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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Dirty Little Secrets of the Common Cold

The end of the school year is nearly upon us. The teachers and students are counting the days and hours remaining, looking forward to the final bell. I’m counting, too, but I’m a little more panicked than my children are. I am looking forward to lazy summer mornings and family adventures to far-flung places, but there’s no question my schedule and the way I approach getting things done is about to change dramatically. It takes some planning. And it takes not getting a stupid cold two weeks before the crazy summer begins.

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Ah…spring. photo credit: califmom ‘Snot Funny via photopin (license)

I’ve been incredibly lucky so far this year. I avoided the dreaded flu that took many of my friends and neighbors completely out of commission for a week or more. While others coughed and sniffled their ways through the winter, I breathed easy. Then a few days ago, I woke up with an excruciatingly sore throat at the start of what has been a goopy-headed, achy, tired week with a lengthy to-do list.

As you probably know, there are quite a few suggested remedies out there for colds, none of which work most of the time, and no actual cure. I get that. Nobody is going to win the Nobel Prize for curing the common cold. The world has bigger problems.

But I was curious to see what solutions people came up with in the past. Frankly, I didn’t come across much that I wanted anything to do with. I did, however, find some relief of sorts in a book by William Buchan, a Scottish physician who in 1769 became the Dr. Spock of his day. For those of you who are younger than me, Dr. Spock is the physician who wrote the household medicine book your mother would have kept on a shelf in the kitchen before she had access to Dr. Google.

spock
Not that Spock. photo credit: Tom Simpson Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock animation cel from Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973) via photopin (license)

Long before Spock’s Baby and Childcare, there was Buchan’s Domestic Medicine: or, a Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines. The book sold more than 80,000 copies in nineteen editions before his death in 1805, and was the most popular medical book sitting on the kitchen shelves of mothers across Europe.

Dr. Buchan had a lot to say about the dreaded common cold, most of it having to do with sweat. The man was obsessed with perspiration, insisting that you must never neglect the crucial process of sweating and must also at all times remain completely dry. That may sound like contradicting information, but think of it like reading a study that concludes drinking coffee will prolong your life, and then the next day reading another study that insists coffee will give you cancer. So yeah, it’s definitely contradictory.

towel
Forget hand sanitizer. If you want to stay healthy, grab a towel! Picture by Pexels, via Pixabay.

But Buchan’s main concern in focusing so much attention on sweat has mostly to do with temperature. Common diseases, including the ever-aggravating head cold, he claims, are caused most often by exposure to drastic changes in temperature. And that would totally explain why an otherwise perfectly healthy person might suddenly develop a cold in the middle of spring, when the temperature is at its most wishy-washy. That is, if you happen to be an eighteenth century doctor with no concept of viruses and disease transmission.

To keep from catching a cold, then, the good doctor says one should change his or her clothes immediately after sweating, to avoid rapid cooling. Also if one finds oneself overheated, he or she should, under no circumstances, drink something cold or, to be extra safe, anything at all. That’s also true when a carelessly wet person inevitably develops a cold. Never drink. Not spirits. Not water. Not anything. Also avoid particularly cool, juicy fruit. Vegetables are okay, as tolerated.

By far Dr. Buchan’s most dire warning is about sleeping in a damp bed, which you definitely don’t want to do. By damp, of course he means one that has not been in proper use for some time, and so has absorbed moisture from the air. Always, he says, put guests in rooms with beds that have been thoroughly slept in and not carefully cleaned. In fact, he recommends completely avoiding spending much time at all in rooms that have been recently cleaned.

messy bed
Because nothing says “Welcome to my home” like a guest bed that looks like this. photo credit: Edna Winti Sunrise via photopin (license)

And this I think is the one piece of advice in this little book that may be beneficial to me, because on my long list of to-dos is to prepare my house for hosting folks who will be staying with us for a large family event coming up right after school lets out. Normally this would involve a lot of washing and scrubbing and sanitizing. Since I’m still fighting this cold, I don’t really have the energy for all of that.

Thanks to Dr. Buchan’s medical wisdom, I know I can just relax and rest up instead. I’ll be a thoughtful and responsible hostess, by welcoming my guests into a healthful and dry, filthy home, with a cup of coffee that may or may not give them cancer.

Every Jiggly Step I Can Get

Early last year I wrote about a fitness challenge I had joined, pledging to walk 2,017 miles in the year 2017. In case you’re curious and don’t like to do math, that comes out to around five and a half miles per day. It’s doable for a fairly active person, which I generally am.

Still, I didn’t make my goal last year. I was close enough that if I assumed I’d walked about twenty miles on a couple of days I missed recording and averaged twelve miles each day for the last two weeks, I would have made it. It didn’t seem worth it. Honestly, I’d done really well until November when I became more focused on writing a novel and eating turkey.

treadmill
I don’t know…that looks like a lot of work. Picture by profivideos, via Pixabay

It definitely takes consistent effort and I think it’s safe to say we all have those days when we’re sick, or lazy, or sitting in a chair writing a novel, or driving across the country. It’s stringing too many of those days together that’s the problem.

But as I discovered on a recent road trip to visit my parents in Illinois that last obstacle isn’t so bad. It takes me about two hours to get to their house pretty much regardless of the route I take. Each option comes with drawbacks. The most direct route takes me across the Mighty Mississippi on a scary, crumbly bridge so narrow I’ve seen truck drivers back up rather than meet a vehicle coming across in the other direction.

This time I wisely chose to go another way with thicker traffic, but a much nicer bridge, and then a two lane highway in Illinois that could use a little love and attention and provides plenty of broken, bumpy adventure. But this road has a hidden benefit for those drivers wearing their fitness bands. In the hour I was dodging potholes on that lonely Illinois road, my fitness band credited me with six hundred steps.

And why shouldn’t it? I may not have done the walking myself, but my body surely benefited from the jiggling. At least it might have according to Swedish physician and inventor Gustav Zander, who in the latter half of the 19th century invented some of the earliest forms of gym equipment. Included among Dr. Zander’s creations was the first belt vibrator machine (if you Google that, use caution).

belt vibrator
Her workout clothes are way fancier than mine. By Unknown – https://digitaltmuseum.se/021016402498/balstrackning, Public Domain, vis Wikimedia Commons

This contraption had a belt you’d place around your waist or arm or leg, or I guess wherever your problem areas may be and then it magically vibrated the fat away. Dr. Zander’s wonderful machine provided healthful massage, relieved mental fatigue, rid the body of harmful toxins, and toned muscles. Or it didn’t.

The use of passive exercise machines like the belt vibrator peaked in the early part of the 20th century and surged again through the 1950s and 60s. There’s just something really appealing about getting into shape without wearing legwarmers or doing any actual work at all.

broken road
Who needs workout equipment? Picture by Antranias, via Pixabay

Even today there are numerous products on the market designed to move your muscles for you while you read a book or give yourself a pedicure. Today’s devices generally stimulate muscle contraction using targeted electrical pulses. And though such gadgets may offer some therapeutic benefits, providing you with that beach ready body isn’t one of them. For that, they’re about as effective as Dr. Zander’s original passive jiggle apparatus or my car on a bumpy road.

So maybe jostling car steps shouldn’t count, but since my fitness tracker is just as likely to ignore a quick jaunt across the room or a climb up sixteen flights of stairs, I’m going to assume it more or less evens out. This year’s goal is 2,018 miles and by the time November rolls around, I may decide to sit in a chair and write a novel while eating my body weight in turkey. I’ll need every extra jiggly step I can get.

 

And speaking of novels, there’s exciting news coming down the bumpy pike on that score. I can’t promise you any free steps, but if you want to be among the first in the know, you can sign up to receive email news from me here: http://eepurl.com/b3olY1