The Week’s Not Over Yet

Between the years 1350 and 1353, Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a collection of one hundred tales published as The Decameron. I’d never read them, and in the interest of full disclosure, I admit that other than a few translated excerpts while writing this post, I still haven’t. But I am intrigued by the premise.

Written in the common man’s Italian (at the time), the collection is set against the backdrop of a 1348 outbreak of the Black Death. The stories are presented as though they are shared among ten friends holed up in a villa outside of Florence, responsibly minding their social distance and avoiding the plague like . . . well, the plague.

Thanks to this guy and Project Gutenberg, you can spend your time stuck at home with nothing to do reading about a bunch of people stuck at home with nothing to do. Raffaello Sanzio Morghen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Seven women and three men during a fourteen-day period are tasked with entertaining the others with a story each night. Two days are reserved for chores and two for worship, leaving ten evenings of ten stories, one hundred stories in all.

If you’re familiar with the Canterbury Tales you may realize that Boccaccio’s work probably had a pretty big influence on Chaucer who pretty much did the same thing several decades later except in the common man’s English (at the time) and with more religious pilgrimaging and less plagueyness.

I have read the Canterbury Tales, both in modern translation and in Middle English, and discussed them pretentiously, and written academic papers about them. But I’ve never been on a religious pilgrimage.

I have, however, been in quarantine, holed up for two weeks at a time in my house during a plague. If the last time I read the Canterbury Tales, you’d asked me which of those I was more likely to experience, I’d have guessed wrong.

I can see why isolation and storytelling might have been a pretty good idea. Spread of the Black Death in Europe Flappiefh, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been thinking about Boccaccio and The Decameron because I’ve had a lot of time on my hands. This has been quite a week here in the household of practical history. I know that by now most of us have had those weeks at one point or another since early this year when the world went sideways, but this has definitely been one of ours.

It actually began a little bit before this week when my husband who works in healthcare was informed that his hospital system plans to close the department in which he works. His job as he knows it will apparently be gone at an occasionally determined time in the near future. Except we recently learned that might not really be true, except that it definitely is sort of true. Probably. We’re confused, too.

And then there’s our fifteen-year-old who was told two weeks ago that he’d been potentially exposed to Covid-19 in school. That meant he had to remain home in quarantine for 14 days, or for 10 days after developing any symptoms if he tested positive and took a couple days off for chores and two for worship. Or something like that. It’s also kind of confusing.

It was bound to happen at some point. Tistip, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

So that’s some of the background. Then this past weekend, our 13-year-old, who had been doing his thing with mask and appropriate social distancing while more or less keeping away from his brother as much as possible, developed a fever and tested positive for Covid-19. Apparently, the wrong kid was quarantined.

Now he’s isolated and the rest of us are homebound, including the 15-year-old who proved negative for Covid-19 when tested after his brother’s positive result. Originally, he would have been released from quarantine yesterday, but since he has presumably been exposed to his brother, the 14 days begins again. From what point, we’re not entirely sure, as the answer to that questions seems to depend primarily on who you ask and what they had for breakfast that day.

Of course, that no longer matters anyway. On Tuesday of this week, after a painfully long publicly broadcasted meeting in which the elected members of our school board proved they don’t read emails or listen, it was decided that our district’s high schools and middle schools would move to virtual learning due to staffing difficulties caused by rolling quarantines.  

Virtual school isn’t ideal, but I think it’s much better than 45% percent attendance and constant staff shortages. Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

So, we’re at home. And that’s fine. There are a lot of people all over the world in similar predicaments, and we’re fairly well set. Symptoms have so far fallen into the short-lived and mild range, and we have the supplies we need, or the ability to have delivered whatever we don’t. We just have to figure out how to fill our abundance of extra time.

I’m thinking we may start requiring family story time each evening. There are only four of us and I haven’t done the math, but as we might all be in quarantine for fourteen days after each of us develops any symptoms, I think we could make it to a hundred.

We probably have the material. Boccaccio’s narrator Dioneo offers some guidance to his tale-tellers on eight of the ten days, demanding examples of power and fortune, examples of the power of human will, tragic love stories, happy love stories, clever stories that save the storyteller, tricks women play on men, tricks any person plays on anyone else, and examples of virtue. I bet we have it all covered.

And the week’s not over yet.

Does Superman Have Wisdom Teeth?

Recently I was asked a very serious question: “Knowing, as we do, that Superman is an alien from the planet Krypton who exhibits superpowers when exposed to the yellow sun of Earth, and if the planet Krypton had not blown up, what superpowers would humans exhibit if they were to travel there?”

I say this is a serious question because it was posed to me by my fifteen-year-old son who, at the time, didn’t find it amusing in the least bit. In fact, the question came at the end of a long and very thoughtful analysis of the short story he’d just read for his English class.

I couldn’t actually figure out how the thoughts connected, but I’m sure they did. He’s very smart. He was also shaking off anesthesia, which might explain why a normally fairly rational kid was sounding a little loopy.

It is extremely difficult to understand the rapid string of words spewing out of the mouth of a post-op teenager with swollen chipmunk cheeks and a face mask.

Last week my son hit a developmental milestone, recommended by his dentist who looked at the latest x-ray of his mouth and condemned his wisest and most thoroughly impacted third set of molars to extraction. In the interest of preserving the results of a great deal of orthodontic work and avoiding a whole lot of future pain, we agreed.

We’ve been enormously fortunate that this is the first surgical procedure either of our children has had to undergo, and also that recovery, though not painless, has been pretty smooth and steady. I’m glad we got it done early, because the list of all the problems potentially caused by keeping your wisdom teeth is long and significantly scarier than the also pretty substantial list of potential problems of removing them. It turns out only about 2% of Americans over the age of 65 still have them.

Having too many teeth crammed into your mouth can be a serious problem, as we now know it was for fellow mammal and overlarge superstar Jumbo the elephant. Captured at only four years old after his mother was killed by hunters, Jumbo lived in London for twenty-two years where he delighted children by giving rides to scores of them on his enormous back. In 1882, much to the chagrin of the elephant-loving English public, Jumbo was sold to P.T. Barnum, allegedly because the elephant was getting a little hard to handle.

He wasn’t as large as Barnum claimed, but researchers say Jumbo wasn’t done growing by the time he died, and he might well have made it there. By Oliver Ditson & Co. – Library of Congress: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Touted as the largest elephant ever to live by the greatest exaggerator who ever lived, Jumbo was a hit in America as well, but there was a problem. By day he was a gentle giant, but by night, he became kind of a ferocious beast.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago that researchers began to understand why. They looked at the bones and teeth of the deceased pachyderm and discovered that 19th century elephant husbandry wasn’t the best. Jumbo’s diet consisted of grasses, hay, and oats. Sometimes also coins and toys and sticky buns from his adoring fans, not to mention the whiskey that was meant to calm him down when he became too agitated.

What was lacking in his diet were the necessary twigs and barks that would have worn down his teeth had he lived as a wild elephant. This kind of roughage would have worn down his teeth and made room for new backup teeth to emerge and replace them. Without that process, the poor thing ended up with a tremendous toothache from the pressure of the new teeth pushing against the old.

What I picture when I think about performing oral surgery on the biggest elephant who ever lived. photo credit: wuestenigel Miniature people cleaning teeth on white backgroudn via photopin (license)

Jumbo died tragically only a few years after coming to America, but even if Barnum’s people had understood the source of the aggression problem they’d have had a hard time solving it. There were shockingly few oral and maxillofacial surgeons operating on elephants in late 19th century America. It might even be safe to assume that’s pretty much a super-duper sub-specialty kind of thing even today.

Fortunately, in 21st century America, it’s not too difficult to find one willing to work with human patients. My son was treated by a wonderful surgeon. The procedure was over pretty quickly without complications or whiskey, though I imagine that might have led to similar superman-themed questions.

He’s doing well, but at this point, I do want to note that this post was written not only with permission from my wisdom-toothless son, but at his insistence. Because even though he realizes he was pretty drugged up when he asked, he’d really like to know the answer to his question and he’d love to hear your thoughts.

Shake It Off

On Friday, January 14, 2011 in Times Square in New York, Alastair Galpin and Don Purdon shared a really long handshake. Brothers Rohit and Santosh Timilsina were there shaking hands, too, attempting to set the new world record for longest handshake recorded by the Guinness Book of World Records. The two pairs decided after thirty-three hours and three minutes that they would all four share the record, and then hopefully washed their hands.

Image by Shutterbug75 from Pixabay

It’s a pretty impressive feat, if you’re one to be impressed by such things. Personally, I’m just curious how one words his status as handshake world record holder on a resume or brings it up on a date, which I’m guessing doesn’t last that long after such an impressive credential slips into the conversation.

One person that would definitely not have been impressed to see such a triumph would have been nurse Leila Given, who in 1929, lamented in the American Journal of Nursing that handshaking had become the preferred greeting style in the United States. She argued that shaking hands transfers disease agents from person to person and she recommended that we all keep our hands to ourselves.

There’s plenty of handshaking in Homer’s work and not a single mention of hand sanitizer. What a dangerous world it was. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

While the handshake is certainly not the only human greeting behavior in the world, it has long been one of the most common. Its roots reach as far back as the 9th century BC when Assyrian King Shalmaneser III and an unidentified Babylonian ruler sealed a deal and someone grabbed a quick carving for posterity. Homer mentions handshaking in the Iliad and Odyssey. If Ancient Greek funerary art is to be trusted, the Greeks shook hands a lot.

Many historians suspect that the primary motivation behind the development of the handshake was to both indicate that one was not bearing a weapon and to check that the other guy wasn’t either. It’s possible, even, that the up and down motion of the handshake developed as a way to shake loose any weapons that might be hiding up sleeves and that might cause an otherwise friendly encounter to sour.

In America, the handshake took hold as the dominant form of friendly greeting probably as a result of the Quakers in the 17th century, who favored it over forms such as bowing or hat tipping, which often indicated an inequality in power.

Of course, in recent years, as we have become a bit more germ-aware, some have favored the fist bump. Though it has been shown to transfer fewer germs from hand to hand than does a traditional handshake, it does look vaguely ridiculous and occasionally causes inexplicable, and much more definitely ridiculous, explosions.

Friends Winning GIF by Pan Pivo

I assume it’s because of this that many people are now opting for the elbow tap, including politicians and the fully grown men who play professional baseball. I have to say, as silly as it looks in the latter group, it definitely beats the maybe too friendly tap on the backside.

But I suppose all greeting behaviors take a little getting used to. We’ve been shaking hands for a long time. In the post-Covid world of someday, maybe we will shake hands again. Or maybe we won’t. Maybe, ninety-years later, we’ll finally heed Leila Given’s warning.

The last time I shook someone’s hand, more than a month ago now, was at an outdoor book signing. Both of us used hand sanitizer immediately after contact. It also didn’t last thirty-three hours and three minutes, but I am secure in the knowledge that neither of us had any weapons up our sleeves.

Shave and a Haircut and a Tooth Extraction

In 1537, in the midst of a several year conflict between France and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Ambroise Paré made an important discovery while treating the many wounded soldiers. By intuitively employing the scientific method, which would not be described by Francis Bacon for another eighty-two years, Paré examined patients treated in the traditionally accepted way by cauterizing their wounds with boiling oil, and compared them to those he’d treated with a balm made from eggs, rose oil, and turpentine when his oil supplies ran out.

Strange as it might sound to our modern ears, those patients who hadn’t been subjected to painful blistering by the application of boiling oil actually did a little better. Paré’s method didn’t catch on widely, but it did inspire him to make closer use of observation and data in deciding how to treat patients. And that eventually won him the title “father of surgery” in some history books.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that this man earned such a distinguished moniker. He was, after all, a barber.

barber pole
In some sates there are tight regulations about what kinds of businesses are allowed to hang a barber pole. Good thing, too. No one wants to accidentally wander into a beauty shop for an amputation. photo credit: Singing With Light Haircut time via photopin (license)

Barbers had been filling an important role in the medical community since at least 1163, when Pope Alexander III forbade clergy from practicing bloodletting. The barbers, whose experience with sharp implements had made them good assistants in the gruesome procedure, stepped up. What else could they do? Ailing people needed that bad blood drained and heroic barbers were ready to answer the call.

For centuries, barbers offered an alternative to physicians when none were available or affordable or willing to perform procedures they felt were beneath them, such as bloodletting, teeth pulling, bone setting, or limb amputating. The origin of the striped barber pole can be traced back to this time, as an advertisement for the bloody services offered inside the barbershop. And really, what could feel better after having a tooth yanked out than a bang trim and a nice clean shave?

haircut
Standard issue surgical equipment. photo credit: Cross Duck Social distancing drives you up the WAHL via photopin (license)

I don’t know, but I do know that when my husband recently asked me to cut his hair for him, I felt about as comfortable as I would have been if he’d asked me to remove his arm. Like much of the world right now, our area has a lot of, hopefully temporarily, closed down businesses as we all do our best to hunker down and flatten the Covid-19 infection curve. That includes barbershops and hair salons, which makes sense, because the act of haircutting isn’t all that compatible with practicing social distance.

Of course, what that means is that as the weeks drag on, woefully unqualified family members are being called upon to fill the gap. My husband works in the healthcare field and is still leaving the house regularly, where he is seen in public. And he likes to wear his hair short—not all-over buzzed with clippers, because that would be too simple, but short, nonetheless.

It was getting a little shaggy. It was driving him kind of crazy. And, what can I say? I love him. It was time for this heroic, amateur, and entirely unskilled barber to answer the call.

I grabbed the clippers and the scissors and went to work. While I can’t honestly say it turned out perfectly, I don’t think it turned out too bad. My husband assures me it feels like a fresh haircut to him and he’s pleased with the results. I don’t ever want to do it again, and even though our dentist office is also closed for the foreseeable future, I don’t think my modicum of success in this area qualifies me to start pulling teeth, either.

haircut
I was glad I had a brave guinea pig. Look at those hands—steady as a surgeon.

It wouldn’t be true to say that Ambroise Paré so completely lacked training in actual medicine, such as it was in the sixteenth century. He had attended L’Hôtel-Dieu (a way famous and super old French hospital) to become what was known as a barber surgeon. I think that might parallel most closely to today’s nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant, whose training and scope of practice while significant, is much less extensive than that of a medical doctor.

But then I didn’t exactly go into this haircutting experience blind, either. My husband has, on occasion, cut the hair of both of our sons, and the youngest was due. With much coaching, I practiced first on my surprisingly cooperative twelve-year-old.

I can’t honestly say that attempt went as well. He likes his hair just a little bit longer on top and he has a troublesome cowlick that forms a spiky bit in the front if it isn’t cut just right. It’s now definitely not. But he doesn’t have to leave the house anytime soon and he looks adorable in a hat. Also, thankfully, there was no bloodletting in the process.

Modern Day Plague Fashion

Sometime in the vicinity of 1630, a superstar physician by the name of Charles de l’Orme branched out into the realm of fashion design. By this time he’d enjoyed quite a few years of a brilliant medical career, serving as personal physician to several members of the famed House of Medici and a French king or two. If anyone in the medical field seemed to know what they were doing (and really, it’s only in hindsight that we know they definitely didn’t), this was the guy. He was kind of the Dr. Oz of his day.

Plague_doctor_drawing
Never fear, this overgrown omen of death is here to make sure you’re counted among the desperately ill. If you’re lucky, he might even bleed you or apply liquid mercury to your skin while he’s here.

And one, among many, of the medical challenges he and his fellow physicians faced was the frequent recurrence and constant threat of Bubonic plague. In 1630, there hadn’t been a full-on pandemic level outbreak of the plague in quite a while, the previous major one occurring nearly three hundred years earlier. But it still existed in pockets, and Charles de l’Orme had some ideas for how physicians could be ready if the worst should happen.

He designed the first personal protective equipment for the large numbers of plague doctors who would be on the front line of any impending pandemic. The design included a waxed leather coat covered in animal fat, leggings, boots, gloves, a wide brimmed black hat, and a mask that can only be described as the stuff of nightmares. In case that wasn’t enough there was also a cane, allegedly used for keeping sick patients at a safe social distance, or perhaps beating the disease-causing demons from out of them.

The freakish mask included glass eye coverings, a beak-like appendage containing herbs and spices for freshening the dangerous miasma out of the air, and openings wide enough to allow for easy breathing of plenty of contagion.

dr smurf
The less frightening garb of the modern, much more competent, plague doctor. Still a little scary, but much better.

By the time 1665 rolled around and brought with it the Great Plague of London and the deaths of an estimated 100,000 people in that city alone, huge numbers of plague doctors, most of whom didn’t actually have much in the way of medical knowledge even by 1665 standards, were suited up and ready to become a significant portion of that number.

Fortunately, our personal protective equipment has improved a great deal since then, as has our epidemiological understanding, and those medical professionals well trained to make good use of both. We also, thankfully, have given up on the terror-inducing, overgrown crow heads.

I’m very thankful for that each time I don a much friendlier-looking cloth mask and venture to the grocery store. It’s still an odd sensation to be there, and at least for me, not a very uplifting one. It’s difficult to communicate, or even offer a friendly smile, from behind a mask. That little covering adds an extra sense of gravity and an eerie sense loneliness to the experience.

homemade mask
I might be smiling. But you’ll never know.

I know the end of this, while not necessarily in sight, is coming. In my corner of world our number of cases are still climbing, but our projections suggest the curve has been flattened and that when we reach the worst, our medical community will be ready and able to manage it.

I also know that unlike the plague doctors of the seventeenth century whose primary role was one of data collection more than medical treatment, our epidemiologists are as on top of this thing as they can be. To borrow a slightly adapted line from The Martian, they are sciencing the spit out of this. And they’re doing it much more fashionably.

Advice for Good Health from 1838

I hope you are faring well in your corner of the world. Here in my Midwestern US community, most of us have been in strict social distance mode for about ten or eleven days while the numbers of confirmed Covid-19 cases have been climbing. As a writer who works from home anyway, the biggest change in my routine is that I have fewer excuses to rely on when I fail to get any writing done. At the same time, I’ve accomplished less than ever.

journal-2850091__340
Even my attempt to journal about the experience of living in this strange time (using only my neatest handwriting for the benefit of future historical fiction writers) has been sporadic at best.

This should be the perfect opportunity to finally finish a polished draft of my historical novel-in-progress. Alas, I spend most of my time stressing about how far out of our routine the whole family has become, trying not to worry to distraction about my spouse who works in the healthcare field, and scrolling through too much news about this virus we still don’t know nearly as much about as we all like to pretend we do.

Of course, that’s a very human response. When faced with a new threat, without the time required to conduct thorough research and design solid tests yielding statistically significant results, we observe what we can, make some guesses, and post about our conclusions on social media.

We live in a pretty enlightened age, medically speaking, so if we step outside of our panic for a minute, we can understand that there are still a lot of answers we don’t know and won’t be able to find out for a while. But in some ways, medicine also hasn’t changed that much.

bloodletting
At least no one is suggesting this is a good idea anymore. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

So today, I thought I’d share some good health information from my research for the novel I’m currently not finishing. This comes from a doctor by the name of Sylvanus Goheen who in 1838, served as a missionary physician to Monrovia in what was then the Colony of Liberia. Much like the physicians of today, Dr. Goheen faced a disease he didn’t understand as well as he would have liked.

In his case, it was malaria, which claimed the lives of so many missionaries and emigrants that Liberia had come to be called the White Man’s Graveyard (which is also the current working title of the book I should be revising right now).

With the still unnamed disease certainly not yet understood to be a parasitic infection transmitted by mosquitos, Dr. Goheen had to do the best he could with the observations he could make. He came up with the following advice for staying healthy:

  1. Give strict attention to diet—eat as nearly as possible the same food used in America and chew well.
  2. Eat light and early suppers and when feeling off, abstain from food. Always keep bowels regular.
  3. Avoid the sun, and rain, never get wet and avoid currents of air when perspiring freely.
  4. Never become fatigued either by bodily exertion or mental exercise and particularly refrain from reading at night.
  5. Keep out of night air and remain at home and in the house after nightfall and in your bedroom in the morning with windows closed until 8:00, for the first four months.
  6. Go to meeting but once per day, never take long walks nor boat excursions.
  7. Keep the mind easy and composed and talk or think little about the fever.
  8. When attacked, eat less than nature demands and confine yourself strictly to a gruel or arrowroot diet throughout convalescence.

readatnight
Not to question a doctor who attended almost a full year of medical school, which is still almost a year more than I did, but I see no problem with this.

Some of this is probably pretty good advice, even perhaps applicable to our current Covid-19-driven world. It may not be a bad idea, for our psychological well-being as well as our long-term physical comfort, if we could roughly maintain our pre-pandemic diet that likely included fewer Oreos and potato chips. It also certainly couldn’t hurt to try to keep our minds easy and less focused on the fever. And we should definitely stay in at night, safely socially distanced.

But then the list also includes some things that probably aren’t quite right for today. I’m not overly concerned about occasionally finding myself perspiring in the breeze, which might happen on that long, isolated walk I’m perfectly happy to take. And under no circumstances can I see myself giving up reading at night.

Looking back, it’s pretty easy to see that Dr. Goheen’s advice wasn’t quite right for his situation, either. He was doing what physicians do and drawing the very best conclusions he could within the limited knowledge available.

Much like him, we are faced today with some unknowns, a lot of fear, and a medical field that is working very hard to gather the best information and offer the best advice it can in an impossibly short amount of time. We’re all doing what we are able to keep ourselves and our world as healthy as we can.

Stay safe, everyone. If you’re stuck at home, write a novel or something. And for goodness sake, chew thoroughly and keep your bowels regular.

And Then Ninety-two Years Later

It was 1928 when pathologist Dr. Harrison Martland first wrote about the condition that came to be known in the boxing world as “Punch Drunk Syndrome.” With his partner Dr. Christopher Beling, Martland autopsied more than three hundred brains from traumatic cerebral hemorrhaging cases and found a connection between unusual brain structures and the sport of boxing.

boxing punch
Image courtesy of Skeeze, via Pixabay.com

Dr. Martland set out to learn as much as he could about the sport and noted carefully the observations of the athletes and trainers who exhibited and described tremors, vertigo, and mental deterioration, many of them having been reassured by physicians that there was no correlation between head injury sustained in the ring and such symptoms.

Martland believed there was enough evidence to suggest a connection and though he didn’t have the exact mechanism of the disease figured out, he poured a great deal of effort into detailing boxing styles and career longevity and their possible relationships to long-term health effects.

football concussion
Image courtesy of tpsdave, via Pixabay.com

But Martland’s work didn’t gain a lot of traction, and barely any outside the sport of boxing. It certainly wasn’t discussed within other contact sports, and was flat-out denied by some. It was another seventy-seven years before the 2005 publication of Dr. Bennett Omalu’s paper on “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy” (CTE) observed in the brains of deceased professional American football athletes and before the danger of frequent concussion was even on the public’s radar.

The NFL was quick to disparage the study and the reputation of Dr. Omalu, but was eventually pressured enough to admit to some knowledge of brain injury problems. It turned out that many former NFL players were experiencing impulse control, impaired judgment, chronic headache, aggression, paranoia, and early onset progressive dementia.

Thanks to a tenacious media and Hollywood director and producer Ridley Scott who enlisted Will Smith to tell the story of Dr. Omalu’s discovery in the 2015 film Concussion, the public has begun to pay attention and sports are beginning, though still much too slowly, to seriously examine ways to keep athletes safer.

The word was finally out eighty-seven years after Dr. Martland’s description of Punch Drunk Syndrome, and thirty-seven years after my cousin Jake started playing sports as a little kid.

We lost Jake a few months ago, just before Christmas. He ended his own life because at age 47, he could no longer manage the symptoms of this terrible degenerative disease. That’s when most of his family found out for the first time what he had been struggling with. He hadn’t wanted us to know while he did his best to enjoy life with the people he loved.

He was a wonderful, generous man and yes, he was a gifted multi-sport athlete who loved, among many others, the sport of football. He played it for many years, and then in more recent years told his fiancée that if he had known the price for playing, he wouldn’t have done it.

soccer header
Image courtesy of tpsdave via Pixabay.com

And that’s why I decided to use this space, where I typically stick to more lighthearted topics, to write about Punch Drunk Syndrome, CTE, and my cousin who is so very loved and so terribly missed. Because his choices might have been different if he’d had the information. And maybe your choices or the choices of those you love could be different now that you do.

CTE does not correlate strongly with isolated large concussion injuries, though of course those are concerning. Those who suffer from CTE are more likely to have experienced years of repeated small head trauma, much of which may not even fit the diagnostic criteria of concussion. Sports most likely to see CTE development include not only football and boxing, but also hockey, rugby, and soccer. It also affects military personnel and victims of domestic violence.

There’s still a lot to be learned. CTE doesn’t affect everyone who has ever experienced head trauma, or everyone who plays contact sports, but when it does, it is devastating and incurable. In fact, though we understand much more about the causes and symptoms than we ever have before, it still can’t be conclusively diagnosed until death.

What we do know for sure is that it’s entirely preventable. And we should’ve known that for at least ninety-two years.

You can learn more about CTE from the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

The Queen of Strength and Beauty

Just two years after he organized what is largely considered the world’s first bodybuilding competition in 1901, acclaimed German muscle man Eugen Sandow met his match in a woman. The story goes that it was at a performance of feats of strength in New York when strongwoman Catherine Brumbach challenged anyone in the audience to outlift her.

sandwina1
Also known as the “Lady Hercules,” Katie Sandwina was known for being feminine as well as uncommonly strong. University of Washington [Public domain]
Sandow allegedly jumped onto the stage and proceeded to lift a 300-pound barbell to chest height. Catherine then lifted the same weight over her head with one hand. Some historians question the truth of the tale that pits the two heavy lifters against one another. When one considers that Katie spent much of her life working for master promoter P.T. Barnum, it’s easy to suspect it may be little more than a load of hogwash.

But there’s no question Catherine Brumbach, whose stage name became Katie Sandwina after her rumored victory over one of the world’s strongest men, was a powerhouse. Katie grew up in a circus, performing with her very large family. When she was a teenager, her father offered a prize to any man who could outwrestle her. None ever did, but one man did fall in love and propose.

Happily married for more than fifty years, Katie incorporated her husband Max into the show, lifting his 165-pound body above her head with one arm and then tossing him about with ease.

I’m impressed by this woman, whose 5’9”, 200 lb. frame was considered by many to be the ideal image of perfect womanhood. She was even known as “Europe’s Queen of Strength and Beauty.”

sandwina2
She’s lifting three grown men. And she’s wearing heels. I’d say the title of queen is well deserved. Bain News Service, publisher [Public domain]
I can’t exactly relate, but I have recently begun lifting with my husband. Of course I don’t mean that I’m lifting him over my head like Katie Sandwina would do with her Max. But we do try to get to the gym together about three times a week where he lifts the kind of large weights a large man might lift and then I show him how it’s done by lifting much lighter weights. Super impressively.

And I am getting stronger, though I’m pretty sure no one is referring to me as America’s Queen of Strength and Beauty. Or even Missouri’s. Yet. Katie still has quite a bit of size and strength on me, and I’m a lot more interested in being a little bit healthier and a little bit stronger than I am in becoming the strongest woman in the world. She was, by the way, her record unbroken until 1987 by American weightlifter Karyn Marshall.

Katie performed with Barnum & Bailey’s Circus until she was sixty years old. Then she and Max retired to run a restaurant in New York. There this queen of beauty and strength cooked up a storm and occasionally acted as formidable bouncer until her death in 1952.

Perhaps that should be my goal. By the time we retire, I plan to be strong enough to literally throw someone out of my kitchen should the need arise. Like a queen. And of course, I’ll look beautiful doing it.

On Fasting, Fried Cheese, Snickers Bars, and Charlatans

In 1908 Fasting for the Cure of Disease by Linda Hazzard hit the shelves. A self-described fasting expert, Hazzard had studied under Dr. Edward Dewey who wrote the book The No Breakfast Plan and the Fasting Cure. Spoiler Alert: It’s a book about not eating breakfast. It also recommends not eating when you’re sick, and if you must eat, to chew your food a lot.

hazzard
If this woman invites you to dinner, you might want to eat a little something before you go. Linda Hazzard. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Obviously a star student, Hazzard took this suggestion a very large step further and suggested not eating at all. At her Olallia, Washington health institution the diet consisted of tomatoes, asparagus, and orange juice. Not much of them, either. And yes, people paid for her advice and medical supervision. While her patients starved, Hazzard subjected them to numerous enemas and deep, painful massage. Because health.

Fortunately today, more than a hundred years later, this kind of extreme health fad looks terribly alarming and we can all breathe (and eat) easy because we’d never fall for something like that.

Except that of course we might. Every year health books flood the market, tell us what to eat or not eat, and gain devoted followers. Some are written by physicians or otherwise credentialed experts. Others come from celebrities and/or charlatans. All should probably be read with a healthy dose of skepticism and caution.

nut juice
There were some parts of Whole30 that were somewhat intolerable. Like Almond milk. A friend told me the reason it’s called milk is because “nut juice” doesn’t market well. But make no mistake. That is, in fact, what it is.

I’m not usually a big follower of fad diets and health crazes, but I admit I recently tried one of the more popular eating plans of today. After seeing the numerous praises of several friends who had successfully completed the Whole30 plan, I decided, kind of on a whim, that I’d give it a try.

If you’re not familiar with it, basically it requires that for thirty days you strip your diet of dairy, soy, grains, legumes, refined sugar, most food additives, artificial sweetener, alcohol, and fun. I admit when I first read what it actually involved, I was a little skeptical that I could—or would ever want to—do it. But it didn’t appear to exclude any major nutrient categories and I like a challenge. Also, my husband said he’d do it with me. We looked at it as a way to alter how we approach food choices and to hopefully kick off a lifetime of healthier decisions.

whole30
Whole30 is workable, but it definitely takes some planning and prep. I like the food. The increased dish-doing, not so much.

And it kind of worked. The best part about the program that I’ve found so far is now that it’s over, and I’m starting to reintroduce some of these foods, I am discovering my taste for them has changed. I made it through about four ounces of my favorite diet soda the other day before I dumped the rest because it was gross and it made my stomach hurt, and I’ve definitely discovered that I feel better when I consume fewer grains. There probably will be some lasting changes to my diet as a result of the program, which is kind of cool.

But here’s the thing. I recognize that I might sound like some sort of crazy food disciple, and I’m really not. Because no one in all of human history, no matter how many celebrities have endorsed his or her bestselling book, has perfected the human diet. And if your first inclination is to run out and try the fad diet you read about on a history-ish blog then let me be the first to say to you, STOP IT.

quackery
If you enjoy stories about quacks like Hazzard and so many others, I recommend this book. It’s a deeply disturbing, light read that will make you grateful you live in the 21st century, but also wonder which of our health pursuits, in a hundred years, will be considered unimaginable.

We aren’t all the same, and we don’t all function best on the same diet. I do, however, think it’s fairly safe to say that we should all eat, at least more than the occasional tomato, asparagus, and orange juice. I might not even recommend skipping breakfast, but what do I know?

I’m a writer, not a healthy eating guru. And while I might be able to make a few bucks and gain a huge following with a book on the scientific principles and imaginary health benefits of the fried cheese and Snickers bar diet, I’d rather write about mummies.

It turns out Linda Hazzard probably shouldn’t have been anyone’s healthy eating guru either. In 1912 she was convicted of manslaughter. She only served two years in prison, though fourteen people died while following her fasting plan. Then in 1938, Hazzard herself became number fifteen, which I suppose is kind of poetic.

Laying off the Rice and Fish: A Summer of Spontaneous Combustion

On a bright spring morning in 1731 a maid knocked, to no avail, on the bedroom door of the Italian countess Cornelia Zangari, grandmother to the future Pope Pius VI. Receiving no answer, the maid pushed open the door to discover an alarming scene. In between the lady’s bed and the window were the bottom halves of two legs, a few pieces of skull, a small pile of ashes, and some yellowish goo.

spontaneous combustion
photo credit: Lynn Friedman Dept of Spontaneous Combustion via photopin (license)

The countess was no more, but what happened was anyone’s guess. There were several theories put forward, but the one that carried the day was that of the Reverend Giuseppe Bianchini, who theorized that the vapors from the alcohol bath she had taken before bed combined with the gases in the countess’s system and caught fire. Since she apparently liked to get her drink on, this explanation seemed pretty legit, and by the time Bianchini’s report of the event was translated into English and reached a wider audience, quite a few scientists looking at similarly odd cases, were willing to think he was more or less right.

If the good reverend were correct, then one could avoid spontaneous combustion by living a more temperate and careful life. That was good news for the 18th century masses, which would rather not die in a burst of flames. It’d be good news, too, for us here in the Midwestern US, because we’re in the middle of a good ol’ fashioned Midwestern summer in which the heat index is regularly well over a hundred degrees and if, God forbid, we have to get into our cars after they’ve been parked for an hour on a blacktop parking lot, we are pretty sure we’ll burst into flames.

flames
Pretty much what it feels like to live in the Midwest in July. Image by geralt, via Pixabay

Of course maybe we will, because even nearly three hundred years later, the scientific community isn’t in agreement about the causes, or even the reality, of spontaneous combustion. Over the years there have been numerous explanations for the phenomenon, from the ridiculous notion that such fires likely came from a nearby external source, to the claim that the fires result from a diet too high in rice and fish.

Regardless of whether we need to worry about suddenly disappearing in a flame of glory, events that fire investigators and nosy neighbors can’t figure out how to explain are few and far between. In fact we might not even know much about them at all if the case of the Italian countess hadn’t been made famous by Charles Dickens, who used the event as inspiration for the death of Mr. Krook in Bleak House.

Charles_Dickens_by_Antoine_Claudet,_1852
No way is this man going to let the truth get in the way of good fiction. Charles Dickens by Antoine Claudet, 1852. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Dickens’s readers bought the scene, trusting the author who gave it to them, but at least one critic did not. Amateur physiologist, as well as literary critic and friend of Dickens, George Henry Lewes was highly vocal in his insistence that the author’s use of spontaneous combustion as a means to an end was “beyond the limits of acceptable fiction.”

And this is where I take Dickens’s side, because fiction is fiction and fire is fire. When the two meet, anything can happen. A drunken rag and bottle merchant can dissolve into a puddle of ash and goo. Or a Midwestern writer can burst into flames in the middle of the grocery store parking lot. Fortunately, truth has higher standards than fiction. It turns out cases of “spontaneous” combustion take place more often in winter, when people tend to keep closer company with fire. So I suspect I’ll be okay. As long as I don’t go too crazy with the rice and fish.