Monday, September 17, 2018

Nail Biting

Confession time: among my bad habits is nail-biting.

 My readers, finding out I'm not perfect

Nails are a remarkable aspect of human evolution.  Made of a single layer of hard alpha-keratin, nails are analogous to claws or talons.  Most mammals have claws, which are rounded.

One of the features of primates is broad, flattened nails instead of claws.  Many primates bite their nails to keep them shortened; onychophagia is the technical term for nail-biting and it's seen in chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans, althought not universally.  Some chimps are bigger nail-biters than others.

It's also seen in macaques, which are not primates but "old world" monkeys.  Old world monkeys include baboons and rhesus monkeys.  Old world monkeys are most often distinguished from "new world" monkeys by the tail; old world monkeys lack truly prehensile tails.  New world monkeys (such as capuchins and squirrel monkeys) have fully prehensile tails. But, interestingly, nails are also different among these two families. New world monkeys (cebids) have curved nails. Old world monkeys (cercopithecids) have flat nails that are more like a human's.

Nails are long been considered a defining feature of the human being, ever since 2,300 years ago, when Plato defined man as a "featherless biped," prompting Diogenes to run into the Academy with a plucked chicken, screeching, "BEHOLD!  A MAN!"

...Plato added "with broad, flat nails" to his definition.

 If Diogenes were alive today, his YouTube prank channel would be fire.

(Random fun fact: Plato could have instead includes the presence of chins.  Humans are the only animals with chins.  While pretty much anything with a mouth has a lower jaw, only humans have a bony jut coming out below our mouth.  In all other animals, the lower jaw slopes down from the front teeth instead of projecting.  It is unclear whether this trait serves any real purpose or whether it's a byproduct of genetic drifting.)

Robbie Rotten has long been known to be the pinnacle of human evolution by memers.

So why do we have nails instead of claws?

The short answer is, nails were more practical for the type of locomotion that apes were doing.  For smaller animals, like squirrels, nails are sufficient to grip onto tree bark.  But for larger primates, claws went out of vogue and instead we developed broad fingers designed for grasping.  (Fingerprints, by the way, are a crucial part of primate fine texture perception.  And the wrinkling of fingers in baths?  That's also designed to help you grasp.)

Getting back to nails: they aid in the grasping of things not just by being flat and kind of out of the way, but they help deliver grip feedback by counter-pressure exerted on the end of the finger.  This may be one reason nails only have a single stratum, unlike claws or talons, which have 2 strata. 

In other words, apes developed with the concept of "grabby hands" in mind.

But evolution isn't really directional.  Rather, it employs a guess-and-check method.

This led to some scientists questioning whether or not the last common ancestor of today's living primates had nails or claws on the ends of their digits.  Current evidence suggests that our ancestors had lost claws quite early and developed nails, but that those nails were two-layered.  This is a seriously big topic of scientific argument, one apparently confounded by the horrifically-named "toilet claw" that is present on lemurs and tarsiers.  (It's a claw on the second finger used for head scritches and more recently has been called the "grooming claw," which is a lot less gross.)

 Feel free to Google it.  It looks kind of gross, too, to be honest.
Sorry, lemurs, but your feet are naaaasty.

But this post has wandered into speculative territory and roamed, as evolution does, fairly far.  Originally, you recall, I began this post by saying I bite my nails.

I'm not special in this regard.  About a third of people are nail-biters.  This is a condition that has long been recognized as an indication or symptom of anxiety along with other body-focused repetitive behaviors.  (For example, skin picking, aka excoriation disorder... another one that I have.  Again, not surprising, since nail-biting and skin-picking have a high comorbidity.)

I think nail-biting is an interesting example of anxiety.  It's very much, for me, at least, a "can't see the forest because of all the trees" scenario.  When I bite at or pick at my nails, it's because there always seems to be a teeny-tiny imperfection that I'm trying to "fix."  Ironically I usually end up making it worse.  A lot of nail-biters tear off their cuticles for this same reason, the idea of an invisible hangnail.

(Side note about hangnails: the term "hangnail" might seem obvious.  It's a little bit of nail that's hanging off, right?  Wrong.  Hangnail is a folk etymology of the Old English angnæġl (
agnail), from ang- (“tight/painful” - think of anguish or angst) +‎ -næġl (“nail”). It has nothing to do with the nail "hanging.")

Just as nail-biting creates an anti-solution to a non-problem and, in turn, makes things worse, so does anxiety.

I find that if I can force myself to adopt a new perspective then I can often curtail my nail-biting habit.  When I look at my nails critically, they're actually just fine and need no attention.  Natural wear exfoliates just fine; there is no need to constantly be filing or picking at them.  Nail-biting, as a habit, can be broken; body-focused repetitive behaviors are a result of poor impulse control, and while impulse control disorders are considered a psychiatric "disease," their treatment often comes down to modifying the behavior of the individual.

(Another side note: Rocko's Modern Life had an episode where Rocko breaks his nail-biting habit using a 12-step program.  Except the program is actually a series of utterly ridiculous tasks and ultimately the way Rocko breaks the habit is by simply forcing himself to stop.)

As someone with a boatload of anxiety, forcing myself not to bite my nails was a hard-won battle.  My father bit his nails, too, down to the quick.  In the same way I shifted my diet at the beginning of this year, I have also stopped biting my nails.  Which isn't to say I don't slip up often, especially when I'm stressed.  But my nails do not resemble those of a nail-biter, something I'm proud of.  Like maintaining a diet, breaking the habit of biting one's nails requires a lot of self-reflection, impulse control, and constant, vigilant mindfulness.  Something I'm all about.  I like to challenge myself to do better and work on self-improvement at all times, and I believe that nail-biting is a good example of a habit that's hard to break but not impossible.  People with depression and anxiety all too often hear people say things like "just choose happiness" or "just don't worry about it."  And we can't really help that.  But at the end of the day, living a good life isn't about always being right, or avoiding drama, or not making mistakes. It's about handling those human challenges gracefully and with dignity.

I am a nail-biter and always will be, but by working hard, my nails look okay.  There are others who don't have to think about it and who don't ever have slip-ups.  But I can't live my life comparing myself to them.  Everyone needs to live their life for themselves and ask, "Are my actions ones I will be proud of in the future?  Am I saying and doing the things that help me reach my goals?"

Ultimately I think most personal growth stems from 1) the ability to self-reflect, and 2) the ability to control one's impulses.

Nail-biting is a good example of what it's like to live with anxiety.  It's easy to give in to.  It's hard to fight.  But it can be done.  And the first step is looking at your nails (or life) with a critical, logical eye and saying, "You know what?  This is actually fine.  I need to just let it be."

This doesn't mean you can "cure anxiety" just by wishing it away.  But it means you can control the consequences of the anxiety and how (or to what degree) anxiety affects your life.  If you're a nail-biter, you'll always be a nail-biter; you'll often find yourself picking at invisible defects on your nails.  The question is, when you realize you're doing it, are you going to stop yourself?

Evolution didn't spend millions of years giving you those magnificent one-strum alpha-keratin nails just so you could bite them off.  You're a primate, damn it.  Be kind to your nails.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Saying Good-bye to Kelly, Katy, and the IELA Title

Blog, it's been a rough week.

As one of probably a billion millennials with depression and anxiety, I spend most of my time in a constant state of mild concern.  My life has a Jaws-esque soundtrack, a constant eerie violin thrumming that makes it seem like things are imminently about to go badly.  And sometimes, they do.

Side note, though.  Anyone else think it's weird that so many people of my generation struggle with depression and anxiety? Part of me thinks that this is a natural consequence of automation; there are fewer and fewer meaningful jobs and we feel adrift in this world, questioning what purpose our lives have. (Even the best and brightest among us struggle; according to Jeff Hammerbacher, a Silicon valley mogul who is 2 years younger than me, "“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.")

But I think that the whole existentialist crisis of an entire generation may have a physical basis.

The lead-crime hypothesis postulates that Generation X, for example, was affected by lead exposure in gasoline, leading to a lack of impulse control development and, in turn, making urban children more likely to grow up into violent criminals.  When gasoline became unleaded, the next generation saw a drop off in crime rates, especially crimes of passion in urban areas where more people were being exposed to gasoline.

My point is, maybe there's some currently unknown contagion in our lives that is affecting our generation, and we will discover it in a few decades.  Like, the lithium batteries in cell phones is giving us anxiety.  Or gluten or something.  J/k I love gluten.  But seriously, I do feel like the level of depression and anxiety that affects my demographic seems to be disproportionate and I wonder if there's an environmental trigger.

ANYWAY.  Like most people in my demographic I have anxiety but that's not what this post is about.  This post is about the rough week I had, which would have been sucky even for someone with a normally operating brain.

Normally I do a good job of wrassling with my issues,
mostly using self-depreciating humor and memes.

Last weekend was the step-down from my leather title, which was a bittersweet experience.  I was MCing it and I sure do love being given a microphone, but I was hyper-aware that I was being scrutinized as a contender for the my next title run, LA Pup.  I was also, as MC, highly aware of every little bump in the proceedings of the title contest.  Not that you needed to be finely tuned to be aware that the owner of the venue showed up nearly an hour late, making the entire contest behind schedule from the get-go.  Although there was nothing I could do about it, as the MC, I felt a degree of responsibility to keep things moving forward and running smoothly, and the scheduling screw-up gave me a sense of general worry throughout the entire day.

The whole thing culminated in a bit of drama.  One of the two people running for the title said he could not show his face online because his husband isn't out.  One judge asked why he didn't just wear a mask or something, to which he replied that he had breathing problems and couldn't have his mouth/nose obstructed.  The judges unanimously decided he couldn't represent the title if he couldn't be seen with it; he proceeded to accuse one judge (a previous holder of said title) of "sabotage."

 Most gays would leap at the opportunity to be this extra.

Personally I thought the whole thing was ridiculous.  Does it even matter if we give him the title or not?  If we give the title to someone who does nothing to rep it, isn't that functionally the same as not giving him the title?  So it doesn't matter, either way.  There's literally no possible consequence to the title.  A "lame duck" winner would be the same as no winner.

I will say that, if you have a leather title, you will inevitably be outed online.  I suppose the judges were trying to protect him, but that's a lesson I feel he should be warned about and then left to learn on his own.  Why he would want the title when he cannot be in the spotlight is a whole 'nother question.  Ultimately, I left feeling unsettled by the drama, and worried I had not done enough for the title during the time I wore that mantle.

The Inland Empire title is produced by one of my close friends and knowing it was causing her stress caused me a degree of sympathy stress.  I had fun, but I still felt like I needed to settle down and recover, emotionally, once the weekend was over, because the whole affair had been draining, and navigating the interpersonal conflict was a bit of a minefield.

Two days after the contest, Ann, one of my best friends (who had been a judge at the contest) called me, crying, because her dog had passed away unexpectedly during a routine dental procedure.  I had seen Kelly that very weekend (Kelly went everywhere with Ann) and Kelly had seemed fine.  The shock of losing her was enormous.  I don't deal well with grief and feel terribly awkward about comforting people.  I had known Kelly for three years, from her adoption to her passing, and losing her was an unwelcome shock.  Not to mention seeing one of my best friends experiencing inconsolable grief.

 RIP Kelly.
Your influence was positive and your memory is treasured.

They say losses always come in threes, and sure enough, later that week, I got into a devastating fight with a friend.  It wasn't a loud or dramatic fight.  Simply an irreconcilable disagreement.

See, we've been close friends for two years, online.  And at the outset of our relationship I told her not to make plans to visit. 

This may sound weird, but follow me here.  I have had many, many online friends over the years, and because I live in Los Angeles, they often start to fantasize about coming to see me.  We'll go to Disneyland and the Hollywood sign and all sorts of jolly things, they think.  And often, their fantasy requires me to end up spending time and money on my end.  And then the visit never materializes.  This has happened three times already with people making (seemingly concrete) plans that fell through and left me feeling hurt and lied to.  In the previous three instances, it led to the slow decline of the friendship, which I believe would have remained robust if it had either remained online OR if they had actually done me the courtesy of taking my time and energy seriously.

So.  Onto this friend. 

Earlier this year she had suggested visiting in the spring and it hadn't happened.  The plans weren't really ever made concrete so I shrugged it off.  Then she wanted to visit this October.  This time, she began talking about dates and plane tickets and hotel reservations and the logistics of a visit.  I blocked off a weekend (not an easy feat for me because my schedule is totally loco-bananas).  Then she started asking me about hotel reservations (despite not having bought a plane ticket yet).  You see where this is going...

Just last week she told me that she wasn't coming because I had told her not to come.

(In fairness I had probably said something like, "Either shit or get off the pot."  I told her if she was planning on visiting, she needed to buy a plane ticket and send me a confirmation, and that if she wasn't going to do that, not to bother.) 

Based on a single conversation she had promptly jettisoned all plans to visit.  From my perspective, it appeared she'd never been serious in the first place.  After all, you don't cancel big vacation plans on a whim or due to a single instance of minor inconvenience or discouragement. 

I told her, honestly, I felt resentful and was annoyed that she had fulfilled my prophecy.  I had told her not to do this very thing, and she had.  I told her I didn't believe she had any intention of visiting and while maybe it was fun for her to plan a trip, it was also interfering in my real life in a real way, and I didn't appreciate that.

"Well, maybe I can visit next year," she said.

She was still doing the thing!  Even in the very moment that I was asking her to stop!

I told her I honestly did not see how I could not resent her for wasting my time and energy and leading me on, and that while I would try not to take it personally, I was probably going to be really hurt for a really long time.  At which point she said we couldn't be friends anymore due to the "anger, drama, and resentment" on my end.  I was honestly shocked that she would throw out a two-year friendship over one fight; I told her she had my number if she ever wanted to reach out but as of right now it looks like things are over.

It's a strange thing to experience as someone with anxiety; my brain is constantly telling me that my friends are imminently about to abandon me and don't really like it, and when it occurs, I feel this strange sense of disappointed acceptance.

This week, my brain told me things weren't going well, and for once, it was right.

There's no real thing I can do about any of the things that happened this week on my end.  I can't bring back Kelly, for example, only remember her.  I can't alter the hurt feelings at the title contest, because I was not part of that situation.  And I can't do anything to repair a friendship without the other person's cooperation, because friendships are two-way streets.  So really, the only thing to do is to move forward and hope that next week things go well (and maybe try to avoid gluten and lithium... just in case).

Monday, September 3, 2018

Down the Wikipedia Hole: 6 Degrees of Butterfly Hennins (An Absurdist, Fact-Packed Post)

Before the internet, we had a game called 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon.  The idea of the game was to connect Kevin Bacon to another person within 6 moves.  This was based on the "six degrees of separation" premise, which posits that any two people on Earth are six or fewer acquaintance "links" apart.

If you think this game is dumb, you're wrong.  Calculating a person's "Bacon Number" is serious business.  Adolf Hitler, for example, has a Bacon Number of 3:
  1. Adolf Hitler was in Ewige Jude, Der (1940) with Curt Bois.
  2. Curt Bois was in Great Sinner, The (1949) with Kenneth Tobey.
  3. Kenneth Tobey was in Hero at Large (1980) with Kevin Bacon.
This isn't that surprising.  The average Bacon number is 2.955, so in 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon, Hitler is pretty standard.

Now that we have the internet, 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon is a heck of a lot easier to play.  But while Google and Wikipedia have made 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon a simpler affair, it's created new games, such as Degrees to Hitler, which usually involves clicking on a random Wikipedia article and trying to navigate, through links, to Hitler's page.  (Variations of this game include trying to "pass through" waypoints.)

The inter-connectivity of Wikipedia has created a well-known phenomena: The Wiki Hole.  The Wiki Hole is also called the Rabbit Hole (a reference to the hole Alice falls into at the beginning of Adventures in Wonderland) or the Black Hole (because like a black hole, the informational hole is inescapable due to how fascinating it is).

Humans are hard-wired to want information.  We crave it like a drug and the internet is an opium den of endless information.  Wikipedia literally has lists of lists.  The metaphorical "hole" is one I fall down pretty regularly, often while researching information for my blog posts, and so I decided to go meta and talk about the most recent Wiki Hole I fell into while making this post.

Originally, this post was going to be about an architectural curiosity: The Widow's Walk.

The topic came up during board game night.  My favorite board game, currently, is called Betrayal at House on the Hill.  It's a cooperative board game wherein you explore a haunted house.

We take board games very seriously.
One house rule, for example, is that if you want to use the ghost goggles, you have to wear the ghost goggles.

Perfect game for this coming Halloween!

We recently purchased an expansion for the game called "Widow's Walk."  Andrew then asked me what a widow's walk is.

Now, I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but I have a passing interest in architecture and interior design.  I follow Kate Wagner's excellent McMansion Hell blog and I collect room porn, specifically neo-modern, open-plan designs.

What I'm trying to say here is, I'm a total badass.

So naturally I knew what a widow's walk was.  A widow's walk is a balcony built on top of a house or jutting off of a roof, and it's called a widow's walk because the wives of sailors would go up there and stare out at sea and wait to see if their husbands were going to return.  It's got a railing and in murder mysteries it's a good place to shove someone off of.

...this was my uninformed opinion of what the heck a widow's walk was and I was pretty accurate.

Except that the whole romantic story of the walk being used for its supposed purpose.  While widow's walks are prominent features of gothic romances, there's actually no historical record of them ever being used by the grieving, lovelorn wives of seafarers.  Widow's walks were also called Captain's Walks and said to be used by captains to view the incoming ships bringing goods.  But there's no record of the walks being used for this purpose, either.  In fact, the primary purpose appeared to be chimney access; the walks were built in close proximity to chimneys to allow for cleaning and, in the cases of chimney fires that went out of control, gave residents the chance to quell the flames with sand or dirt, saving the structure.

The widow's walk hit the height of popularity in coastal cities during the "Age of Sail," a period between the 16th and 19th centuries during which huge sailboats dominated merchant and naval fleets.  Unsurprisingly, Italy was a huge world power during this time, due to their long Mediterranean coast line and historical banking power that came from robust trade routes.

The Dutch fleet was the biggest in the 1500s and 1600s but they could never quite compete with Italy in terms of memes.
The crash of the tulip market in 1637 left the world trade market wide open for Italy.

The widow's walk was in fact derived from Italian architecture mainstay: the cupola.  A cupola is exactly what it sounds like.  It's a dome-like structure that sits on top of another structure (like an overturned tea cup).  Cupolas are everywhere.  Examples of cupolas include belfries, the little "angel seat" on a train caboose, the turret thingies on the top of minarets, and the ventilation caps on barns.

Bam!  Cupola!

There's even one on the ISS.  The "cupola module" is a misnomer, though, since there's no real "up" in space, and cupolas are by definition on the top of a building.

Anywho, one type of cupola is a belvedere.  A belvedere (literally, "fair view") is any structure built to be used as a vantage point.  A widow's walk is both a cupola (a structure atop a structure) and a belvedere (assuming that the shore is pretty, and/or the widow enjoys gazing upon the sea wherein her husband met his untimely death).  Early widow walks were literally just hatches that opened up onto rooftops that had railings, creating a vantage point.  The mythos surrounding it was just Victorian moroseness.  No one used their widow's walk / cupolas / belvederes to stare out to sea longingly.

 "Honey, will you build me a widow's walk?"
"A what?"
"A... a regular walk, I mean.  Totes hoping you don't die at sea."

Now here's where I fell into a Wikipedia Hole.  Up until this point I had spent several hours trying to figure out the subtle differences between a turret, a roof lantern, a belvedere, and a cupola.  But then I noticed that "belvedere" could also refer to Mr. Belvedere, a beloved fictional butler who got a 5-year sitcom run in the eighties, or Belvedere, a lithograph  by M.C. Escher.

M.C. Escher is the optical illusion guy, but I had no idea how contemporary his art was.  He lived until 1972 and some of his work was featured in Scientific American.  He was also a hilarious dick who complained about hippies and who got pissed when Mick Jagger wrote him a fan letter that addressed him by his first name, Maurits.  (“Please tell Mr. Jagger I am not Maurits to him.”)  While reading about his rather grumpy character, I fell into another hole.  

According to Steven Poole, the author of the above article, the lady in the gown who is ascending the stairs in the Belvedere lithograph is a tip of the stupid two-pronged hat to a lady in Hieronymus Bosch's triptych Garden of Earthly Delights.  If you want to fall into a well of information, start with this Wikipedia page, which contains such gems as this:

The focal point of the scene is the "Tree-Man", whose cavernous torso is supported by what could be contorted arms or rotting tree trunks. His head supports a disk populated by demons and victims parading around a huge set of bagpipes—often used as a dual sexual symbol[43]—reminiscent of human scrotum and penis. The tree-man's torso is formed from a broken eggshell, and the supporting trunk has thorn-like branches which pierce the fragile body. A grey figure in a hood bearing an arrow jammed between his buttocks climbs a ladder into the tree-man's central cavity, where nude men sit in a tavern-like setting. The tree-man gazes outwards beyond the viewer, his conspiratorial expression a mix of wistfulness and resignation.[48] Belting wondered if the tree-man's face is a self-portrait, citing the figure's "expression of irony and the slightly sideways gaze [which would] then constitute the signature of an artist who claimed a bizarre pictorial world for his own personal imagination".[43]
I'm guessing the Hitler Degree score on this page is like two or three.

Hitler painted cupolas.

As a kid who grew up with Where's Waldo, I decided to try to find the woman in the Bosch painting that Escher had supposedly copied.  I found her, but I don't believe that she was honestly "copied."  The women are both tiny and facing away from the viewer; the only indication they are the same woman is that they're wearing the same stupid hat.  But that stupid hat was part of high fashion back in Bosch's time.

 I circled her in red for you.  She's on the far right panel, center, on the pink Tree-Man.
Click for full size.

Some more digging revealed that this hat was called a butterfly hennin.

Hennins were coned headdresses (stereotypical "princess" hats) and were super popular in the 1400s.  Hennins could be a single cone, a double cone, or a rounded "flowerpot," which I like to think of as a "hair cupola."  It took me a long time to figure out the name for a hennin which is weird because hennins are featured prominently in popular culture to this day.

For example, Maid Marian in Disney's Robin Hood is wearing a butterfly hennin.  

Or maybe it's just her fox ears.  But I think it's a hennin.

Hennins were symbols of nobility and were considered an extravagant luxury, so it's no wonder a woman wearing one showed up in a "Hell" portion of Bosch's triptych; this was likely a condemnation of hedonism and indulgence.

 The burgundy cones is the hennin.  
The white cloth over it is a wimple.
Take away that wimple and this lady is a spitting image of the Bosch chick.

As for whether or not Escher purposely copied this lady, I'm doubtful.  Escher had seen the Bosch painting in 1922 but lots of portraits of noblewomen featured this particular hat so he could have been copying any number of Renaissance artists.  He didn't make Belvedere until 1958 and I find it hard to believe that he copied a tiny element of a huge painting he'd seen over thirty years ago.  Other writers have made the same case that Escher's woman was the same as Bosch's woman, but no one can confirm it, since Escher is dead and probably wouldn't comment on it anyway.

Regarding his lithograph Snow and his inspiration for it, he wrote: "During the winter of 1935-36, we were in the Swiss mountains, in that gruesome white snowy misery (I hate that white shroud that covers the earth) between high mountains, which I also hate."

Escher was basically Grumpy Cat,
a comparison he no doubt would have hated.

Regarding his lithograph Ascending and Descending, he wrote, “That staircase is a rather sad, pessimistic subject, as well as being very profound and absurd. With similar questions on his lips, our own Albert Camus has just smashed into a tree in his friend’s car and killed himself. An absurd death, which had rather an effect on me. Yes, yes, we climb up and up, we imagine we are ascending; every step is about 10 inches high, terribly tiring – and where does it all get us? Nowhere.” 

(Camus, you might recall, wrote "The Stranger" and is considered, alongside Sartre, to be the father of existentialism.  In a hugely existentialist move, he firmly denied he was an existentialist: "No, I am not an existentialist.")  

By this point my brain was a blob of  informational goo and I felt a bit like I was on one of Escher's staircases.  I'd gone from cupolas to Camus, from Bosch to butterfly hennins, and I accidentally saw some furry porn of Maid Marian along the way.  

Disney, you got some 'splaining to do.
I know she's a foxy lady but this is just too much, man.

And I still couldn't fully explain why a widow's walk is considered a cupola, when it appears cupolas have a roof, and a widow's walk, while enclosed by a balcony, lacks a roof, making it more of a belvedere or a lookout or a balcony than a cupola.

This is so extra.

I consulted Andrew, who said I should write my blog post on mosaic intelligence gathering.  I went to the Wikipedia page and discovered that the Mosaic Intelligence Gathering page has a Hitler Degree score of 3, and also that Stanley Lovell, the head of the OSS's Research & Development Branch, had an idea in 1942 to introduce estrogen into Hitler's food to deprive him of his trademark mustache.

"Can we perhaps get a pair of glasses into his office that will poke him in the eye or something?"  
"Not now, Johnson!  We're trying to figure out how to throw banana peels around Nazi tanks so they like, slide all over the place."
"Truly, war is hell."

It's tidbits of information like that make Wikipedia Holes so magnificently fun to fall into.  And it's also an important reminder that, with the whole of human knowledge at our fingertips, there's no excuse not to research things before we share them with each other.  Resources like PubMed where scientific abstracts are available for free are a good way to fact-check claims made by journalists, who often sensationalize scientific findings.  (Side note: most scientists are happy to send free copies of their papers if you e-mail them.) is another good source for fact-checking.

We may never know if Escher's woman and Bosch's woman are the same, but not for lack of trying.  And we can at least make the argument that their degree of separation score is lower than the average, which is pretty darn good.

Intentionally or not, they are sisters from another mister.  I like to think of them as a cupola and a belvedere: so similar that one might think of them as the same, yet with tiny distinctions that make them unique.  Case in point: Escher's lady is wearing a heavier robe with what appears to be a fur mantle, while Bosch's looks like she'd be better at putting out chimney fires.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Who was St. Guinefort?

If you love dogs and you have had any minimal exposure to Catholicism, you're probably already familiar with St. Francis of Assisi. In the Catholic church, God is considered to be rather too busy to always help you find your lost car keys, which is usually when people decide to pray, particularly when they're late. In response, the church decided to name saints: people who definitely, totally, are 100% in heaven and can petition God's help on your behalf. Because, you know, God might listen to them. It's weird to think of God as a busy businessman with lots of little secretaries taking calls but then again, the religion is largely based on people getting tempted by a talking snake's fruit, so it's best not to think too hard about it.

St. Francis is the patron saint of animals. He's often depicted as a statue in gardens, wearing a little monk robe, a bird perched on his shoulder. St. Francis was the Disney princess of saints and therefore got a really great gig in the animal department of God's mail room. (Lesser saints have been stuck with answering the prayers of beekeepers, bellmakers, and beltmakers. St. Drogo got landed double-duty with both the patronage of coffee houses and ugly people. Saints don't just have people or places of speciality; they also have actions. If you get attacked by wolves, ask St. Defendens for help, although you could also maybe ask Francis, who, legend has it, tamed a wolf named Gubbio. On the other hand, if it's pirates who are attacking you, forget Francis; you'll want to ask for Albinus, patron saint of not being attacked by pirates. Since most of us only ever call upon saints after a night of hard drinking, I will take this opportunity to note that St. Bibiana is the patroness of hangovers.)

I could go on and on about saints because there's somewhere in the range of 10,000 of them. No one even knows for sure because, when the church first began, getting to be a saint was not a formal process.  Official canonizations didn't begin until 993, probably when someone was like, "oh, man, we're gonna end up with too many saints if we don't make the entry requirements a little bit tighter, here."

(Side note: the first saint formally canonized by a pope was Ulrich, whose specialties include anyone from the city of Augsburg, Germany, as well as pregnant women or women in labor, and anyone who's been bitten by a rabid dog.)

But for the sake of keeping this blog post concise, I want to focus on a single character from history: St. Guinefort.

Don't worry if you've never heard of him.  He's fairly obscure; the Catholic church has been denying him for years, probably because he's a dog.

But don't they know...?

The formal stance of the Catholic church has traditionally been that animals lack souls or agency or free will and therefore cannot "earn" a ticket to heaven and therefore cannot be saints.  But that didn't stop the people of 13th-century Lyon, France, from proclaiming Guinefort to be a Good Boy.

Making them honorary Presbyterians and/or cult members.

Although you've never heard of Guinefort, you've almost definitely heard of a story similar to Guinefort's.  According to legend, Guinefort was a faithful greyhound.  One day, upon returning from a hunting trip, the knight who owned him arrived to his castle to discover his infant son lying on the floor of the nursery, crying, the room in disarray: overturned furniture, pieces of suits of armor everywhere, I assume.  I don't know what medieval nurseries looked like.

Anyway, the knight found Guinefort there, bloody and acting weird, so naturally, he took the dog outside and beheaded him.

Later, he found the body of a venomous snake in the room and realized what had happened: Guinefort had selflessly attacked the snake to save the baby and ended up dead.

This might remind you of the 1800s Welsh legend of Gelert, the dog who belonged to Llywelyn and was slain defending his son from a wolf.

Or it might remind you of the 1950s Disney movie Lady and the Tramp, in which Tramp narrowly avoids being put down after being falsely accused of harming a baby while, in fact, he was saving it from a rat.

Upon the realization that Guinesfort was innocent, the knight constructed an elaborate shrine to him in the forest, with lots of nice trees and suits of armor, probably.  Again, not really sure what a shrine would look like back then.

How do we know so much about Guinesfort?  For this, you can thank Dominican friar Stephen of Bourbon.  An inquisitor and prolific writer (mostly on medieval heresies), he wrote a treatise in 1260 titled " De Supersticione: On St. Guinefort," in which he describes in ghastly detail how local folks went to the dog as a patron saint of children.  They left children at the shrine, hoping they'd come back to find them healed or at least swapped out with another healthy baby or a suit of armor or something.  Clearly an instance of idol-worship, Stephen the inquisitor had the shrine destroyed, the bones of the dog dug up and burned.  People back then really did not fuck around.  (Credit to Stephen, though: he noted in his writing that the dog's killing was unjust and tragic considering his innocence, usefulness, and nobleness.)

Stephen the inquisitor was one of the nicer, less torture-y ones, so after he destroyed the grave, he told the locals to knock it off with their dog-saint legend and left it at that.  (He considered the locals to merely be confused and described their changeling child rituals as seduced or tricked by the devil; he noted that women with sick children made easy targets.)

For all of his remarkably understanding writing (for an inquisitor), Stephen made a huge mistake: by giving so much undue attention to a local legend, he ensured that people continued to believe in St. Guinefort miracles.  After all, why would the Catholic church go to all the trouble of digging up Guinefort's bones if there wasn't some sort of magic there?

Guinefort's "grave" was actually a well and you can't exactly dig up a well; the well remained and of course the trees regrew.  As recently as the late 1800s there was a rite for sick children called "St. Guinefort's Wood," where tree branches were knotted together to "bind" the child’s ailments. A doctor in Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne confirmed the last known instance of this rite in the 1940s.

Despite the church's crusty insistence that St. Guinefort wasn't a saint and anyone who prayed to a dog was basically in a cult, St. Guinefort slipped his way into Catholic folklore.  He shows up in legends of St. Roch, a man who lived in the mid-1300s and worked with plague victims.  He ended up with the plague himself and was driven into the forest to die, but his faithful dog brought him bread until God healed him, and then he went right back to helping plague victims.  He's generally depicted showing us some leg and with his faithful dog, commonly called Guinefort.

 Bottom right corner: a well-bread dog.

St. Roch is the patron saint of dogs and falsely accused people.  You know.  Like Guinefort.

I have always loved the tale of St. Guinefort for obvious reasons.  I love dogs and was raised Catholic and think this is a fascinating bit of history.

Back when I worked at a lab with animal specimens, I had a number of portraits over my desk including a portrait of St. Guinefort and a picture of the monument to research mice.  Just a reminder to myself about the nobility of animal sacrifice.

But recently St. Guinefort came up again under pretty hilarious circumstances and that's what the second half of this post is about.

Lately I've made a fair number of posts about, you know, changing your opinion, opening your mind up to learning, that sort of thing.  I'm willing to consider other viewpoints and, honestly?  Even if they're stupid (like astrology and crystal healing), I think that as long as it's not doing any harm, it's okay.

But woo, boy.  Woo, boy, oh boy.  I've got me a hot one.

In the 2019 LA Pup pack this year there is one member who is interested heavily in what I would call "occult Catholicism."  He was raised Catholic like me but I try not to engage him much because his brand of religion sounds like a video game mixed with a peyote trip.  He seems to believe in a lot of weird stuff.  Not acceptable, talking-snake-giving-a-chick-an-apple weird, but really weird.  Like, blood rituals and secret societies and stuff like that.  Hoodoo, basically.  (I won't get into specifics here as I don't want to give too many personal details, although I will say that he told me his grandmother could bring herself back to life and that he has a suit of armor in the Vatican, both of which strike me as... not very believable.)

Every interaction with this guy.

It's very weird when someone is passionately telling you about their crazy beliefs and you're suddenly in between a rock and a hard place.  Do you play along with their delusion?  Do you try to gently correct them and risk insulting them or hurting their feelings?  Me, I normally change the subject tactfully.

In about 90% of cases, deflection works like a charm.  I've never seen the show Preacher but I think the idea of doing a dog/God mashup is a great way to piss off both human pups and religious folk, who tend to not always get along so good.  I'm not even sure how the idea of dressing up as a "dog god" is mind-blowing, conceptually, because that's like... the premise of the show, which is pretty widely considered to be blasphemous and self-servingly controversial.

Anyway, I felt the legend of St. Guinefort was a pretty innocuous way to reach out to a person who might have their deacon's collar screwed on too tight.  It's vaguely religious in nature but secular enough to be enjoyed by all.  Little did I realize what I was in for. 

Ho-ly shit.

Now's probably a good time to mention that this person not only believes everything he says but he says a lot.  He's a pretty arrogant person who never skips an opportunity to tell everyone about how incredible he is.  (To be fair, I think this is a defense mechanism; he seems to have very low self-worth to me.)  (One time, we stepped out of a festival and I said, "Give me a moment to remember where I parked my car."  To which he pointed out the cardinal directions and told me, at length, how he was a master navigator.  Which was great but utterly useless to me.  "Oh, cool, I knew my car was north-northwest, let's go."  Like, gimme a break.)

And obviously, there's no way he could have studied "all" the saints.  As I mentioned, there's about 10,000.  And Guinefort isn't a saint; he's a heresy.  The church is very anti-Guinefort.

Also, read the room!  This was in a group chat with like 10 queer people.  Exorcisms are one of those practices that I believe is inherently harmful.  When it's not being used as a justification to torture homosexuals and the mentally ill, it's being used in place of actual medical treatment, making it a dangerous exercise.

Historically it's... let's just say problematic.  Not that I believe this guy ever has or ever will perform an exorcism, but his fantasies of being a vampire-hunting, demon-slaying Catholic superhero just slipped from comically awkward to something more sinister.

I decided not to touch the exorcism thing and focus instead on the Guinefort thing.

OH MY GOD.  He still wouldn't admit he was lying out his ass!  Like... I backed slowly away from your craziness and you doubled down on your lie.

Is it really that hard to just say "I've never heard of St. Guinefort?"  Considering the obscurity of the legend, I doubted that anyone knew.  And if he wanted to pretend to know already, a cursory Google search would have shown him that Guinefort's "sainthood" is purely honorary in nature.

As politely as possible I explained that Guinefort was not a saint but still he insisted he not only knew about Guinefort but had "studied" him.  (Again: the Catholic church documents the Guinefort legend as heresy and probably would have thought Guinefort believers themselves needed an exorcism.)

But he insisted that some shadowy "they" had taught him all about Guinefort already, so I said it was great he knew the legend and let it go.

After he starting talking about the occult studies I deflected again, this time with better success.

The Vicar of Nibbleswicke

I was so totally blown away by the interaction, from the casual mention of exorcisms in a roomful of gays leather daddies, to the insistent that his knowledge of the saints encompassed all ten thousand of them plus a few heresy dogs thrown into the mix.

In any case, it gave me an opportunity to talk here on my blog about Guinefort and his unhinged fella, who might want to possibly call on St. Dymphna to intercede on his behalf.