Monday, September 24, 2018

Getting Serious about Mental Health

I had a heck of a week, blog, let me tell you.

I often talk about mental health here.  I believe mental health disorders (more specifically, mood disorders) are one of the great problems of my generation.  I myself have them.  But this week I got to see the display of a full-tilt diva with mental health issues and it was as terrible and glorious as the crashing of the Hindenburg.

So remember the guy from the St. Guinefort post who believes in a lot of weird occult stuff and is super narcissistic and anti-social?

On September 13th he went and "tried to" kill himself.

He posted a "suicide note" on Facebook and then, when it got no reactions, he posted it in the group chat.  And also tagged his family members in the note.  That didn't go over well.

Tagged his mom and siblings.

Now, the reason I put the "tried to" and "suicide note" in quotes is this.  I do not believe that he was honestly serious.

I worked in mental health for two years and there's a difference between people who are trying because they really, truly want to die and those who are "trying" as a cry for help.  I don't want to understate the seriousness of an attempt; an attempt is an attempt.  And even if you're "only" trying in a "non-serious" attempt, there's always the possibility that your attempt will be successful and you'll die.

According to this guy (let's call him "Crazy Jeff" from now on) (although he VERY publicly tried to kill himself, I still try to respect people's privacy on this blog), he's had seven (seven!) past attempts.  I'm generally unsure on whether or not I can trust a damn thing he says, but that's not the point.  I'm not going to let my intuition steer the course here.

He told me, in no uncertain terms, that he planned to kill himself, and I responded in the only logical way.  (I called his bluff and then he called mine and then I called his.  Ahh the drama.)

Here was the experience on my end for any others who find themselves in the same position:

I called 911 and told them that someone I knew seemed imminently about to commit suicide.  I read them the chat log that I posted above.

The Los Angeles 911 dispatcher transferred me to the city he lives in (about forty minutes away from Los Angeles) and I was able to give his name, address, and some other personal info to the police, including identifying features and some of the medications he (claims) to be on, along with his claim that he's attempted before.  The phone call lasted a little longer than ten minutes.

They sent out a PET (Psychiatric Emergency Team) and told me that the dispatchers would return my call and follow up with me.

Well, that never happened.  I did end up speaking to his roommate/landlord about six hours later and gathered that when the police showed up, he had failed to tie a noose but had himself a big ol' length of nylon rope and a bucket to stand on and presumably overturn, if he ever figured out how to tie a noose.

This isn't really a laughing matter, 
but I would be remiss if I didn't use this occasion to share a few treasures from my very large collection of depression memes.

Those six hours were an anxiety-laced personal hell for me.  Not because I was worried about him.  I knew he was okay.  But because I was in the center of a drama that wasn't mine and I had to spend the next six hours as the main "point of contact" for concerned friends and family, all of whom took this threat completely seriously.  My own, personal emotion was one of overwhelming fury.  He was wasting my time and my emotional energy and forcing me to react to his stupid drama, and was dragging the well-being of all of his friends and family through the mud.  It was selfish and manipulative.  I described him to my therapist as being an "emotional predator."

 I totes wanted to spend my afternoon talking to his weeping family members.
Anywho, I reassured everyone and spoke to the roommate.  I relayed the number given to the roommate by the mental health professional on the scene to Crazy Jeff's mother and then informed everyone that he was safe and I was Audi 5000.

Incidentally, another guy within our same community actually did kill himself the following week.  What followed was a week-long hysteria of dramatic people pointing fingers at each other and wantonly accusing one another of "bullying" for no discernible purpose.  Shockingly, this failed to bring back the guy who had passed.

I downloaded Farmville during all this mess because I felt completely wrung out by everyone behaving so... shitty.  It was incredible, the inability to feel sympathy and lack of awareness on social media.  I stayed away from that mess, having already navigated through a similar drama.  For me, it was like avoiding a hurricane by trying to remain in its eye for the whole time.

The whole point of this post is really just to talk about how people SHOULD respond to suicide.  Too often, I see someone threaten or hint at suicide.  And everyone rushes to comfort them, offering ears to listen and shoulders to lean on.

Look, it's fine to be sympathetic, but you are not a licensed mental health professional and reacting to cries for help in this manner only reinforces the behavior as an appropriate way to get attention.  Mental health crises should be treated as crises, not like a teenage girl's first break-up.

If you or another person is experiencing suicidal ideation, DO NOT DELAY in getting professional mental health intervention. You can call the suicide hotline and they will help you find psychotherapy and psychiatric resources.  If someone says, "Thinking of ending it all!" then it is not your job to "talk them out of" it.  It is your job to try to get them the help they need.

Not like this.

If you or another person is SUICIDAL or having suicidal tendencies (ie, engaging in self-destructive behavior or actively planning suicide or imminently about to commit suicide), call 911.

Emotional support is important but is no substitute for mental health intervention or qualified long-term treatment. The best way to support people experiencing psychological crisis is to encourage them and support them in seeking long-term treatment.

Don't milk the drama.

When you call the suicide hotline, in fact, one of the first questions they ask is if you have planned out how to kill yourself or not.  This is to determine if you are having suicidal ideation only, or if you are truly suicidal.

Personally, I think Crazy Jeff is only experiencing suicidal ideation.  Unfortunately, suicidal ideation usually progresses if it's left untreated to (you guessed it!) actually being suicidal.

He was placed on a 72-hour psychiatric hold and then released.

Here's what that looked like.

The Tuesday after the Thursday he tried to kill himself and he's better than ever?!
No apologies, no reassurances, just the usual self-absorption.  
This is some bullshit.

Crazy Jeff aside, I hope that my actions demonstrated what actual help looks like.  It doesn't look like engaging in kind and meaningless platitudes.  It means action.

For some, it's hard to understand how mental health works, so let me translate this into physical health to better explain it.

Imagine your friend is sick with a virus.  People who have depression, anxiety, et cetera are sick.  You, as a friend, try to comfort your sick friend, right?  That's normal.

But now let's say their virus is getting worse.  They took a week off work and they're throwing up constantly and can't keep anything down and they're looking really fucking bad.  They aren't getting better.  This is what suicidal ideation looks like.  This is the point where you stop trying to merely comfort them and help them get to a doctor because it's clear your own personal care won't be enough and you're not seeing any improvement over time.

Being suicidal?  That's like if you walked in to your friend's house and your friend was lying face-down in a puddle of vomit, unresponsive.  At this point you don't try to comfort them; you call 911.

Saying you have a plan or are imminently about to kill yourself is the ebola of mental health.

With a generation of sad existentialists wandering zombie-like through their lives, we talk a lot more about depression and suicide.

But we need to talk more about the appropriate reaction to it.  De-stigmatizing it doesn't mean letting people get away with talking about doing it in earnest.  It means being more aware of the subtle differences between suicidal ideation and actual suicide, and responding in the most appropriate way to ensure the other person gets help.  It means finding and giving ourselves the tools and resources to help ourselves and each other.  It means knowing when to say your platitudes won't be enough, and directing people to call the Suicide Hotline, text the Crisis Line, or contact a local psychotherapist to get long-term counseling.  It also means protecting ourselves from potential emotional predators and manipulative people, who use threats of suicide to garner attention.

I have been to some pretty dark places in my life and while comfort and sympathy was nice, in the long run, what got me pulled out of my depression was psychiatric intervention.  I take anti-depressants and I see a licensed mental health professional once a week.  I do that because I recognized when I was experienced suicidal ideation and decided it was time to make a change.  And that change didn't mean posting about it on social media and asking people to validate me and tell me how treasured I am.  It meant seeking medical intervention.  Something I hope people people who are plagued with mental health issues do.

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.