Friday, February 9, 2018

Fun Friday Facts: Can Knitting Treat PTSD?

Image by user Johntex from Wikimedia Commons
I’ve really been getting into crochet lately, which is an ideal hobby to indulge in when one has cats. My mother taught me how to crochet years ago, but I hadn’t done it in quite some time before I decided to make Jim a tentacle scarf for Christmas. Making the scarf rekindled my interest in the hobby, which gives me something productive to do with my hands while Jim and I are watching TV, and is a lot less frustrating than coloring extremely intricate pictures in adult coloring books.

What am I supposed to do with this, Dr. Coloring Book???
Indeed, journalist Temma Ehrenfeld, writing in Psychology Today, speculates that the post-modern urge to constantly play with our phones stems, not from a deep moral failure as my last boyfriend would have you believe, but from a desire to make or do something with our hands. Researchers have found that knitting (and I’m going to lump in crochet with that, which is not the same as knitting, BECAUSE IT’S BETTER), like yoga and tai chi, can elicit a meditative state of mindfulness. The repetitive motions involved in knitting and crocheting are physiologically soothing, slowing the heart rate and breathing, but the activity itself is complicated enough to distract the brain from the intrusive thoughts that often come with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder; knitting and crocheting can even relieve chronic pain, because it distracts the brain from processing pain signals.

Image by user flora from Wikimedia Commons
That’s according to Betsan Corkhill, whose research with Cardiff University in the UK found that, the more time people spend knitting, the happier they are. Corkhill surveyed 3,500 knitters for a paper published in the British Journal of Occupational Therapy; 81 percent of those surveyed reported feeling happier during or after a knitting session, while 54 percent of respondents suffering clinical depression said that knitting made them feel “happy or very happy.”

Occupational therapist Victoria Schindler tells CNN that knitting’s repetitive motions quiet the parasympathetic nervous system, to quell the fight-or-flight response that’s out-of-control in so many patients suffering from anxiety and PTSD. Knitting may further stimulate the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, accounting for the feelings of happiness knitters reported to Corkhill.

Of course, it’s not just the knitting or crocheting itself that makes us happy. The hobby brings with it a host of other mood-boosting activities, such as choosing pretty yarns, attending knitting circles (or, as I like to call them, stitch-and-bitches), producing finished products, gifting or donating knitted items, and receiving praise for one’s skill. In addition, knitting, crocheting, and other crafty hobbies boosts your feelings of self-efficacy, or your perception of how capable you are in the face of challenges and disappointments. Knowing that you can crochet your boyfriend an awesome tentacle scarf will leave you feeling more confident in your ability to nail that big job interview, or at least that’s the idea, but I’m still awful at job interviews so check and mate, science!

Perhaps the most interesting part of all this is that it’s not a new idea. In the aftermath of World War I, shell-shocked soldiers lay in hospital wards, knitting their cares away as they contributed to the war effort. Of course, that may have had more to do with the fact literally everyone was knitting stuff for the soldiers in the trenches than with any attempt to treat combat-related neurosis, but whatevs, I'm taking it.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

I Want to Have a Bear Complaint

Image by Malene Thyssen from Wikimedia Commons
A friend of mine recently moved to Alaska, and I am jealous. I would love to move to Alaska. It would be cold, dark, miserable, snowy, and full of embittered, unmarriageable alcoholics – just the way I like it.

My friend, Beth, recently posted on Facebook a picture of her local Alaskan newspaper’s crime report. Apparently, during the third week in January, her local police department investigated zero bear complaints. She was delighted that “bear complaints” are a standing category in this report. Further conversation revealed that she is looking forward to someday lodging a bear complaint of her very own.

Now, let me tell you that all my life, I’ve wanted to see a bear. Growing up in West Virginia, it seemed like everyone I knew had a bear story. Chuck, my mother’s boyfriend when I was a teenager, told a story about getting between a mother and her cubs which, surprisingly, didn’t end with him getting eaten, which was unfortunate because him getting eaten would have made the world a better place. Herb, the boyfriend before Chuck, told a story about sleeping on the front porch on a hot summer night and waking up to one of his hunting dogs licking his face. But when he went to shove the dog away, he was surprised to discover that it was not a dog, but a black bear.

Image by Diginatur from Wikimedia Commons

“That’s why you should always wash your face before you go to bed,” said my mother, who liked to tell me that ferrets would eat my lips in the night if I didn’t wash my face before bed. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I’ve been not washing my face before bed for at least fifteen years, and nothing has eaten my face or lips yet. Technically, that bear didn’t even eat Herb’s face, it just licked it a little bit. Also, I feel like if there’s a lesson to be taken from Herb’s story, it’s “don’t sleep on the front porch,” not “wash your face to keep bears from eating it in your sleep.”

But I digress. In spite of the fact that everyone around me seems to have seen, shot at, run from, been licked by, eaten, or married a bear, I have never seen a bear. I mean, I’ve seen bears in the zoo, but that doesn’t count. For all I know, those aren’t even real bears. They’re doing all kinds of things with technology these days.

I want to see a bear, but I guess they’re more elusive than I’d been led to believe. Another friend of mine hiked the whole Appalachian Trail and only saw one bear, and that one was in Maine. Imagine walking in the woods for six months  straight and only seeing one bear.

My mother often took me camping on my grandparents' land when I was a girl, and on these trips, I kept my eyes peeled for bear. My mother encouraged this by saying things like, "Guy Phillips saw a bear down here yesterday," or, "See that path? That was definitely made by a bear." Eventually I realized that bear didn't live on my grandparents' land, the outskirts of which was relatively well-settled.

Jim and I recently visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where I had hoped to finally see a bear. I insisted that we go to Balsam Mountain Campground, because online reviewers had posted photos of bear wondering amongst the campsites. I want to see a bear, but I don't want to work for it.

I made Jim go on a hike with me, ostensibly to enjoy the outdoors, but I wouldn't have minded if we'd seen a bear. I said as much to Jim: "I hope we see a bear."

"I hope we don't see a bear," Jim replied.

Spoiler alert: We didn't see a bear. I was disappointed. Jim was disappointed, too, but for different reasons – he hates camping.

Monday, February 5, 2018

My DIY Treadmill Desk Is Working Out, More-or-Less

Several weeks ago, I put together a DIY treadmill desk. I used two bungee cords and a leftover shelf I had lying around from a wooden shelving unit that I bought at K-Mart, when there was still a K-Mart, and put up in my bedroom and, later, my kitchen.

Yes, I know that there shouldn’t normally be leftover pieces lying around when you finish putting something together, but knowing that doesn’t change the facts of this situation, which is that there’s a leftover shelf. I actually bought two short shelving units and combined them into one tall monster of a shelving unit, so the extra shelf is just the bottom shelf of the top half. I probably should have left it on there so that I could more securely nail the two units together, but whatever, it’s fine. I stuck the extra shelf in the back of my closet because I knew I’d find a use for it someday, and what do you know, I did.

The structure of the shelf is perfect because I didn’t have to screw any giant hooks or eyes into it in order to have somewhere to attach the bungee cords, although I could have because I’m pretty sure I have some of those lying around, too, from when I was going to put a clothesline up in the garage but then I never did. Because the shelf isn’t really high enough to allow me to type or write longhand comfortably, I needed something to prop up my laptop and also to write on. After all these years, I’m proud to say that buying those middle school yearbooks has paid off.

Now I can kill two birds with one stone by walking on the treadmill while I work on stuff. I have to admit that I don’t actually get that much work done at the treadmill desk, but it is useful for petting cats while I work out.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Fun Friday Facts #132: Hobbits Were Real, Sort Of

I got the idea to write this post because I was talking to Jim a couple of weeks ago and he didn’t believe me that hobbits were real. I tried to prove to him that hobbits were real by googling Homo floresiensis, but he didn’t seem that interested.

H. floresiensis was a species of mini-hominids that lived on the Indonesian island of Flores from about 190,000 to 50,000 years ago. The Tolkien Estate would prefer that we not call them hobbits.

Which is fair, since they probably looked like this.
Image from Wikimedia Commons by Cicero Moraes et alii
In 2003, the remains of a female individual, who would have been about 3’7” or 1.1 meters tall, were discovered in a limestone cave known as Liang Bua. The remains were discovered by a group of Australian and Indonesian scientists who were looking for evidence of Homo sapiens’ migration from Asia to Australia. Instead, they discovered what is now widely believed to be a whole new species of human.

The cave in question.
Image from Wikimedia Commons by user Rosino
The discovery of this almost-complete skeleton was shortly followed by the discovery of the remains of seven other individuals, as well as the discovery of a number of small, primitive stone implements. The scientists also uncovered the bones of an extinct elephant, Stegodon florensis insularis, a species descended from the full-sized S. florensis florensis which experienced island dwarfing, a phenomenon in which a large species confined to an island or other isolated area evolves to a smaller size over time.

So, were these tiny humans originally regular-sized humans who shrank over generations of life on Flores? Perhaps; the Wikipedia page on insular dwarfism lists Flores Man as an example of the phenomenon in primates, putting it in such illustrious company as the Nosy Hara dwarf lemur (named after an island called Nosy Hara, not after a guy called Hara who couldn’t mind his own business) and the early inhabitants of the island nation of Palau, who may or may not have been unusually small members of the species Homo sapiens, depending on who you ask.

It’s possible that H. floresiensis is not a discrete species at all, but is instead a smaller version of Homo sapiens. Some scientists point to the modern-day existence of a light-skinned pygmy people in the Flores village of Rampasasa as proof that the specimens labeled H. floresiensis could in fact be early examples of this same modern tribe. Others argue that the small individuals found in the cave are not early examples of modern pygmy peoples, but a separate species. H. floresiensis is a full foot smaller than the average height of most modern pygmy peoples, and possesses other physical features that are very different from those of modern humans. The structure of the arms, shoulders, teeth, and especially the wrists are such that scientists think this hominid was more closely related to great apes and early hominids, like Australopithecus, than to modern humans or even earlier human species like Homo neanderthalensis or Homo erectus. Some scientists believe that H. floresiensis evolved from the same hominid ancestor as Homo habilis, making it an older species than Homo erectus; if this theory was correct, it would mean that Homo erectus was not the first human species to leave Africa.

However, others believe that H. floresiensis was descended from Homo erectus. Still others believe that the unfortunate individuals found in the cave were normal, garden-variety Homo sapiens who had the misfortune to live a long time ago and suffer from debilitating illnesses like Down’s syndrome, microcephaly, Laron syndrome, or endemic cretinism, a condition in which one is born without a thyroid. Researchers including Dean Falk argue that, despite having a brain the size of an orange, H. floresiensis possessed cognitive powers sufficient to make and use the stone tools found in the cave (which are technologically on par with the more sophisticated tools made by Homo sapiens of the Upper Paleolithic or Late Stone Age), to use fire, and to hunt cooperatively to bring down admittedly small elephants, although I suppose even a cow-sized elephant would be as big as an elephant-sized elephant if you’re three-and-a-half feet tall. Scientists attempted to extract a DNA sample from the teeth of one of the specimens in 2006, which would have presumably settled the debate and revealed the nature of the specimens, but the attempt failed, so the debate rages on.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Fun Friday Facts #131: The History of Working Out on Purpose, Part 4

Alright guys, last week we discussed the beginning of the gymnastics movement, in which people began to realize that exercising on purpose might be good for you. We learned that the nascent fitness movement was born of the nationalism that sprang up in many European countries in the 19th century, as budding patriots believed that exercise would help produce strong citizens who would be good at fighting Napoleon. The current nationalist movements sweeping the U.S. and Europe could probably use a little bit more of that attitude – fitness, I mean, not fighting Napoleon – but we probably don’t need to be making white supremacists healthier.

But, anyway, I digress. It’s time to wrap this series up with some funny photos of old-timey exercises.

Like this torture device that is exactly the sort of thing my mother would have forced me to use if we'd lived in the 1920s.
As the 20th century dawned, doctors began to suspect that daily exercise was necessary in order to prevent degenerative disease. In 1915, a doctor with the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office, Dr. F.C. Smith, reported that individuals not engaged in manual labor jobs were more vulnerable to disease. In 1918, with the close of the First World War, a report was released regarding the condition of soldiers drafted for combat. It was found that one in three drafted men had been unfit for combat due to poor fitness levels. It was time for compulsory physical fitness programs in public schools.

The nation needed more of whatever this was. Source: The New York State Archives
But wait! Individual state governments had already started legislating mandatory physical education programs in public schools after the Civil War, beginning with California in 1866. In the decades that followed, a handful of other states legislated physical education in public schools, including Ohio in 1892; Wisconsin in 1897; North Dakota in 1899; Pennsylvania in 1901; Michigan in 1911; and Idaho in 1913. Meanwhile, new sports were being invented: lawn tennis in 1874; softball in 1887; basketball in 1891; and volleyball in 1895. Around the nation, professional sports teams were forming, and leagues and associations dedicated to the playing of sports like bowling, baseball, lawn tennis (is lawn tennis just tennis? I think it is? Why not just call it tennis?), and gymnastics. The Boy Scouts were founded in 1907 to promote the sharing of heteronormative physical recreation between young boys and grown men. And, when in the aftermath of the War to End All Wars, it became clear that Americans were woefully unfit, more states passed legislation requiring mandatory physical education in public schools: eight in 1915 through 1918, and 21 between 1919 and 1925. That was probably all the states there were back then, but I’m not sure because counting is not my forte. I’m a writer, you do the math.

You can also do this, I guess, because I can't.
By the mid-20th century, doctors were discovering the link between exercise, fitness, and good health. Pioneers in this research included Jerry Morris, a Scottish epidemiologist whose research established the link between sedentary lifestyles and cardiovascular disease. By studying the cardiovascular health of double-decker bus drivers, conductors, postmen, clerks, and telephonists, Morris established that regular, vigorous physical activity could prevent heart disease, publishing his seminal paper on the topic in 1958. Dr. Ken H. Cooper, regarded along with Morris as the founder of the modern fitness movement, also advocated for the prevention of disease via exercise, a healthy diet, and stress management. Both men apparently practiced what they preached; Morris died in 2009 at the age of 99. Dr. Cooper is 86 years old as of the time of this writing.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Film Review: "Sex Education Films" on Amazon Prime

A few weeks ago, Jim and I were sitting on the couch, looking for something to watch on one of our multiple streaming services, when we came across a video on Amazon Prime entitled Sex Education Films. The description read, “A collection of sex education films from the 1950s and 1960s.”

Jim and I enjoy ridiculing the hard work of others, so we thought we’d have fun watching the old sex ed films and making fun of the weird, old-fashioned advice we believed they’d contain. I don’t know what we expected, but the videos were surprisingly comprehensive. We learned all about the development of primary and secondary sex characteristics, how babies are made, what menstruation is, and what’s the deal with those racy dreams about naked ladies.

The videos weren’t all about puberty, however. Some of them were about growing and maturing into your role as a well-adjusted, heterosexual adult, preferably by the age of eighteen so you can get married and move out of your parents’ damn house, already. More than one of the videos concerned itself with the young protagonists’ baffling urges, and the roles they would one day be expected to play in society.

Here are some of the things we learned:
  • It’s normal for a red-blooded, maturing young woman to have [dramatic pause] desires. But you mustn’t act on those desires, or else you’ll end up like poor Elise – ostracized from polite society, whispered about by her former peers on the school paper, and raising a baby in a cramped, untidy apartment with the grudging help of a young husband who shows his unhappiness with his body language, and good thing, too, because he never actually speaks. That said, just because you get a little hot-and-heavy with a boy in the back seat of his car on Saturday night, doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a bad guy who doesn’t care about you. It might also mean you’re a bad girl who doesn’t know when to put on the brakes. You’d better hope your best friend Betty wasn’t lying about that Coca-Cola douche.
  • When a boy asks you out for a swimming date at the reservoir, and you accept and respond with, “I’ll bring some food, what would you like?” be prepared for him to respond, “A whole chocolate cake.” This is an appropriate and acceptable item to include in a picnic meal, and, for that matter, to request that your date, whom you are taking out for the very first time, spend all evening making from scratch because you know her uptight mother refuses to buy box mix.
  • It’s perfectly safe and even encouraged to take a bath every day during your menstrual cycle. Daily hair shampooing is also extremely important.
  • Adolescence is an exciting time in the life of a young girl, when she learns about herself and the world, gets to know many fine young men in an entirely chaste and appropriate fashion, brushes her extremely clean hair, listens to records, and wears a sanitary belt.
  • You could catch cold if you go swimming during the first few days of your period. How you’re supposed to swim while wearing a sanitary belt was not discussed. 
  • A menstruating girl or woman should wear her prettiest dress, spend extra time on her hair, and generally try to look her best while the Communists are in the fun house. But don’t worry, girls, no one will know that you’re on your period. When someone asks, “What’s the occasion?” just tell them you’ve got a cake-eating date with Fat Ben.

All in all, Jim and I (and Mark, who showed up about half-way through the video collection) enjoyed watching Sex Education Films. We’re still not sure why they’re available on Amazon Prime, but maybe it has something to do with the appalling lack of any sex education in many schools nationwide. So, if you live in one of those districts that teaches “abstinence-only” sex education or no sex education at all, and you want to give your pimply, clumsy, self-centered, and emotional teenage children the same uncomfortable, vaguely misogynistic sex education that your parents received, Sex Education Films is for you. 

Monday, January 22, 2018

I Kind of Want to Eat Tide Pods

When I first heard people were eating Tide pods, I thought it was a joke. I had seen the eating Tide pods meme on Reddit, and I thought I understood the joke, which is that they look delicious.

A few weeks later, when one of my Facebook friends posted a status lamenting the younger generation’s eating of Tide pods, I assumed it was one of those things like rainbow parties or poisoned Halloween candy – i.e., not something that ever actually happens, but that people freak out about anyway.

But no, it turns out kids are actually eating Tide pods. It’s called the Tide pod challenge, and knowing about it adds a whole new layer of humor to the meme.

The thing is, I can kind of understand why someone would want to eat a Tide pod. They tell you to keep them away from kids for a reason. Tide pods are small, round, plump, squishy, shiny, brightly colored, and slightly sticky; everything about them calls to my scavenger instincts and harkens back to the colorful sweets of my childhood, and that, according to neuroanthropologist John S. Allen, is exactly why they look so scrumptious. I mean, just look at this little guy and tell me you’re not at least a little bit tempted to eat him:

Image by Soulbust from Wikimedia Commons.

Apparently, the Tide pod challenge involves filming yourself biting into a Tide pod. I thought, it’s only soap, it can’t be THAT bad for you, can it?

It can. The super-concentrated ingredients in Tide pods will burn your stomach lining if you swallow the pod or its contents. There’s probably not enough poison in one Tide pod to kill an adult, and you’ll probably only need to spend one night in the hospital if you eat one, unless you aspirate some of the detergent into your lungs, in which case you’re probably going to die.

Plus, there’s the taste. I’ve never tasted laundry detergent, but I can’t imagine it tastes nice. Actually, I can. That’s the problem.