Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Random Facts to Keep You Up at Night

Random Fact the First: Swine Flu vaccines, my Sister's pneumonia, and the novel Catch-22

There is a peculiar neurological syndrome which causes progressive weakness, then paralysis, starting with your feet and slowly climbing upwards, to knees, and thighs, and abdomen, until a person is no longer able to talk or…umm…breath, and often dies. It’s called Guillain-BarrĂ© syndrome, and it strikes randomly across all demographics - beware.

In the 1970s, there was a massive inoculation effort against Swine Flu in the states, but an unintended consequence was a massive rise in the rate of Guillain-BarrĂ©, which caused the effort to be disbanded (which is why there’s still Swine flu, today, making trouble inside of my wee sister’s lungs.*) This has led many to believe that the disorder is autoimmune - or a result of a body’s immune system, turned homicidal and misguidedly attacking the self. Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, is among the illness’s most esteemed companions, and you can read about his illness in the co-authored non-fiction ‘No Laughing Matter.’

*Medical confirmation pending.

Random Fact the Second: Bill Clinton, Leonardo Dicaprio, and small, yappy dogs with tiaras

The country of Zimbabwe (and before that, a land mass containing Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi) used to be called Rhodesia, a title which paid tribute to the country’s principle colonizer and rapist of all things pure and good - the English Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902). Rhodes lost his territorial namesakes in 1964 and 1980, respectively, but that didn’t stop his vast empire, which remains massively profitable today.

You’ve likely seen his commercials - Rhodes was the founder of the DeBeers diamond company, which has at points owned 90% of the world’s rough diamonds. ‘Rough diamonds’ sounds slightly better than ‘blood diamonds,’ and Blood Diamond is a film starring Leonardo Dicaprio, which talks about the diamond industry’s disregard for African/human life. It’s a little depressing. If you’re getting a diamond, please buy Canadian.

(I am aware that not a single person who reads my blog is in the market for diamonds. In fact, I don’t think I know anyone who regularly goes diamond shopping, but imaging such people, likely wearing monocles and coat tails or holding small, yappy dogs named Giblet, amuses me to no end.)

Also remnant of dear Cecil Rhodes is the Rhodes Scholarship, of Oxford University, of which Bill Clinton lists among the many eminent scholars.

AND finally… Craigslist, Tractors, and Manslaughtered Pedestrians

I am applying for a full-time job, but one of the many job requirements that I lack is a functional driver’s license and a car of my own. I want the job, and so may be willing to go through the song and dance required to get my BC license…and buy a car. If I do so, my tendency towards laziness, as well as my spiffy new job, will likely mean I’ll be driving, on roads, among people, in a city.

Fine line reading: I am a terrible, terrible driver, and my only driver experience was among gravel and tractors, which was absolutely terrifying.

God have mercy on us all.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Don't...Do Drugs!

Once, a doctor once told me that caffeine can cause fatigue.

I raised my eyebrows in a doubting manner which failed to impress.

“It makes you more alert when you have it - high. But then later, you‘re more tired - low.” He said this with accompanying hand gestures and extra sharp pronunciation, as though I was especially stupid, and so I pretended to understand his point. I thought of sugar highs, and how the rise in sugar can lead to a rise in insulin, which depletes your blood sugar so quickly it can lead to severe lows, fainting, and even seizures in hypoglycemic people. The high is followed by a low. I guess that kind of makes sense.


Never mind that this doctor, on the whole, was an incompetent idiot who’s tenure in a student health clinic, I can only assume, was due to his inability to work elsewhere, combined with a thrill of lording over wee female undergraduates with his creepy medical degree and skullular bank of incorrect knowledge. No matter who said that caffeine can make you more tired, and whether or not they possess a working medical licence, they are wrong. It simply isn’t true.

Caffeine is a drug. And most drugs have withdrawal symptoms when your body is used to getting said drug after an extended period of time. Simplistically, this is the approximate opposite of the drug effect itself - a high to a low, so to speak. Speed fiends know that coming off of stimulants equals a brief period of depression…you are hungry, and sleepy, and your mood is low. (Speed, or amphetamines, makes people awake, happy, and thin. And then psychotic...but that comes later.)

But sometimes, the withdrawal effects have little to do with the direct effects of the drug.

Take alcohol, which has the most deadly withdrawal effects of any known addictive drug, which typically start with ‘shakes’ and progress to full-on, grand-mal seizures. And heroin withdrawal, which approximates a bad bout of the flu (though heroin is not known for making people feel un-flu like, at least as far as I know). And anti-depressants, which may make you sad in withdrawal, but may also make you sweaty, or nauseous, or confounded by a disturbing phenomenon of ‘brain zaps.’

Withdrawal effects are more about your body coping with a drug’s absence after that drug has become a part of its homeostatic system…but homeostasis involves a lot of different chemicals in a lot of parts of the body, and so the opposite-effect, high-to-low rule may not hold.

And then there is caffeine.

Caffeine, like speed, is a stimulant. It is far less effective than meth, cocaine, or speed itself, but it happens to be legal and cheap, making it far more appealing to yours truly and, likely, some of you. It increases intracellular metabolism, causing every affected cell in your body to work just a little bit harder and faster. It increases urination, and it dilates blood vessels throughout your body. If anyone in the world were on an IV of strong espresso, as you may have dreamed of trying during your undergraduate years, their pupils would be huge. In massive doses, it can make you jittery and keep you up at all hours, pacing restlessly, jabbering nonsensically, and not once sitting down to write the paper that caused you to drink three cans of Redbull in a row.

And after staying up all night, you’ll likely feel tired. But if you’d stayed up all night anyways, without the Redbull or the chocolate-covered espresso beans (which Starbucks sells and are delicious!), then you’d likely be tired just the same. In fact, you'd probably be more tired. And caffeine might make you sleep poorly, when you do get to sleep, which can lead to later fatigue…but that’s really just because you’ve now been partially awake for forty odd hours, and so naturally you’re feeling exhausted.

You can certainly ‘crash’ after getting hopped up on caffeine (a practice which is also common among meth and crack addicts), but the net amount of sleep you get in the end - even if it may resemble a coma - will be much less than if you hadn’t had a stimulant at all. Stay up for two nights, sleep like the dead for twelve hours…that’s still only four hours of sleep per night, averaged out. And few people will sleep for more than eleven hours at a time, no matter how exhausted they may be beforehand (including a guy who stayed up for seven days straight in the seventies, on the radio, until he hallucinated that his microphone had become a snake. This led to him screaming, on air, for six minutes straight, and eventually his being sent home.)

The concept of ‘sleep debt’ has some pseudo-psych merit, but the major failure of the concept occurs when sleep debt maxes out. After eleven hours straight sleep, and the ensuing grogginess, the most sleep-indebted crack fiend or radio host will have hit the diurnal 'reset button' and be right as rain. Credit card debt should work that way.

And so…caffeine. Caffeine certainly is addictive and, judging by the line-ups at Starbucks in the morning, many a Westerner has succumbed to its exotic and bean-based nectar. The decaf pot remains untouched and stagnant, and slightly more popular than the ever-confusing alcohol-free beer. The majority of North Americans have a mild to moderate caffeine addiction, and that's perfectly okay; it lowers your risk of Parkinson’s (as do cigarettes!), and heart doctors only get really upset when you tip the scales at more than eight cups per day.

But not all doctors, it seems.

If you’ve got a daily drug habit in the form of coffee or cola, you’ve likely had occasions where that morning cup could not be obtained and you’ve experienced some nasty side effects as a result. You may have felt sluggish, or found you just couldn’t wake up…or at least, not with the regular spring in your step that only artificially stimulation brings. And if you have a heavier habit, you may have found your head throbbing mercilessly - a headache which will go away after a day or so, or be instantly relieved by the precious gift of more, addictive caffeine.

This headache isn’t a result of a slow-down in your metabolism. It’s to do with the blood-dilation effects of caffeine, and the blood vessels in your head freaking out and constricting in caffeine’s absence. Excedrin remains an ever-popular pain killer because, unlike its fellow NSAIDS (like Aspirin and Advil), it contains just a touch of caffeine, which helps fight headaches in general but is especially great for the throbbing terror of withdrawal.

And my final point…Caffeine is a stimulant.

It stimulates; that is the class of drug it belongs to, and if it were a cause of net fatigue, it would not be classified as such. And the entire argument of net-opposite-effect is spectacularly ridiculous when you consider its implications - does taking a sleeping pill, or an anti-anxiety drug, then make you more alert the next day? Does drinking a beer, after it’s worn off, lead to you being extra, extra sober?

No. No it does not.

Stupid doctor, I rest my case.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Modern Love Story

Once upon a time, there was a boy.

We talked for hours - over MSN. He loved my writing, and I would send him samples of pieces, starting with the impersonal - the ranty and the political - and eventually easing him into more personal stuff until I’d finally sent him a twenty page manuscript outlining the detailed story of a previous break-up.

Shortly thereafter, he started making out with me, and I knew we were dating.

Dating him was difficult, because I never was quite sure if we were dating or not. On our first outing, he invited me to a movie - date! But he phrased it as though he was going, and if I was free, I was welcome to join him - not date. I discovered that we were alone on said outing - date! But he made no overtures of closeness or feigned attempts to pay for my ticket - not date. He insisted I wear his jacket, afterward, when I was cold - date! But he didn’t attempt to kiss me - not date. This pattern continued until I’d fully resigned to life as a confused and incompetent heterosexual.

Finally, on our third or fourth such outing, he slapped my ass and shortly thereafter stuck his tongue down my throat. We made out a few times, and I stayed thoroughly confused. I liked him. He was a good friend. And I’d been attracted to him - or at least, I thought I had. Then again, I didn’t enjoy kissing him…and that was because he was a bad kisser.

His mouth was an unfortunate, vacuum-like device which managed to engulf my entire mouth, and nose, and render me both unable to breath and mildly nauseous. I choked, and gagged, and he seemed entirely oblivious. I feigned coyness, and the need to write a paper, and I sent him on his way. I mustered the courage to break up with him a week later.

He has, henceforth, thoroughly hated my guts.

And this story continued and repeated, unhappily, ever after, until your writer resigned herself to never having sex again, dying alone, and inevitably being eaten by her dogs.

The End.

“Hello, my handsome prince! Hello, my precious princess! Hello, toad."

Trials and Tribulations of Life Amongst Siblings

When you ask any parent which child is their favourite, they will inevitably respond: I love them all the same. This, of course, is never really true, and children themselves have been experiencing the consequences for the past several millennia.

This isn’t necessarily because parents are callous, hypocritical monsters. Simply put, every child is different, and so a parent’s relationship with each child is bound to be different, too. Parents may love each of their children with a great, immeasurable magnitude - but the nature of the relationship is bound up in who the parent is, and who the child is, and what role that child plays in the parent’s life. A firstborn son, the embodiment of a lifetime of expectation for the wonders of parenthood, is likely to be looked upon differently than the screaming daughter thrust upon the same parents two years later. A youngest child, possibly a medical miracle, and a lasting relic of the thirty-odd years one spent parenting their children, is obviously going to be loved differently than her predecessors. And so the story goes.

Relationships are always unique, and relationships between parents are their children are ideally laced with ready affection, infinite patience, and a great deal of genuine understanding. This should be the case, no matter what role a particular child may take within your life. And therein lies a bit of the problem, because no matter how good a parent, no one’s patience is really that infinite…people snap. And they yell. And some children are, well, just a little bit harder to love.

The resulting mantra remains a sad, constant truth: Nobody Likes a Middle Child.

In an informal survey of Ontarians, washed up upon universities on the very far B.C. coast, I noticed a disturbing trend. I, myself a middle child, was no longer alone. Bitterly slunked against adjacent walls, I had many allies, or rather, kinsmen…and middle children were disproportionately represented among my provincial ex-pats.

And why wouldn’t middle children travel across an entire continent in order to obtain a bachelor’s degree? The ties between the nuclear family and these wayward youth are tenuous, at best, and while eldest and youngest children often feel secure within their familiar role, whether or not they enjoy occupying it, middle children often struggle to know their place.

What am I doing, why am I here, and would anyone mind if I was gone, they wonder, angstily, and evidently, no one would. These children take off for Vancouver, never looking back, and their unperturbed family never visits. Or maybe that’s just my experience…ahem.

But absence inevitably makes the heart grow fonder, and the inequities of sibling life, in adulthood, always pale in comparison to what one experiences during the tumultuous terror of childhood itself.

Take, for example, the daily mundanities which quickly turned into epic battles - one always being the matter of car seats.

This was the very subject which made a third child seem an uncouth impossibility to a fellow-expat friend; only two children can comfortably sit in the backseat of a four door, two-parent vehicle. she argued. A third child will be relegated to the dreaded middle 'hump.' And after six months of hearing high-pitched squeals about having to sit on the hump, you become a mini-van family. And that, you must understand, if a fate far worse than death.

And my own childhood experiences, as one of a three-child entourage in a single parent home, were equally epic. For only one of us could ride shotgun. The other two were relegated to the backseat, to the undignified rear of the car, and were unenthusiastically forced to “ride bitch.” The riders in the back inevitably took out their frustration on each other, and so insult often turned to injury, and tears, and my mother threatening to drop us off in the nearest roadside ditch.

This was just before the advent of the airbag, and the unfortunate matter of their decapitating young children in the front seat, should my mother ever crash. Had that been the case during my childhood, it certainly would have made our arguments at least a little more interesting.

As it stood, the arguments weren’t especially interesting, because they always ended up the same - my youngest sister got the front seat, my brother and I got the back. If my brother and I were in the car, my brother would get the front seat, and I would get the back. And if my sister and I were alone in the car, she would get the front, and me the back. A pattern was beginning to emerge.

This pattern followed when we moved into a larger home - in our last home, things had been cramped. Our growing family had often caused us to play musical rooms - at one point my brother and I shared a room, and a bunk bed. I got the bottom bunk. And then we had our own rooms - I got the smaller room. And then my sister was born, and my brother got his own room, while I had to share. And when puberty and strong mutual dislike rendered my shared room a war zone, a divider was put up…giving my sister the majority of the room, and me a small corner in which I could not stand up straight. Needless to say, I was eager for a change.

In the new house, ranks were far less complex. There were exactly four bedrooms and one office, all of them dissimilar in size, and all assigned. My young sister got the largest room. My stepbrother got the second largest room. My mother didn’t especially like him, and so within a year he was gone and my mother and stepfather took that room for themselves (they had been sleeping in the downstairs office). My brother got the third largest, or second smallest, room. And I myself was relegated to a former nursery the size of a walk-in closet. (I am not exaggerating. I had a futon. I was never once able to unfold my futon to its proper bed form because the room was simply too small.)

…This is the story of my life.