Monday, March 25, 2019

Flights of Fancy and Feathers in Fashion

(Note: this entry is backdated, having originally been written April 9th, 2019.)

If you live in L.A., you see posters for movies and shows everywhere.  During Oscar season, they're "for your consideration."  Outside of Oscar season, they're simply there, relentlessly hounding you to consume whatever media they're pitching.

In recent days, the posters that I've been seeing crop up like weeds are for The Umbrella Academy.  The posters are relatively plain but communicate the show's premise very effectively: it's about dysfunctional superheroes.

Naturally, such a show appeals to me.  Even if it didn't, the inescapable barrage of advertising almost forces one into viewing, if only to sate the curiosity it artificially generates.

I am in love with The Umbrella Academy and can tentatively say it's my newest fixation.  (My brain, as dysfunction as the superheroes in the show, generates seemingly random fixations only rarely, about every five years or so.  It's been on board the Marvel train for over a decade now.)  But this post isn't about The Umbrella Academy.

This post is about feather boas.

Naturally, one of the first things I did when I became obsessed with The Umbrella Academy was to begin planning out various cosplays.  I can reluctantly admit that my boyish good looks make in a shoo-in for a Number Five outfit, even though the character I really wanted to dress up as was Klaus.  

(Side note: Number Five, indisputably the fan favorite, tied with Klaus, is my least favorite character; his smugness is completely unpalatable to me.)

Moving on...

I went onto Amazon and purchased a cheap feather boa for less than ten dollars, along with a mesh shirt. The boa arrived and was regulated to my desk, where it sat shedding feathers all over the place like some sort of nightmare Persian cat. It was a little disappointing to me; it was not as fluffy as I'd expected, though somehow still too fluffy, and one end of it revealed the white yarn skein that held it together. Unsure of how one stores a boa, I opted to push it aside, hoping it might sort itself out. It did, in the sense that it somehow managed to continue shedding feather fluff everywhere without ever being touched.

A few weeks later, for a writing assignment in one of my journalism classes, we were asked to flex our narrative muscles thusly: "Find a single thing, [and] describe it in detail -- 250 words maximum. Appeal to as many senses as possible -- not just what it looks like, but what does it sound like, feel like (or could feel like), smell like. Attach emotional responses to this thing. Use as many action verbs as possible; don't use adverbs. Then, post five interesting and provocative questions about the thing."

My eyes landed on the feather boa. How could they not? It shed in pleasure at being noticed.

"Shed light on me," it seemed to shed say.

How could I resist?

 I plucked off a feather and got to work.  My entry
appeared as follows:

Collapsed into a tangled heap on the desk, the pink feather boa does not stir. At a distance of three meters from where I sit, its snake-like form hides amid the confines of its ostentatious down; retired from its usual manic energy, it huddles quietly now, begging not to be seen and failing abysmally due to the unnatural shock of its artificial coloring. Its scent undoubtedly assaults the senses with stale, cheaply manufactured goods. Its touch, perhaps, deceives, an itchiness underlying its expected softness, another subtle hint to its unnatural existence. As an accessory, and in the right setting, the feather boa dazzles. The few larger feathers that stand askew from the pile imply an item that should be in flight. Now abandoned, and removed from its usual raucous environment, its featureless body silently screams its own discomfort in the natural world, like a clown sitting in a church pew. A feather boa in a quiet room makes the room quieter, because it calls attention to the stillness; a feather boa tossed aside elicits a slump from the shoulders it should be draped over. Its purpose served, it now memorializes a good time past, one that may or may not ever be lived again.

The questions came naturally. When did artificial feathers first become cheaply and readily manufactured? Were the feather boas of can-can dancers past made of real feathers, and if so, how expensive would they be to purchase? What societies, cultures, or persons are associated with the boa? (Again, can-can dancers spring to mind, at least for me… but who else?) Why was the feather boa invented at all, and by whom? It seems impractical to both create and to wear. How many feather boas are sold annually; how many exist worldwide; what is the ratio of feather boas to people on earth? Just how “popular” is this item? What does the manufacturing process of this item look like? Do fetal feather boas occupy factories with other cheap, mass-produced novelty items, such as plastic vampire teeth, or black felt domino masks?


I could not pose these questions without making an attempt to answer them. 

The Wikipedia page was fairly small, considering the ubiquity of the pink feather boa, though I immediately learned a few things.  For one, the inner skein of the boa is called a "ply," and the feather boa I had purchased was of the "chandelle" variety, which is thinner than the more commonly pictured ostrich feather boa.

As I suspected, feather boas were a recent invention.  Their invention is credited in one book to Henri Bendel, a milliner born in Louisiana in 1868 whose name is borne by the iconic New York accessories company.  I have my doubts that Bendel invented them, though.  More accurately, he popularized them.

Bendel was, after all, the history of the feather boa incarnate.  His parents ran a store with a vaudeville house above it called Falk's Opera House.  This explains, to me, anyway, the association of feather boas with burlesque as well as Louisiana (read: Mardi Gras) culture.  Bendel would later become the first exporter of Coco Chanel products to the U.S.  The French influence as part of the history of the feather boa cannot be overstated; in the 12th through the 16th centuries, feathers were a common accessory used in hats or masquerade masks by the aristocracies of Italy and France.

Woman with a black feather boa, 1892
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

The Feather Boa, 1897
Edmond Aman-Jean

The Feather Boa, 1890s
Sir William Orchardson

Society Lady with Feather Boa, 1891
Gustav Wertheimer

So Bendel was far from the first to see the seductive appeal of feathers.  In the 1880s, when Bendel was barely yet an adult, three out of four ladies' hats had feathers in them (based on a casual observational study by Frank Chapman), and dozens of species were used for feathers.  The decorative feather was a staple of high Victorian and Edwardian fashion; feathers were worth twice their weight in gold, and in 1900, the millinery trade employed 1 of every 1,000 Americans.  That year, the Lacey Act of 1900 was passed; it outlawed the illegal trade of wildlife.  Eighteen years later, the 1918 Migratory Bird Act Treaty put an end to the trade of feathers obtained from egrets and other migratory birds, many of whom were among the most popular for hats, boas, and other accessories.  The feather industry prompted collapsed.

 Just as well.  
Look how goddamn magnificent the Snowy Egret is. 
I'd take birds over boas any day.

The boa as an accessory piece experienced a brief, sputtering comeback during the 1920's "flapper" era, but the boas of this time were largely made of fur or of yarn.  In fact, the resurgence of the boa during the 1920s was due in part to the development of "eyelash" yarns in the late 20th century, allowing boas that were feathery (but not actually made of feathers) to be knitted.  These boas were lighter than traditional feather boas, softer, and didn't shed feathers.

 Miss Maud Goodman, 1902, with an "eyelash yarn" boa.

A fur boa and a rare, iconic fringe dress.

In the 1970s feather boas came back.  Now made of artificial materials, they found an unlikely niche in glam rock and wrestling.  Suddenly cheap to manufacture, feather boas fell from "high fashion" to a more tacky accessory.

However, they remain stubbornly fixed to some posh cultures and clubs, including the Red Hat Society.  I could find no information on just how many boas exist in the world, though I found boas for sale from Jo-Ann Fabrics, Wal-Mart, Amazon, and sold in bulk by the Oriental Trading Company.  This implies to me a shocking volume of boas floating around the world, shedding ominously.  Curious to see what the state of real feather boas was, I went to eBay and found a few ostrich feather boas.  The going price ranged from $255 to $355.

 Here's what a real ostrich feather boa looks like, courtesy of eBay.

Real feather boas, it seemed, remain a hot commodity, a status symbol of the wealthy elite.  But the mass marketed, mass produced, and mass consumed artificial feather boa had unseated the boa's ritzy image.  Once "haute coutour," feather boas are now a treasured accessory found in the arsenal of drag queens, Floridian grandmothers, and junkie superheroes who are haunted by their past trauma.  

They nearly drove egrets into extinction, so it feels, to me, only fitting that the boa should be punished thusly; its once-glamorous reputation forgotten, it now sheds tears (and feathers) on the shoulders of the common layperson, a cheap and silly accessory whose rich history remains largely unknown.

 Great egrets.  
The fashion industry has had a few.

Monday, March 18, 2019

The Legacies We Leave

I post a lot of Marvel content, and so when news of Stan Lee's death hit back in November, it hit hard.  Stan Lee had created a universe that I felt comfortable in, one that made sense because, ultimately, the heroes always won, and good triumphed over evil.  His stories were modern-day epics that awed and inspired.  He acted as a sort of grandfatherly figure to a whole generation of people who grew up with his stories, and within days of his passing, memorials and tributes began springing up everywhere.

There was a central theme to most of the memorials, which was that Stan Lee left a huge and powerful legacy.  As humans, aware of our own mortality, I think most of us want to be remembered.  The idea of living and dying without consequence is fairly morbid; we prevent ourselves by going down that existential rabbit-hole by reassuring ourselves that our lives "matter" and that our influence stretches far beyond our limited years.

This brings us to philanthropy.  Although this literally translates as "love of humanity," it's understood to be the practice of donating large sums of money to charitable causes by rich people in the hope that a hospital will name a wing after you.  Leaving a legacy becomes easier the more money you have; while the rest of us peasants will have to be content with hum-drum gravestones that bear only our names and some dates, the monied elite can erect statues in their likenesses and stamp their names onto museums, schools, hospitals, highways, and/or parks.

Jesus, who pissed in Marx's Cheerios?

Griffith Park is one such example of a philanthropic park that bears the name of its generous benefactor.  The original park was 3,015 acres, donated in 1896 and subsequently expanded.  In the early 1900s, "Colonel" Griffith attempted to improve the park by installing an amphitheater and an observatory, but the city of Los Angeles refused his money, because he wasn't actually a colonel so much as he was an insane, drunken murderer.

Considering his legal name was Griffith J. Griffith, you knew the guy had to be troubled.

Born in Wales in 1850, by his thirties, Griffith was a wealthy tycoon, having made a fortune in journalism covering mining news.  A "mining expert," he used his knowledge of mining prospects to make savvy investments, and quickly amassed a fair bit of money.  When he moved to Los Angeles, purchasing huge amounts of land from the Racho Los Feliz land grant for development; the land that would later become Griffith Park was inexplicably not used for mining but as an ostrich farm.  (The feathers were used in ladies' hats.)  The ostrich farm was rumored to be haunted by the previous owner and people didn't want to live there, so Griffith's installment of parks and ostrich farms was, in part, a clever ploy to make the land seem more "friendly" to purchasers.  (Rumor had it that Griffith himself would only visit the property during the day and later gave up the land in part because of the "curse.")

Griffith himself was haunted, not by the ghost of Rancho Los Feliz nor his ostriches, but by his own addiction.  Widely known as a teetotaler, Griffith was, in fact, secretly a violent drunk.  For fifty years, he kept his secret.  Then, in 1903, all hell broke loose; in a fit of drunken rage, he attempted to murder his wife, and the headlines exploded with the juicy story of Griffith's crime, as follows:

Griffith and his wife, Christina, were vacationing in Santa Monica.  Griffith got drunk in the presidential suite of the Arcadia hotel and, convinced that his wife and the pope were plotting to kill him, got a revolver and shot his wife in the face as she knelt before his, pleading for mercy.  His wife jumped out of the window and broke her shoulder on impact, crawling into the window of another suite below them.  Needless to say, the police went to arrest him, and Griffith, who had initially agreed to come quietly, decided to have one last hurrah and went on a bar crawl instead, evading police for ten miles as he rushed from pub to pub getting sloshed before they finally caught him.

 "Okay, one more drink and then we'll finally catch this guy at the next bar."

What followed was a sensational public trial, where Griffith was charged with assault with a deadly weapon.  (His wife survived, though she lost her right eye and half of her face was permanently disfigured.  Needless to say, they divorced.)  His defense was that he suffered from "alcoholic insanity."  According to writer Adela Rogers St. Johns, it was "the first alcoholic insanity defense, [and] perhaps the first... times that alcohol was called to account in an American courtroom as a disease, a mental illness, not just a sin or a crime or an indulgence."

Griffith was found guilty and sentenced to two years in San Quentin prison.  The judge ordered that he be given "medical aid for his condition of alcoholic insanity."  It must have worked, because he emerged dry and eager to put his past behind him.  Regrettably, this was easier said than done.  The city had been abuzz of the gossip and it wasn't easy to forget, considering the media attention, and also the fact that his ex-wife was still blind and disfigured.

 "Longest possible term" for shooting your wife in the face was apparently only two years.

Wanting to be remembered for something other than his "alcoholic insanity," in 1912, Griffith offered Los Angeles $100,000 to build an observatory atop Mt. Hollywood. The city balked because they "didn't want it to be a monument to a disgraced man."  Undeterred, Griffith offered the city $50,000 the following year for a Greek theater.  Again, they turned the money down.

Griffith died in 1919 of liver failure, probably due to his drinking.  He set up a trust fund for his two projects and the city reluctantly accepted his money, building Griffith Observatory in 1935 and the Greek Theater in 1930.

Griffith left a complicated legacy.  His crime is widely known to this day, though his park, theater, and observatory are enjoyed by the public and bear his name.  Ultimately, he did accomplish his goal of making Los Angeles a "happy, cleaner, and finer city."  People associate him with his park and not so much with his drinking or his (apparently terrible) personality; people of his time described him as "flashy," "pompous," and a "midget egomaniac [with] an exaggerated strut like a turkey gobbler," not things you'd necessarily glean from the statue of him that stands outside his park.  And the portrait of Griffith hung up in the observatory proudly gives him his "Colonel" title despite zero evidence he ever earned it.

But my question is, despite leaving the legacy he more or less wanted... does it matter?

Legacies matter only to the living.  Once we're dead,we can no longer enjoy them.  Griffith envisioned an observatory and a theater, but he never got to see the fruits of his labor.  In his own time, he was a pariah; among his contemporaries, he was not well-liked, and the general public opinion of him wavered between "violent madman" and "foolish baboon."  Griffith died alone with only the comfort of what might have been; he never got to see his statue, or any of his projects come to fruition.

Don't get me wrong, I'm happy that Griffith left us a nice park.  It just goes to show that bad people can sometimes do good things.  But Griffith's motivation was largely an attempt to rectify his public image, and while it worked in the long run, Griffith himself never got to live down the fact that he shot his wife in the face.  (As one shouldn't, in my opinion.)

 Griffith Observatory, one of the jewels of Los Angeles

I submit, therefore, that we should fight not for our reputations after we die, but for our reputations as we live.  Both G.J. Griffith and Stan Lee left us behind wonderful monuments that we, the living, can enjoy.  But while they lived, one of them was beloved and one of them was not.  Who enjoyed their life more?  Undoubtedly Stan.  He got to bask in his legacy as a good person before he died.  Griffith, on the other hand, threw money at his problem in the hope that generations down the line, no one would think of him as an insane alcoholic.

It's good to try to leave something for the betterment of future generations, of course, but it shouldn't be done for reputation repair; by the time such a legacy is created, its owner is long dead and unable to enjoy the fruits of that legacy.  Legacies are not for the people who leave them, but for others who those legacy-leavers will never get to meet.  We "leave" legacies, because guess what?  Once we die, that's it.  We don't get to take the legacy with us.  What we do with our time on this earth is all we really get and everything that happens on earth after we die is of no consequence to us whatsoever.

 Sorry, folks, but when our time's up, that's it.

So why leave a legacy at all?  Arguably, they should be left for purely philanthropic reasons: for the literal "love of humanity."  Something that Griffith J. Griffith, a so-called philanthropist, never got to enjoy during his time on this earth.

Monday, March 11, 2019

People in Bubbles

You've probably heard of the Bubble Boy.  It's one of those weird shared cultural memories we all have without ever really knowing where it came from.  We've heard it referenced on shows like Seinfeld and the Simpsons, and never really questioned the concept, though the words conjure, for most of us, the same image: a person inside of a round, clear hamster ball, similar to the type you'd see on a Japanese game show.

The bear represents infectious disease

Today I'd like to talk about the Bubble Boy.  There was, in fact, a real-life Bubble Boy, and his story is as fascinating as a Japanese game show.

Let me take a step back, however, and explain that germ theory is a rather recent discovery, and that the whole concept of a "bubble boy" is only possible because of it.

Bubble boy's bubble was not truly a bubble but a sterile environment not dissimilar to the type lived in by axenic (germfree) animals.  If you'd like an in-depth look at how these environments are created, look no further than my post explaining how they are constructed, complete with pictures.  I have seen many debates online discussing what would happen if all bacteria in the world died.  Most people posit that all life would also cease to exist, but I can say with confidence that we wouldn't all perish.  Yes, cows and termites would be goners, but plenty of animals (humans included) can live without bacteria.  Although, is it really living if you can't have a mindful kombucha to go with your morning chakra alignment?

Sterile environments and the practice of raising axenic animals came about less than 100 years ago, in the 1940s, but wasn't perfected until much later.  In fact, in 1963, Julian Huxley declared that "a germ-free world is an ecological absurdity, just as a perpetual motion machine is a mechanical absurdity, [and] it is just nonsense to talk of [it]."

Fortunately for David Vetter, Huxley was wrong.

David Vetter was born in 1971, less than ten years after Huxley's statement regarding germfree environments.  His was a normal pregnancy and birth by all accounts, with one caveat: David had SCID, or Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, a rare genetic condition in which your immune system doesn't work because your cells don't activate correctly, and your T cell count is low.  (Your B cells produce antibodies that fight antigens, or foreign invaders such as bacteria; your T cells regulate immune responses and are involved with acquired immunity.)  SCID's symptoms are similar to that of AIDS; without any immune system, your body is basically a bacteria buffet, and pathogens run rampant, resulting in chronic infections and rare cancers caused by viruses that can reproduce unchecked in your body.  (The AIDS virus destroys T cells; people with SCID either lack T cells or have non-functional T cells.)

David Vetter could be said to be both lucky and unlucky.  Certainly, having SCID is unlucky... the exact opposite of winning the genetic lottery.  But he was lucky in that his condition was known.  His parents had had another child with SCID already, who had died after seven months.  (Most people with SCID die within a year.)  Knowing that they were carriers for this recessive genetic condition, they opted for prenatal testing and discovered David would have the disease.  This allowed them to prepare for his birth; David was moved from his mother's womb into a sterile bubble, where all items were sterilized to prevent infection.  The air passed through filters; food, water, diapers, toys, blankets, and all other essentials had to be germfree to enter his bubble.

David lived in his bubble for twelve years before getting a bone marrow transplant, which subsequently killed him.

Bone marrow transplants, alongside gene editing, are the current methods of treatment.  Your bone marrow produces your blood and its products... including lymphocytes such as B and T cells.  Giving a person with defective bone marrow new, healthy marrow can, in theory, functionally "cure" their condition.

While David Vetter is often hailed as "The" Bubble Boy (SCID is now called "bubble boy disease"), he wasn't the only child to live in isolation.  Ted DeVita had a completely separate condition but he, too, required a germfree containment unit to survive infancy.  Ted's condition, aplastic anemia, is a result of having bone marrow that doesn't work.  Terrifyingly, aplastic anemia often has no known cause; you can develop it abruptly for no discernible reason.  In normal, healthy people, about half of your bone marrow is made up of hematopoietic stem cells, which produce the products of your blood: red blood cells, white blood cells (including the B and T cells of your immune system), and platelets.  If you develop aplastic anemia, those stem cells disappear, replaced by nonfunctional fatty tissue.

People who claim they're not fat, just "big-boned," are still therefore unhealthy.

Because his body was unable to produce B and T cells, Ted, like David, suffered terrible immune problems.  As his condition worsened, it was decided he should be placed into a sterile environment.  The sterile environment in question was a "laminar air flow" room, which the hospital already had set up for immunocompromised leukemia patients.  Ted spent the last eight years of his life in a "bubble," dying in 1980 due to iron toxicity.

The attention given to the "bubble boys" had both positive and negative effects.  In 1976, John Travolta starred in a movie called The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.  If you're paying attention to dates, you'll notice that this movie came out during Ted's lifetime, when he was 14 years old.  The cheesy melodrama borrowed heavily from David's and Ted's real lives.  Fortunately for Ted and David, they were dead by the time Bubble Boy, a 2001 comedy starring Jake Gyllenhaal, came out; the movie later prompted a musical in 2008 by the same name.

While such media portrayals were at times tasteless, they did spark public interest and awareness, leading to pubic financial support of the "bubble boys" and driving forward research.  Today, over 80% of people with aplastic anemia can be treated using procedures such as bone marrow transplants.

(Note: one of the charities I highly support is Be the Match.  You can sign up to a bone marrow registry and potentially save a life; keep in mind that your bone marrow, like your blood, grows back, so live donations have no permanent effect.  I am already in the registry myself.  Sign up here today!)

As with many diseases, the major treatments and cures began with thought experiments that were turned into realities.  (Suck it, Julian Huxley!)  The widespread interest and education about the "bubble boys" prompted a leap forward in the medical community, and while it was too late for David and Ted, for thousands of bubble boys today, it's nothing short of a miracle.  Take, for example, Ayaan Ahmed Isaacs, who is currently receiving gene therapy and may be one of the first to be truly "cured" of SCID.

If you clicked on that link, you might have seen what I saw on the sidebar.  Under "recommended stories," three out of four are about measles.

Measles is a highly contagious virus that was eradicated in the United States in 2000.  In 2015, we had 188 cases.  In 2018, we had 349.  This should scare you, regardless of whether or not you are immunocompromised.

The anti-vax movement took off the same year that we eradicated measles.  In the year 2000, Cindy Crawford appeared on Good Morning America to discuss vaccines and how she had decided to delay vaccinating her baby, due in large part because of Andrew Wakefield's recently published (and now debunked) "study" linking them to autism.  Later, Jenny McCarthy hopped on board, and suddenly, a movement exploded.

This post isn't about the anti-vax movement.  You could write a book on it, and a single blog post can't do it justice.  It's a damaging, dangerous, lethal anti-science movement that targets society's most vulnerable citizens: the young, the elderly, and the sick. No, this post is merely touching the tip of the anti-science, anti-authoritative iceberg, which happens to include the anti-vax movement, and its purpose is to beg, rally, cajole, and otherwise convince you that we really, really need to take anti-vax shit seriously and push back against it, instead of saying, "Oh, that's just Aunt Karen, who cares, Facebook isn't real life, anyway."

Perhaps the biggest question I have about the anti-vax movement is, why?  How?  How could we watch polio and measles disappear before our very eyes and then decide vaccines are somehow a bad thing?

In part because of social media.  The anti-vax movement is rooted in privilege, and privileged people tend to self-segregate themselves into echo chambers.

A brief word on privilege and anti-vax: the thing about vaccines is that, if you're living in a third-world country, you will work your ass off to get a measles vaccine for your children.  Half a million children die every year from the measles according to the World Health Organization, and most of those are in underdeveloped countries in Africa and Asia.  As the article I linked above mentioned, "the fear of measles disease waned from the collective memory of a new generation of parents who were fortunate enough to have been vaccinated as children. The mild side-effects of the vaccine, such as fever or pain, are now perceived by some people as a greater disturbance than the disease itself."  And if you're in a developed country, the chances of getting measles is low to begin with, thanks to herd immunity; your unvaccinated child might never come in contact with the virus, so why bother vaccinating?  And if they get measles, well, you've got money, you've got healthcare... you'll be fine.  In theory, anyway.

But in reality, measles is bouncing back, and with it, other diseases we should have gotten rid of by now.  And it won't be long before we see a "trickle down" effect from the privileged to the less privileged, who are unable to fight against it.  We need to stop it before it gets to that point.  Currently, the anti-vaccine movement is spreading like the viruses its helping, and it's aided in a very large part by casual misinformation.

I saw a great example of this recently; someone on Facebook claimed that the recent measles outbreak in New Zealand mostly hit vaccinated people.  (They were trying to argue that vaccines are not effective.)  A cursory Google search got me the real news: of 28 measles cases in Canterbury, only 4 were fully vaccinated.  But when I posted the link to the article and the correction, I was blocked.

Why?  Because the anti-vax movement cannot exist outside of its bubble.  It relies on an elaborate system of denial, misinformation, and wilful ignorance.

Bubbles can protect; they can keep bad things out.  (Iceland recently banned unvaccinated visitors.)  But bubbles can also injure by keeping good things out.  The best weapon we have against disease of any sort is public knowledge and interest.  It was public knowledge and interest that led to the creation of sterile environments of SCID patients, environments that scientists themselves thought might not even be possible.  (Suck it, Julian Huxley.)  It was public knowledge and interest that led to the eventual push for research and treatment of these disorders.  A cure looms on the horizon.

But now that measles has shown up again, a cure isn't enough.  Because if a cure exists and people refuse to use it, well, then, what's the point?

I know I post the G.I. Joe "Knowing Is Half the Battle" meme a lot, but in this case, it's much more than half.  The anti-vaccine conspiracy isn't a harmless, silly fad.  It's a life-threatening, dangerous movement, and it's not enough to simply ignore it.  We need to fight it with knowledge; we need to educate, to look up sources, to publicly butt heads any time anti-vaccine rhetoric rears its ugly head.  We cannot ignore or turn a blind eye to this; we need to learn their arguments and their language and find ways to change their minds.  It doesn't matter how we do it, so long as it's effective.

It won't be easy.  But it's every citizen's duty to do so, because this is a movement that has far-reaching consequences for the most vulnerable members of society.  (Don't worry; if this sounds hard, here's a source on how to fight anti-vaxxers using their preferred methods of communication: memes.)

The parents of David Vetter and Ted DeVita would probably have a few choice words for the parents of unvaccinated children, children who have normal, robust immune systems and whose only bubble is the informational one that their parents have put them into.  People who say that it's their own, personal choice not to get themselves or their children vaccinated are forgetting people like David, and Ted, whose unlucky circumstances led them to a life of social and immunological isolation.

The reality is that unvaccinated members of society are everyone's problem, because their "personal choice" is putting others at risk.  Measles is not going to get tired or take a break, so neither can we.  Every person needs to be ready, willing, and able to argue against anti-vaccine rhetoric whenever they see it, because anti-vaccine rhetoric can only exist inside of a bubble.  It's a fragile, tenuous position that exists in a vacuum of any real scientific evidence, and it can be cured.

But that cure requires us to pop the bubble.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Lost Memories, Lost Episodes, and What We Gain From Context

I had Sesame Street blankets on my bed through junior high.

It wasn't like I insisted on having them.  It was just that I never really envisioned not having them.  The concept of changing my sheets to anything else never occurred to me, and the faded characters were so incredibly familiar that having sheets with any other design would have felt as weird as sleeping in a different bed entirely every night.

By the way, I Googled those sheets for this article, and discovered that the design is now considered "vintage."  You can find my old sheets on eBay for anywhere from seventeen to thirty-five dollars.  The moment I saw Bert and Ernie on their little tandem bike, the memories came flooding back.

...or did they?

Here's some back story about Sesame Street.  Sesame Street has been around since 1969; it's poised for its 50th season, boasting over 4,000 episodes, 189 Emmies, and 11 Grammies.  Also, according to Wikipedia, 95% of American children have seen the show before the age of 3.

The funny thing about Sesame Street, though, is that most of us cannot name a single fucking episode.

The simple fact of the matter is that there's a thing called "childhood amnesia," and we all have it.  It's part of normal brain development; you don't remember being a baby, or probably even being a toddler.  Memory before the age of five is, at best, single snapshots that are memories of memories and not much more; it might be more accurate to call them "mythologies" than "memories."

I know that I loved Sesame Street.  I still remember the theme song.  I think I remember one episode that had a song about not wasting water.  (Lyrics: "Don't waste the water, water, water" to the tune of a dripping faucet.)  I also think I might remember one that involved a back tooth reminding the person brushing it "Don't skip me!"  But I don't know.  A talking tooth demanding attention sounds more like a fever dream than a childhood memory.

And most people agree that childhood amnesia is absolutely terrifying, if you really think about it.  The idea of losing our memories, our sense of self, or of having false memories implanted into us, is the kind of stuff we make horror films about.  (For example, Before I Go To Sleep, Inception, The Island, Memento, Shutter Island, The Bourne Identity, The Number 23, and, perhaps scariest of all, 50 First Dates.)

And the subject of childhood amnesia is especially frightening, because as children, we lack the context to really understand everything happening to and around us.  Kids get scared of all sorts of shit.  Kids also stumble into scary situations that only make sense later in life.  Childhood amnesia bears an implication of potential trauma, the idea that we have always had a dark monster lurking, locked away in our own brains, and we never even knew.

So Sesame Street.

It might delight you to know that, if you were a toddler in 1976 and you saw an episode of Sesame Street that scared the shit out of you, that isn't a false memory, but a real one.

Because in 1976 there was an episode of Sesame Street that aired once and was never seen again.

Episode 0847, called both "The Lost Episode" and "The Banned Episode," aired on February 10th.  There's no clips of it available online, though we've been reassured that the footage wasn't destroyed and is archived... somewhere.  There are periodic suggestions that the episode might play someday, but as it stands, it never has been, nor has there has ever been any news confirmed about an eventual release date.

We do have stills, though, and a basic plot.  The Wicked Witch of the West (played by Margaret Hamilton of the original Wizard of Oz) flies over Sesame Street and loses her broom.  It's found by David and Big Bird, who refuse to return it to her because they're worried she'll do evil magic with it.  The Witch loses her shit and proceeds to terrorize Sesame Street with various threats, including turning Big Bird into a feather duster (that's racist?) and David into a basketball (that's racist).  She trashes Mr. Hooper's store by making it rain indoors and filling it up with brooms.  Eventually, she gets her broom back from Big Bird by tricking him into thinking she's nice, and flies away.  (Although it ends on a sort-of cliffhanger where she drops her broom a second time.)  The end.

It doesn't sound scary, perhaps, but again, children have vastly different concepts of what "scary" really means.  (It's worth pointing out that, when I was a kid, I was scared by the following: sewing machines, my fingernails melting off, and the pollution monster from Fern Gully.)  The idea of a thunderstorm indoors is actually ridiculously terrifying if you're a kid; thunderstorms are scary enough when they're outside.  And the idea of being transformed into an inanimate object, one without a face... well, yeah, I can see how that might scare children.

Incidentally, it was reported that the Witch was literally supposed to "teach children about fear."  So, yeah, they were definitely angling for a "scary" episode.

As typically happens when this sort of thing airs, enraged parents wrote into the show, saying it had made their kids upset.  Kids cried, kids had nightmares, and PBS never showed the episode again, leading to a strange cult following from people like me who really, really want to see the "lost episode."

Google search it all you want.  
You won't find it.
Side note: don't Google "Sesame Street" memes, or click that link.

This wasn't the first time Sesame Street overstepped, either.  While the show has had plenty of controversial and serious episodes dealing with very real issues, the "scary" episode wasn't the only one that had to be pulled.  In 1992, episode 2985 was quietly thrown out without ever being aired because the producers decided kids didn't get it.  Titled "Snuffy's Parents Get a Divorce," it was supposed to reassure children whose parents were splitting up that they were still loved and it wasn't their fault.  Apparently, it missed the mark and tested poorly, so they scrapped it, not wanting to confuse children who might already be troubled.

I don't want to sound like I'm being overly critical of Sesame Street, here.  Sesame Street has been so successful in a very large part because of its willingness to tackle serious issues in an age-appropriate way.  This includes the iconic episode wherein characters discussed another character's death (the actor had actually died and their tears were real), and the inclusion of HIV-positive puppets in South Africa and Arab puppets in Israel.  Few shows have tackled as many real-world issues, or done it as gracefully, as Sesame Street, although I do want to give a shout-out to Mr. Rogers, who also did a Wicked Witch episode that was never banned, as well as an episode about divorce.  (The witch episodes were nearly concurrent, being released in 1975 and 1976, within one year of each other.)

What did Mr. Rogers do differently?

In the Mr. Rogers segment, he introduces us to Margaret Hamilton, and she actually puts on her witch outfit on screen.  The children understand that it's merely "make-believe."  If there's one failing of Sesame Street, perhaps it's that it blurs the line between fantasy and reality.  When a giant elephant puppet tells you that your parents might break up, it's unclear to what extent that's true.  Mr. Rogers never bullshitted kids; his puppets were, by design, "make-believe" and not part of his actual real-life house.  The actress who portrayed the witch explained how her skin wasn't actually green and that it was only paint that wiped off.  "Sometimes, Mister Rogers, I'm a little unhappy because lots of children are quite scared by [the witch], and that always makes me feel a little sad," said Hamilton.

The thing about kids is, their brains are little sponges, and they absorb a lot of stuff.  But they don't always understand it.  Yes, Cookie Monster is supposed to be a metaphor for drug addiction.  But do kids really get that?  I sure as shit didn't.

Child psychology is a complex subject and has grown a lot since the '70s, so we can't fault Sesame Street too much for their famously controversial witch episode.  But if there's anything we should take away from it, it's not that children should not be exposed to things that are scary, sad, or uncomfortable.  It's that they should be given age-appropriate context.  That's what Mr. Rogers did in his show; he soothingly explained things that were scary, sad, or uncomfortable in a way that helped give children the context they lack due to their lack of life experience.

Childhood amnesia is scary to us, as adults, precisely because of what it represents: The Great Unknown.  Lack of information is terrifying; the monsters we can't see are almost always scarier than the ones we can, which is why The Blair Witch Project was actually a fantastically scary and unsettling movie.  (Had they shown the witch, it would have ceased to be scary to everyone except for toddlers, who probably would have been terrified, especially if it turned out Margaret Hamilton was the Blair Witch all along.)

As adults, we sometimes get little jolts of memory from those lost years of our lives, and without the surrounding circumstances to understand it, those jolts are often unsettling.  For example, my memory of an anthropomorphic, lonely tooth.  Now imagine you're three years old and that uncanny sense is your constant state.

 Fortunately unlike kids us adults are sooooo smart and good at remembering stuff.

It's no wonder kids are constantly having meltdowns.  They're small, and the world is big, and everything is moving loudly and quickly around them without any rhyme or reason.

The solution?  We need to be more like Mr. Rogers.  His show was calm, slow, soft, and comforting.  It explained what was happening, and why, with saint-like patience.  And no kid, to my knowledge, has ever been confused or traumatized by Mr. Rogers.  His message of unconditional love is timeless.

Sesame Street isn't worse than Mr. Rogers.  It's simply different.  It's more political and more focused on current affairs.  There's a place for both.

Also, Sesame Street did an Avengers parody and I have to give them credit for that. 
They're even mean to Hawkeye around the 3:30 mark.

That being said, though, if I had to go back in time and choose new sheets for my bed... well, I don't know if they made Mr. Rogers sheets, but I would have opted for those.  Because as an adult, I feel that the thing that best prepared me for my adult life was context.  I was offered, like all children, a feast of information; the stuff that stuck with me was the stuff that was explained.  It's no coincidence that the favorite question of children under five is "why?"  They don't merely want information; they want to know what it's good for, and how it relates to their place in the world.

One of the lessons we, as adults, can learn from this is that things lacking context are scary.  It's easy to forget, as adults, that we have our blind spots.  We don't always know the "why" of things, even when we think we do.  Adulthood is a lot like living in the Sesame Street universe, where reality and the perception of reality mix together seamlessly.  But often, the things that upset, scare, or anger us lack a greater context, and so it's important to handle our Sesame Street lives in a Mr. Rogers manner: by calmly, quietly seeking out more information and coming to an understanding that lets us live our lives in the best way possible.

Children's programming often stumbles into shockingly profound and poetically beautiful philosophies, and I'd like to quote Captain Planet here, who stated that there are two things that make bad things worse: ignorance, and fear.

Whoops, wrong clip.  (That's from episode 11, season 3, and if you think it's fake, think again; here's the full climax.  In my opinion, though, this is an amazing example of how to educate kids directly on serious issues.)

My point is, we don't stop being scared just because we grow up.  We just get scared of different things.  And Sesame Street's scary episode may not have done what it intended to, but in a way, it did fulfill its mission.  It taught us about fear.  Contrasted with the Mr. Rogers episode that feature the Wicked Witch, it showed us what the remedy for fear is: knowledge.

As Captain Planet once told us, "Protect yourself and others with knowledge. Remember, the power is yours."