Monday, January 28, 2019

Animorphs Was my Favorite Book Series

The first Harry Potter book was published in the United States in the summer of 1998.  (It had come out a year earlier in the UK.)  I think I was about 12 and I remember hearing about it, because my mother worked in a book store.

"I just read a book about a boy who finds out he's a wizard," she said.

"That sounds dumb," I replied.

That Halloween, my little brother went as Harry Potter, with a cape, a lightning-bolt scar, and a golden broom.  No one had any clue who he was because Harry Potter books were not part of the cultural zeitgeist yet.

In any case, I was already deeply invested in a sci-fi series called Animorphs.  Animorphs was first published in 1996.  I had picked up Animorphs #2 at a large chain store (a Wal-Mart or a Target) because of the cover, which featured a blond-haired person transforming into a gray cat.  (I was blond and had a gray cat.)  I was immediately hooked.

Animorphs books were written similarly to R.L. Stine's Goosebumps books.  They had no pictures, but they also had large, easy-to-read sans serif fonts,  and short chapters (only a two or three pages each) with cliff-hanger endings.  This made them easy to binge-read; a single Animorphs book was usually between 100 and 200 pages, but could be read in a single day.

I was very into Animorphs, right down to having a pair of gerbils named after two of the characters.  (Elfangor and Aximili.)  The book dealt with themes I liked very much: changing into animals, having secrets, high-stakes urban guerilla warfare, alien invasions, and intense emotional stakes.

Lol, gorilla warfare.

The plot, for those not familiar with it already, is as follows.  A group of teens encounter an alien who reveals to them that another alien race is secretly invading earth.  The invading aliens, called Yeerks, are parasitic worms who crawl into people's ears and take over their bodies.  Because Yeerks interface with the brain directly, they can access people's thoughts and memories, and control the body like a puppet, leaving the host in a "locked-in" state.  There is no way to tell who is Yeerk-controlled.  The alien gives the teens the power to turn into animals and, with his dying breath, begs them to fight against the invading aliens, at least until back-up arrives.

The demographic for this book was preteens.  Despite the simple language of the book, the themes were complex and often exceptionally dark.  In Book #1, for example, after the alien dies, the teens hide and watch as a bunch of Yeerk-controlled aliens show up and eat their new friend alive.  There was a whole race of ravenous, cannibalistic termite-like aliens who would become bloodlusted and eat animals alive if they became sufficiently wounded.  That happened, like, every other book.

Here are some other nightmare highlights from the series, courtesy of Reddit:
  • There are graphic battle scenes, including such classics as Jake getting eviscerated while in the form of a tiger, and a termite alien getting severed in half and then the front half eating the back half.
  • In the first book, Tobias is imprisoned in the form of a hawk and slowly loses his own humanity, eating roadkill to survive.  When he regains the ability to turn into a human, he can no longer form human facial expressions.
  • Marco's mother faked her own death and is actually controlled by an alien.  Eventually, the kids confront her, pushing her off of a cliff to kill the alien while a sobbing Marco is held down by Jake.
  • In the form of a fly, one of the characters gets swatted and is smeared against a ceiling.
  • One of the characters almost gets trapped as a flea and when he tries to change back into a human, turns into a giant flea that begins to collapse under the weight of its own body.
  • The heroes recruit disabled kids to help them since the Yeerks have no need for disabled bodies.  The ability to morph fixes many of their disabilities but they have to continue to live their lives as disabled so that no one finds out.
  • One of the kids the Animorphs recruit turns on them, so they imprison him in the body of a rat.  For two hours, the kids sit with the rat as it begs to be let go, then abandon it on an island completely alone.  The island is rumored to be haunted because of the psychic screams of the human trapped in a rat's body.
  • One of the main heroes, Rachel, contemplates sticking a fork into the ear of another person and twisting it.  (The person is David, who is later imprisoned as a rat.)
  • One of the characters end up shrunken in her own friend's stomach and experiences her eyeballs being digested out of her head with stomach acid.
  • An alien spends a few centuries hanging from the parasitic tentacle of a much bigger alien, surrounded by millions of rotting corpses attached to its other moon-spanning tendrils. They engage in mental warfare until one finally absorbs the other completely.
  • A peaceful robot willingly removes its inhibition against violence to help in the war, only to slaughter a huge number of alien-controlled humans so gruesomely that nobody dares think about or speak of it again and it is the only thing left undescribed in a book series that already describes entrails getting torn out and skulls getting smashed.
  • The kids discover Atlantis, then discover that Atlanteans are inbred mutants who paralyze any humans they find, dissect them alive to figure out how their organs work, then stuff the corpses as kitschy museum displays for their children.
  • An ordinary ant gets transformed into a human child. It has no idea what’s happening and is so overwhelmed by its huge new brain and sensory input that it can only scream until it dies.
  • Rachel morphs into a starfish, gets split it half, and ends up as two Rachels. One is a complete psychopath. The other gets to tell the last chapter, when they get reunited, and is terrified that the bad one is a part of her again.  She cuts off her own arm and beats the first Rachel with it.
  • When the kids turn into ants or termites they are subjected to a hive mind and temporarily lose their sense of self.  Cassie  freaks out so bad she begins demorphing inside of a piece of wood.
  • One of the kids gets taken by a Yeerk and the kids tie up Jake until the living slug inside of him starves to death.  During that time, Jake is in a locked-in state with only his captor for company.
  • The alien, Ax, gets sick with a brain tumor and one of the kids does brain surgery on him in her barn using a bone saw.
  • Torture and genocide.  Like, plenty of it.
If you want more, here's a list.  And this list isn't even comprehensive.


If you're interested in reading the books as an adult, have at it, I say!  The language is incredibly simple; they are children's books and they read like children's books.  I tried to re-read them as an adult and had a hard time of it because of the simplicity of the syntax.  But if you're okay with that, then the broader themes and plots are worth it.

I also want to give credit where credit is due to the author, who did an incredible job of parsing out the scientific elements of her work.  The ability to change into animals, for example, involved the reconstruction of DNA base pairs; extra mass, which can't be destroyed or created, went to another dimension called zero-space.  Zero-space acted as a sort of interdimensional closet and also explained how aliens had the ability to go faster than the speed of light; they couldn't.  They made space jumps with z-space.  I loved that the author, K.A. Applegate, took the time to explain the how-it-worked of her books.  Too many books for middle schoolers fail to do this; K.A. Applegate never underestimated the ability of her readers, despite their age, to grapple with complex ideas or moral ambiguity.

Considering this post has, so far, been a glowing review of the Animorphs books, you might wonder why I began it by talking about Harry Potter.

The reason for this post was a recent comparison of these two authors on Facebook.  J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, is extremely vocal on social media, and continues to generate headlines despite the fact that her book series ended back in 2007.  A vocal proponent for socially liberal ideals, J.K. Rowling has also been criticized for jumping onto nearly any bandwagon she can in order to continue to generate headlines for herself.

The first little problem we saw was when Hermione, one of Harry Potter's best friends, was cast with a black actress for a stage play.  J.K. Rowling immediately pointed out that she never specified that Hermione was white.

Except yes she did, in the third book.

Since then, J.K. Rowling has gone out of her way to insist that characters throughout her books are gay, Jewish, or black.  Never mind that she never shows us that in the books, or that her hollow excuses are transparently false.  While she maybe mentioned that three of the characters are black in passing, and there's an implication that Anthony Goldstein is Jewish, her decision that Dumbledore was gay felt very after-the-fact.

K.A. Applegate's six heroes are Jake and Rachel (Jewish), Marco (Latino), Cassie (black), Tobias, and Ax (who is an alien).  Applegate doesn't pull a Rowling and claim they're Jewish because they have Jewish names.  (Rowling famously insists her books include Jewish representation because of a single background character named Anthony Goldstein.)  Applegate's books actually show the characters interacting with their world.

The alien turns into a gender-fluid human obsessed with cinnamon buns.
God these books were so good.

One of the most interesting examples (in my opinion) is when the Animorphs begin recruiting disabled kids to their cause.  Their reasoning is sound: Yeerks seek out the best hosts and would not bother with someone with a disability.  Blind, deaf, wheelchair-bound hosts are of no use to the parasitic slugs.  The reaction of the disabled kids they try to recruit is a wonderful tapestry of humanity.  The disabled kids are presented as individuals and have individual reactions.  Some are thrilled to be recruited; others are disgusted and feel exploited.

I don't know whether Applegate's inclusion of disabled characters was an active attempt toward inclusivity, or whether it was a happy coincidence thanks to the motivation of the books' antagonists.  Either way, it was well-executed.  As a kid I never felt like any character was shoe-horned in.  It's only as an adult I've started noticing how goddamn inclusive these books were.

Lately there's been a lot of talk about Tobias (the fifth Animorph) being trans, which... doesn't really add up at all.  (I guess you could argue he's forcibly trans-hawk, since he's trapped in the body of a hawk for like 30 books.)

But K.A. Applegate, when asked, simply said she's not going to weigh in on Tobias's backstory beyond what is canonical in the books, adding that she wished she had worked harder to include more LGBT+ representation. 

This is a far cry from Rowling, who always responds to criticism about representation by throwing some darts at a board and saying, "Actually, if you read closely, [throws dart]  Dobby is actually [throws dart] Native American, and [throws dart] Hagrid is [throws dart] asexual."  She's probably received more criticism for her desperate attempts to retcon her own works than she has for the lack of representation in the first place.

And then there was the whole TERF issue.  For those not in the know, TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist, and recently, J.K. Rowling liked and responded to some Tweets on social media that suggested that trans women should not be allowed into women's prisons.  (One Tweet said that "foxes have no place in hen houses."  Implying that trans women are not only not women, but also are predatory in nature.  Baaaad.)

Then this happened:

K.A. Applegate was my favorite author as a kid.  As an adult, I see her as someone who has gracefully landed on the right side of history but without the desperate pandering that J.K. Rowling demonstrates.  And a lot of people agree.

Don't get me wrong.  I don't think you HAVE to have representation in fictional works.  It's nice when it's there, but my real issue is that Rowling is trying to FORCE representation. It feels artificial.  And that isn't good representation, if it's representation at all.  Inclusivity is a wonderful thing, when it's done correctly.  And J.K. Rowling isn't doing it correctly.

Rowling was an author who grew with her works.  We watched her writing get better.  As a developing writer myself, I feel her pain.  Sometimes, you look back at your works with a slight cringe.  You think, "Why didn't I include X?  Why didn't I mentioned Y?"  When you're a writer, every work you write becomes the best work you've ever written, and earlier works get worse and worse comparatively.  It's hard, to see the flaws revealed in a beloved piece of writing you put a lot of work into.

But ultimately, Rowling needs to stop defending her old shit.  It's over.  It's done.  It's cancelled.  There's nothing more terrible than watching an insecure author interpret their own works.  It takes away the soul of the books.

Applegate, I'm happy to say, has never done this.  She has been criticized quite a lot for the ending of her books, which most fans (myself included!) hated.  She stood by the ending of the Animorphs series with her head held high, and when she was finally pressed, she not only defended the ending, but explained why she did it that way:

Bravo, Applegate.  You inspired me.  I hope I can someday defend my own works with as much grace as you have.  

Speaking of my own works, I would like to take this opportunity to give a shameless plug to what is (currently) one of the best long-form things I've ever written.  Divergence is an Iron Man novella and I'm actually pretty damn proud of it.  But I'm also aware that, as my writing matures, someday, I might look back on it and wince at the mistakes I made, either through omission or ignorance.  And that's okay, because that means I'm getting better.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Aquatic Apes: Making Human Evolution Even More Controversial!

If you want to start a fight at a bar, try this.

Ask whether or not humans are apes.

As is typical when you ask for a yes or no answer to a complex question, there are arguments for both sides.  Ultimately, it's a semantic argument.  An ape is defined as a tailless, anthropoid primate.  The family Hominidae (aka the "great apes") does include humans (along with orrangutans, gorillas, and chimps).  However, Wikipedia hastens to mention that in "traditional and non-scientific use," the word ape does not include humans, as if the website is scared of offending someone.

Not my website.
My website is ready to offend and appall all 20 of its readers!

I don't blame Wikipedia for its caution.  There are a lot of vicious arguments about humans being (or not being) apes all over the internet, and not just on creationism websites.  Scientific American, Science Daily, paleontologist John Hawks, and a number of contributors to Reddit have all weighed in on the debate.  (Yes, no, no, and yes, respectively.) (My favorite argument is most certainly the one on Reddit, which refers to the a very clever Talk Origins essay on the subject.)

The odd level of offense humans get from being called apes probably hearkens back to religious considerations.  As Scientific American notes, people were late to accept evolutionary theory, because it required admitting we were more related to chimps than we cared to admit.

But once we accept that we are indeed related to apes, a new argument arose.  What kind of apes were we?  When we picture Neandrathals, we picture hairy, upright hominids hunkered in caves in tundra-like landscapes.  Yet we know early humans got their origin in Africa.  This gives rise to conflicting mental images.  Were we plain-striders, or tree-swinging Tarzans?  There are no caves on the savannah yet we all persist in calling Neanderthals "cavemen."  What gives?

I hereby promise not to use any graphics from Geico caveman commercials, nor the movie "Ice Age."
You're welcome.

Today, I'd like to discuss one of my favorite hypotheses about early humans: the highly controversial Aquatic Ape hypothesis.  Arguably, this hypothesis was doomed from the start because of the name, which includes "ape," that tricky little word that sends people into fits when we use it to refer to humans (or our pre-human ancestors, who most definitely were apes under the taxonomical definition).  It's worth stating, before anything else, that this hypothesis has been neither proven nor disproven, and many evolutionary biologists are highly skeptical.  (These include the paleontologist John Hawks, one of the people who weighed in on the are-humans-apes arguments.)  The Aquatic Ape hypothesis got some recent attention thanks to David Attenborough in a 2016 docuseries called The Waterside Ape.

I think it's always worth delving into scientific subjects.  Ultimately, arguing about human evolution is the scientific equivalent of arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  We don't know and may never know, and that's okay.  Much of the criticism of the Aquatic Ape hypothesis, in fact, comes from the argument that it is not falsifiable.  (The ability to potentially be disproven as a requirement for scientific hypotheses to be taken seriously is attributed to the 20th century scientist Karl Popper.)

This isn't Karl Popper.  
This is Antoine Jérôme Balard, the inventor of poppers, who also discovered bromine.
I just know there's a "bro" joke in there somewhere...

With new methods of dating and extracting information from fossils, we might well someday be able to falsify or refute the Aquatic Ape hypothesis, just as we have other popular models that once appealed to us.  (A great example is the crystal clay hypothesis of abiogenesis, proposed by Graham Cairns-Smith in 1966.  Although Cairns-Smith continues to argue that life began using clay crystal "backbones" to catalyze the formation of RNA, attempts to model this in laboratories have been unsuccessful, and few scientists today believe this model is the likely answer to whence life came.)

The docuseries "Steven Universe" makes some convincing arguments in favor, though.

Until we find a way to prove or disprove hypotheses like the aquatic ape hypothesis or crystal clay abiogenesis, examining a controversial scientific suggestion is a good way to flex our skeptic muscles.  So, much like the aquatic apes of yesteryear, let's dive in!

The aquatic ape hypothesis was first proposed in 1960, the same decade as the crystal clay hypothesis of abiogenesis.  It was a groovy decade.  DNA had only been fully discovered by Watson and Crick in the 1950s, when they were able to model its double-helix structure after a close examination of Rosalind Franklin's lab notebooks.  Around the same time, Hershey and Chase had shown DNA as the genetic material of T2 phage, confirming that DNA was the basis for heritability in living things.

The basis for up to 80% of daytime television.

Knowing what DNA did, and what DNA looked like, opened a million doors for evolutionary scientists, who could now compare DNA from fossils to living creatures and try to construct how those creatures were related.  Prior to this, taxonomy was based solely on observations ("phenetics).  With DNA in the picture, new evolutionary trees based on phylogenetics were constructed; these trees sought to classify animals based on their genetic relationships to one another.

DNA, however, cannot tell us some things.  It cannot, for example, tell us what kind of culture early hominids had, or how it developed.  This is left up to the imaginations of scientists, one of whom, Alister Hardy, challenged the concept of humans as savannah- or forest-dwellers, arguing instead that humans were shore-dwellers, whose reliance on the ocean (or more shallow bodies of water) was a critical factor in our evolution into modern man.

Among the many things that we note separate us from apes are encephalization (big heads), bipedalism, and hairlessness.

So let's talk about aquatic ape theory.  (Elaine Morgan, a Welsh writer and evolutionary anthropologist, already did, in a 2009 TED Talk!)

Reasons this theory makes sense:
  • The lack of fur on humans seems similar to that of other aquatic and semi-aquatic animals.  For example, hippos, whales, et cetera.  Being unburdened by heavy fur would make humans more adapted to swimming.
  • Humans' bipedalism would aid in wading upright through shallow waters.  (Note that having two legs on the savannah makes little sense, since most human predators would be easily able to outpace us on four legs.)
  • Humans have a ton of body fat compared to other mammals.  Other great apes lack the amount of subcutaneous body fat humans have, and what's more, our skin is particularly oily, with sebaceous glands that secrete fatty (ie, hydrophobic) oils.  
  • Human infants demonstrate "swimming" motions when placed in water.  Could this instinctual reflex harken back to a time when we depended on water?
  • Humans have remarkably good control of our breathing, moreso than any other animals, except dolphins and whales.  The ability to hold one's breath and consciously control breathing makes diving a lot easier.
  • Humans just honestly seem to love water.  We're a real splishy-splashy mammal and gravitate toward bodies of water. 

Since the aquatic ape hypothesis hit the scientific community in the 1960s, it's had a few resurgences.  It was defended in 1980 and again in 1985.  People who defend the suggestion often come up with new arguments in favor.  For example, why would humans evolve to sweat if they were roaming the savannah?  This would be an incredibly wasteful and inefficient means of cooling ourselves down; unless humans were hanging out next to bodies of water all the time, sweating would mean unnecessary water loss.

These all seem like good pieces of evidence, until you realize that none of these arguments are actually scientific pieces of evidence at all.  They're merely justifications for the theory.  If you want to see how justifications aren't the same as evidence, consider the satirical Space Ape hypothesis.Real science needs to establish causality, not merely hint at it.  And in fact, all of the above points can easily be disputed using modern-day animals:
  • Lots of semi-aquatic animals do have fur, such as otters, beavers, agoutis, capybara, et cetera.  In fact, in fresh water, fur is useful because it can help insulate the animal swimming against hypothermia.  
  • There are plenty of non-aquatic bipedal animals.  Just look at kangaroos!  What's more, most semi-aquatic animals are not bipedal. 
  • Lemurs, like humans, have sebaceous glands, and are not semi-aquatic, but tree-dwelling.  We are the only two animals that have these glands.  Why?  No one knows.  Although one argument is that sebaceous glands are a way to make sweating more efficient.  Remember, skin oil from sebaceous glands is hydrophobic.  Although it's worth noting that lemurs neither sweat nor pant to cool down; they lick themselves.  Why lemurs evolved to be so at risk of hyperthermia is anyone's guess.
  • As for the fat, it has already been suggested that human fat stores are designed for endurance; humans are really good at walking and running... and on a savannah, we would need that sort of endurance.  Our ability to store fat goes hand-in-hand with our ability to regulate blood sugar, a critical adaptation for hunter-gatherers.
  • Human breath control is a critical adaption for talking.  Our complex speech requires us to be able to disrupt breathing patterns.
  • Lots of animals like splashing.  This doesn't mean they are aquatic.  In fact, most animals tend to cluster near bodies of water, because water is a necessary item to sustain life.  And for many savannah animals, such as elephants and rhinos, hanging around watering holes means access to mud, a substance that can aid cooling on hot days.
Snow monkeys have long been observed to soak in hot springs.

So,  what is the answer?  The answer is, we don't know.  The model of early humans as semi-aquatic apes is based solely on circumstantial evidence, some of which seems strong but also can be applied wontonly to other animals and breaks down when challenged.

Here's a question: if humans are semi-aquatic animals, why don't we, like otters, beavers, capybara, and others, have webbed toes?

New evidence is emerging that seems to dispute the hypothesis, but at this time, it has still not been officially falsified.  So why bother to talk about it at all?

Asking why is a defining human trait.  No other animal does this. Even more than encephelization or bipedalism, existentialism is a uniquely human trait.

Depressed cartoon animals aside.

Exercises in trying to prove or disprove hypotheses are critical to how we go about amassing scientific knowledge.  We humans may or may not have been aquatic apes, once, but what we are now are critical thinkers.  We have the ability to turn over notional, complex ideas critically, to challenge ourselves, and to engage in scientific debate in a reasonable manner using skills built upon research and reasoning.

I can't say where humans went after we left the trees.  It could have been the savannah, or the shore, or space.  Being able to admit to not knowing is perhaps one of the most important skills a person can develop as a scientist.

Not knowing is the other half!

I don't know where we came from, but I know where we are.  We humans have evolved a remarkable ability to ask abstract questions and seek answers using advanced technology.  And asking about the past, even if we never reach a conclusive answer, is one of the best ways to develop ourselves, and our society, as we move into the future.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Dandruff as You Make It

Last year I did a gross post on fingernails and wanted to continue my trend of weird, gross science by talking about dandruff today.

I'm always looking for new topics to discuss and write about, and the topic of dandruff came up recently.    I had gone to get my hair fixed and the stylist had exclaimed, "Oh.  You have dandruff."

That's not a great thing to hear.  It would be sort of like a dentist casually observing your breath is terrible.  Way to make me feel self-conscious, stylist, thanks a lot!  Now I have to live with that forever.

Dandruff isn't a new thing.  I don't mean for me, specifically.  I mean in general.  It's been around since the dinosaurs; the oldest known dandruff is about 200 million years old and can be viewed at the world's worst museum.

And yet, we still don't know what the hell causes it.  Don't get me wrong, we know what it is: it's little flakes of dead skin.  Everyone's skin is sloughing off all the time, and certain hair types are more likely to capture flakes, and hair is naturally oily so of course dead skin is going to clump together.

Artist's depiction of your skin doing what it does.

But some people have it better and some people have it worse, and we don't know whether that's due to genetics or the scalp's microbiome (you have lots of bacteria all over your skin) or fungus (you also have lots of yeast all over your head) or what.  If you click on the links in this article, you'll see multiple fungal culprits that are "identified" as the cause.  What's more, it's not even necessarily easy to say whether or not flakes in your hair means you have dandruff.  Dandruff is often confused with seborrhoeic dermatitis, a similar, related condition that's more severe and includes inflammation.

Instead of a gross picture of an inflamed scalp, here's Thor getting a haircut.

 The movies diverged a lot from the comics.

If you have dandruff, there's not much you can do.  It's not a curable condition.  Washing your hair more often makes it less noticeable, but contrary to popular belief, it's not dryness that causes dermatitis, so you can toss away all those fancy conditioners you spent so much money on.

Speaking of money, it might interest you to know that Head and Shoulders, the #1 selling anti-dandruff shampoo, moves over 29 million units a year, and in turn, pulls in maybe a hundred million dollars a year for its parent company, Proctor & Gamble, which made a total of $66.83 billion last year.  Head and Shoulders claims to know the cause of dandruff; according to their website, it's a fungus called Malassezia.  The Malassezia genus has 14 species, and our friends over at H&S specifically think the cause of dandruff is Malassezia globosa.  They claim to have "cracked the genetic code" in 2002, which is super weird because it took me less than five minutes of digging on the internet to find the genome, which was published in 2007.  (I'm not saying they didn't do it, because they did.  The scientists who sequenced the genome work for Proctor & Gamble.  I just find this to be a weird discrepancy.)

In 2016, however, independent scientists suggested that bacteria, not fungi, probably play a great role.  Which is fine, because most antifungals play double-duty as antibacterials.

To be fair to H&S, malassezia fungi are a really good candidate for being the cause of dandruff, although it's probably not that simple.  Malassezia, as a fungus, eats fat, and so it loves the sebaceous glands on your head, which produce oil, ie, fat.  Anti-dandruff shampoos like Head and Shoulders have anti-fungal ingredients like zinc pyrithione.  But not everyone sees the same results.  And there are plenty of natural remedies for dandruff, including, but not limited to, limes (an anti-fungal due to the acidity), vinegar (also an anti-fungal), coal tar, and salicyclic acid (a plant hormone).  These don't just act as anti-fungals, though.  They also have antibiotic properties, and can aid the sloughing of the skin, dislodging the flakes in your hair so your dandruff, while not at all "cured," is certainly less noticeable.

You could also just wear a goddamn hat.
Google "greyhounds wearing hats" if you love yourself.

And ultimately that's how brands like Head and Shoulders make their money: not by "curing" your "disease" but by promising you to make it less noticeable, and by making themselves sound credible by flinging science words in your face.  Dandruff is not a condition that can hurt you or even one that you should really care much about (assuming it's not causing you to itch).  Dandruff is relatively benign, and somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of people have it.  It waxes and wanes, just like most normal human skin conditions.  And yet one-third of people with dandruff wear clothes based on what is best to hide their condition, and one-fifth said they would rather have a headache or heartburn.

Why are we so self-conscious about a common, benign condition?  In the above study about how self-conscious people with dandruff are, only about one in ten knew the cause (naturally occurring fungus on the skin, probably), whereas half were worried that people who saw their dandruff would think they have poor hygiene (which we know does not cause dandruff).  Where the heck did they get such an idea?


Oh, snap.  It was Head and Shoulders all along.

Remember how I said Head and Shoulders makes a hundred million a year?  They did that by convincing us in their advertising that dandruff is shameful and we needed their product in order to navigate social situations effectively.  Fear sells.  And H&S knows that.

I hope you appreciate the ridiculous amount of time I spend 
creating stupid graphics like this one for my posts.

It wouldn't be fair of me, of course, to blame Head and Shoulders alone.  That would be like trying to pin dandruff on Malassezia globosa.  Other companies are guilty of using the same tactics; nearly any large pharmaceutical that trades in body care products has probably convinced you that you are either imminently about to die of your condition or that your condition is grotesque and shameful.  Take Listerine, for example.


Listerine is owned by Johnson & Johnson, one of the top competitors of Proctor & Gamble.  Listerine was originally marketed as a general antimicrobial solution, and advertisers recommended it for everything from bad breath to bad skin to bad vaginas to bad kitchen floors.  (Yes, really.)  But they found their niche as an oral product in 1920, when they came up with the idea of halitosis and began warning everyone that they had bad breath.

where they proudly boast about coming up with the word "halitosis."

Before this, no one was especially worried about bad breath.  It was the roarin' twenties and no one could smell anything anyway because everyone was a smoker back then.  The idea that your breath should be minty at all was insane; normal human mouths do not smell like mint.  But Listerine's aggressive ad campaigns convinced people it should.  Before that, toothpaste was made of chalk, baking soda, activated charcoal, or even soap, and it wasn't even necessarily a paste; prior to WWI, toothpaste was a powder, and if you didn't want to buy it from a pharmacy, you could make it at home.  Then, in the 1920s, Pepsodent began mass-marketing their paste with mint flavor added.  Alongside Listerine and Lifesaver (think about the name of that one... life-saver.  For god damn mints!), the oral hygiene moguls of the day managed to convince people that, unless their mouths tasted like spearmint all the time, there was something wrong with them.  And it worked.  People buy toothpaste, gum, mints, and mouthwash in droves... when the toothpaste alone would be sufficient for most people to prevent any sort of tooth decay.


Even Vaseline got in on the dandruff wagon for a while, during the '30s and '40s.  Owned by the pharma giant Unilever, Vaseline petroleum jelly promoted itself as a cure for dandruff because of its moisturizing abilities.  However, once it was disproven that dryness causes dandruff, Vaseline quietly retreated back into its usual role as a topical aid for chapped lips, cuts, bruises, and diaper rash.  (And, one can only assume, as a lubricant for all of the closeted homosexuals in the military during the 1940s.  Although KY Jelly, a water-based lubricant, has been around since 1904, its original intended purpose was to be used as a surgical lubricant.  Vaseline was hugely popular and available in WWII because it could be used to dress wounds as well as lubricate machine gears, uniform zippers, and flirty snipers.)

So I guess what I'm trying to say here is, a lot of our concerns about our appearance are not logical, and have been ingrained by advertisers who are playing off of our natural pathos.  Advertisers know we want to be liked and know we're self-conscious and paranoid.  They are more than willing to play on that paranoid to sell more shampoo (or toothpaste, or petroleum jelly).

When my stylist said she saw dandruff, I was mortified.  But when I thought about it, I realized the following.

...she worked for Proctor and Gamble all along.

Dandruff does not bother me.  I don't even think I have it.  If I do, I've never noticed, and neither has anyone else in the last thirty years.  So what do I care?  The answer is, I don't.  And you shouldn't either.

There are plenty of things to be worried about in this world, but if you follow money trails, you'll often discover that your fears are nothing more than an artificial pathos created by industries who are playing off your emotions to sell a product.  And then you can put those fears to rest.  I changed stylists instead of changing shampoos, and guess what?  My hair looks great.  Don't listen to ads that make you feel bad about yourself.  They're trying to make a buck, at the expense of your self-esteem. 

Monday, January 7, 2019

I've Thrown Up Once per Day in 2019...

Following last week's inspiring, happy-go-lucky post, I felt like we were due for some upset.

I write this from the city of Austin, Texas, where things are not going well.

Despite photographic evidence to the contrary.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's proooobably not Austin's fault.  Austin has been great and I needed a break from Los Angeles after the New Year's Eve I had.

I'll get back to Austin in a minute.  First, I need to talk about my awful New Year's experience.  (Fun fact: large portions of this post later became a Yelp review!)  (I don't like to leave one-star reviews but just listen.)

So the bar's name was Clayton's.  Three friends and I had gone downtown for New Year's Eve.  There's a big countdown in Grand Park.  We were moseying our way there and stopped at a bar.  Now, I know what you're thinking.  Am I about to complain about the service?  No.  That is not my primary complaint.  We understand that New Year's Eve is going to be staffed short.  We understand that the service might be a little slower than expected.  We understand it's busy.  We came willing to forgive slow service.

No, the thing that bothered me was the racism.

As my party approached the door, a bouncer was arguing rudely with a woman who wanted to come in to use the bathroom.  I'm not clear why he wouldn't let her in because she was over 21 and she was saying to him that she was willing to buy a drink just to be let in.  She was not being belligerent or unreasonable; she was well-dressed and as far as I could tell, completely sober.  She was also black. 

 Artist's depiction of the situation.

I said she could join us so that she would be allowed in.  The bouncer didn't check any of our IDs, which was weird; I look like a damned Cabbage Patch doll, and the lady who needed to use the bathroom appeared to be much older than us.  Why was the bouncer there at all?  To prevent people from using the bathroom?  Our party was all white.  Draw your own conclusions from this.

 Here's a hint...

We were seated at a table immediately and left there for thirty minutes.  No one brought us water.  No one took our drink order.  No one even greeted us or offered a hasty "We'll be with you soon."  It was about 10:30 pm. 

We finally had someone take our drink order.  We ordered beers and wine.  No mixed drinks, nothing fancy.  Our drinks took another fifteen minutes to arrive.  At this point we were a little bit worried because the table next to ours had gotten both drinks and appetizers already.

I ordered the vegetable crudité plate.  For those who don't know what this is, it's a plate of raw vegetables.  Picture carrot sticks.  This should be the easiest plate in the world.  But my food didn't come out with the rest.  Were they growing the vegetables themselves?  For some reason, this vegetable plate took forever.  By the time my plate arrived, my friends were already finished and we were impatiently checking our watches because we wanted to go to Grand Park for the New Year countdown.  We had to ask for our check, explaining our rush.  The check didn't come.  We asked for the check a second time.  It took forever to get.  We ran to the park and because it took so long to get the check, we missed the countdown.  It was an extremely disappointing New Year's.

Plus side: My New Year's resolution to be disappointed is already complete!
...why I made that my resolution, we'll never know.

And to top everything off?  I'm pretty sure I got food poisoning.  About twelve hours after eating the vegetable plate, I was throwing up.  No one else in my party was ill and each of us only had a couple of drinks that night, so I'm inclined to think it was the raw vegetable plate, which was the only item that was not shared.

I ended up going home alone on a bus that night, furious at the world.  Furious about the way that lady was treated, furious that I'd missed the countdown, just... indignant as fuck at everything that had happened that evening.

After spending New Year's Day puking a lot thanks to Clayton's, I decided to go on a roadtrip to Austin with Jack, because nothing calms an upset stomach like a twenty-hour car ride.

We had actually planned the road trip in advance.  Jack moved to Austin for a new job and I had agreed to attend as a chauffeur / life coach / IKEA furniture builder.

(We hit an ice storm!)

We stopped in Phoenix along the way to visit Jack's stepmom, Charlotte, who was incredibly kind and hospitable and fun.  Once in Austin, we got a hotel and went about looking for an apartment.  Jack had (understandably) wanted to see apartments in person before signing any leases.  He had also gotten contacted by some shady "apartment hunter" who directed us to places with actual fucking roaches.

After six visits to locations that practically had rugs laying over big pits in the floor, I went on a search of my own and found a place for Jack.  Not to brag, but it has the largest private athletics club in Austin, pools, spas, bochi-ball courts, and organized wine tastings and poker nights.  It ticked off Jack's major criteria (laminate floors, a balcony, a reasonably good-looking rug to cover the floor pit, et cetera) and so he signed his lease, and we went about the process of furnishing it.

By the way, IKEA now has vegan hot dogs and they're amazing.  Made with 100% real, free-range vegans.

Having toured a few roach-infested apartments and witnessed a hit-and-run (no, really), I was ready to unwind for the weekend.  Half of that was drinking beer and helping Jack build furniture, but part of it was also going to experience Austin's night life.  Austin has a vibrant gay community with multiple leather bars.  Since I have the title of LA Pup and am also temporarily internet famous right now, I had agreed to go to a few bars to meet the local pup community.  We hit up the Iron Bear, Sellers, and Bout Time 2, and I got to meet with some really incredible people.

All of whom were taller than me.

Unfortunately, I fell ill after the first bar.  I know it wasn't the crudité plate because Iron Bear doesn't have a crudité plate and also, gays would never mess up a crudité plate.  I assume it was simply moving to a new place and getting exposed to some weird strain of something.  I spent the day puking and the night swallowing my vomit and putting on a smile.

Funnily, one of my questions during my title contest was how I planned to balance my own life and mental health with the responsibilities of the title itself. I think I said something about, you know, boundaries or something?  And also, you know, being med compliant, talking to a therapist, et cetera.

Little did the judges realize...

At least in theory, people do not have the right to unlimited access to you, even if you win a title, even if you're famous, even if you're important.  No individual should have to be any other individual's emotional tampon; help should not be an obligation.  After all, other people's problems can affect you, so you should have the right to say no if you're not feeling up to listening or hanging out or taking part in a social situation.

That being said...

One of the guys asked me to come out because he had a present for me.

Pay tribute to me, minions!

How am I supposed to say no to that??  Everyone was so welcoming and nice and excited to meet me, and I had so many invitations, and turning down those invitations felt worse than any stomachache ever could.  Don't worry, I totally practiced self-care.  When they offered me free shots, for example,  I very responsibly only drank peppermint schnapps to try to calm my stomach down.

I was so sick I couldn't even play Pac-Man very well.  
Although I destroyed Jack in Skee-Ball.

Well, I guess a big part of it is FOMO.  I hate disappointing people and only have the one weekend in Austin.  And a year from now, what am I going to remember?  Feeling sick, or having a good time?

I was so sick I had to cancel my flight back to LA.  I'm currently waiting to return to my hometown.  By my estimation, between the food poisoning of New Year's mixed with the current flu, I have probably puked at least once per day since the beginning of the new year.  I'm hoping this just means I'm getting it all out of my system and I'm about to have a great year.

There is a silver lining to all of this, of course.  I missed the countdown, sure, but I also helped and stood up for someone.  I would do that again.  And yeah, I'm sick and stranded in Austin, but I've made a lot of friends here and helped Jack get settled in, and I would do that again, too.

Life isn't about the lemons you're handed, but the lemonade you make from it.  But now that I'm talking about food, excuse me, please.  I need to go puke some more.