Monday, May 28, 2018

I Ink, Therefore I Am

Tattoos are a deliciously polarizing topic.

Some people LOVE them.  Some people HATE them.

Regardless of what you think, the reality is, tattoos have been around for over 5,000 years and are currently booming in popularity.  23% of Americans have at least one tattoo.  And as of this year, more than half (53%) of Americans under the age of 30 have a tattoo.  If this sounds exaggerated to you, then you should be aware that about 75% of people get tattoos placed where they can be hidden: an ankle or a shoulder, for example.

Tattoos work by placing ink into the dermis of the skin using a needle.

This process ranges from irritable to downright painful.  When you get a tattoo, the initial tattoo with look shiny and leak a little bit of serum, blood, and ink.  As it heals, it scabs and gets itchy.  Eventually it peels away leaving the permanent tattoo in place.

Tattoos can take hours.  And you don't get anesthetic.

The earliest evidence of tattooing is seen on Otzi the ice man, below.  Born sometime around 3,000 BC, Otzi has several tattoos... 61, in fact, including bands on his wrists and torso, and a small cross on his ankle.

Since then, tattoos have been prevalent in cultures throughout the world.  They have been used as coming-of-age rituals, ways to identify slaves, prisoners, or criminals, ways to honor one's achievements, ways to identify oneself as being a member of a certain tribe, and have even been thought to have spiritual properties.  (Which makes sense, when you consider that a) the pain of getting a tattoo means you get a massive relief of endorphins, which makes you feel better, and b) the needles may be doing double-duty as acupuncture.)

Here are just some of many examples of multicultural tattoos:

In Papua New Guinea, Koita women with a  V-shaped tattoo on the chest indicate that she had reached marriageable age.  Although children were tattooed as early as four or five, the distinctive "V" marking was a coming-of-age tattoo for women.

In Polynesia, Somoan Tongan warriors were tattooed form the waist to the knees with a series of geometrical patterns.  Tattoos artists were on par with tribal elders or holymen; it was a coveted position passed down among generations.

Maori ta moko is ink chiseled into the skin, leaving raised scars.  Elaborate linework tells a story; every person's moko is different, which different styles of lines carrying different meanings.  Note, for example, the ladder-like lines on the nose; this design is called ahu ahu mataroa and it represents athletic achievement or prowness.

In Kalinga, Phillipines, the Butbut tribe tattoos with thorns, soot and a bamboo hammer.  Tattoos were earned by protecting villages, killing enemies, or demonstrating feats of valor.

Let's be clear: although all the examples above are "tribal" in nature, it's not like tattoos were exclusive to the Philippines or to Africa.  Native Americans got tattoos; Japanese geisha got tattoos; Norse Vikings got tattoos.

4channers get memes.

Tattoos are growing increasingly more popular and socially acceptable, so I'd like to talk about some of the interesting meanings behind them, as well as tips and tricks I've learned in the course of my own adult life.  (I have 9 tattoos.)

What Tattoos Mean

  •  Swallow: Not a sex thing, like you might have been told at a college frat party.  The swallow is gotten by sailors to demonstrate experience: it represents having traveled over 5,000 nautical miles; having two swallows represented 10,000 nautical miles.
  • Anchor: Ships are usually a symbol of overcoming adversary.  ("A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.")  Anchors are more interesting.  You'll often see anchors with a phrase like "I Refuse to Sink."  This might seem confusing, until you know the history behind it.  Most anchor tattoos include a length of rope.  In extreme storms, sailors would be forced as a last-ditch effort to save themselves to cut the anchor, because if it caught on something, it could capsize the ship.  Therefore, the imagery of a cut anchor is a symbol of overcoming extreme adversary against seemingly insurmountable odds... or about doing something desperate or brave to save oneself.  I personally LOVE the cut anchor story and wish more people knew it.  Anchors WITHOUT a rope attached symbolize stability and may include the name of someone special.  (This is where the iconic "MOM" tattoos on sailors comes from.)  Traditionally, members of the US Navy get an anchor after crossing the Atlantic Ocean
  • A diamond with the lines extended: this is called the Greek symbol of Inguz and it means "Where there's a will, there's a way."
  • Feather: generally purity, probably because of the association with angel wings, or because of the associated with Osiris, the Egyptian god of the Underworld, who weighed the souls of the dead against a feather.
  • Semicolon: often used to denote a bout of depression or unsuccessful suicide attempt.  The semicolon is an indication of a stop and then a continuation.
  • Triangle, or triangle with an opening: the "delta" symbol means change; an unfinished delta symbol means "open to change."
  • Triangle with a line on the top making a smaller triangle: a glyph, representing exploration and a desire to explore.
  • Compass: self-explanatory love of travel or wanderlust.
  • Lotus: enlightenment or "rising above" adversary.  (The lotus blooms in muddy waters and harsh conditions.)
  • Koi: in Japanese mythology, the koi fish is actually considered a masculine symbol.  Like trout, koi swim upstream to mate, so the koi is a symbol of determination, motivation, and a drive to succeed.
  • Cobweb on the elbow: this is a prison tattoo typically commemorating long sentences.
  • Astrology symbol: you are willing to buy/sell crystals. 
  • Winnie the Pooh / Eeyore / Tweety Bird: Your bus is late and you shop at Wal-Mart.
  • Barbed wire on the arm: a symbol that you chew tobacco and are willing to share, provided that Marlene hasn't cleaned out your truck recently and tossed your precious chaw.
  • Tramp stamp: You love Disney.

 Getting a tattoo is a permanent decisions so here are some tips for those of you thinking about it:

DO: Consider the location of the tattoo itself.  Areas that stretch like your belly are going to warp the tattoo later in life.  Also consider how the location of the tattoo affects your career prospects.  A facial tattoo is one you should really, really think about before you get it.  Typically, you should know WHAT you want and WHERE you want it for several months, if not a year.

Unless it's an arc reactor and then you should obviously get it on your chest.
(Side note: I have an arc reactor tattoo!)

DO: Research your tattoo artist and work with them to make your tattoo.  Tattoo artists are not merely needle technicians; they can help you draw and finalize your tattoo design.  A good artist will usually want at least one consultation before plastering a tattoo on you.

DO: Be willing to shell out a lot of cash.  Including tip.  That's right: tattoo artists are meant to be tipped.  Fun story: I got a $60 tattoo when I was 19.  Ten years later, I shelled out about three or four hundred to fix it.  FIXING TATTOOS IS DIFFICULT AND PAINFUL.  Get it done right the first time, with the awareness that most tattoos will take a few hours and a few hundred dollars.

 See this shit?  EASILY a thousand bucks.  EASILY.

DO: Check placement and grammar.  Tattoo artists will place a temporary ink tattoo on your skin and then trace it with the needle.  If you don't like it, tell them.  They'll wipe it off and replace it.  If you're getting anything written, triple- and quadruple-check the grammar and spelling.

 Don't get a "MARGLE" tattoo.

DO: Be aware that you will likely feel woozy or dizzy afterwards.  Like giving blood, you'll want to drink some Gatorade and have a snack afterwards.  You'll also want to be careful not to let the tattoo stick to any clothes or sheets; the first day, there's a lot of leakage, and peeling away cloth from the skin is painful.  Plus, it totally ruins the cloth.

DON'T: Be drunk or intoxicated.  Duh.  A good artist will not do it if you are impaired; it is illegal.

DON'T: Get the name of a living person, unless it is your own name.  I'm serious.  I don't care how fucking in love you are; this is just ASKING for trouble.

DON'T:  Get a portrait.  They rarely come out well.  Also, remember, tattoos look best in the first year.  Over time, the ink can fade and "bleed."  Even an incredible portrait will slowly start to look shittier over time and possibly require touch-ups, so consider getting something representative of a person instead.

DON'T: Copy another person's tattoo.  Tattoos are personal.  It's okay to draw inspiration but generally considered rude to copy one you saw online.

BE AWARE THAT: Sleeves are done in multiple sessions and take a LOT of time and money.

BE AWARE THAT: Tattoo regret is a thing but it doesn't have to be.  I have some tattoos that are less meaningful to me now than they were than when I got them.  However, like scars, tattoos tell a story.  I got a dumb dragon tattoo on my leg when I was a teenager, and while I would never do that nowadays, that's who I was when I was nineteen.  If you're getting a tattoo, be aware that you, as a person, will change with time, and be capable of loving your past self.  This will prevent tattoo regret.

BE AWARE THAT: UV ink is super cool... and also completely untrustworthy.   According to the FDA, "many pigments used in tattoo inks are industrial-grade colors suitable for printers' ink or automobile paint."  UV ink is reactive and carries a higher risk than regular inks.  (The second most common ink people react badly to, for the record, is red.)  UV ink is also more painful to get and can take longer and require multiple sessions to stick.  (One of my tattoos has UV ink and after 2 sessions it is only BARELY visible.)  A lot of tattoo artists refuse to do UV ink at all.

BE AWARE THAT: The most important thing is that you love your tattoo.  Don't let others discourage you from getting a tattoo you really want.  It's your body to love. 

This is the best goddamn tattoo I've ever seen.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Borderline Personality Disorder

Ah, the month of May.

A notable month because it contains my birthday (which I share with Tony Stark), as well as Andrew's birthday (which he shares with his twin brother), as well as National Brain Tumor Awareness Month (which it shares with Skin Cancer Awareness, Garden for Wildlife, Foster Care, and Haitian Heritage).

But I would like to talk about two things closer to home than Golf or Burgers.  (Yes, May is also Golf Month and Burger Month.)

May is Mental Health Awareness  Month and, even more obscurely, it's Borderline Awareness Month.

Most people have never heard of Borderline Personality Disorder, or if they have, they've confused its acronym, "BPD," with bipolar disorder.

 Bethlehem Police Department.

Borderline is one of those harder-to-define disorders, one of those you'll-know-it-when-you-see-it types that lacks an identifiable mechanism and therefore a clearly defined treatment.  Highly stigmatized, it's a lifelong disorder of thinking that is often stereotyped even among therapists; in fact, some therapists refuse to work with these patients, as they are high-risk and often resistant to treatment.

Let's dive in!

First of all, let's talk about what it looks like.  You might have seen Girl, Interrupted, in which the main character is diagnosed with BPD.  She famously asks, "Borderline between what and what?"


People with BPD commonly suffer from mood swings and uncertainty about how they see themselves and their role in the world. As a result, their interests and values can change quickly. Combined with very black-and-white thinking, I think the "borderline" moniker comes from the tendency to polarize emotions, thoughts, opinions, relationships, and self.

You only need 5 out of 9 traits from the DSM to get diagnosed, but the truth is, BPD is one of those things that's remarkably easy to identify once you know what you're looking for.  Diagnosis can be tricky because many of the symptoms are themselves disorders: things like depression, anxiety, alcoholism, et cetera.  And some common traits, such as the tendency to obsess over a person (more on this later) are not in the DSM at all.

BPD has often been called "psycho bitch" or "crazy ex-girlfriend" disorder, and I'd like to take this opportunity to say that the Netflix show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is actually the best goddamn portrayal of BPD I have ever seen in media.  The main character, Rebecca, is highly intelligent and creative, with a tendency to manipulate others and self-sabotage.  She obsesses over her ex Back in season 1, I was saying, gee, she seriously appears to have BPD.  By season 2, I felt that the writers knew what they were portraying.  And then, in season 3, the main character actually gets diagnosed.  Called it!

Hopefully in season 4 we'll see some of the treatment process.  BPD is not something that you can treat with pills (although pharmaceuticals may be used to treat symptoms such as depression).  The main treatment involves long-term therapy: CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) or DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy, which for a long time I thought was some sort of Scientology thing).

Do yourself a favor and don't Google image search "CBT."

One of the reasons I like the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is that it does a good job highlighting the non-clinical signs of BPD.  People with BPD tend to be intelligent, and creative.  The lack of "self" lends itself well to a rich inner fantasy life, portrayed in the show as colorful, incredible musical numbers within Rebecca's mind.

Rebecca's ability to manipulate others lends itself well to the phenomenon of making instant close connections with people that are later fraught with conflict.  Her highs are high and her lows are lows.  She suffers from depression yet also from a deterministic streak, often going to insane (ha!) lengths to get what she wants (for better or for worse).

And, of course, the central theme of the show is Rebecca's obsession with her ex, Josh.  Josh is her Favorite Person, a term widely used in BPD communities to refer to the object of one's obsession.  The tendency to obsess over a person or idea is a HUGE player in the life of someone with BPD, which is where the "crazy ex" stereotype comes from.  (Fun BPD activity: push people's limits so you know at what point they'll leave you!  ...oh crap, you just pushed them away!  Respond by having a big freak-out to win them back!)

Like just about any other personality trait (or set of traits), BPD can be harnessed and used for good, when people who have it get the right help and have a strong, steady support network.

For example, although 1 out of 10 eventually commit suicide, 
the other 9 out of 10 have a crazy strong meme game.

I think that, although it's a personality disorder that is heavily stigmatized and difficult to treat, the advent of the internet has lent itself well to various support communities and a better ability to share and understand the triggers and personality traits associated with BPD.

Including, but not limited to:
BPD is, like any other disorder, not fun, not easy, and not to be taken lightly.  However, it is treatable, and although people who suffer from it can be difficult at times, I'm inclined to believe that the world is slowly finding better ways to help people manage their demons.  Personality disorders are rarely as strong as the people they inhabit, and with growing awareness of the symptoms and treatment options, I have a lot of hope for the future of those who suffer.

 Always relevant.

Monday, May 14, 2018

On Guns

In light of the recent viral sensation, Childish Gambino's "This is America," I have decided to make a blog post on gun violence in America.

It's a polarizing issue, with some people calling for an outright ban on guns and others refusing even marginally more regulation, citing Second Amendment freedoms.

My own opinion is, as usual, somewhat moderate.

I don't think we should make guns illegal but I also think it's reasonable to ask for more regulation and more difficulty in obtaining a gun. For example, you are not allowed to drive a car without getting a license, and you have to take a test to get a license. Why isn't there a test and license for gun ownership?

I personally would like the following:
  • a federally instituted waiting period for obtaining a firearm.
  • a state-issued license or permit to own and operate a firearm, similar to a driver's license, which would require an initial test to demonstrate competency and safety knowledge, as well as a periodic refresher course.
  • a national OR state registry.  Again, similar to the DMV's registration process for vehicles.  Since many guns are obtained from interstate traffickers, a national registry makes more sense to me, but I understand how this is a difficult law to get on the books.  So let's start with a state registry.
  • an enforced requirement that guns be safely stored by their owners. 
  • government buy-back programs to reduce the number of guns in America.  (Guns bought secondhand are the most likely to be used in crime; people should be able to safely sell their guns back to the government or to gun shops.  A gun shop subsidy for buy-backs might be a good compromise if people don't want to give up their unwanted guns to the government.)
  • stricter sentencing for "straw" purchasers.  (Again, this is currently very hard to enforce because of a lack of any sort of ownership registry.)  

Many people will point out that some states already have laws similar to these, but they are poorly enforced and not universal to all states.  Also, there's no federal registry; gun ownership registries are kept on hard copies by the seller, which means that, if a gun is used in a crime, the investigation is slowed by the unnecessary bureaucracy of trying to track down registration and license records from the seller.  If the seller has gone out of business, the hardcopy records end up in state archives.

The Firearm Owners' Protection Act of 1986, aka FOPA, is an amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968.  FOPA makes it illegal for the national government or any state in the country to keep any sort of database or registry that ties firearms directly to their owner.  People who whine about the Second Amendment should be aware that it was only in the eighties that we decided against a registry, even though there's every indication that such a registry would be hugely beneficial to federal criminal investigations.  Most people who are against a registry seem to think that this is a bad idea because the government will then know how many guns they have.  Which is exactly the point.  And let's be real.  The government already knows. 

We live in the information age.  Every time you post to Facebook, the government learns a little bit more about you.  Need proof?  Look no further than the targeted advertising you see every time you log on to the internet.

This is my actual "recommended" list from Amazon.
Apparently it thinks I need cockroaches, inflatable toast, a terrifying medical baby, and an electronic pickle.
...yeah, I'm definitely on a watchlist.

People against any sort of gun regulation will argue that criminals will get guns no matter what.  And it's true.  Criminals get drugs no matter what, also. But when drugs are illegal, they are harder to get.  And while it's true most criminals already get guns illegally, the lack of any sort of national gun registry or gun database means that interstate trafficking and private sales are made fairly easy, and the suppliers themselves can avoid persecution.

In a perfect world, the guy who handed the Winter Soldier this semi would be a felon.

To the people who say gun control "doesn't work," I ask them, then, why not give it a whirl and see what happens?

We see a strong correlation between gun deaths and gun ownership.  This does not, of course, equal causation.  I personally think that gun culture in America is fairly diseased.  Our fetishization of guns is part of the problem.  To be fair, our nation was born from gun violence; we literally founded our country after overturning the government using guerilla militias.  So, you know.  Historically, it makes sense for Americans to be wary of the government and obsessed with home militias, although, in this day and age, with drones and tanks and all that, I'm not sure a stockpile of hanguns is going to do much good if it comes down to a standoff between you and Uncle Sam.

I'd like to tell a personal anecdote now.  Earlier in the year, there was an actual drive-by shooting on my block, two houses down from mine.  I have an English penpal and I had been intending to write to her that evening but, because the police had cordoned off the street, I was unable to get home.

My initial reaction, as both an American and a millennial, was pure annoyance at the inconvenience of the situation.  When I finally got home after a few hours, I wrote to my friend that I had been delayed coming home due to a drive-by, and she was like, "Oh, yes, traffic sucks."

My English friend did not even know what a drive-by was.

Drive-by shootings are so common to our urban culture that we have shortened slang for it.

When I explained to her that I basically live in the Wild, Wild West, she was shocked and appalled.

Incidentally, that movie has a lot of gun and perfume and steampunk spider violence.

I don't know why Americans are so convinced that they need guns to defend themselves.  Everyone else in the world seems to be doing okay with more restricted gun access.  Why are we so paranoid, so convinced our freedom will be taken away?   It's not like Europe is a totalitarian regime of unimaginable horror.  Yet Americans seem convinced that we're one gun regulation away from the total collapse of civilization as we know it.

Let's look at some statistics.  In America, 2/3rd of gun owners cite "personal protection" or "safety" as their reason for owning a gun (or multiple guns, which is baffling, as the average American has onl two hands with which to wield them).

In 2015, 102 people were killed during home invasions in the US, compared to 505 killed by accidental gun discharge.  (For those wondering, the 102 killed during home invasions were NOT necessarily killed by a gun.)

Not necessarily a gun.

In other words, if you are scared of dying in a home invasion, and buy a gun, congrats. You are now statistically 5 times more likely to die. Good job.

"But it won't happen to me!" cries the average American, setting down their Budweiser indignantly.

That's why the FBI stats make a distinction for "accidental discharge." Because those 500 deaths were people who thought it wouldn't happen to them. Those were people who didn't want to die.

As for those who DO want to die, in 2015 there were about 22,000 suicides by gun alone. "Expert gun owners" are 44 times more likely to get bummed out and kill themselves on purpose than on accident. These are often people who are experts in a literal sense: there's an overwhelming number of veterans, for example, who know exactly what they're doing when they pull the trigger.

As for whether or not guns actually prevent crime when placed in the hands of "expert" gun owners, well... annually there's about 250 "justified homicides" according to the FBI. These are situations where a gun was used "in self defense." This includes but is not limited to home invasions.

I think the math speaks for itself. About 1/3 Americans own a gun. Every year, twice as many accidentally kill themselves than defend themselves.

You are more likely to get hit by lightning than to ever have an armed gunman try to break into your house. You would be better off buying a lightning rod than a gun. Can't accidentally kill yourself with a lightning rod, as far as I know.

Norway has some of the strictest gun laws in the world.
The Norse mostly just defend themselves with hammers.

Let me play Devil's Advocate for a moment and mention that total defensive gun uses are generally held to significantly exceed the number of justifiable homicides and include things like warding someone off via brandishing (but not using) the weapon.  55,000 instances per year tends to be the low-end estimate.

However, it's difficult to say what constitutes "defensive gun use." I used homicide rates because they've got an objective and measurable use. DGU research is a bit wishy-washy for my taste and relies pretty heavily on self-reporting and assumptions.

The implication here seems to be that, in the extremely unlikely (more unlikely than being struck by lightning) event that your home was invaded by someone whose intent was to kill you, then it would behoove you to have a gun. This makes logical sense to me.

However, the suicide odds ratio is higher than the homicide avoidance odds ratio. Which brings me back to my original hypothesis that having a gun in the home is probably more dangerous than beneficial.  And while I'm not at all against people owning guns, I think that the idea that they are needed for protection is utterly ridiculous. And I think we need much, much better regulation, as evidenced by the amount of people getting killed by guns meant to "protect" them.

You can protect yourself with measures other than guns.

Ultimately, it's political rhetoric that is one of the things most likely to doom good policies on gun control. (To say nothing of conversations ABOUT the policies.)  Regardless of where you stand on the subject of gun control, I think everyone should support political candidates willing to talk, listen, and push towards finding a better objective model of the costs and benefits of firearms ownership, separate from political rhetoric. 

At this point in time, emotions are high and the issue has become a partisan one, with people on either side unwilling to compromise.  And if you'll excuse the pun, it's the disenfranchised American who is caught in the crossfire.

I say "disenfranchised" because many of the victims of gun violence are children who cannot vote on issues that affect them.  In the Parkland Florida shooting in February, for example, 13 of the 17 killed were too young to vote.  And here's some other disturbing stats:

  • Alyssa played soccer
  • Martin had a younger brother.
  • Nick had been accepted to the University of Indianapolis.
  • Jennifer went by "Jaime."
  • Luke loved Lebron James.
  • Cara was a dancer.
  • Gina had "spa days" with her mom.
  • Joaquin was naturalized as a US citizen in January 2017 and had an Instagram dedicated to artistic urban graffiti.
  • Alaina was active in JRTOC and volunteered after Hurricane Irma.
  • Helena shielded her best friend, Samantha, with a textbook. Samantha survived.
  • Alex loved roller coasters and played trombone in the marching band.
  • Carmen received a letter one day after her death declaring her a National Merit finalist. She never got to read it.
  • Peter was shot while holding a door open for classmates to run to safety. He was in JROTC.
Oh shit sorry those weren't statistics; those were facts about the 13 kids who are dead now.

On the four "adults" we lost:
  • Meadow was 18 and had been accepted to Lynn University. She posted tweets about it 1 day before being killed.
  • Scott was 35. He was a geography teacher who was murdered while escorting students to safety.
  • Aaron was 37-yr-old assistant coach. He used himself as a shield to protect students who were being fired at.
  • Chris was a 49-yr-old Naval reservist who had been deployed to Iraq in 2007. He had given students lunch money and rides to school.
So, please explain to me why having your guns taken away is more important than any one of these people being taken away. Please explain to me how guns protected these individuals. Please explain to me why you still believe there's NOT something very, very wrong and very, very sick about our culture.

 Presented without comment.

I believe that if we want to keep our guns and uphold the Second Amendment, then it is critical that we pull our heads out of our asses and start trying to reach regulatory compromises (such as safe storage, or gun buy-back programs to reduce the number of guns) before it's too late.  Because, sooner or later, people are going to get sick of gun violence and ban them outright (as most developed countries already have).

I believe that it is in the best interest of BOTH parties, as well of the best interest of the American people and the Second Amendment itself, to push for reasonable federal regulation.

The stance that "something needs to change" is a non-partisan one, in my opinion.

As usual, if you are reading this and don't agree, then no judgement. If you would trade in any one of these individuals for your AR-15 then feel free to say so. But I want you to admit it, boldly and unapologetically, that the cold aluminum semi-automatic rifle you're clutching is valued more than the 17 American lives we lost that the Second Amendment was designed to protect in the first place.
If you can admit to that without shame, you may keep your weapon, and may God have mercy on your soul.