Monday, November 30, 2015

It is not the critic who counts

Sober 25 years? Maybe it's just a start


Make a Blingee!

Blingees didn't exist back in 1990, but I did. I don't mind telling you I was hanging by a thread. It wasn't just alcohol that threatened to finish me, of course. There were other factors that I still struggle with on a daily basis.

But a quarter of a century has gone by, and I haven't needed to drink. Imagine that.

I come from a very long line of drunks, Irish on one side, English on the other. My paternal grandfather and my father were severe alcoholics, and my two uncles on my mother's side were falling-down drunks. I watched this behaviour practiced daily all around me, but was also sucked in at around age 15, when my parents began to fill up my wine glass at the dinner table. And refill it. I gratefully drained it, needing no genetic encouragement.

I remember I went on an Oxfam walk back when they were 30 miles long. I finished it, but was so exhausted I was crying in my room. My Dad, ever compassionate, brought up a double shot of whiskey and said "here, this'll make you feel better". At least once, my sister did the same thing. I think I was 13 years old then.

Not much later came the drunken parties that my older siblings (5, 10 and 13 years older, respectively) took me to, where I was the mascot, encouraged to get shit-faced and groped by a great many married men 20 years older than me. Some of them had wives in the next room.

When I finally began to find my way to recovery at age 36, the family felt intense shame - not that I was alcoholic; they pretty much knew that. No, the shame came because I went so whole-hog into recovery, revealing (at least to my fellow AA members) that I was seeking a better life through sobriety.

Imagine. Our daughter. . . being in . . . AA. THAT was the shame, the excruciating thing, the thing that made them squirm. No one in our family should ever land in that place.

I shouldn't be dwelling on the roots of this thing, but the fact that I did get better. But it was a hard battle, and I finally had to leave those people behind. They seemed to be completely oblivious to the damage they had done, and in fact probably continue (those of them that are still alive) to believe they were doing me a social favour by allowing me to go to those parties.

I realize now that it was a miracle I didn't get pregnant, or just kill myself. (I do remember both my parents yelling at me, "Go ahead, then! That's what we want!" This is no lie, nor is it even exaggeration. It is reporting, which is what all writing actually is.) One of the guys who hit on me, 35 and married, used to date me, take me to movies, send me roses to the house, which my parents set on the dining room table. They knew about all of it and did/said nothing.  Later on, unemployed and bereft of family and awash in alcoholism, the guy put a bullet through his head.

So this is where I came from.

"You can't give away what you never had," the truism goes. Nonsense! I am 42 years married now to a wonderful man. He is the best person I know. I did my level best with my kids, though I am sure I made major mistakes. But I KNOW I am an awesome grandma, I need no one to tell me. It's my life's sweetest reward. 


POST-BLOG THOUGHTS. As usual, I have something to say about this. I realize I come across a bit smug. All right, a LOT smug, as if I didn't have any help in doing this. I did, and it was hard, because I often felt the program of recovery was rigid and dogmatic. But hey, I'm sober today, as they like to say. I did have to schlep myself to all those hundreds and hundreds of meetings. Now I barely think about alcohol. To constantly "tell my story" and go on and on about the horrors of boozing doesn't help me move away from booze. It rubs my nose in it over and over again. Somehow I think it's more helpful to move on and just brush the thought aside, which gets easier over the years. To obsess over it is to set yourself up to fail. At least, that's what I think. 

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My silver anniversary - let the bells ring

By the power of grace and with the help of some wonderful people, today I celebrate 25 years of sobriety. I can remember what 25 days felt like, so it amazes me that this much time has gone by. Personal transformation is a long hard road, with many a winding turn, most of which we can’t see coming at all. I can’t control the vagaries of Fate or the sometimes-traumatic emotional turns of my life, but I CAN choose to be sober today. It has given me my life back, and continues to be the best choice I can make.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Was blind, but now I see

This article (below) fascinates me. I remember the controversy over "multiple personality disorder" in the '90s and how it was related to childhood sexual abuse. Unfortunately, it spawned innumerable Geraldo Rivera-type TV shows with the most lurid misrepresentations of the disease and its causes, and a flood of books that may or may not have been based in reality. The whole subject (along with "recovered memory", a concept that triggered a World War III in therapy circles) became more and more sensationalized, so that a serious assessment of what was actually going on became almost impossible.

Then, as with so many other controversial phenomena, it virtually disappeared from the public consciousness. A few years ago I saw a bizarre article by one of the authors of The Courage to Heal (the Bible for survivors of childhood sexual abuse) exhorting women to forgive their families, particularly their fathers, and make reparation to them wherever possible. The whole thing reeked of "lawsuit" (another murky and often hateful manifestation of this whole mess).

This was the first time I have read about multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative identity disorder, perhaps to distance it from its Geraldo-esque roots) in years and years. How times change. And things. And public opinion.

The blind woman who switched personalities and could
suddenly see

Hamilton Spectator

By Sarah Kaplan

It had been more than a decade since "B.T." had last seen anything.

After she suffered a traumatic accident as a young woman, doctors diagnosed her with cortical blindness, caused by damage to the visual processing centres in her brain. So she got a Seeing Eye dog to guide her and grew accustomed to the darkness.

Besides, B.T. had other health problems to cope with — namely, more than 10 wildly different personalities that competed for control of her body.

It was while seeking treatment for her dissociative identity disorder that the ability to see suddenly returned. Not to B.T., a 37-year-old German woman. But to a teenage boy she sometimes became.

With therapy, over the course of months, all but two of B.T.'s identities regained their sight. And as B.T. oscillated between identities, her vision flicked on and off like a light switch in her mind. The world would appear, then go dark.

Writing in PsyCh Journal, B.T.'s doctors say that her blindness wasn't caused by brain damage, her original diagnosis. It was instead something more akin to a brain directive, a psychological problem rather than a physiological one.

B.T.'s strange case reveals much about the mind's extraordinary power — how it can control what we see and who we are.

To understand what happened with B.T. (who is identified only by her initials in the journal article), her doctors, German psychologists Hans Strasburger and Bruno Waldvogel, went back to her initial diagnosis of cortical blindness.

Her health records from the time show that she was subjected to a series of vision tests — involving lasers, special glasses, lights shined across a room — all of which demonstrated her apparent blindness. Since there was no damage to her eyes themselves, it was assumed that B.T.'s vision problems must have come from brain damage caused by her accident (the report does not say what exactly happened in the accident).

Waldvogel had no reason to doubt that diagnosis when B.T. was referred to him 13 years later for treatment of dissociative identity disorder, once called multiple personality disorder. B.T. exhibited more than 10 personalities, varying in age, gender, habits and temperament. They even spoke different languages: some communicated only in English, others only in German, some in both. (B.T. had spent time in an English-speaking country as a child but lived in Germany.)

Then, four years into psychotherapy, something strange happened: just after ending a therapy session, while in one of her adolescent male states, B.T. saw a word on the cover of a magazine. It was the first word she had read visually in 17 years.

At first, B.T.'s renewed sight was restricted to recognizing whole words in that one identity. If asked, she couldn't even see the individual letters that made up the words, just the words themselves. But it gradually expanded, first to higher-order visual processes (like reading), then to lower-level ones (like recognizing patterns) until most of her personalities were able to see most of the time. When B.T. alternated between sighted and sightless personalities, her vision switched as well.

That's when Waldvogel began doubting the cause of B.T.'s vision loss. It's unlikely that a brain injury of the kind that can cause cortical blindness would heal instantaneously after such a long time. And even if it did, that didn't explain why B.T.'s vision continued to switch on and off. Clearly something else was going on.

One explanation, that B.T. was "malingering," or lying about her disability, was disproved by an EEG test. When B.T. was in her two blind states, her brain showed none of the electrical responses to visual stimuli that sighted people would display — even though B.T.'s eyes were open and she was looking right at them.

Instead, Waldvogel and Strasburger believe that B.T.'s blindness is psychogenic (psychologically caused, rather than physical). Something happened — perhaps related to her accident — that caused her body to react by cutting out her ability to see. Even now, two of her identities retain that coping mechanism.

"These presumably serve as a possibility for retreat," Strasburger told the neuroscience site Brain Decoder. "In situations that are particularly emotionally intense, the patient occasionally feels the wish to become blind, and thus not 'need to see.'"

It's not actually all that uncommon for people's brains to stop them from seeing, even when their eyes work fine, the researchers say. When your two eyes see slightly different images — when squinting, for example — the brain will cut out one image to keep you from being confused by the contradiction. Your brain also intervenes in visual processing when you focus on particular objects in your field of vision.

Responsibility for the information "gatekeeping" that kept B.T. from seeing everything she looked at may lie with the lateral geniculate nucleus, a sort of neural relay centre that sends visual information down synaptic pathways into the brain's information processors.

Perhaps more interesting than what it says about sight, though, is what B.T.'s story tells us about dissociative identity disorder (DID), the condition apparently at the root of her vision loss.

Though DID has been listed in psychiatry's bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, since 1994 (and was recognized as "multiple personality disorder" for a decade and a half before that), there is still a large amount of skepticism about the diagnosis among experts and patients alike.

For years before it became a psychiatric diagnosis, DID was known along with a host of other psychiatric conditions as "hysteria," a term that gives you a sense of how it and its sufferers were viewed.

Modern critics of the diagnosis point out the absence of consensus on diagnostic criteria and treatment, and blame sensational stories of DID patients like the 1976 TV movie Sybil for creating an "epidemic" of MPD diagnoses. The 1990s saw a spate of lawsuits from patients subjected to dubious treatments for multiple personality disorders they said they didn't have, and many began to believe that DID was not so much treated by psychiatrists but induced by them through the power of suggestion.

At the very least, it's thought that DID may only be a product of fragmentation at high levels of thinking — a breakdown in a brain dealing with complex emotions.

But Strasburger and Waldvogel say their finding is evidence that DID can unfold at a very basic, biological level. After all, it was not just high-level cognitive functions, such as reading, that were affected by B.T.'s condition; even basic things such as depth perception were difficult for her. And B.T.'s doctors could see all of that playing out in her brain right in front of them on the EEG.

The case study shows that DID "is a legitimate psycho-physiologically based syndrome of psychological distress," Dr. Richard P. Kluft, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Temple University School of Medicine, who was not associated with the study, told Brain Decoder.

The condition is not just a product of culture and psychiatrists' suggestions, he said; as in B.T.'s case, it "represents the mind's attempt to compartmentalize its pain."

The Washington Post

(P. S. A word to those who read this. I copy and paste articles only because posting links tends to be a waste of time. Nobody follows them, any more than I do. It's a little different on Facebook because it gives you a preview with a photo, but without that visual cue, people won't click. I'm not complaining because I'm the same way. I want to give credit wherever possible. Clicking on the author's name will take you to the original article. I did not write this! By the way, the Hamilton Spectator didn't write this either. It appeared originally in the Washington Post, and I can't find the name of the author, whom the Spectator didn't feel compelled to list.)

No, I'm not finished with you yet

In case you think I am finished with the dank, scary topic of tardigrades, think again. I am finding millions of images of them on the internet, millions of videos, songs about them, dances about them, artwork, jewellery, tshirts, and even. . . cartoons.

Yes. I was astonished and a little taken aback to find a whole episode of the British cartoon series Aquanauts to be devoted to Water Bears. (Not Water Bearers - that's Aquarius, another issue.) This animated tardigrade looks less like the electron-microscope-enhanced nightmares I have posted above, and more like the Pillsbury Doughboy.

Calling them water bears (or, even more euphemistically, moss piglets) plays down the horror of these creatures who cannot be killed by ice, flame, 100 years of dessication, or being shot out into space. If they're going to send them out into the cold reaches of the universe, why not send ALL of them?

Here, Tardy Grade lounges with his friends Retro Grade, Make The Grade, Centi Grade and Shady Grade. All look like nothing more than obese caterpillars.

This is what tardigrades look like. This. THIS. Stop looking away. Stop evading reality and face the truth! These are not "moss piglets" or "water bears". They are micro-horrors waiting to take over the world. Yes, once we've poisoned the environment and driven all the other animals and life forms extinct, these "things" will still be swarming around, because they can live anywhere, under any circumstances, at any temperature, and even without water or (probably) air. They don't even need genes, for God's sake, When they're a little short of DNA, they just "import" some from other species.

(I just got a horrible idea for a short story. Tardi-humans? No. No, I mustn't!)

So no matter how innocent and Disneylike these things may look here, don't be fooled. They are horrible. They have too many legs. (Anything with more than four legs is automatically off my wubby list.) They even make bad cartoon characters, lumbering and lumpish. In fact, they remind me a little bit of those termite queens seething with eggs, so fat they can't move, like something from My 600 Pound Life.

(Blogger's note. I here deleted a gif of a seething, undulating termite queen, immobilized by her own egg-laden weight. I couldn't even stand to look at it myself.)

I think some tidy unmarried British scientist from the 1800s must've named these monstrosities Moss Piglets. It's a slightly perverted name, the kind of name bestowed by someone who never got any, I mean never, and thus thought these things charming - if not captivating, if not provocative - as he peered at them through his incredibly crude microscope (the kind you could make with two mirrors and a toilet roll) all day long.

THIS is a moss piglet. A piglet made of moss.

This is a piglet. Is there any resemblance?

You decide.

  Visit Margaret's Amazon Author Page!

Friday, November 27, 2015


Me against the Troll Army

It’s time to get rid of online comments

DECEMBER 2015 •  1,023 WORDS 

“DON’T READ the comments” has become a popular mantra among my media colleagues. It’s not that we don’t care what our readers think. It’s that many of the comments appearing under online news articles are full of hate, profanity, and blunt insults. For a reporter or columnist, it’s soul-crushing to imagine that these angry people are our most devoted readers.

But someone’s got to wade through the muck. And at the Telegram newspaper in St. John’s, that someone is me. It’s not a job I do alone, but it’s one I do every day. Sitting there in my small, nondescript office, I scroll through hundreds of ripostes, taunts, threats, manifestos—and the occasional genuinely incisive comment. I try to insulate myself psychologically from the bitterness and ignorance on display. But over time, the scalding verbal cascades have taken their toll on me.

The original idea behind reader comments was a noble one. For too long, the mass media had been controlled by intellectually incestuous elites, futurists complained. These crowd-sourced forums were a way to open up the conversation with readers.

Unfortunately, editors found, these conversations quickly ended up in the gutter. Typically, the hundreds—or even thousands—of comments that accumulate under a popular article are supplied mostly by a small group of mutually antagonistic, logorrhea-afflicted partisans, haters, and ideologues.

The Huffington Post was one of the first major outlets to pull the plug on this social experiment, halting anonymous comments in 2013. This year, the Daily Beast announced that “we will be removing the commenting function off our site,” on the delicately stated pretext that “the conversation around our articles is increasingly happening on social networks.” Almost a month later, the National Post told its audience that they’d have to go through their Facebook accounts to post comments (the idea was to remove the mask of anonymity that enables “vitriolic personal attacks”). And then, in late September, the Toronto Sun killed its comment boards on most articles, noting that the “anonymous, negative, even malicious personal attacks, albeit by a minority, has led us to conclude our current commenting system is not serving the interests of the majority of our readers.”

Patrolling this toxic playpen is part of my livelihood, so I have a financial interest in its continued existence. But after doing this job for ten years, I’m burning out.

It would be easier if I could just zone out and let the hate glide over me. But I have to remain alert at the keyboard: commenters often try to sneak things in, and my job has a cat-and-mouse quality to it. “Nothing says midlife crisis like the sound of a motorcycle,” wrote one fellow under an article about older Harley-Davidson riders. Seemed fine—until I noticed it came in under the name “Harley Phagg.”

As I write this, a Telegram commenter whose racist commentary has been blocked in the past is trying to slip in offensive slurs by using different names, such as “Golliwog” and “Jigaboo.” Others offer zingers that are childish and cruel, such as “If Peter MacKay is given an enema when he dies, his body can be placed in a matchbox before he is buried” (a line crudely plagiarized from Christopher Hitchens, who was talking about Jerry Falwell).

Battle not with monsters, lest you become a monster, Nietzsche reminded us. “And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” For years, the abyss has been looking into me every workday. On the obituary of a well-known St. John’s lawyer, someone wrote, “He was a friendly, two-faced liar. I feel for his sons, on a human level, but the world is a better place now.” In other cases, whole professions are casually dismissed as malignant, as in “We all know that Police Officers are the most corrupt people in the Province and the Country, especially since they are the worst rapists going because it is legal for them to do it.”

At one point, I became so enraged that I suggested our newspaper create an alter-ego for me (“The Angry Moderator”) who would call out the most idiotic commenters. My boss said no, and was correct to do so. In effect, I was asking to become the ringleader of the anonymous circus.

It’s not as if hatred was unknown to the pre-Internet era. Many years ago, I had a memorable phone call with an unhappy reader that began not with “Hello” but rather, “Now you listen, fuckhead.”

Yet these sporadic callers (or angry letter writers) at least aroused themselves to the task of direct, one-on-one communication—and, more often than not, they would tell me their real names. Anonymous online trolling, on the other hand, is a 24-7 drip, drip, drip of a thousand different toxins flowing continually into my newspaper’s well of ideas.

For years, our office was located in the Village Shopping Centre. I would walk through the food court, watching people read my newspaper over lunch. Is that the guy who signs himself “Pizza Tongs”? I’d wonder. Is that Cashin Delaney? Harley Phagg? That seems paranoid, I realize. But if you were to find a bag of dog shit hanging from your doorknob every day, you’d start to look at your neighbours differently, too.

Sometimes the abuse gets unsettlingly personal. I had one commenter who suggested that I’d get a rock through my living room window after I chastised a popular Newfoundland politician. Some commenters make it clear that they know where I live (a frightening thing in a relatively small place). Yet I don’t know anything about them. The relationship is entirely one-sided.

Anonymous Internet communication has its place. It’s a great way for corporate or government whistle-blowers to communicate with ombudspersons, for instance. But the model has collapsed entirely in the mass media, where discussion forums have created a climate of bullying and abuse.

We tried to create a conversation. Instead, we unwittingly empowered the most bigoted and enraged members of our society. Let’s seal this cesspit and move on.

BLOGGER'S NOTE. Well hello there. I'm back. Sort of. For the past two weeks, my computer has been so unpredictable that I haven't been able to decently post anything except other people's stuff. Nothing looked right, images were posting badly or not at all, I couldn't edit or save a draft, it was slow as hell, and - oh never mind, at the moment it's working all right and let's rejoice and be glad in it.

I did recently get a lovely comment, emailed to me, responding to my post from several years ago, The Story of Skippy. This didn't appear in the comments section, for some reason. This was a tale of animal abuse that did not end happily. I wasn't being a sadist here: I was trying to shake people awake. Twinkly little happy endings with forever-homes for all abused animals do not happen in this world. If we think they do, we become complacent. But never mind. My story was written in children's storybook form (on purpose), which I guess got the guy mad. My friend Matt looked at his email and concluded, "He doesn't get out very much." No. He's 40 years old and lives in the basement of his mother's house.

 What the fuck is wrong with you?
 That story is pitiful when it comes to literacy.
 FUCK OFF for writing such trash.
 IF IF IF IF IF IF IF IF IF IF you want to write something that is disturbing
 or distressing in a thought-provoking manner, write it well, you amateur
 Get the hell of the internet you waste of everyone's time.
 Seriously……everyone you have ever met thinks you are a waste of time.

(That a man who never met me could know me so well!)

  Visit Margaret's Amazon Author Page!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Tardigrade sex: cover your eyes

Although some species are parthenogenic, both males and females are usually present, each with a single gonad located above the intestine. Two ducts run from the testis in males, opening through a single pore in front of the anus. In contrast, females have a single duct opening either just above the anus or directly into the rectum, which thus forms a cloaca.[24]

Tardigrades are oviparous, and fertilization is usually external. Mating occurs during the molt with the eggs being laid inside the shed cuticle of the female and then covered with sperm. A few species have internal fertilization, with mating occurring before the female fully sheds her cuticle. In most cases, the eggs are left inside the shed cuticle to develop, but some species attach them to nearby substrate.[24]

The eggs hatch after no more than 14 days, with the young already possessing their full complement of adult cells. Growth to the adult size therefore occurs by enlargement of the individual cells (hypertrophy), rather than by cell division. Tardigrades may molt up to 12 times.[24]

Tardigrades: the horror

I had no idea, when I began to probe the subject of tardigrades, how quickly I'd be in over my head. Soon I felt I was trapped in some sort of ceaseless pageant of unnameable, formless horror.

As it turns out, tardigrades don't just live in stagnant mudpuddles, National Geographic specials on microbiology or Wikipedia entries that go on forever. They have invaded the culture. Here I hadn't even heard of them, and now they are seemingly everywhere, especially in DeviantArt. The artist didn't have to exaggerate very much to create this frightening gangsta 'grade.


And this. What is this? The General Patton of tardigrades?

It gets a bit ridiculous, but yes, there are Tardy (or Grade, whichever you prefer) stuffies. This one is named Tardy O'Grady.

This looks like a twisted loaf of garlic bread to me, but it's a 3D printed copy of a tardigrade. Believe me, there were much worse things floating around the internet, including tardigrade jewelry (wtf???) and crochet patterns to Make your own Grade.

And you can keep them as pets, too! Approximately 350 tardigrades to one drop of water.

Tardigrades: the terror

From Charlie Nadler's blog:

Tardigrades are harmless.

Fiction. While most of us will probably never be personally assaulted by a tardigrade, this does not mean that they are harmless. In fact, their very existence is deeply detrimental to our mental health. We understand that there’s virtually no escape from these water bears; they’re hiding beneath the ice in the Arctic Ocean, at the top of the Himalayas, in our backyards, and everywhere in between. Even if we can’t see them, we can feel their presence and sense that they are awaiting our demise. Their silence is deafening.

As humans, we struggle to cope with this dark reality; the long, sinister shadow cast by tardigrades shapes our identities and prevents us from forming “healthy relationships” with other people. We often find ourselves unable to sleep, our minds victims of the night as they become caught in infinite water bear thought-loops. In our moments of weakness, we can’t help but wonder: What if there was a pill or an elixir we could take that would transform us from human to tardigrade? Would we consider taking such a thing? Perhaps, if we did take it, we would realize that we have in fact been living a lie; that, all along, we were actually tardigrades trapped in human bodies. Once corrected to our true form, we would command respect from our fellow tardigrades and be elected to a prestigious position with much responsibility. The important work we’d accomplish would earn admiration from our peers and maybe even the love of a beautiful female water bear with whom we could settle down and start a family. Our parents would finally see that we aren’t the disappointments they always thought we were. For the first time in our lives, we’d feel accepted, appreciated, and loved.