Naturally, I love chemicals!

This is a continuation on my previous post, “Attention, grocery shoppers!”

So the other night my daughter was complaining of her ingrown toenail that’s been bothering her for the past month.

“Why don’t you soak your foot in Epsom Salts?” I suggested.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“See that blue milk carton atop the fridge?” (That’s where we keep our first-aid/pharmacopeia.)  “It’s magnesium sulfate*.  Bath salts. It’ll help draw out the inflammation and such.”

“Salt?!” She winced

“Mineral salt, not sodium chloride table salt,” I added, while refraining from explaining about ionic bonds.  Her hubby the medic prepared her a foot soak and explained that magnesium sulfate is a natural mineral salt that’s mined and used for all sorts of things.

While she soothed her cold, sore feet in warm water, I had a mental chuckle over “natural chemical”.  To many people, the two words are antonyms — and very distant opposites at that.  As I’ve said before, a “chemical” is simply a substance with a defined composition.  Minerals are chemicals.  So are sugar, water, caffeine, theobromine (mn chocolate), baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), all the ingredients in your can of soda, and so on.

Natural means that something is found in nature, with or without some processing.  Apple juice and olive oil are natural because they squeeze the bejeezus out of those fruits.  (Botanically, fruits are the parts of the plants with the seeds inside; olives and tomatoes are vegetables insofar as cookery and taxation are concerned.)  Vanilla extract is a natural flavor because vanilla beans are used.  Other natural flavors use plant and animal products.

Artificial, which is what many people really mean by the word “chemical”, means a substance produced synthetically.  In my organic chemistry lab, we made (minute) quantities of isopentyl acetate, which most of us are familiar with as artificial banana flavor used in candies or instant puddings. Imitation banana flavor is obviously pretty fake!  But imitation wintergreen is not so readily identifiable, nor is it dissimilar from naturally-distilled wintergreen essence, aside from the fact that the natural distillation will have additional “impurities” that add more depth to the flavor.

The divisions between natural and artificial are fairly straight-forward.  But the definitions of “organic” aren’t!  That’s because we have different meanings for the word organic in different contexts.

Once Upon A Time, O Best Beloved, there was just chemistry, that field of natural philosophy that the scientific method dragged out of the abyss of alchemy.  Organic materials were those which came from natural sources, and were deemed special and beyond the production of the laboratory; they were somehow still deemed to have a “vital force”.  However, in the early 19th century, urea (yes, the stuff of urine) was artificially synthesized, thus dispelling that last thread of medievalism.

Nowadays, organic chemistry occupies itself with materials composed of hydrocarbons, that is, molecules with both Carbon and Hydrogen atoms.  So instead of natural materials, there are a lot of well, unnatural materials involved, such as plastics, drugs, fertilizers, house paints … ordinary everyday stuff, most of which we wouldn’t want to live without.

In addition to the chemistry definition of organic, we have a couple of other usages.  When I’m teaching about composting, we use the term organic in its original sense of “from something living”.  If it used to be alive, you can compost it and create lovely humus (although fatty things will smell, so we leave meats & dairy items out).

Organic gardening and farming is yet another story.  Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides cannot be used, and transgenic plants are most always frowned upon as well.  (I have mixed feelings about transgenics; not about the processes, which are simply more specific means of breeding, but about other economic and agro-ecological issues.)

Unfortunately, the history of organic growing is fraught with heavy doses of woo, including planting by moon-signs, astrology, companion planting, and whatnot.  Fortunately, the professional realm has abandoned these, because professional growers have a lot of energy, money, time and effort invested (and of course, documentation work, because nothing officially exists without documentation).  They can’t afford to waste time on nonsense.  Unfortunately for the gardening end, lots of this woo still propagates through the vacuum of teh interwebs.

Last on my list of definitions is the oft-misapplied sense that anything “natural” or “organic” must therefore be safe.  This is bullshit.  There are lots of natural poisons!

Conversely, artificial does not automatically mean dangerous. For example we’ve been using synthetic acetylsalicylic acid (commonly known as aspirin) for decades, instead of the salicylic acid derived from willow bark that was painful to swallow and digest.  The name salicylic acid comes from the genus Salix, in reference to the willow. (Interestingly, wintergreen flavoring can be made from … aspirin!)

There are many organic materials that can be derived both naturally or artificially, and the molecules have no magical memory about where they came from previously.  A nitrate is a nitrate is a plant fertilizer, and a pan’s a pan for all that.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to nom on some banana Laffy Taffy.

* Technically magnesium sulfate heptahydrate, for chemists and those who actually care — you know who you are.

Natural Therapy

Last night I was digging through a giant box full of 35mm transparencies (slides) looking for specific pictures for a new class I’m teaching in a couple of weeks. Naturally, the effort took far longer than I anticipated, partly because I kept finding other interesting pictures, such as vacation photos. I finally did find what I was looking for, but once again, it was after midnight before I got to sleep.

One picture was of me back in 2000 when I was building our backyard pond. Kitted out in a tank top, a pair of knee-length boy’s cargo shorts, a pair of leather gloves and my hiking boots, I was hardly a fashion plate. But boy was I buff. I had muscles, and it showed because I was holding a very large chunk of limestone up above waist level. The long rock was about six inches / fifteen centimeters thick and wide, and stood on end it would have reached my hip bone. The piece weighed about 90 pounds / 41 kilos, which is less than I’ve ever weighed as an adult, so hardly something braggable in the world of bench-pressing barbells, but it was still a respectable lunk of solid rock to be schlepping about.

Nowadays the arthritis slows down the yard work considerably. I can’t work as long, and it takes me longer to get going in the morning because I have to eat before taking my meds. Continuing to do some form of weight-bearing exercise is important to avoid the osteoporosis that runs through my maternal line. But I also have to take care to protect my joints against non-Tennis-playing Elbow and the stupid shoulder subluxation.

I have to force myself to work out at home or the gym during the winter. Frankly, this winter I’ve been especially lax in doing so, partly because by the time I get off work I’m so tired and achey I can’t bear to go to the gym.

It’s funny though, how if you have a physical impairment, what would ordinarily be getting exercise somehow gets turned into Receiving Therapy after its trip through the “disability grinder”.

The last time I visited the “Physical Terrorist” was a few years ago when I went to the university clinic for something-or-another. I left with some over-photocopied handouts describing exercises, and a prize (better than any shiny piece of costume jewelry from the dentist’s “treasure chest”), my beloved rice sock for re-heating and draping across sore places.

The PT encouraged me to come back for more therapy, but I found the exercises to be sufficiently effective on my own. I’m not keen on people manipulating my body. Other people think that if my joints can move within the normal range of motion, that I must be okay. But in truth it means that I’m actually injured and stiff because they are reduced in range of motion from my usual hypermobile state. It’s also hard to convince them that I normally have oddly-placed or large bruises about my body, and that I really can’t remember getting them, and that “No, nobody is abusing me, thanks for asking.”

Any kind of therapeutic exercise is more fun, easier to do, more beneficial, and more likely to be engaged in and maintained if it is combined with one’s daily activities, rather than done strictly as PT or gym exercises. I continue to schlep my briefcase or luggage-size tote with my teaching references around campus (frequently switching which side I’m carrying it on), and try to get in as many staircases as the routes require during the day.

The turnabout is that even dull exercises can be more inspired or inspiring if I think of them as antecedants for doing the fun stuff. I need to start stretching out and doing dumbbell reps again, because spring lurks around the corner.

The daffodils are poking up through the mud and leaf litter, reminding me that I need to rake. And once gardening season starts, I can get in lots of stretching, range of motion exercise, weight-lifting, deep knee bends et cetera, just from fun things like turning over and hauling compost, digging, planting, weeding, deadheading and all those other fun “chores”.

I’ll just be doing them for an hour at a time now, instead of eight hours solid. I hear it’s warmish and sunny tomorrow …

A Reliable Read: Person-first language and oppositional models of disability

This post from Finn’s excellent blog, Standing in the Way of Control is an easily-accessible introduction to the uses and problems that can result with “person-first language”*.

Just an appetizer:

This oppositional attitude toward disability stems from the ableist idea that disability is something that happens to “normal” people—or that disabled people are altered able-bodied or neurotypical people—rather than a natural aspect of human existence. This applies particularly to those of us who have lifelong disabilities—we cannot envisage a life in which we were not disabled relative to the societies in which we grew up.

Now, go read “Person-first language and oppositional models of disability”! (-:

 

* “Person-first language” refers to the practice of saying, “person with ____”, meant to emphasizing the person rather than defining them by their condition(s). Good intentions run into the law of unintended consequences when ignoring how people define themselves by intrinsic qualities, e.g. “I am a Deaf”, “My autistic aunt”, “He’s bisexual”.

WE MUST CREATE CHANGE

I was going to call this my “Hope For 2015”, but that is so passive and useless. Anybody can – and lots of people do – post warm, fuzzy notes with Hopes for the New Year, and others click and share. Lovely.

But this is NOT all warm & fuzzy. It’s literally dead serious (with many murdered throughout the year), and quite often blunt, because I am blunt at times. It’s also a call to a change of perspective for some of you.

Deal. Think about it. I’m not a lone voice. Click and share.

MY CALL TO ACTION IS FOR YOU TO READ THIS THROUGH, THINK, AND SPEAK UP. ALL YEAR LONG.

And the next year and the next.

This isn’t about some stranger, or Those Other People, or “That Kind”.

Children with disabilities or other differences are not diseased or broken. The same is true for adults. Yes, those “poor, little disabled children” grow up into disabled adults. Gee, so where’s the concern now? It sure isn’t at work; in the U.S. general unemployment is at 5.3%, but for disabled adults it’s twice that at 10.8%.

Nor are autistic or ADHD children some kind of modern mystery; millions of such adults have been around for decades, just unrecognized for lack of diagnostics. Most of us are profoundly relieved to find out Why. We still have to deal with the details, but that’s easier when you know that not all your difficulties are from some kind of moral failing, or from a lack of trying (and trying, and trying).

WHAT, YOU NEVER HAD KIDS LIKE “THAT KIND” IN YOUR CLASSES? YOU KNOW WHY?

Some were kept at home, because until passage of the IDEA in 1975, US law did not require public schools to teach everyone.

Some were warehoused in institutions, badly treated, undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, and oft uneducated.

But many of us were there; how we struggled through school and life, without accommodations or understanding, and often the target of bullying by peers and even school officials.

Untold numbers of women and men just knew themselves inexplicably “a bit odd”, and did best they could; some succeeding, others not so well.

At worst are those who not only lacked resources, but were shunned by society’s classism, ableism, racism and sexism, and (if still alive) are found among the imprisoned, derelicts, addicts, abused and enslaved populations.

YOUR CHILDREN AND EVEN COLLEGE STUDENTS WILL LEARN DIFFERENTLY, SO YOU MUST ADJUST

We are neither inherently stupid nor incapable of learning. Learning differently means teaching differently. Find what works. Everyone has limits, but a consistent lack of success means you should use another method, as well as more time. Sometimes the learning is highly irregular in pace. Tie learning to interests to motivate your children and students.

Also, be aware that sometimes the “simple basics” may be entirely bypassed by some students who leap to master higher concepts, albeit often forever struggling with those seemingly “simple basics”. People are humans, not robots. Learning is not always linear.

COMMUNICATION IS NOT JUST SPEAKING

Never assume that just because someone is nonverbal they cannot communicate. If you’re not getting their messages, then *you* are doing something wrong. Nor should you assume that because someone is nonverbal that they cannot understand what people say (though the processing may sometimes be delayed). Nor assume that because someone has been nonverbal for years that they’ll never speak. And damn, will you get an earful.

INCONSISTENCY IN DAY-TO-DAY ABILITIES IS FRUSTRATING FOR ALL, AND NOT A CHOICE

Importantly, just because someone is able to speak or do a task one day, that does not guarantee consistent results. It’s the nature of disabilities — regardless whether considered mental or physical – all involve the brain. Brains are funny things, and many of us have a few buggy Beta-version programs in our wetware. It’s frustrating as hell for all involved.

But don’t assume the “could-then-can’t-now” is intentional. “Oh, he can hear me when he wants.” “Well, you could solve those equations just fine yesterday.” I can guarantee that after a lifetime of such, ridiculing people and punishing them for things they cannot help only increases performance stress.

While that stress might increase focus from sheer terror, it often squelches overall functioning. (Do you want me to listen to you, or try to recall yesterday’s process, or slowly figure it out on my own? I can only do one — if my stomach will stay down.)

TRAMPLE THE TROPES

Ignore the media tropes and centuries of religious hype: disabled people are neither inherently amoral, soulless and evil, nor are they infinitely happy, friendly and angelic. People are people. A few will be nasty bits, some will be profoundly good sorts, and the rest are just ordinary folks who get mad, sad and glad, who screw things up sometimes, and who will also serve others selflessly despite bearing more abuse than anyone should.

We are definitely not incomprehensible, incomplete, little autism-puzzle-pieces, unloving, unlovable, or uncaring.

We are whole people with all the same cares, needs and wants as all humans. Beware — disability happens to anyone at any time. We aren’t a Them, and YOU can be among the world’s 15% in just one day. We are all Us.

STOP “TEACHING TOLERANCE”

Because tolerance means putting up with something one doesn’t really like, or that doesn’t really belong. We want full-fledged ACCEPTANCE.

Nor should we only be acceptable if we can somehow “overcome” our differences enough to pass for Normal Real People. Trying to “pass” all the time is exhausting, and invariably breaks down, oft resulting in the [supposed] Normal Real People assuming that one is lazy, stupid, crazy, all the above, or worse.

Training children for hours a day how to artificially perform “acting normal” does not serve to help them learn how to function best in the world. Yes, of course teach good manners, social and work skills. But suppressing every twitch of one’s natural being adds to stress, making everything else yet more difficult. This is especially when performing like a “normal person” means not doing the harmless things that reduce stresses.

STOP THE BLAME

I must call out the terrifying, unaddressed assumption which underlies so much daily trauma: “The reason the disabled [children] are targeted by bullies is because they are perceived as being weird”. Despite the pervasiveness of this social theme in society, most people are functionally unaware of it, all the while instilling in their Normal People children the same message. Normal People children need to act normal, and not act like That Kind. After all, that’s how the Normal People know the others are That Kind, who’s Us and who’s Them.

But it’s the disabled and different who are taught, over-and-over-and-over that not only is it their fault for behaving or looking weird, BUT ALSO if they weren’t so weird, well then they wouldn’t be bullied. “Quit being so weird! Just say No! Just say Stop.”

Just say BULLSHIT. Because this is blaming the victim. The problem is not that everyone isn’t the same, the problem is that there are bullies.

Even worse, blaming the targets actually empowers the bullies, because the social story says it’s the victim is the one who is acting wrong, so it’s not really the bully who is to blame.

Let’s just top off all that existing anxiety and depression with the trauma of trying to seek justice, but being told again that, “Well it’s your fault, you know. Attracting attention by being weird, and bugging people. You need to quit making trouble now. You already take up too much of our time with all of your “special” needs. Quit whining and go deal with it. — But no fighting, because we’ll know it was you who started it.”

By the way, it’s not “just a kids at school” thing that everyone will “grown out of”. It continues on through college, and happens at work, too.

YOU CAN’T WALK IN THE LITTLE BOY’S SHOES;

THEY’RE FLOATING DOWN-RIVER

It is NEVER acceptable to murder disabled children. Nor should these repeated, horrifying events be considered “understandable” or “excusable”, with the murderers being pardoned just because their son or daughter had a disability.

Increasingly more prevalent in social media, the crime becomes insidiously deemed more and more acceptable. Murderers re-cast themselves as martyrs, acquiring champions to their cause. Throughout repeated blog posts and news stories, they bemoan how taking care of disabled children is just too unbearable, they had to take care of them every day of the week, there was never any relief or help. (Even though there was.) Cue the groupies’ hand-wringing and protests upon the villains’ behalf: “Oh but won’t you walk in their shoes, how they’ve given up their lives, this wasn’t at all what they wanted.”

For in true sociopathic fashion, the poor, long-suffering parents revel in the attention, announcing to the world – sometimes ahead of time — what they have done, and all the while describing themselves as the victims. The dead children (young or adult) are unwanted, and deemed unwantable, less than human just because they couldn’t speak, or needed medical treatments, or used a power chair, or didn’t play with their toys the “right way”, or wore adult diapers … No one would want to live like that; the thing’s better off dead. And what of the groupies? Well, where do you think people get such terrible ideas that it’s okay to kill one’s own children?

ENOUGH WITH THE “DISABILITY INSPIRATION PORN”.

Quit using those heart-tugging videos, walk-a-thons, telethons, and other grand-society functions to win your supposed Cosmic Brownie Points for giving us your pity. Please stop dumping upon us the largesse of your unwanted rags (so Victorian, so passé), or creating useless functions requiring us to serve as targets of unwanted helpful-helper-helpiness for your ego-boo.

Get disabled people out of “sheltered workshops”. Yes, people need work they are suited to. But the segregation and token sweatshop “wages” are an embarrassment and humiliation to all.

YES, CHILDREN GROW UP.

YEP, STILL DISABLED, BUT NOW ADULTS

Do not assume your children will remain permanently childish and incapable — they mature on their own timelines. Allow adults to be adults. Support their needs and interests, but neither dress them like children, nor expect them to live their lives in naïve pre-puberty stasis, without adult desires for socializing with adult peers, life-long learning, mastering skills for some kind of job (even if that job is “just socially productive work” rather than traditional work), and yes, having a love life, however that may be expressed.

YES, PEOPLE ALSO NEED ACCOMMODATIONS;

THAT DOESN’T MEAN “CURE”

Most disabled or different people are not looking for cures to magically change them into someone else, some kind of fantasy Normal Real person that their families wanted instead. Our differences may result from physical events, by random mutation, and / or genetics. Your genetics. We are family. I’m Me, and I like being Me. If you somehow changed all the differences in my brain, I wouldn’t be Me anymore, with all my quirks and abilities.

Of course it will be great to find a means for preventing migraines, epilepsy, fatal medical conditions, et cetera. But it’s also a sad fact that some people have been so convinced of their undesirability as disabled human beings that they can only see “cure” as a means to being an acceptable Normal Real Person. (Worst of all, some people commit suicide because they’ve been taught to hate themselves, as useless and unwanted.)

But what’s really alarming is all the fund-raising, talk, research, and work going on today to eliminate entire kinds of peoples. I’m talking about the thousands of selfish individuals and sociopaths who believe that anyone with neurological or morphological differences should not exist at all, because That Kind takes up too much time, money, and resources.

That’s not “looking for a cure” – that’s eugenics and euthanasia, the same ideas that led to the Nazi Aktion T4 program and other horrors. (In my youth, the state hospital was still in the regular habit of sterilizing people. Had I been institutionalized, I might well not have had my lovely children and grandchildren.)

Yes, we want assistance, we want things that help us achieve what we want in life. Getting the things one needs to learn effectively, to move about, attend to their own needs, to work, to play, to be a part of the community, to have lovers or families. These things should not be seen as extraordinary, special, absurd, or a waste of money, just because they aren’t the same kinds of things used by other people. 15% of the people in the world have disabilities. That is a lot of humanity, and many are uneducated, abused, neglected, avoided, or shut away, depriving the world of incredible amounts of untapped abilities and talents.

CALL OUT BULLSHIT. REQUIRE ACCOMMODATIONS. DEMAND ACCEPTANCE.

MAKE IT SO.

Old Lady Shoes

Yeah, you’ve seen them: old ladies wearing Old-Lady Shoes.

Dowdy footwear that inextricably time-travelled from some economically-depressed post-war period.

Or low-heeled, lace-up shoes resembling dull leather sneakers, that shuffled in from the land that fashion forgot.

Practical shoes. Hopefully, comfortable shoes, given the tired way those old ladies are getting around. But damn, I mean dayam, if not quite ugly shoes, then definitely shoes without style.

And, as you may have guessed, suddenly, here I am, too. 

Last fall I broke my foot. The displacement fractures in the metatarsals (the long bones over the arch) mended, albeit crookedly, with offset mends that make them look like rivers with meanders. (Don’t fall over in shock when I say that my hypermobility includes rather low arches, too.)

This past spring my foot started hurting again, as my second job stocking groceries involved walking around concrete floors and stocking heavy cases — not good for the osteoarthritis or the broken bones. So I got orthotics to provide more support for my poor ravaged feet.

But now my foot is constantly aching, and I’m limping, and am getting what I’m assuming are referred pains in my knee and hip. And when I saw the orthopedist earlier last week for chronic foot pain, he disapproved of my buckled Mary Janes I’d worn to my first job, and told me I need to wear shoes that lace up.

I’m not much of a fashionista, but I can’t picture wearing either hiking boots or my rumpled black sneakers with skirts, suits or dresses. So that means I need to get a new pair of shoes. Or maybe a pair of knee-high boots.) But, I can’t wear polyurethane (PU), PVC or silicone, which limits me to fabric or leather footwear, which is of course, more expensive.

Great! I need to find:

  • slightly-dressy,
  • low-heeled (no more than 1.25″ / 5 cm),
  • lace-up,
  • leather shoes,
  • with removable insoles (so I can replace them with my orthotics),
  • in a size US womens 10.5  (UK 8, EUR 42),
  • wide toe ( C ),
  • preferably brown.

If you’re laughing and/or groaning, you probably have some idea of the magnitude of that request. I mean, that is pretty specific! Not being fond of shopping, I did some quick noodling around online, and discovered that the lower-end department stores don’t carry leather shoes (boo!), and that many of the online sites don’t mention whether or not the insoles can be removed. (I’e also become quite the connoisseur of Web sites with numerous lists of ways to filter search requests.)

I also noticed a general lack of lace-up shoes, aside from “granny boots” with 2.5″ heels. So I looked up the current addresses to the store with a huge, self-serve selection of shoes, and stopped by there en route home one day.

They had nifty boots full of brass buttons, sharp-looking tweedy spectator pumps [court shoes], loafers and flats with all kinds of fun hardware … but an absolute dearth of lace-up shoes. (Since I have wide feet anyway, I checked out the men’s section, but was dismayed to find walking shoes with heavy lug soles, or stiff wingtips so stylishly long that it seemed my feet would look like aircraft carriers, down to the brogues resembling rows of rivets.)

I finally asked a sales clerk for assistance, just in case I’d missed something. She was understanding of my requirements, even letting me slip out some insoles to test my orthotics on a couple of pairs — only to find that the toe boxes were too low-profiled. She too, was surprised to realise that there were so few lace-up shoes. What few they had were made with the insoles sewn down, or were fashioned of (sweat-inducing) imitation leather. And, apparently this year’s crop of sneakers [trainers] comes in neon colors. Naturally, chef’s or medic’s clogs won’t work either.

Le sigh. And this is why I hate shopping for wardrobe items (in addition to the noisy lighting fixtures that drill into my head.); it seems that no matter what I’m looking for, it’s not to be had. The year I wanted khaki shorts, I couldn’t find khaki shorts — yes, khaki shorts! Ditto denim overalls. Or a long-sleeve white blouse with sleeves to fit my arms, and tails long enough to stay tucked in. Or, good grief, cufflinks to go with a French-cuff blouse I found at the thrift store.

And so it goes.

I already have a pair of black sneakers that I wear (with black trousers) at my grocery job. Sorry, but unless I’m evacuating in an emergency, I can’t imagine wearing either hiking boots or my rumpled black sneakers with skirts, suits or nice dresses.

All I need to find is a pair of slightly-dressy, low-heeled, lace-up leather shoes, with removable insoles, in a size 10.5 wide, preferably brown. No, I’m not being picky, I’m being particular.

The “slightly-dressy” and “preferably brown” are what I want, but the rest are what I need. (And unlike a coworker who has diabetes, neither my orthotics nor my footwear are covered as a necessary medical expense. Those orthotic insoles I had to get cost me half of what I pay for my monthly mortgage!)

Even worse, a lot of those “comfort” shoes don’t lace up or come in 10.5 wide.

Or, I can find lace-up “granny” ankle boots or knee-high boots, but the heels are too high, or they are made of some sweat-inducing synthetic.

Or, I can find oxfords with the right heel height and made of leather, but not in a 10.5 wide.

Or, I can find cute, low-heeled, leather lace-up shoes, but either the insoles are sewn in so I can’t use my orthotics, or else they’re so cheaply made there isn’t any arch support.

And so on, and so on.

So now I have joined the ranks of older women looking for supportive, sensible shoes that don’t look too dowdy. Don’t laugh at us gimping along in our leather sneakers; those specialty shoes are DAMN hard to find!

It’s not all strawberry versus chocolate ice cream!

Now, I am a mint-chip ice cream (-loving) person myself, and dismiss vanilla* for being merely useful as an ingredient base for other treats. And of course, I’m entitled to my opinion. In turn, you all are free to express your own opinions about flavours of ice cream, including your total disinterest in eating ice cream.

(* It may be that I lack some kind of flavour receptor[s] to fully perceive vanilla/vanillin, because no matter what sort of sweet or quality of material, vanilla has never seemed to be particularly interesting or tasty to me.)

But there are opinions and there are other opinions, and Patrick Stokes, Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University, teaches his students that they are not entitled to have their opinions.

In a recent article, “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion” he immediately acknowledges this sounds a bit harsh, but explains that the point of a philosophy class  is learning how to create sound arguments, instead of leaning on beliefs, emotions, and misconceptions of what we think we know. Although opinions may be owned or expressed, not all opinions are equally valid.

Stokes skillfully distinguishes between the different things that fall under the vast umbrella of opinion:

But “opinion” ranges from tastes or preferences, through views about questions that concern most people such as prudence or politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.

It’s the conflating of being able to express one’s tastes, preferences, and beliefs — and then expecting those statements to be taken as seriously as fact-based, logically-sound argument — that is the major problem.

It is a major problem in everyday discourse, and in heated debates within and between countries, and it is an especially prevalent problem in various media. There’s the tired trope* of “getting balance” by interviewing “both sides” even though there are often more than just two sides (life is messy that way), and the problem that the opinions of both “sides” do not necessarily carry the same factual value (life is reality-based that way).

(* More on the problems with the news media and “balance” in my earlier post, “Both Sides Now”.)

Not all the information one finds or hears is equally valid. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “You’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.”

Stokes further explains:

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

Wait a minute — can’t anyone have an opinion about anything? Of course!

Can’t anyone express their opinion about anything? Of course!*

(* Although it really helps if people take the time to ensure their protest signs are properly spelled and punctuated. Otherwise much hilarity ensues and one ends up with derisive and/or dismissive infamy rather than being taken seriously.)

But what unfounded opinion cannot do is carry equal weight when discussions require expertise.

Back to our ice cream opinions:  I know that vanilla bean pods come from a variety of orchid, because that’s a tidbit of horticultural knowledge and I am a horticulturalist. Being a foodie, I have long known that vanillin was synthesized as a less-expensive alternative for use in commercial products, and that it is the primary ingredient in the artificially-flavoured vanilla extract sold at the market.

BUT, I cannot be an expert witness or speaker on vanilla.

Likely, neither can the majority of you.

Not on the cultivars, growing, agri-ecology, processing from raw material to diverse flavouring forms, business economics, grower’s social justice issues, distribution and packaging, artificial synthesis of vanillin, culinary chemistry, historical usage, future trends of natural versus artificial flavouring … none of that stuff. Nor anything else that didn’t come to mind, albeit I was able to come up with a longish list just because I have that horticultural background and was able to extrapolate what accessory topics could be included.

You are entitled to have and to express your opinion, but that does not mean it must to be taken as serious fact; pointing that out is not being disrespectful to you as a person — it means that your opinion is insufficient to the case.

‘Personal Opinion’ is not some cloak of factual immunity that one can wear to suddenly become a creditable expert.

(Oh, and speaking of public persons with opinions but who are not experts, guess who came along to comment upon Stokes’ article …)

What Would Molly Ivins Say?

Oh, boy howdy! This article by Laura Hibbard, “Texas Republican Party Calls For Abstinence Only Sex Ed, Corporal Punishment In Schools” nearly made me choke on my cuppa tea. She described just a few of the details the 2012 Republican Party of Texas wants for their state schools. (The article also includes a nicely scrollable copy of their entire Platform Report.)

You know me, I’m a science person, with keen interests in education and social justice.  And I was flabbergasted. It’s like a car crash — you can’t help but gawp in horrified fascination. Well, I had the day off work, so after a house-painting break, scanned through most of the document. It’s one thing to hear soundbites on the radio or in video, but quite another to actually be able to read an entire position. For one thing, it gives a person the chance to notice internal inconsistencies, and look things up.

In addition to the aforementioned items listed in the title of Hibbard’s article, the Texas GOP’s document lists a lot more in their “Educating Our Children” section. For example, they also want to eliminate preschool and kindergarten, and require daily pledges of allegiance to the US & Texas flags (because that somehow makes one patriotic).

Ooh, get this:

“Classroom Expenditures for Staff – We support having 80% of school district payroll expenses of professional staff of a school district be full-time classroom teachers.”

You realize that means giving the ability to hire a number of part-time classroom teachers (and paraprofessionals if they opt to include some) who can be paid WAY less, which will keep a district’s budget way down. “Fiscal responsibility” as a loophole for loading up on part-time staff. Who of course often don’t get benefits — unfortunately, a common practice in education and other industries. (Yes, I’m calling education an industry.)

And of course, this next incredible ::head-desk:: concept that (for me) underpins a great deal of their platform:

“Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

Because you know, mastering the subject material and learning how to think critically will undermine the GOP’s fixed beliefs and enable challenging authority. Any challenges to authority will be dealt with accordingly:

“Classroom Discipline –We recommend that local school boards and classroom teachers be given more authority to deal with disciplinary problems. Corporal punishment is effective and legal in Texas.”

Under the “Promoting Individual Freedom and Personal Safety” section, this concept continues as, Read the rest of this entry »

I’m picking up good fermentations

… but the Woo is giving off bad vibrations!

OhMyGosh the world is full of idiots! Tonight I was stocking over in the health foods section, which is either a great place (for our large selection of gluten-free products for coeliacs) or a magnet for all people woo-stricken.

A woman came to the grocery wanting “bread made without yeast” — I gestured to the big display of matzo (unleavened for Passover), but no, she wants loaf bread, but without yeast so her son “doesn’t get yeast infections”. I tried to explain they’re not even the same kinds of yeast, and it’d be dead after the bread’s baked anyway, but NO-O-O-O…
[facepalm]

Yeasts are a kind of fungus: yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae is necessary for yeast-breads, beer and wine fermentation.  For sourdough breads, a variety of wild yeast Candida milleri plus acid-producing bacteria Lactobacillus sanfrancisco that gives the dough the distinctive “tang”.

For our confused customer, the yeast infection [mouth, digestive tract, vagina] is from an entirely different fungus, Candida albicans.

If you’re curious, the fuzzy black stuff that grows on bread is a mold, Rhizopus nigricans. Molds are another kind of fungus. Yummy blue cheeses [Maytag blue, Dana-blu, Gorgonzola, Roquefort, Stilton] are made possible from the mold Penicillium roqueforti or Penicillium glaucum that were naturally present in the [naturally cool] caves where the cheeses were made & aged. (Nowadays the cheese wheels are injected with the appropriate mold). A few people with Penicillin antibiotic allergy may have a reaction to blue cheeses, but the quantity of the material is so much smaller in the cheese, it is rarely a problem.

I almost mentioned yogurt as a source of probiotics  — I was “this close” — but refrained. Trying to add bacteria to her mental mix of Bad Things We Can’t Pronounce & Must Avoid would have been too much for the both of us.

Related to fungi (well, related just in the sense of small organisms helpful to food), are bacteria. Most of the bacteria that exist in the world are neutral to humans, and many are beneficial.  Only a relatively small number are responsible for bacterial infections.  Truth be told, we NEED bacteria, because they are responsible for the fermentation processes that turn raw food items into different, processed food items that have better/different flavor, are more digestible, and store for long periods of time.  Some examples of these great bacteria include: Read the rest of this entry »

The Silver (Smoke-) Screen

O.M.G. Last night at the grocery I was stocking non-prescription meds, and a couple came in asking for … colloidal silver! (Meaning, microfine silver dust suspended in water or another carrier.)

I was baffled; she explained that “Dr Oz” suggested it for sore throats.
“I don’t think we carry that,” I answered, somewhat stunned. “I’ve only used it in a research lab.” (In the teensiest of microdabs, to glue ultra-fine gold wire electrodes to insects.)

“Oh, it’s all-natural!” she asserted cheerfully.

Giant mental sigh and cringe on my end; lots of “all-natural” stuff can be all-naturally poisonous.

The guy with her added something to the effect of, “I bet you all don’t like Dr Oz.”

Er, I’m wary and alarmed by media personalities who promote misleading, useless and/or dangerous medical information. (Last year this celebrity was the recipient of the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Media Pigasus Award.)

But I’m guessing the customer was assuming that if people use bizarre “all-natural” remedies, then stores would not sell as many manufactured remedies. Hey, if I want salicylic acid (the stuff in willow bark and spirea that acts as a pain-reliever, fever-reducer and anti-inflammatory), then I will buy it as acetylsalicylic acid, AKA aspirin, because that formulation is less harsh on the digestive system, and you know how much active ingredient you’re getting.

When one of the pharmacists was no longer directly busy with [other] customers, I went up and told him about the customer enquiry. His eyebrows danced a bit at this latest oddity.

“The only thing I’ve heard about taking colloidal silver,” I began, and then the pharmacy intern nearby then chorused with me, “Was about the guy who turned blue!”

“It bio-accumulates, doesn’t it?” I asked, and the pharmacist nodded. That of course, was why I was careful to not let any dots of the lab stuff stick to me. Plus, any clean crumbs re-deposited could be re-used, especially if I held the bottle to the vibrating vortex mixer.

Note: there are antibacterial uses for various ionic silver (Ag+) compounds, such as silver nitrate (AgNO3), but the colloidal stuff is non-ionized metallic form, which has a different biological effect. Of course, poison is always in the dosage — too much silver nitrate can be equally bad. You can read about the hazards of argyria here at the Quackwatch site.

Oh by the way — if you want an “all-natural” remedy for the ordinary sore throat, may I recommend some strong mint tea with honey?

V1brat0rs for Ensuring All Your Cucumber Needs

Bug G. Membracid recently had a radio show appearance!  (Is it called an “appearance” when you’re on a wireless programme and no one can see you?  Nevermind.)

But it featured her line about honeybees being ‎”little flying phalluses” – which is really funny when you remember that worker honeybees are girls!

That in turn reminded me of a story during a horticultural study tour to a Dutch production greenhouse …

Tomatoes and peppers do not need insects to transfer pollen between flowers, as the flowers are “perfect” (have both male & female parts). But for the pollen to get moved/bumped from the pistils to the stigma there still needs to be some kind of wind or other vibration.

There’s not enough wind for this to naturally happen (or rather, efficiently happen) in a greenhouse, especially when the panes are shut to the weather. So it used to be that the operators would equip their greenhouse workers with *little vibrating wands* (oh yes), which they used to buzz-pollinate Every. Single. Fresh. Flower. (Insert inevitable sniggers from the undergrads.) Of course, that’s a lot of paid worker hours.

Nowadays the thrifty Dutch use bumblebees, who work for much cheaper wages of cardboard nesting boxes and some supplemental nectar. The big, gentle bees still visit all the flowers for the pollen, and resultant heavy buzzing results in flower fertilization for good crops.

 

[N.B.  Derf; “cucumbers in the title is incorrect – they DO need to be insect pollinated! Except of course for the parthenogenetic cukes, which basically set fruit by a sort of “virgin birth” process…]

Sock It To Me

How to dress the Blur:

First, gather all the garments you need for the child.  At 20 months, the Blur has discovered the joy of pulling off his diaper and going nakee!, so overalls / dungarees are preferred.

Next, scoop up the Blur on his next round through local airspace.  Incentive for dressing can often be instilled if he’s interested in Going Bye-bye.  Aside from the usual parental gymnastics/wrestling pins normally required to clothe busy toddlers, this part isn’t too bad.

It was the socks that did in his mum.  (In my self-important grandmotherly role, I like to think I would have figured out the problem sooner, but that’s probably just bias.)

As mum brilliantly deduced after a few days, the Blur was distressed by the order of operations.  Mum does SOCK-shoe, SOCK-shoe.  Blur wants to be dressed SOCK-SOCK, shoe-shoe.  “Well of course,” I replied to her, “SOCK-SOCK, shoe-shoe is the right way to do it.  It’s even.” Mum begged to differ; naturally, she does her own footwear SOCK-shoe, SOCK-shoe.

(Oy vey; you’d think we had opened up an unexpected argument as important as the one regarding whether the toilet paper should be put on the spindle to unroll over the top, or from the back.)

This week there was another issue.  Apparently Blur was quite distressed because the sock seam was underneath his toes instead of on top.  “When he gets bigger, you can buy seamless socks,” I mentioned.  Alas, they cost a bit more, and are often tube socks, and some people can’t stand the way tube socks bunch on the front of the ankle, but Oh Well.

Toe seams bother me some, too.  On the rare days I wear pantyhose, I have to make sure the seam is atop my toes.  I also have one pair of heavy, slipper-like socks with pronounced seams, so I pad around the house with them inside-out.

~#~

Out of curiosity, I’ve questions for you all (accessory comments are encouraged):

1. Do you put on your footwear:

(a) SOCK-SOCK, shoe-shoe

(b) SOCK-shoe, SOCK-shoe

(c) whichever I grab first

(d) I don’t usually wear socks and/or shoes

2. Are sock seams bothersome enough for you that you have to either avoid some socks, or put them on a particular way?

Under pressure

(We keep our dish soap on the counter, in a small pump bottle to meter out doses, and to use less counter space.)

So I go into the kitchen to catch up on some dishwashing, and find a small puddle of goo on the counter.  “Is the barometric pressure dropping?” I ask the family as I sponge it up, and proceed to do my washing-up.

“It’s supposed to snow on Sunday,” answers my son-in-law.

Well, that explains a lot. Firstly, the reason the soap has drooled onto the counter is because the barometric pressure outside the bottle is now lower than inside the bottle. (I filled and re-sealed it a couple days ago.) The fluid seeps out because fluids go from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure.*

Out of typical insatiable curiosity (“More input!”), I then check out my local weather data site. This explains the second question. No wonder I have a headache; the barometric pressure has dropped about 15 millibars in the past day, from the general maxima down to the general minima.  Barometric pressure hoo-hahs are one of my headache/migraine triggers.

Sometimes I wish I lived on the space station, where the air pressure is kept constant.  (Besides, I could grow my veggies, herbs and flowers without all the dang pests.)

* AKA “Why do we have to learn this stuff?”  Well, now you know — no one squeezed dish soap onto the counter and left a mess; it happened because of natural forces.

“Attention grocery shoppers!”

“We have a special going on in our natural foods aisle, right now!  You can get your specialty questions answered by our very own over-educated scientist-grocery stocker!  That’s right, weekends and evenings only, over in our natural foods aisle!  And THANK YOU for shopping your local supermarket chain grocery!”

Oh, boy.

It’s one thing to be helping someone find the curious location where the grocery manager decided to stock the barley.  No, not with the rice and beans — that’d be too easy; it’s with the bouillon.

And it’s another thing — but I get ahead of myself.  (Alas, when I do that I’m likely to trip over my own feet and sprain an ankle, but that’s hypermobility for you).

One evening, every other row of fluorescent lights was off, as was the canned music.  Apparently they were filming a commercial or some advertising stills. Whatever, we had a couple hours of bliss.  Why can’t the store be so calm and pleasant all the time?  Because the people who study customer behavior say that noise and lights are important.  Or maybe the grocery industry just thinks that noise and lights are important.  Or maybe old research suggested such.  Or maybe stores are following some historical misinterpretation of behavioral research. Hell if I know.  As for me, the canned music just adds unnecessary background noise, aggravating my Auditory Processing Disorder.  Did someone just page Manager to the Customer Service Desk or Andrea to the Customer Service Desk?  Did my boss just page me to dial 14 or aisle 14?  “Oops, sorry, mis-heard you with all the background noise,” I apologise to an older gentleman, as I lead him away from the [recycled paper] brown plates to the bran flakes.

Sometimes a customer will ask for something not on the shelf, so I helpfully zip down to the back room to see if there’s any in backstock. Usually, there isn’t, because by definition, backstock is the overflow that won’t fit on the shelves.  Alas, if I’m in a distracted mood, I will forget to make a mental note of what the customer is wearing, and upon my return, will have that panicked second when I realise that they have moved onto another aisle, and I am supposed to find them.  Oh, the perils of being faceblind: I can’t remember people!  Were they alone, or with another adult, or children?  Did they have a large or small cart?  Do I have any idea of whether they were male, female, or some overbundled or indeterminately-coiffed gender?  Were they were pink- or brown-skinned?  Hat? Fancy purse?  Team jacket?  Why can’t everyone be as distinctive as the fellow who dressed like Eddie Izzard’s less-chic sibling?

My other problem of course, is that I actually answer the questions about the things we sell.  Some day, someone is going to get annoyed.

Once in a while I stock groceries over in the natural foods section.  It’s pretty much like stocking groceries over in the unnatural foods section, except that omitting artificial coloring makes food more expensive.  That and the aisles are narrower, so I have to park the flatbed down at the ends of the aisles and lug more cases.  One day I forgot my knee pads, and realised with a heavy note of irony that stocking all the arthritis treatments was making my knees ache.

“Um, where do you sell the sugar?”

“The sugar?” I repeat, buying a moment’s time while I re-engage my customer-conversation scripts, and activate my mental map of the store.

“Yes, I want the sugar without any chemicals.”

Omigod.  Aside from bottled water, the bags of sugar are probably one of the purest chemical resources in the entire store.

“But sugar is just sucrose; it doesn’t have any added chemicals,”  I manage to shut my mouth before going onto explain that sucrose is a disaccharide of glucose and fructose.  Nobody cares … “Here are our organically-grown sugars on this shelf.  And we also have sucanat and turbinado, if you’d like.”  (These latter two are less-processed forms of cane sugar; they have varying amounts of tasty molasses impurities that also make them brown.)

Honestly, a “chemical” is simply a substance with a defined composition.    You already know what H2O is.  Sucrose is C12H22O11 – there are 12 Carbon molecules, 22 Hydrogen molecules and 11 Oxygen molecules.  Of course, just knowing how many atoms of each element isn’t enough – other sugars such as lactose and maltose also have the same formula.  The differences are in how those atoms are arranged.

And if you’re shopping for plant fertilizer, a nitrate is a nitrate is a nitrate, and they’re all NO3-. The plant doesn’t care where the molecules came from, nor can it tell the difference if the nitrate came from an organic (naturally-derived) source or an artificially-manufactured source.  That said, organic fertilizers are more expensive and less concentrated, but are less likely to result in a build-up of salts atop the potting soil.

But please, don’t ask me for anything “chemical-free”; the only thing that is “chemical free” is an absolute vacuum.

I retrieve random things left on the shelves, where someone has left a box of Big Name mac & cheese amongst the organic mac & cheese, a shopping list, a wee sample cup given out by the guy flogging new flavors of hummus, and a box of Airborne.

“What does that do?” asks the other grocery stocker, gesturing at the colorful box that proclaimed, “Created by a school teacher!”

“Nothing.  There’s no research evidence to support it at all.  A grade-school teacher is not the same thing as a compounding pharmacologist.”  Were I in charge of ordering, we wouldn’t waste shelf space for nonsense like that, or for things like Bragg vinegar that is supposed to “help remove body sludge toxins”.  Body sludge toxins, what nonsense!  (I suppose it’d help the lime buildup in my sink drain.)

“Excuse me, where are your all-natural gummy candies?”

Because you know, gummy candies are so natural. Wow, I’d love to have a shrub that produced gummies, especially the cherry and liquorice sorts.  Does the soil have to be aerated by gummy worms?  I hope it’s not thorny …  “They’re over here, on the top shelf.  Is there anything else for which you’re looking?”

“Attention grocery shoppers!  Are you looking for holiday candy and merchandise?  You can find it all over in aisle 14, where we have a wide selection of holiday candies in Fun Sizes, all your same favorites as the last holiday, but wrapped in this holiday’s color themes!  Don’t forget to get some holiday-themed merchandise for your loved ones, and holiday-themed party goods as well. And THANK YOU for shopping your local supermarket chain grocery!”

What you want

I still feel queasy when I remember the words.

Children have a certain disempowerment simply because they are young — they are naïve, less learned, and lack perspective. But this transcended childhood.  It sank past the boundaries of adult to child, or parent to child, and trampled my self-identity and self-determination.

My mom had found a way to get past what some would have called the “fortress” that isolated me, that natural preoccupation with whatever I was doing and naïve self-centeredness, that self-ism or autism that was greater in me than most anyone else.

“Oh, you don’t want to get grilled cheese again!” she chided me, but her sharp glance to me denied the lightness in her tone.  Her expression would then change, as it so often did when she spoke to other adults, with the swiftness of flipping a social light-switch, and she turned to pleasantly address the waitress “She wants the ham sandwich.”

Or: “You don’t either, have a headache.  You’re just fine.  Now go get your work done.”

And in 9th grade, in a dizzying double-bind: “You don’t want to be a park ranger; quit flapping that survey!  You’re going to sign up for bookkeeping and typing, and you’re going to start getting good grades in math class, too.”

Increasingly, I was told how I “really” felt emotionally or physically, or told me that I could not possibly be feeling something, that indeed I actually was feeling.  Invalidation is when an emotionally abusive person distorts someone’s perception of the world, or when the abuser undermines their factual processing by casting doubt upon the facts of the events.  Denying what happened or the analysis of what happened, minimizing the importance of abusive statements or trivializing the recipient’s responses are also means of invalidation.

Over the years, my inertia increased.   I could never tell when I was expected to have a preference, or rather, to just to express a preference, since apparently I wasn’t really allowed to have them.  When it wasn’t convenient to others for me to express a preference (to speed up shopping, or to allow my mom to appear generous), I was soundly rebuked and told what I “really wanted”.

My stress and depression increased throughout my teen years.  When I should have been learning independence and skills and decision-making, I was thwarted, and then paradoxically, received further insults because of my lack of independence.  Never knowing when I was supposed to express an opinion, or what my opinion was “supposed” to be, I frequently gave up and just shrugged, unable to verbally express the “appropriate response”. I frequently did not know what that “appropriate response” was.

Worse, with my lack of being able to perceive all those subtle social cues that pervaded both my warped home environment, and even the subtle social cues that comprise such an overwhelming part of interactions in the “normal” world, I was becoming increasingly fatigued with the burden of shamefully lacking in whatever psychic means would have informed me.  It was of course, all my fault, as so many people were quickly willing to inform me.

My mom had found a way to get past my natural self-centeredness, not by inviting me to understand others’ worlds, but by trampling my personal boundaries of selfhood.  Although children have a certain disempowerment simply because they are young, they, like all self-conscious organisms, are entitled to — nay, required — that their selfhood be respected.  Denying that someone else might have opinions worth considering, much less that they are even allowed to even have opinions, violates that central inalienable right.

~#~

Years later as an adult, I was still running into much the same problem of “reality shifting” (being told by others what my personal reality and preferences were “supposed” to be), even if it wasn’t expressed as blatantly or as frequently.  One such event became (in retrospect) a tipping point — not in events, but in perceptual clarity.  I finally realized that such events were equally disrespectful, even if they lacked the overt denial and double-binds.

My (now ex-) husband was telling me that I shouldn’t want to do jury duty because it might interfere with my vacation schedule or my work schedule.  I shouldn’t want to do jury duty because it didn’t pay as much as my job did.

But I realised in confusion, that this wasn’t about what I wanted to do, to participate as a citizen, to help make a positive difference in justice, and to be able to observe another facet of social functioning.

Ostensibly, it was about what he wanted from me, in terms of convenience in the family schedule, and what he wanted from me in terms of my earnings. (Unbeknownst to me at the time, we were horribly, deeply in debt.)  I wasn’t denying that it could make these differences in scheduling and earnings — but really, that wasn’t the issue here.  Those “reasons” were just distractors.

Rather, he was trying to enforce my actions based upon his wants, and dismissing my wants as being unimportant.  He was trying to convince me that his wants were my wants.  We all have wants, but I didn’t think that mine should have been dismissed as being unimportant.

The solutions he proposed were ones compromises between the requirements of the law, and what he said I wanted.  But effectively, I was the one being compromised, because his announcement denied my interests and enabled him to get what he wanted, rather than what would have enabled both of us.

I got tired of being told what I should want. I got tired of being told how I should feel.  I was suffering from a chronic case of spiritual fatigue. Constantly negotiating to be taken seriously was an exhausting way to live.

I don’t miss those aspects of my life; my whole system twitches when I perceive someone telling me what I “should be feeling” or “really want to do”.

Now if only I could get out of some of these other double binds that infest my work life …

Role-Playing

I’ve role-played in various capacities over the years, from the “acting-out student” in a staff safety seminar, to the novice thief in a D&D game.  But the other week I was asked to try out a far different rôle:

“If you were Melba Toast, where would you be hiding?”

Melba Toast … gee, were I a small box of cardboardy toast slivers, where would I be hiding?  Hmn …

Such queries fill chunks of my life now, as I am working two and three jobs for 65-70 hours a week, which should explain the general lack of bloggery.  It’s not a lack of interest, nor a lack of subjects worthy of blathering about.  (The sad part is that I still have plants sitting around in pots that I bought back in June. That, and another goal is to finish my grandson’s quilt before winter sets in; he’s nearly three months old already!)

These oddball encounters always hit me out of the blue, when I’m otherwise preoccupied with squinting at the shelf tag UPCs to figure out which peg the -48699 fancy chandelier light bulbs should hang upon, or am trying to line up a stack of shiny toothpaste boxes without knocking over its companion rows.  (Why do we have to stack all those wobbly boxes three tiers high?  Because the boss like them that way, that’s why.  But hell if I’m going to try stacking up some of those styles of maxipads, because even single packs don’t want to stand upright.)

Melba Toast … The problem of course, is that every store has a set of random products that are difficult for customers to find.  So there we are, grocery stocker blinking and trying to remember to smile and make eye contact and parse the unexpected conversation from the background noise, and customer trying to find the right person for help.

“Do you work here?”

[No,] says the tired-and-cranky part of my brain, [I just like standing around the local market wearing a dress shirt with the corporate logo, knee pads, compression gloves for my arthritis & Raynaud’s, and a box knife holstered to my waistband.  I sure as hell better work here, because I’m getting so nearly OCD about “facing” groceries that I’m starting to pull forward and straighten out merchandise even when I’m just shopping for my own groceries.]  Working two shifts a day doesn’t make me as cranky as going two weeks at a stretch without a full day off.  Damnit, I want a life.

Savvy customers ask me, “Do you work for the store?” because they’ve learned that the burly guy stocking cola works for the cola-distribution company, or the little old lady giving out food samples works for a food conglomerate or a temp agency, and neither of these people knows where our market stocks the sun-dried tomatoes, oat bran, or tiki-torch oil. Actually, we don’t stock tiki-torch oil, which is why that customer couldn’t find it.  You’re shocked, I’m sure.  Or maybe not; we get all kinds of crazy-ass seasonal shit to sell.  Maybe we did have tiki-torch oil once-upon-a-time.  By my 13th work-hour of the day, tiki-torch oil sounds perfectly reasonable, and I can just about hallucinate bottles of sunset-gold tiki-torch oil by the tins of cigarette-lighter butane or the blister packs of Tropical Paradise air freshener candles.  Blarrrg.

Sometimes the senseless placements are simply accidents of history, like the display of snack cakes that migrated inward from and aisle “end cap” and are now juxtaposed to the tinned soups for no particular reason other than some space existed there once, and no one’s since bothered to move them over to the sweets aisle.

Sometimes the senseless placements are just that, like the forlorn bags of barley that are slumped against the soup powders, instead of with the rest of the dry grains and beans. (Well yeah, people put barley in soup, but people put damn near everything else in soups, too; so what?)

Customers are usually so apologetic when they can’t find something;  they don’t want to “be a bother”. 

“Oh, now I’m messing up your nice display,” frets the gentleman as he fumbles to remove two packs of liquorices.

“No, no, that’s okay!  If you don’t buy it, then I can’t re-stock it, and what would I do for a job?  You’re keeping the economy running!”  Seriously.

They worry that I’m going to think less of them because they can’t find something that’s staring right back at both of us, which is also silly, because sometimes we’re both staring at the shelf, leaving me mumbling,

“I know I saw it right around here the other day, unless it got moved the day I was off …” 

“Oh, here it is!” exclaims the customer, who actually has a “search image” for a product, unlike this store employee who neither stocks the item nor buys it.

“Ayup, I remembered seeing it around here … is there anything else for which you are looking?”

Of course, there’s the person stalking up and down an aisle because they too have that feeling of it’s-right-in-front-of-me, and they finally break down to ask me as I’m passing by with a trolley artfully crammed full of cartons of chocolate bars and thirteen flavors and sizes of toothpaste, or a handtruck heaped high with bags of charcoal. (Nothing says, “Working Hard” like having coal schmutz on your cheek.)

“Um, have you seen the — Oh!  Here it is.  Sorry,”

“No worries — we do that at home all the time:  ‘Hey Mom, where’s-the-nevermind’.”

My canned joke, with its carefully-honed wee bit of wry camaraderie, usually prompts a reciprocating expression of familiarity.  Small talk is hard for me, so after I’ve had the same type of experience a few times, I make myself up some scripts to add to my standard lists of “Grocery Stocker Small Talk” or “Grocery Cashier Small Talk”.

But of course, there’s the inevitable ad-libbing.

“Melba Toast … you know, I don’t think I’ve ever role-played bread before,” I replied.  Fortunately, my off-beat attempt at levity worked, which bought me some time as I stood there, staring up into space to access my mental store map.  “Well, let’s go check Aisle 5,”

We get there, cruising past the peanut butter and jelly selections, in our grocery manager’s dual homage to cheap sandwiches and suggestive product placement.  “I already looked in the bread aisle,” volunteers the customer, but we’re both familiar with scenario of missing something right in front of us, so we give it a look-through just to be sure.

“Okay, another likely place would be in the cracker aisle,” I offer, as we pass the end-cap display for the other brand of snack cakes (located in another part of the store, naturally) and make a U-turn to cruise fruitlessly past the chips and crackers.  Before my customer gets too dispirited (or embarrassed),  I offer an explanation, “The problem is, there are some things for which there are several perfectly logical places to keep them … and every store has its quirks.  Well, if it’s not down here, we’ll look in the Import Foods section by the Dutch rusks,”

“I already checked there,” says the unusually diligent shopper.

“Wow, most people usually miss — ah-HA!  Here they are, next to cereal and the toaster pastries.”  Hooray, this mystery is solved, and I can go back to fighting with the Halloween bags of Twizzlers candies, which are refusing to stack neatly and have taken to suddenly slumping off the shelf and slithering onto the floor as I get halfway down the aisle.  It would take no less than five episodes of this before I finally got the heaps stabilised.  Such repeated incidents of fruit-carting would be funny later, but there are only so many ways you can stack and re-stack and re-stack and re-stack and re-stack bags of individually-wrapped cherry-flavored twists before getting utterly twisted, too.

Where P = 0

Where P is the momentum, and P = mvv = velocity, naturally.  But the m = inertial mass.  As in, if something doesn’t act upon and force the m, then there is no v and no P, and certainly no W of work!

I’ve not been blogging much lately due to the Jobs, but even after the education-related Job #1 and Job #2 finished a couple weeks ago, I’m still finding it hard to get back into the blogging groove.  I’m still working Job #3, which is only part-time, but grocery stocking is giving me the most inconsistent hours and days, ever. It’s getting to the point where I’m having trouble remembering what day of the week it is.

The Geekling has yet to sleep through the night; I’m not feeding him at nights, but apparently Grandma Ears are the same as Mom Ears, and hunger cries in another part of the house will still awaken me.

Furthermore, my watch battery died, so I can’t even tell when I am, aside from night and day.

But most of all, I have a bad case of Inertia.  I have a bazillion things to do, but struggle to complete the most time-sensitive ones.  I am working on some posts, but stringing thoughts together is like watching syrup ooze down the bottle.

What do you do to get over Inertia?

News Bees

Our carpenter bees are happy, but the short-haired bumble became extinct in its native country several years ago.  Fortunately, immigrant populations survived in New Zealand, and are being re-introduced.  The value of native pollinators is being rediscovered as honeybee populations have dwindled. Find out how to prevent jet-lag in bees and more here in the Guardian.

Elephants are also endangered, and Kenyan populations are pushed to resources where farmers are also trying to survive.  Fortunately, researchers are working with the elephants’ (and bees’) natural behaviors.  A report on BBC News describes how hollow-log style beehives have been used on the continent for centuries, and are used as part of the fences. (Of course, the honeybees also give the farmers good crop pollination, and some honey and wax harvests, too.)

Insect news from my own garden to come soon!

A Luxury

Being bored is a luxury I do not have.

Not the boredom that is the enforced tedium from being exhausted by illness, or from waiting and waiting for indeterminate periods of time without diversions. But rather, the boredom that comes from choosing to be disinterested at work.

Sure, some jobs are seriously duller than others, such as data entry or assembly.  But retail is considerably more interesting than such rote perfectionism.

And yet, the other week one of my coworkers was complaining that he found the work at the garden center to be so BORING.  It wasn’t related to his chosen degree program or career.

Certainly, I don’t expect everyone else to be as entertained as I am by “facing” the plant stock, meaning filling more pots into the gaps shoppers have left in the flats.  I really like lining up four-packs or pots, or bringing forwards pots from the back of the benches up to the front so they are more accessible to the buyers.  The quick detail makes everything neat and tidy and complete.  Even shuffling pots from a nearly-empty flat (tray) to fill another is satisfying, because then we have that flat available for a shopper to use as they are selecting their plants.  (Not only does handing out flats free up people’s over-burdened hands, but there’s also a bit of sales psychology, where buyers are more likely to buy a few extra pots to complete the flat.)

And to be sure, there are a number of people who find “grooming” the plants (removing old flowers and dying leaves) to be just too utterly nit-picky and grubby a past-time.  But I enjoy this because I know that removing the dead material will help ensure that the plants keep blooming, will lesson the chance of disease and insect problems, and simply makes everything look better.  (A lot of novice gardeners will mistake the natural “senescence” or shedding of yellowing old leaves as a symptom of disease.)

And of course, most of the garden center cashiers are not horticulturalists; they are cashiers with some basic training in how to water and what the difference is between annuals and perennials.  But that’s what I’m there for, to provide the expertise in answering questions, and helping customers select plants for different sites.

So despite the varying levels of intrinsic reward in some of the activities, and the vast differences in personal expertise, all of the cashiers can still gain the same kinds of satisfaction in their work.  There’s still the basic premise of serving others, even if we’re just loading bags of mulch into someone’s car.

Because that’s what we’re there for.

So when my coworker complains of being bored, and spends most of his time hidden behind the cash register (checking something on his mobile phone) or wandering around aimlessly listening to his music or chatting with a girlfriend, well, I am mystified.  And a bit annoyed.

Because like, dude, “fun” is something you make, not something that happens to you.

If you’re bored, then get involved.  Help me come up with better ways of displaying the new stock that is more aesthetically appealling and more accessible, like the other evening cashier does.  Go out and actively assist the customers, like the other cashiers do.

If the custom is slow during that lull before people get off work, then make a point to do some of the things that are on the To Do list.  That’s why I’m not bored — I not only do when I have been asked to do as an employee, but I also look for other things to do.

If I’m knee-deep in cleaning the spent blossoms from the hanging baskets and watering the stock, then don’t hide out behind the register.  I shouldn’t have to mention, “Hey, that lady over there has her hands full — go get her a shopping cart.” [buggy, trolley]

It’s awkward when your coworker is slacking off, but you’re not a supervisor.  I’ve tried stating, “X, Y and Z need doing,” but that cue was apparently too subtle.  I’ve tried offering, “I’ll do W and X if you don’t mind doing Y and Z,” but that produced nothing more than a half-hearted attempt at Y and Z disappeared somewhere along the way.

There’s no reason to be bored at a job like this.  There are too many different things to do, whether it’s tending the plant stock or chit-chatting with the customers while you ring up their purchases.

And you know what?  Working in a half-assed way and complaining of being “bored” does not help ensure employability, especially in these economic times.

I’m not working two jobs just for the fun of it; I work because I need the income.  But despite that, despite that some days I’m cold and wet and stiff and sore due to the exertion and the weather and my health issues, despite that, I still find ways of enjoying my work.

I can’t afford to be bored.

Being remote / mis-emoting

“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing.”
“No, tell me.”
Nothing.
“Seriously, what’s wrong?”
“NOTHING’S wrong; I’m just working on this article.”
“Well you don’t have to be so rude.”
“I wasn’t — I’m just trying to work already.”

Apparently I don’t always “emote” (physically express my emotional state) the way people expect me to. Apparently my “thinking” face looks like a scowl.

“Are you annoyed with me?”
“No.  You’re fine.  I’m just thinking.”

(But if you keep bugging about why I am/not annoyed, I will probably become annoyed…)

Maybe I should research Read the rest of this entry »

With a price tag like that, you know it’s what’s best

Would you pay more for name-brand headache medicine than the generic or store brand?  If your budget is like mine, probably not; after all, the tablets are the same, it’s just the packaging that’s different.

But on the flip side, what if your favorite practitioner recommends an expensive treatment that will help you or your loved one recover from a chronic condition? Not surprisingly, treatments with higher price tags make patients feel better, even when there are not any differences in the treatments, nor even when the treatments are just placebos!  Per research by Waber et al., (“Commercial Features of Placebo and Therapeutic Efficacy”)

These results are consistent with described phenomena of commercial variables affecting quality expectations and expectations influencing therapeutic efficacy. Placebo responses to commercial features have many potential clinical implications. For example, they may help explain the popularity of high-cost medical therapies (eg, cyclooxygenase 2 inhibitors) over inexpensive, widely available alternatives (eg, over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and why patients switching from branded medications may report that their generic equivalents are less effective.

In other words, patients perceive more expensive treatment as being more effective.  This is in many parts “research as confirmation of what we already know”, also known as “A Duh! Study”.  (Which is why it was in the 2008 Ig Nobel Awards.)  However, this preference for expensive treatments can also be a post-purchase rationalization, where we have the unconscious tendency to rationalize why the things we have paid for were such good choices.

Human beings are subject to a large number of cognitive fallacies and biases of judgment.  We unconsciously deceive ourselves in a number of ways, which is why scientists must use randomized, double-blinded, and repeatable studies with falsifiable hypotheses. (The word “falsifiable” is somewhat confusing or misleading; it simply means that the hypotheses can be proven wrong, which is statistically safer than trying to prove them correct.)

Our brains love to find patterns — that’s how we make sense of all the sensory input we’re bombarded with — but we will also see patterns even when they don’t exist.  Even the most earnestly objective researcher can misinterpret incomplete data, or give more attention to data that supports their hypothesis than that which doesn’t.  This is why double-blinded studies are important, so neither the study subjects nor the data gatherers know who is in the treatment or the control groups.

Naturally, shysters will take advantage of people by Read the rest of this entry »

4 Stages You Don’t Have to Go Through

A recent article landed in my Google news aggregater, “Child’s Autism Diagnosis: 4 Stages You Will Go Through”.  Unfortunately, for all of its cheery helpfulness, it still manages to perpetuate some common stereotypes and misconceptions about disabilities:

When you hear that your child has been diagnosed with autism, the worst thoughts come to your mind. You can feel scared, lonely and overwhelmed. All of these feelings are natural when dealing with a new situation, but it doesn’t have to be terrifying.

Seriously.  The author assumes that the experience of getting a diagnosis is automatically horrifying; the first two sentence are loaded with negative words: worst, scared, lonely, overwhelmed, terrifying. Parents may feel these things at times, and for any number of things, including the sleep-deprivation of newborn care, or even dropping your child off for the first day of preschool or Kindergarten and experiencing the fallout of separation anxiety.  But the process of receiving a diagnosis is described like slogging through of an abyss of despair, with the “4 Stages” listed as 1.Denial, 2.Anger, 3.Grief, 4.Acceptance.

A problem with riffing on these “stages of loss” (familiar to anyone who has taken Psych 101), is that although there is evidence that many people do experience such upon receiving various diagnoses, the very presence of articles such as this may serve to reinforce the despair as much as they seek to lighten it.

How so?  Firstly, many people in various support industries related to disability (including educational and social work realms) are taught that Read the rest of this entry »

The benefits of buggy design

Ask people what insects are “good for” (in the anthropocentric sense), and most people will answer that bees produce honey and wax, or silkworms spin cocoons of fine thread. A few people may even realise that shellac comes from the shells of lac bugs, or that carmine & cochineal red food colorings are made from a cactus-feeding beetle. And of course, everyone knows that ladybeetles (ladybird beetles / ladybugs) are useful predators.

But aside from these direct uses of insects for their labor or their exoskeletons, 21st-century scientists are increasingly using lowly hexapods for rather different pursuits: insects are fabulous engineering models!

an iridescent Blue Morpho butterfly flitting by

an iridescent Blue Morpho butterfly flying by

The field of biomimetics is the realm of Read the rest of this entry »

Fruit flies like a banana

“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”

Some of my special interests are insects, science and special education. The three subjects rarely intersect, but you can bet that when they do, it’s going to be interesting! Populist politics is once again — or rather — still degenerating into vast bogs of anti-intellectualism.  As noted across many news-editorial and science blogs, Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin positively excels at scorning science.  It shows up not only in her stump speeches, but also in her belief in young-earth creationism and stance on teaching Intelligent Design in classrooms. One of the latest foofaraws is her denunciation of funding for research on fruit flies.

“You’ve heard about some of these pet projects, they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good,” Palin said. “Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.” [YouTube link]

What does Palin have against this line of science?  Well, that’s a bit puzzling, especially when we look at the subject of her first policy speech.  The VP candidate was talking about special education services and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  But all the pro-funding talk was a bit of a turn-around for the Alaskan governor, who had previously cut the funding for Special Olympics in half.

What really stood out is that within her speechifying, the intent of her points about science funding collided with the actual content of part of what she was saying. Palin was (among other things) advocating for Read the rest of this entry »

How to Swat a Fly

Some of this is not breaking news, but some is.  When I was watching someone in another classroom in futile pursuit of said dastardly, dirty diptera, I realised that there is a lot of interesting science behind successful swatting.

Flies are hard to swat for a number of reasons.  They avoid predation by both sensory detection and behavioral responses.  With its large eyes, a fly can see nearly 360°, including behind itself.  This means that it’s nearly impossible to “sneak up” on a fly. Because an insect’s flicker fusion frequency is 250 Hertz or more (compared to the human 50), they are vastly more sensitive to motion. Flies can see a flyswatter coming at them, no matter how slow or fast you move it. As anyone who has ever examined their prey has noted, flies are also hairy.  These “hairs” (setae) make them sensitive to changes in ambient air speed and direction — they can feel the acceleration of the air from the pressure wave created by the flyswatter.

Michael Dickinson and others at the California Institute of Technology have recently teased out other details to the flys’ success.  They used high-speed imaging to discover that Read the rest of this entry »

Wanted: Planet with longer rotational period

It’s not just me. A lot of people whom I know in person or via the internet have complained about near-futility of trying to get to sleep earlier at a “reasonable” time, meaning one that would give a person enough hours of sleep before having to rise for the next day.

My children and I can’t get to sleep before 11 p.m. unless we’ve been hit by dire viruses, or else have simply stayed up the entire night. In contrast, hubby can retire early and then go from laying down to snoring in less than five minutes, and we’re all mystified at how he manages this! Obviously, such a somnolent physiology was not something our children inherited from dad.

While our young adults have endeavoured to find college classes that start later in the morning (not unlike the majority of college students out there), I myself do not have the luxury of that option. I’m expected to be at the school at 7:30, which means leaving at 7:00. (In reality, I need to leave by 7:10, but I keep aiming for 7:00 to give me the necessary buffer in my nutz ADHD distractedness.)  Given the zombie-like staggering arthritic stiffness and mental sluggishness of my morning routine, I need to roll out of bed at 6. Now that really isn’t an unusual time for working folks to get up, but my problem is that for most of my life I’ve not been able to get to sleep until midnight, even when I’ve put myself to bed by 10 p.m.

Part of that delay was due to the fact that Read the rest of this entry »

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