February 17, 2017

Reflections on the Gottman Ratio and Why We Rember Bad Things Better Than Good Ones

I had an interesting conversation recently with a patient in a support group for people with rare and poorly understood illnesses. She wrote about the frustrations of dealing with a medical system that is not structured in a way that would benefit patients with complex, time-consuming conditions. Other patients have frequently noted that the doctor-patient relationship is often fraught with tensions due to lack of time, resources and expertise. The patient in question related a particularly bad experience she had with a physician. I thought about it a moment then asked her if the better doctors outweighed the bad one. She said perhaps it should but she remembers that bad doctor more acutely than the others.

I had to admit, despite having some very good doctors on my own team, I have had a similar experience. Despite the doctors who worked so hard on my case and were congenial, the face of a doctor who left me in great pain and simply smirked at me when I complained of pain seems to have burned a more vivid memory in my brain. That made me curious. Is there a reason why we remember bad experiences and the people who dispense them more vividly than good ones? And could it perhaps simply be wired in to our genes to do so as a biological necessity?

Some researchers have studied this aspect of human memory and do indeed come to an evidence based conclusion that the bad most definitely outweighs the good and that bad memories are secured more indelibly into our brains and are more easily retrieved. Some of these researchers speculate that this might be an evolutionary key to survival. It just might secure your survival to have a better memory of a large animal that was intent on devouring you than for one that was a vegetarian.

There may even be a relationship between the body’s chemistry in a state of excitement and the way memory is recorded. This has great social and educational implications. There is buried deep in the medical literature, for instance, findings that point to fear of punishment being a better impetus to learning than reward. Uh oh! Bring out that yardstick! (Seriously, I’m not advocating a return to corporal punishment in the classroom).

The hard wiring and activation of bad memories over good ones, however useful it may have been in the preservation of our species, could most certainly cause some havoc in modern day life. The patients who have had bad experiences with doctors, for instance, may avoid seeking prompt and necessary medical attention. People who have had a bad experience with someone of a different race or gender would be vulnerable to developing a harmful bias, then, in their future interactions with a member of the "threatening group." And the implications for partisan politics is disturbing.

There is some research to demonstrate that "bad experience" may be not only apply to personal experience in real life but in second hand experience through story telling as well. I have experience with a transferred narrative after a prolonged stay in The People’s Republic of China. At the time my husband and I resided in China, we came to know elderly people who experienced the Japanese invasion of their homeland during World War II. Their first hand accounts of rape, torture and murder were horrifying. The telling and re-telling of these incidents over the course of four years served to etch a fairly strong anathema in to my brain. Their narrative became my narrative. As a consequence I found it impossible to interact socially with Japanese men of my own time in my own generation and I carried those sentiments with me after leaving China.

A transference from the Sino-Japanese war shaped my consciousness in a way that I did not like. I felt that something had to be done to extricate this negativity from my brain. The solution for me at the time was to offer English lessons to Japanese men from a local corporation. I got to know them and some of their wives. They were fine people who helped balance a weight implanted by another people from another time. (1)

I later applied the above soul cleansing principle to my first hand negative experiences with about ten neurologists by reading the works of Oliver Sacks, a famously empathetic neurologist. To my amazement I found that this author and I shared the same interests in art and fascination with paleo-botany. Sacks was refreshing to say the least but perhaps not quite enough to undo the damage of bad medical experiences. Why?

I found an explanation for this is in my reading about the Gottman ratio. This ratio was formulated by Dr. John Gottman’s experiments in human relationships, tabulating exactly how many positive interactions or experiences it would take to offset the negative. His experiments suggested that the number of good experiences needed to offset the bad were at least five to one. If correct, this five to one ratio explains much. It might explain why, for instance, when someone apologizes for an offense and we say "apology accepted," deep down we think "but not really." As Gottman would have it, five apologies would actually be needed to even the score. That would explain then, why three books by Oliver Sacks could not outdo ten bad neurology experiences - it would take fifty!

The Gottman ratio can be daunting to consider not only with regard to how negative experience received might permanently color one’s perception of others, but how a negative comment or action dispensed would take five positive examples from people who might represent one’s perceived group to counter or offset the offense. So if I behave badly as an artist, at least in someone else’s perception of me, would it take five "good" artists to offset the damage? What about my behavior as a woman? As a liberal? As an American?

How might the Gottman ratio play out in virtual communication? Might this relationship ratio have a bearing in a larger social and political context? This brings me to one of the problems of political communications, in particular, Twitter. I do not have a twitter account, and wish not to have one. Frankly, the current United States president ruined any desire on my part to communicate via this medium. I do not wish to be inundated with these communications, and the responses to them. These days, I am thinking of social media communication venues such as Twitter within the framework of the Gottman ratio of five positive experiences to counter one negative. From what I have seen thus far in the published tweets from our tweeter-in-chief, for instance, there are so many insults to so many groups of people in so many parts of the world, a five to one ratio in terms of apologies needed to counter the negative effects of these put him in a deficit of about 35 billion by now. And yet he persists! Why? His claims are that he must counter the negativity of the media. Tone, in some cases, could rightly be more tempered, as our president’s own words should be sufficiently appalling enough when reflected back by the media mirror. I don’t need to be persistently told how bad they are. The public, myself included, does need to be told when words and actions are illegal, why they are illegal, and what to do about it. We need to know what proactive measures need to be taken to preserve a democracy, and not merely be subjected to a yelling match after the fact. For as Gottman points out with regard to his ratio, the yelling match may produce in broad socio-political terms, what occurs in interpersonal relationships: partisan divides etched ever more irrevocably and deeply into our social fabric. And it will remain there for easy retrieval, perhaps for generations to come.

My illustration for the Gottman ratio is one big bad rotten apple with worms offset by the five smaller good apples required to nullify it. One plus five equals zero. In Gottman terms, this is what it takes to nullify the rotten apple. I hope that my color drawing makes the bad apple big and rotten enough for people reflect on its presence. In the mean time, I will find some more books to read by Oliver Sacks and company, and emphasize positive protest to defend what I wish to preserve in my democracy.

And this just in: I notice the writing of a woman neurologist. Looks like a good apple!


Colleen Cancio "Do we remember bad times better than good?" 4 October 2011.
HowStuffWorks.com. 13 February 2017

Roy F. Baumeister "Bad is Stronger Than Good." 2001, Review of General Psychology, Vol. No 4 323-370

Susan S. Lang "Dopamine Linked to a Personality Trait and Happiness," 24 October 1996. Cornell Chronicle

Www.gottman.com The Gottman Institute

(1) Some acknowledgment is due here, however, to the usefulness of storytelling, good or bad, for the role that this also plays in the relating of tales that serve as cautionary, educational, or therapeutic. By this I mean those tales that serve as historical warnings, tales to overturn commonly held misconceptions, and narratives that renew faith in humanity and democratic institutions.

February 10, 2017

A Shrine to Common Sense

My art project, The Liberty Snakes, is underway again with snakes for science in the works. The Science March on Washington on Saturday, April 22, will have a sister march in Columbia, SC, which I hope to attend. I will post my snaky signs for this march as they progress.

In the mean time, I prepare for this physical march with a mental march. For it is not just climate change science that is under fire, but the entire realm of scientific thinking. And this has actually been going on for a long time. My experience teaches me that what is usually behind this is selfishness, laziness and greed. Greed for money, power, and attention. Laziness to get out of physical work and mental exertions. Selfishness in not sharing resources, influence and opportunity with those not within one’s own narrowly defined community. Exposed for what they are, they would be anathema to any clear, fair-minded person. That is why they must be marketed via appeals to the laziness, greed and selfishness in everyone via channels that strip people of their curiosity and reason.

In order to find the antidote to the above constrictions on intellectual liberty, perhaps the cure begins with sharpening the skills necessary to combat them. To this end, I am reading books on logic, the scientific method, psychology, and politics. I just finished reading Professor Brian M. Hughes’ book Rethinking Psychology: Good Science, Bad Science, and Pseudoscience. The book offers a good review of the basics in scientific method and logic, and then invites the reader along in "armed battle" to analyze the thinking, or sometimes the lack thereof, behind both contentious and accepted ideologies in the science of psychology.

I am now halfway through with Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity. This book offers a thorough grounding in the history of anthropogenic climate change and the policies that have developed in response to scientific consensus.

My drawing for this post is called "A Shrine to Common Sense" and lists three methods of reasoning that might be useful to study and review; abductive, inductive, and deductive reason. Of course there is always the technique of just spewing off conjectures and "alternative facts." I like to call that seductive reasoning, as it requires little to no mental exertions. The Hindu reference in the shrine is something of an irony and refers to a doctor who once told me that sometimes, one has to reconcile oneself to the fact that despite cogitations and scientific work, definitive answers can sometimes be elusive, requiring great patience and common sense.

February 9, 2017

A Liberty Snake for Arts Advocacy Day with More to Come

My first Liberty Snake was rolled out in to the public sphere on Tuesday, February 7th, at the South Carolina State House. The "Don’t Tread on our Arts" snake, fashioned after the "Don’t Tread on Me" American Gadsden flag, was a lively presence at Arts Advocacy Day.

The snake was filled with recycled plastic bags filled with recycled styrofoam peanuts. A recycled plastic bottle filled with polyvinyl resin bits and small tacks made for a rattle. The corrugation on the plastic bottle even looked like a rattle snake’s rattle.

My next Liberty Snakes will be for the Science March on Washington. The skin of the first one is already painted and lettered. Fortunately, the Science March is not until April 22, so I still have some lead time for these.

Because my home is basically a small cottage, I am having to come up with ways to store these snakes when they are not in use. I came up with the idea of sealing them with velcro, so that they can be unzipped and emptied in between events. I may also change the filling to recycled gallon water bottles taped end to end. Perhaps I may fill these as well to make the snake very noisy indeed.

February 4, 2017

Liberty Snakes for All that is being Taken Away

Our former governor, Niki Haley, was always trying to cut off funding for the South Carolina State Arts Commission, which receives funding in part from the National Endowment for the Arts. Many artists and art supporters rallied against this and won. Six years ago I too, wrote letters and attended the Arts Advocacy Day carrying a large snake that Julia Wolfe and I had painted in her studio. The snake sign says "Don’t Tread on our Arts." We had a lot of fun with that snake at the State House as it was long enough to throw over a balcony to protesters on the other side of that balcony. It created an arch that legislators were obliged to walk under (Some of them got scared and took the long way around).

After the rally I gave the snake to the arts commission, thinking that I would never use it again. Was I ever wrong! It appears that we are now in need of many more "Liberty Snakes." I calculate if I painted one for every liberty that is now being threatened on a national level, it might require about a hundred or more snakes. So I have begun the task of creating them.

The rattle snake as a symbol of American protest is very old, as the rattle snake is indigenous only to North America. The very first political cartoon was of a snake divided, made by Benjamin Franklin, who had also apparently taunted the British with a tongue in cheek comment that he would ship our rattle snakes to them.  http://www.foundingfathers.info/stories/gadsden.html

The "Don’t Tread on Me" slogan is probably familiar to all, from the famous early Gadsden flag featuring a coiled up snake. Most of my own three dimensional snakes then, will carry the words "Don’t Tread On...." followed by whatever it is that lawmakers wish to take away from us. It seems to be much these days...the environment, climate science, civil rights, LGBT rights, reproductive rights. The list is endless. My drawing draft is just a rough mock up of some of the things the snakes could say. I welcome any more suggestions.

I have just enough muslin to make three long snakes. I could use more if anyone wishes to join me, please. I’ve begun to paint the "skins" downstairs in my studio by stretching the muslin across a long sheet of plywood and sizing with gesso. I apply a color texture with acrylic paint and stamped designs using bubble wrap. Because I am so bad at lettering I’m using stencils for the words. ( Dang that I left out the "t" in don’t on the "Don’t Tread on Our Humanities" sign and had to squeeze it in after the fact!).

I am open to suggestions and any offers of help for my Liberty Snake project. I am still a bit too much on the feeble side to attend long rallies personally but may in the future. Until then I could possibly lend the snakes out. Arts Advocacy Day in Columbia SC is coming up soon. I hope I have a snake ready.  Below is my snake, yet to be stuffed and sewn up.  That is why he still looks like someone really has tread upon him.

December 6, 2016

Boss Tweed Versus Boss Tweet: A Nasty Cartoon about the Trump Cabinet Picks

"I don’t care a straw for you newspaper articles, my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures."

-Boss Tweed

"Just tried watching Saturday Night Live - unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can’t get any worse. Sad."

-"Boss Tweet" (aka Donald Trump)

The first quote at the beginning of my story is attributed to William Magear Tweed, a corrupt politician noted for his cronyism, graft and an unbridled greed that eventually led to his arrest in 1873 and the dismantling of his infamous Tammany Hall in New York. http://www.biography.com/people/boss-tweed-20967991

I first became acquainted with "Boss Tweed’s" Tammany Hall in late nineteenth century New York politics through the drawings of political cartoonist Thomas Nast. As "Boss Tweed," observed, Thomas Nast’s caricatures of his visage were scathing. It is entirely possible that they may have had enough influence on public opinion to have played a role in his eventual ouster from public life. http://www.biography.com/people/thomas-nast-9420600

Recent political events have reignited my interest in the cartoons of Thomas Nast, often referred to as the "father of American political cartoons." These early political cartoons are fascinating for their exquisite narrative details and complex compositions. Unlike cartoons of today, they were complete story lines contained in a single picture. Today cartoons are more like a one-liner, punching out a central idea to be held up to ridicule (We have comedy skits like Saturday Night Live for narratives). In Nast’s cartoons, we get the whole picture of just about every transgression foisted upon the public by ne’er do well politicians and their cronies. It tends to make things a bit jumbled, but interesting. An illustration of Nast’s technique is shown below in the picture of Boss Tweed and his cronies in the guise of predatory birds, ostensibly vultures, picking apart the hapless public.

Because Boss Tweed sounds very much like "Boss Tweet," it occurred to me that it would be interesting to transpose this latter day "Boss" and his recent picks for cabinet appointments on to a Thomas Nast- like nineteenth century cartoon format. Doing so required reading a considerable amount of news and commentary in order to find out what the most fuss was about, then encapsulate all this in one picture. Channeling Thomas Nast from nineteenth century America, I placed the faces of Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, and Tom Price, on to the bodies of birds. More could be added, of course, but I ran out of bird space!

In my "Boss Tweet" rendition of a Nast style satire, Donald Trump is cast in the role of bird in chief. The "Tweet" part of his title, refers, of course to his favored medium of communication with his supporters. Although it is rather small and difficult to see, his talons grip a padlocked suitcase containing his unreleased income tax returns. In choosing photographic information upon which to base my portrait, I found that our president-elect has offered a treasure trove of unusual facial expressions. Modern cartoonists seem to favor a facial expression that exudes arrogance. I chose the ubiquitous "I can get away with anything" smirk.

"Boss Tweet," in my cartoon, points to vice-president elect Mike Pence. Although volumes can be written about the more dubious aspects of his political leanings, I chose to highlight just one. The "not allowed" circle on his chest refers to his difficulty in accepting same sex unions as a right to be respected and protected.

Peering over Donald Trump’s right shoulder is his pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. Alluding to the racial slurs that cost him a federal judgeship, a tiny, cheering hooded Klansman perches on top of Session’s head. For Mike Pompeo, there has been much commentary written about his Tea Party politics, his stance on tougher interrogation techniques, ties to Koch industries, and his appeal to overturn the Iran nuclear accord. But for the sake of brevity, my cartoon makes reference only to his advocacy for a return to bulk collection of America’s domestic calling record - hence the "CIA Sees You" label and the tearing up of the fourth amendment (protecting citizen’s rights to illegal search and seizure) in the bird’s talons.

Staring out from the background is a caricature of Steve Bannon. Once again, volumes could be written on his ties to disreputable news agencies and propagandistic rambles, but for the purpose of summary, I just place a teapot on his head, alluding to Tea Party politics. While looking over images of Steve Bannon, what struck me was his persistent five o’clock shadow. So this very simple cartoon face features that same stubble, with the teapot having hair stubble as well, just for good measure.

This brings the last cartoon portrait to the pick for Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price. Because Health and Human Services funds Planned Parenthood and Tom Price is purportedly against government funding for Planned Parenthood, birth control, and reproductive rights in general, this does not bode well for the future of women’s health care. Many of those who oppose legal access to abortion services call themselves "Right to Lifers." Since nothing they advocate has anything at all to do with preserving or protecting the lives of adult human beings and may even put these lives in jeopardy, I prefer to call a spade a spade here, as the saying goes, and refer to the new Price is right agency as "The Office of Pregnancy Enforcement." I would not wish to disparage those whose religious beliefs confer personhood to a cluster of fertilized cells. I would argue that this is more of a living thing with a potential to become a person, though, and that in such a case, the life and health of an actual living person takes priority.

But perhaps the most disturbing thing that has come to light about Tom Price’s affiliations is his membership in the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. This is an organization that has come under fire from mainstream doctors and medical associations for its pseudoscientific proclivities. Most appalling to physicians is the organization’s soft stance on vaccination requirements, citing a link between vaccinations and autism - despite repeated demonstrations that there is no causal link between the two.


A grass roots effort has been under way for some years now in the United States for parents to assert their rights to refuse childhood vaccinations. This has unfortunately led to a resurgence in potentially deadly childhood diseases such as Pertussis (whooping cough). http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/02/22/why-pertussis-is-making-a-comeback/?_r=0

It would be cause for concern then, and a scarey prospect for the health and welfare of American citizens, to have a "vaccination denier" heading up the agency that is supposed to be protecting us against plagues. At this point, we may not know to what extent the views promulgated by the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons reflect the personal views held by the prospective head of the Health and Human Services, but in keeping with the AAPS’s purported positions, in my cartoon I have Tom Price rolling out the welcome matt for Diphtheria, Pertussis, Tetanus, Zika and Polio. One can only hope that common sense will prevail here, and that the American public will not be put at a significant health risk or the nation at large put at a national security risk. As to the latter, just think of it - an open advertisement from our government that we intend to be sitting unvaccinated ducks. Coooome and get it!

Getting back to Thomas Nast and a borrowed cartoon, one often sees in these nineteenth century drawings images of a hapless public being eaten by something or crushed under the weight of some public policy or indiscretion. For this I submit that twenty-five million dollar wall with Mexico that president-elect Donald Trump has committed to building. So if Mexico won’t pay for it, then who will? A hint here can be found in the arms and legs coming out from underneath the wall with the labels "Tax payers" on them.

This might be the last of my political cartoons. They are actually quite difficult to do! Of course I made the job much more difficult by attempting the complex style of Thomas Nast. Something perhaps only a Nasty woman would think of.

November 29, 2016

Alternative Facebook Icons

My work on my paintings began to slow down, as did my work on my book manuscripts. I found that I was spending more time on Facebook than I would have liked. As I clicked out of my account there the familiar "thumbs up" for "like" icon appeared. For some reason, I started looking at this emblem differently from how I had always seen it before. It had previously had no more consequence to me than a commercial sticker. But looking at it this time I thought, "I can do something with this." I traced it on to a piece of paper directly from my computer screen and transferred it on to ten different sheets of paper. Thus began my "Alternative Facebook Icons" series.

I’ve been making about one a day, posting them on to Facebook along with short explanations. Earlier I had posted icons for "Troll Be Gone," and "Toilet Talker Flusher." I posted my last one, "First Peel off Label," today. I made this one in response to all the labels for people of various socio-political persuasions that are being slung around in social media. I try not to use any of them. I suppose that is why there is a "no entry" mark on the thumbs up hand in this drawing. My drawings in this series are all 8" x 10" in dimensions and done with charcoal and pastel. Some of my friends on Facebook are actually using these as alternative icons when the choices for the real ones are limited.

Since most of the choices, given social media emoticons, encourage emotional reactions, I thought it would be interesting to make fanciful drawing icons that included actions and thoughts instead of emotional reactions to things. Would it make social discourse more thoughtful? Who knows? But they were fun to make and I post them here so others can enjoy them. The others included here are: "Beautiful," "Makes Me Think," "Great Idea!" "I’ll Work on It," "I’ll Study this More in Depth."

I have two favorites from this series. The first one is "Facebook Fake News Alert," because the duck with the human foot wearing a fake chicken hat and surrounded by a fishy sea is so irreverent. It reminds me of the funny cartoons I used to make as a teenager. My other favorite is "I’m Listening." I made that one in response to situations where social media discourse devolves in to an "all mouths no ears" forum. I think that I like the classic style of drawing on this one.

I do hope that people enjoy these. I had fun making them. I believe that this short series is finished for now - unless I come up with something for "social bubble." Funny where a source of inspiration can spring from!

November 19, 2016

You Know You're a Nerd When....

I take what has happened in my country very seriously.  But sometimes the news has to be balanced with a temporary release from the cares of the world.  To that end, I tried on some self-deprecating humor with this post about my own interests in obscure subjects and my tenacious pursuit of these subjects.  Riffing off of Jeff Foxworthy's "You Know You're a Redneck When...." I decided to poke fun at stuff that I actually have done and call it "You Know You're a Nerd When..."  Here goes:
You know you’re a nerd when:

*You open a shop for your art works on Etsy, then type words in the search bar like, "Pseudo-Dionysis the Aeropagite." Then you wonder why your shop isn’t getting any hits.

*Spell check highlights at least one word in every sentence you write when you know that you’ve spelled the word correctly.

*You think that Game of Thrones refers to the internecine conflicts of sixteenth century Tudor England.

*You do a Google search to find out more about an obscure topic and the only thing that comes up is an article you wrote yourself in 1986.

*A fellow nerd with opposing political views posts a response to your "I voted" post on Facebook by asking if you were celebrating Walpurgisnacht. You get hot under the collar because you know instantly what he is insinuating.

*You consider responding to the above with an equally acerbic comment that perhaps his own vote for Trump was cast by consulting the Malleus Maleficarium.

*Your other friends on Facebook do not jump in on conversations like the above because they are wondering what planet you both are from and spell check is going wild.

*Your idea of a good time with friends is to hold a contest to see who among you can use the most alliterative words in one sentence.

*You name your recently completed sculpture after a molecule you read about in a neurology textbook.

*You then find that the molecule was named after a video game character that you didn’t know about but millions of people around the world were familiar with.

*You often notice on the back flap of library books that you are the only one in the history of the library to have checked that book out.

*You are married to someone who shares the above experience and laughs at your jokes.

*The books you wish to recommend do not appear on "Good Reads."

*You write poetry about the structure and function of the autonomic nervous system.

*You hide jokes written in dead languages in your art work.

*You sing favorite tunes from Peking Opera in the shower.

*You discover Mongolian polyphonic singing on the internet and consider giving that a try as well.

*The most nerdy man on campus is the only one who "gets" your allusion to a specific aria in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffman in a song you just wrote.

*You write to The Huffington Post to complain about errors in their science articles.

*You write to The New York Times to complain about an error in an op-ed piece. It took reading a law center’s list of 892 organizations in order to ferret out the error.

*Your blog posts have a dedicated international following of twelve people.

*You have delayed filling a prescription medication because you are using the written script as a book mark in Alexander Von Humboldt’s Views of Nature, which you are the only one in the history of the library to have checked out.

*You cook historically accurate meals. Tuesday evening: Pullus Frontanianus from the chapter A Convivium in Ancient Rome, in Phyllis Pray Bober’s book Art, Culture & Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy. You own this great book because you personally knew the author.

*Your doctor’s eyes glaze over when you tell her that your allergy to methyl-paraben should also include local anesthetics in the ester family because these are broken down by the body in to para-amino benzoic acid, which is also a metabolite of methyl-paraben.

*You find that doctors often respond to your questions with "I’ll have to look that up."

*You watch Tavis Smiley at night.

*No matter how much you read, you always know that you are woefully undereducated.

November 16, 2016

The Curse on Social Media

I've been back on social media for a few months now, and find that it is a great tool for keeping up with friends and relatives.  It is also a great way to share creative work.  It is a poor tool, however, for social discourse, especially with those I may not be well acquainted with.   To that end, I started a series of tongue-in-cheek drawings based upon the Facebook "thumbs up" or "like" icon.  My first one was "Troll Be Gone,"  pictured at right.  My next one is "Flush Toilet Talk," at left.  I expound upon the second one here.   This icon can be invoked for profanity-laden posts
. I fortunately won’t have to invoke this much because the few people who read my posts are decent, educated folk. Generally speaking though, with regard to social media, I suppose that some writers, both in the amateur and professional categories, believe that the inclusion of foul words is a great way to emphasize a point. The only thing that it points out to me is an annoyingly limited vocabulary and rather puerile communication skills. I’m not impressed. That’s why I never answer these and never press "share."

I reserve curse words for when I inadvertently step on a sharp object or bump in to a closed door at night. Interesting research in neuro-biology confirms that this does in fact reduce pain. That same research tells us that cursing emanates from the frontal cortex as opposed to the normal language centers of the brain. If I recall correctly, the former area relates to emotion (as does the limbic system) and impulse control. Getting a little political here, since we just elected a leadership that "tweets" from their collective frontal cortexes, I will continue the ultimate subversive act in using only the language center of my brain for public communication.

To be fair, the foul language does come from all sides of the socio-political spectrum. A cursory observation seems to break that down in to the homegrown variety (right) versus the collective share of the pre-fabricated (left). Astoundingly, "potty mouth" traverses educational levels as well. One response I got on Facebook in recent weeks was something to the effect of "****up the a***hole." This rolled off the keyboard in response to the urging of the frontal cortex and into cyberspace from a man in possession of a doctorate in English. Would love to see that dissertation.

What I find also noteworthy about vulgarity in social media is that for English, it is particularly boorish, boring and tedious because it is so limited. Any student of foreign language knows that cursing in other cultures is a goldmine of possibilities, albeit those possibilities mostly having to do with one’s mother. These generally include references to impossible variants in one’s mother’s anatomy, or to being the resultant spawn of various types of biologically impossible animal assignations with one’s mother. I’m not advocating actually adopting these usages, just pointing out how even more pathetic we are with regard to our invectives. We just get the garden variety, "f-you", "f***", "M***f***" and the ubiquitous aforementioned "a***hole." Over and over again - ad nauseam.

To this effect, the words and phrases tend to lose their emotive impact over time due to overuse. They become not only totally meaningless in themselves, but impediments to communication through the accumulated expenditure of trash talk - a dump of unusable verbal toxic waste that one has to plow through in order to get to any reasonable content, if any even remains. Just as there is something totally demoralizing to see a physical landfill of garbage, there is something disconcerting about this verbal landfill in cyberspace. For my part, I’ll refrain from contributing or exponentially emphasizing through passing it on. What else can I say to verbal waste material? Flush you?



November 12, 2016

Lines of Demarcation on Facebook

This election year was not exactly a banner year for women. In fact, it was a disgraceful year for women. And there was unfortunately plenty of misogyny to go around on all sides of the political and social spectrum. For my part, I spent the days leading up to this historic election by painting "antidotes" to the negative images of women assaulting my sensibilities from all sides: Hillary as the devil sporting fangs and horns, Melania Trump as a vixen.

For supporting Hillary Clinton, I got two hate emails and had negative images of my person pasted up on Facebook. Some suggested that I might be a witch.  One darker one was a faintly veiled threat of assault. But I was equally disheartened by some posts coming from the self-righteous left. The worst of these was what could be interpreted as a racist picture of Melania Trump as "unfit" for the white house. In this picture splice, there were three columns of "respectable" fully clad first ladies, Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, and Michelle Obama, followed by a picture of a naked Melania Trump inhabiting the last column. Interestingly, not only was Melania naked, but she was half the size of the other women. In this context, it was clear that the woman on the end was considered "not our kind." For my "liberal" friends, it was simply a juxtaposition of what they considered the emblems of decency followed, in contrast, by an evocation of a dark and sinister underworld of female exploitation and submission. I understand that. But for me, the unfortunate juxtaposition was also evocative of something else that might have escaped white middle class notice. The deliberate contrast of larger than life clothed American women with a half sized and naked foreign born Eastern European one resonated in unpleasant ways for me. It struck me as an emblem of American hegemony. It evoked the feeling that they were telling us, "We’re the status quo and you must go." It made walls that hitherto may have been conceptual or psychological suddenly palpable and very real. The woman in the last column was "the other". It is possible that I might not have fully grasped the implications were I not part Eastern European myself and, ironically, had a grandmother named "Melania."

In my last post I mentioned that the other Melania, my grandmother, came in to the country at a time when Eastern Europeans were considered non-white and even labeled as "unassimilable" (A word fallen so out of use by now that spell check claims it does not exist). The pressures of time and socio-political climate change over the course of the twentieth century saw Eastern Europe, Southern Europe and North Africa slowly, grudgingly, absorbed into the status quo of "white." Yet such assimilation may be tenuous at best, as evinced by the recent "barriers of acceptability" photo of the good ladies and the bad lady. The photo of the clothed good ladies juxtaposed with the naked bad lady brought that recognition to the fore on social media. Although I alluded to the photograph in my own posts I never really took the subject on in full until a more widely read writer and blogger, Shani Raine Gilchrist,  started complaining about it with a little more vim and vigor than I had. I saw that her complaints were amazingly not getting the traction that they should have but I hesitated to point that out, for my experiences with commenting on social matters on Facebook has been mixed indeed. I know first hand now from social media that identifying oneself as coming from one territory and commenting on those from another territory can effectively cause the trolls to come out of Facebook forest, pelt you with cyber-rocks, then stuff you in to a virtual cannon and fire you back to where you came from.

But I bit the bullet, as the saying goes, and made a pithy comment in the writer’s defense explaining how the nude photo of Melania was taken out of its original context for use in a demeaning way and then confessed to having a Melania in my own family. I am glad that I did because I noted a few exhalations of relief, some actual support, and little in the way of trolliness ( a convenient neologism on my part here).

The election year has been draining for us all, totally demoralizing for some of us. But if there is one positive that will come out of it all, it is this: For better or for worse the politics of the year have made very clear where the walls and other boundaries are, but this very visibility offers an opportunity to evaluate those boundaries, trespass them, and to know more clearly who you stand with and what you stand for.

The recent painting at the top of my post is an allegorical portrait of a woman I knew as a child in the 1960's. She was the first in her class, I believe, to attend medical school.

November 10, 2016

Melania Gets a Groundhog

Just off my easel is the next in my series of paintings about interesting women that I have personally known and what influence they may have had. I call this painting, "Melania finds a Groundhog." Many reading this might conclude that I am referring to Melania Trump. Any one of my six brothers looking at this painting will know instantly what exactly it means. It is not a painting of Melania Trump, but a painting of Melania Perik, my grandmother. She came to America just before the Bolshevik Revolution, around 1916. This would have put her arrival time in the period between 1880 and 1924, when folks from Eastern Europe were not considered white, but in the category of an "unassimilable race." The chief eugenicists at the time, Madrian Grant and Charles Davenport, would have identified her as "inferior stock." Over the decades, those epitaphs were dispensed with and the "others" increasingly were drawn in to the status quo. Yet even in these modern times we live in, people here in South Carolina sometimes note that I look just a little different and have a name they can’t pronounce so I get the "what are you?" question. I had to ask myself that same question in looking at the exit poll results that have come out declaring that white women have voted about 53% for Donald Trump for president.

I hate those little boxes that we keep being asked to check. A good many of us have ancestors from here, there and everywhere anyway. The box check makes me feel like I have to submit my genetic makeup to a referendum and vote on it...Irish genes check here...genes bordering on Asia stand aside. The "other" box is increasingly calling my name as a way to retroactively embrace the "unassimilable race" category. Apparently my voting preferences put me there. At other times I feel like drawing my own box, checking it, and labeling it the " none-of-your-dammed-business" category, totally emasculating efforts to throw this back in everyone’s face later. Or maybe I could interpret the word "race" as a marker of how quickly one can move in a sporting event. I would also have to draw my own box here, check it, and write in "very slow."

But getting back to Melania Perik, not Trump. She was decidedly "different." Her name was changed to "Molly" when she came in to the country, in a misguided attempt to hide that difference. It didn’t work. She never assimilated. I don’t think she even became an American citizen. She had skin of pale gold, flat features and very long, straight, black hair. She was always very robust and had a personality that bordered on what seemed akin to Attila The Hun. She lived on a farm in rural New Jersey with her husband Dmitri. I never new Dmitri because he died very young, before I was born. So Melania spent most of her life as a widow, having to handle the farm chores by herself. One such chore entailed keeping marauding animals away from crops. The New Jersey groundhog was the most devastating of these. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groundhog They can grow up to thirty inches long and can weigh up to thirty-one pounds. That would seem to be intimidating for a small woman like my grandmother, who stood just over four feet tall. Yet she was famous for running down groundhogs and catching them with her bare hands, promptly dispatching them. She did this until she moved off the farm in her mid-eighties.

The rental house Melania moved in to was small but had a parcel set aside for a small garden. No sooner had Melania’s lettuce appeared, however, when so did a large groundhog. She could have dispatched him, as she told me that she was able to run him down and catch him by the tail. Instead she had a different idea. Melania told me that she went to her landlady’s house, holding the groundhog by the tail, rang the doorbell with her free hand. She proudly showed her catch to the landlady when she came to the door. I wish that I could have seen the expression on the landlady’s face.

For some reason, at that moment my grandmother decided that her groundhog hunting days were over. She let that last one live, naming him Moshky. Moshky and Melania shared a garden for the blessed time that they were both able.