will appear and pin the hapless insect down by pulling its legs out from under it, while yet another ant will dismember it. Up to 40 of these ants will hide on a single leaf, creating an ambush that no other insect can hope to escape.

Similar to this, but with more dismembering.
Image by PHGCOM from Wikimedia Commons.

Shieldbacked katydids, also known as Mormon crickets, are native to the American Southwest. They occasionally experience a population explosion, leading to swarms as dense as 100 katydids per square meter. These massive swarms sweep through towns, cities, and farmlands covering up to a mile (1.6 km) a day in the search for protein. The ones in the front have to keep moving, because they’re the only ones who find anything to eat. The ones in the back become mad with hunger, if we can accuse insects of suffering from mental illness, and cannibalize the ones in the front.

And then each other, presumably.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Top 10 Things I’m Secretly Freaking Out About

Guess what, kids – May is Mental Health Awareness Month! I haven’t blogged much about mental health-related issues here, because I don’t much like blogging about personal stuff, just like I don’t much like talking about myself at all. But if I’m going to succeed as a memoirist or a person, I’m going to need to get used to other people knowing stuff about me.

At eighteen, I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, an anxiety disorder characterized by intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. I’m doing pretty well these days at not spending all day checking to make sure the stove is turned off or that I still have my wallet. I’m also told I’m very adept at keeping my anxiety hidden away inside, where it is less likely to leap out and stagger through my life, leaving a wake of destruction like a drunk guy carrying a really long pole. Here are some of the things you didn’t know I was worrying about.

10) Answering Emails

When I discuss my anxiety around writing emails, I mean writing emails in a professional capacity. I don’t write emails in a personal capacity anymore; that’s so 2007. I’m usually okay writing a short email, but once I get past two or three sentences the fog of anxiety descends. I’m not sure what I think is going to go wrong. The laptop isn’t going to explode, and it’s not like I don’t know how to write an email. I just have to suck it up, hit send, and then breathe carefully for a few minutes. It’s just as well I work from home.

9) Making Left Turns

Left turns are more dangerous than right turns, and I also totally got hit once while making a left turn, so it's totally not even that irrational that every time I make one intrusive thoughts force an unbidden image of my car and body being mangled by an oncoming pickup truck.

This pickup truck, to be specific.
Image by That Harford Guy from Flickr.

I can almost hear the metal screeching with the force of impact. But I have to keep driving because what’s the alternative? Not driving is not an option. I live in West Virginia, FFS.

8) Catching the Brain-Eating Amoeba

I saw my doctor for my yearly checkup two days ago and I just now realized I forgot to ask him if I can catch the brain-eating amoeba from a public swimming pool. The pool I go to is so heavily chlorinated it might as well be filled with nothing but bleach, but I still worry about catching the brain-eating amoeba from it. Swimming in natural bodies of water would be right out of the question, but it’s a moot point because I don’t know where any of the swimming holes are here and I’m not going to ask anyone, because BRAIN-EATING AMOEBAS. To make matters worse I recently found out (okay, read on someone's Facebook page) that you can catch the brain-eating amoeba from bathwater, but I have to take baths because I have a bad back and oh gawd I’m totes gonna die.

The face of death.

7) Meeting Anyone, Anywhere, at Any Time, for Any Purpose

I’m always late. If you’ve borne the brunt of my chronic lateness, you probably thought that I was just disorganized or lose track of time easily or maybe that I don’t respect you. It’s not that I don’t respect you, it’s that I hate sitting around in public places waiting for people to show up. Maybe they won’t show up. Maybe they’re having a laugh, maybe they forgot – both of these things have happened to me before. The other day I met a friend for dinner and for once in my life, I showed up early and sat there fiddling with my smart phone like a nervous tool for the whole five minutes I waited, which were the longest five minutes of the year. On the bright side, I had time to outline this blog post.

6) Calls from Unknown Numbers

Sometimes I’ll get a call that says “number withheld” or “unknown number” and in those moments I realize that a secret government agency is on my trail. I don’t care if the Heavens open and Jesus Christ himself descends on the back of a solid-gold unicorn to command me to answer the phone in the name of Himself, I’m not going to do it. Other times my phone will show the number but I’ll still be leery of answering it, because sometimes it’s a wrong number, but other times it’s one of my hostile relatives calling to tell me that they still think I’m worthless piece of shit, just in case I forgot for a second and was walking around accidentally feeling like a worthwhile person. Even when it is a wrong number, you’d be surprised at how often people will argue with you about it:


“Hi! Is Selena there?”

“Sorry, you have the wrong number.”

“No I don’t! Where’s Selena?”

“Um, did you dial [lol not putting my number on the Internet]?”

“Yes, where’s Selena?” they’ll say, or alternatively, “No! Where’s Selena?” You don’t really need to call people’s numbers; you can just enter any combination of ten random numbers into the phone. It’s the intention that counts. Just like in yoga.

5) This Mole in My Armpit

I can’t see the mole in my armpit, so I can’t tell if it’s turning into cancer. Several years ago, while shaving, I accidentally lopped off the armpit mole. I was visiting a friend at the time and when I came out of the shower and told her, “I just lopped off my armpit mole,” she responded, “Oh, don’t do that, that makes them turn into cancer!” Great.

4) This Mole in the Back of My Shoulder

This list would include a lot more moles, but luckily for both of us, I only have the two. My mother once had to have a mole removed from roughly the same spot (okay, four inches to the right), but while her mole looked like it might have bitten you if you got too close to it, my mole looks like a normal mole. My doctor seems to find my mole-anxiety pretty amusing.

3) Dystopian Fiction

I’ll read dystopian fiction if it’s something a friend wrote or if it’s too big a part of the cultural zeitgeist to skip or if multiple people have assured me that it’s really, really good. But it’s something I have to cope with. I know normal people don’t have to cope with reading books, but dystopian fiction is just too realistic.

2) Slasher Flicks

It’s not that I walk around all the time worrying about getting murdered, it’s that I don’t wanna start. Unlike dystopian fiction, I avoid these altogether. There’s too realistic, and then there’s way too realistic. Slasher flicks fall into the second category.

Incidentally, this is why I like zombies so much. Getting stalked by a murderer and chopped into pieces is something that could definitely happen IRL, but even my crazy ass knows there’s never gonna be a zombie apocalypse.

1) Climate Change           

Let’s not even talk about it.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #105: Exploding Whales

As you may be aware, dead whales are often wont to wash up on the beach, and when that happens, sometimes they explode. As the carcass decomposes, gases build up inside of it. The whale’s thick layer of blubber helps keep those gases trapped inside the whale until they escape one way or the other. Bruce Mate, director of the marine biology institute at Oregon State University, told The Verge, “Release is sometimes slow, and sometimes catastrophic.”

To say the least.

Gradual deflation of a dead whale occurs when the accumulated gases seep out through the mouth, anus, blow hole, an injury, or some other weak point in the carcass’s skin. Towns often orchestrate what’s known as a “controlled release,” in which they drag a bloated whale carcass out to sea and then pop it with a long-handled knife. In Mate’s words, “You don’t have to go down all the way to where the pressure is – just create a weakness and walk away.”

Dragging the carcass out to sea is important – if the whale explodes on the beach, organs can be “propelled…30, 50 feet.” A person standing atop the dead whale when it explodes could be “blown into the air.”

Be careful with that thing.

On 26 January 2004, Professor Wang Chien-ping ordered a dead whale moved from a beach on the southwest coast of Taiwan to the Sutsao Wild Life Reservation, where he hoped to perform an autopsy on it. The whale exploded in transit, showering onlookers, cars, and nearby shops with whale.

Perhaps the most famous whale explosion was that whichoccurred in Florence, Oregon, in November 1970, when the Oregon Highway Division attempted to dispose of a rotting whale carcass by strapping 20 cases of dynamite to it and lighting the fuse. You may recognize 20 cases of dynamite as quite a lot of dynamite – half a ton, to be exact. Walter Umenhofer, a military veteran and Springfield resident trained in the use of explosives, was at the scene when the engineer in charge of the whale carcass removal, George Thornton, made the call to use half a ton of dynamite on the dead whale. Umenhofer warned Thornton that 20 cases of dynamite was kind of excessive, and that 20 sticks of dynamite would be more than enough. Thorton didn’t listen, and the resulting explosion showered pieces of whale as far as 800 feet (240 meters) away.

Naturally, a piece of the whale “flattened” Umenhofer’s new Oldsmobile, which he had just purchased in Eugene at a “Get a Whale of a Deal” promotion, ha ha ha ha ha. Paul Linnman, a reporter for KATU-TV in Portland, informed viewers that “the blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds.” Pieces of whale rained down on nearby buildings and parking lots, and the blast “funneled a hole in the sand under the whale,” thanks to which onlookers and their vehicles were also showered, or, perhaps more accurately, pummeled, with whale. The majority of the whale, however, stayed right where Mother Nature left it. Now, the Oregon State Parks Department buries dead whales on the beach and, if the sand isn’t deep enough to allow burial, they tow the whale to another beach for interment.

Towing it out to sea and popping it seems like the easier option.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Science Has Gone Too Far

By now, you’ve probably heard the news that everyone’s beard is covered in poop. This revelation sheds a whole new light on the lumbersexual trend, which may or may not be finally dying out as we reach maximum beard saturation and the hairy pendulum begins to swing back the other way. With any luck, the scoop on poopybeards will help this along.

The long and short of it is that a news anchor in New Mexico swabbed an unspecified (but doubtless too small to be statistically significant) number of men’s beards and then shipped the samples off to a microbiologist for analysis, presumably without dipping them down his pants first. The microbiologist allegedly found some poop on some of the beards. Why is there poop in your beard? Because you don’t wash your hands after you go to the bathroom, or if you’re like some of the scruffy male diversions of my misspent youth, you don’t wash your hands at all.

While various news outlets are scrambling to reassure that public that it doesn’t have poop in its beard, I’m sitting here feeling all smug because this is the exact reason why I’ve disliked beards for years. I mean, it’s not that I’ve specifically suspected that you have poop in your beard, it’s just that having become acquainted with perhaps more than my fair share of men, I happen to know that men are somewhat, how shall I put this, less fastidious than women are when it comes to their personal grooming and hygiene habits. I mean, I once had a boyfriend who didn’t shampoo because he believed shampoo is what causes men to lose their hair. Another boyfriend refused to wear deodorant because he was convinced that antiperspirant is the true cause of body odor and it’s all a conspiracy by Big Hygiene. I mean, to be fair, he didn’t smell, but in retrospect, he probably had poop in his beard.

When I posted on Facebook about the poopybeards, one of my friends (a man – coincidence? I think not!) pointed out that there is poop all over everything, including your toothbrush, restaurant lemon wedges, your computer keyboard, and the money in your wallet. Also, since I have cats, everything is covered in cat poop, including the cats themselves. My Facebook friend and fellow writer Lee Anne Barnes remarked that she was happier before she knew that everything has poop on it. Too right. I’m all for scientific advancement, and there was a time not too long ago (about 20 hours, to be exact) when I wouldn’t have placed any limits on it. But that was a carefree, innocent time, before I knew that Science is going around checking everything for poop, and, more importantly, finding it. It’s time to stop. There are some things we don’t need to know.