Saturday, 21 September 2019

Mythology for the Millennial: On Shakuntala, Dushyanta and the one ring that bound them both

I have this print of Raja Ravi Varma's Shakuntala on the wall of the staircase leading up to our house. Perhaps you know it. It shows three young women in the woods, mountains in the background. Two of the women are talking to each other, the one who has her head turned away from us is carrying a basket of flowers. And then there's a third woman, her hand resting on her companion's shoulder for balance as she grips the base of her foot, apparently pretending to take a thorn out of her heel so she can take a backwards look at her lover. We see her face, but she's not looking out at us. Instead, her whole form is one of yearning, her mouth is unsmiling, her eyes eager, her shoulders tilted backwards, so much does she long to be in a part of the painting that we cannot see. There's also an old woman walking ahead of the younger ones, but if there is an explanation for who she is, I cannot find it.

Shakuntala, by Raja Ravi Varma. Image via WikimediaCommons
Ironically, Shakuntala, the heroine of perhaps one of the best-known love stories in Hindu mythology, was not born from a place of love. I've written about her sage dad/apsara mom before in this column, but let's recap:

[Sage Vishvamitra] was chugging along at his meditations when the god Indra decided to test him — the gods were big on surprise quizzes — and sends Menaka down to earth to seduce him. Menaka was an apsara, a celestial woman created just for sensual pleasure in heaven for men and gods, no word yet on what the women got. Duly seduced, Vishvamitra lives with Menaka for ten years, and then she eventually has a kid, a daughter named Shakuntala, at which point Vishvamitra's suddenly terrorised by the idea of fatherhood and curses her into becoming super ugly in her next birth.

Anyway, this baby was found by another sage, but a much kinder one, a guy called Kanva, who found her in the reeds where Vishvamitra abandoned her, but surrounded by sakunta birds, who, much like the wolves and Mowgli, were doing a pretty good job looking after her and keeping her alive. (Unclear about which birds, but the Sambhava Parva book of the Mahabharata does mention vultures were keeping an eye on her, which would be curiously against the common perception of those much-maligned birds as evil or scavenging creatures.) So Kanva calls the baby Shakuntala, ie person protected by birds, and raises her in his ashram, where she lives an idyllic Disney princess type existence, little birds dressing her each morning, lots of fresh air and activities, some young friends who think the world of her and so on. She grows to young womanhood in this innocent environment and that's when the trouble starts.

Of course, the problems all begin with a man barging in where he's not wanted. Dushyant is hunting and shoots a deer, but he can't find it, because the creature's limped off, so he tracks it and stumbles upon the ashram where he sees Shakuntala nursing the deer, and he's overwhelmed by her beauty and wants to have sex with her right there on the ashram floor so he suggests a Gandharva marriage, which is this very interesting loophole to the traditional Hindu wedding ceremonies with like, ten days of pomp and circumstance. It's one of the eight classical forms of Hindu weddings (more on this in a future column!) and is solely dependent on the bride and groom taking a fancy to each other. In fact, it's super important that the bride is into the groom in this case, because it was one of the few times that women had control over their futures. You didn't need a priest, and most importantly, you didn't need your parents' consent. Obviously, as time went on, and patriarchy tightened its views about women as property, this sort of wedding fell out of fashion, but it did see a nice lot of weddings in its time.

Although the Shakuntala-Dushyanta story should not be used as an example for a successful Gandharva wedding. After he marries her, he has to go off back to his kingdom, and he's like, “Okay, make up a party and come to me when you're ready.” In Kalidasa's version, which I'm using as canon here, since that's the story people are most familiar with: Dushyanta gives his wife a ring, so she can identify herself as his wife, and then leaves. She's pregnant at this point, but no one knows that yet.

So, she's mooning about, dreaming about Dushyanta and generally being a sixteen year old in love, when the sage Durvasa, whose role is basically to curse people and move a story along, appears in her dad's ashram. Because she's lost in thought and does not immediately jump to do his bidding, he tells her that whoever she's thinking about will forget her, just like she's forgotten Durvasa. Great guy, Durvasa. Really a pearl among sages. (Did he ever curse men or was all his rage reserved for women?)

So of course, our heroine loses the ring her husband gave her and turns up at his kingdom with her dad and extended friends from the ashram, only for Dushyanta to tell her he's never met her before in his life. Worse, he's all, “How do I even know this baby is mine?” Weeping, Shakuntala leaves, and that's the end of the story for about three or four years, until a fisherman shows up with a ring he's found in the belly of a fish. It's—duh—Shakuntala's missing ring, and Dushyanta goes in search of her, we're hoping he's kicking himself after doing all that royal ghosting. He finds a little boy wrestling a lion, it's his son! Bharat! And the family is reunited and that's I think the last we hear about Shakuntala.

Kalidasa made Dushyanta into a more sympathetic guy though. In the Mahabharata, Shakuntala goes to him only after she's had her son, and reminds him that he promised to make their son his heir. Dushyanta remembers but pretends not to, and says he has no idea who she is. Shakuntala makes a plea for her own behalf, tells him she's a good wife and it's a sin to cast her and their son aside and so on, a nice flowery speech, to which Dushyant says (and I will quote directly from the text here, so you can see what a dirtbag he is): “O Shakuntala, I do not know having begot upon thee this son. Women generally speak untruths. Who shall believe in thy words? Destitute of all affection, the lewd Menaka is thy mother, and she cast thee off on the surface of the Himavat as one throws away, after the worship is over, the flowery offering made to his gods. Thy father too of the Kshatriya race, the lustful Viswamitra, who was tempted to become a Brahmana, is destitute of all affection. However, Menaka is the first of Apsaras, and thy father also is the first of Rishis. Being their daughter, why dost thou speak like a lewd woman?” Wow.

I hope Shakuntala was able to forgive Dushyanta after all that — no matter what version of the story you prefer, he still forgot her and their kid.

(Source: Firstpost)

Friday, 20 September 2019

In Ahalya's Awakening, Kavita Kané questions the penalty for infidelity, and its significance in Indian mythology

History was about to repeat itself. The newly appointed Indra, king of the heavens, desired his queen Indrani. Nahusha, king of the Aila dynasty, coveted Sachi, wife of the former Indra Shakra. He was compelled to renounce his throne after a horrifying curse, leading to his downfall. It rendered him powerless, turned his body into a thousand vulvas, and his throne remained forever insecure. "She is the wife of another, you cannot have her," Rishi Brihaspati reasoned with the new king, but Indra was adamant. "I can and I shall," he stated when a soft voice said, "Don’t."

Menaka, the ethereal apsara, had glided into the courtroom to warn Nahusha of the toll his intransigence would invite, not only from the king, but also from Indralok, as it had happened once before. To him, she narrated the story of Ahalya.

Thus begins Kavita Kané's mythological tale of the first of the five virgins or panchkanya — archetypes of female chastity in Indian mythology — revered for her purity, yet condemned on account of her infidelity. Ahalya's Awakening, as the author notes, traces the paradox of its eponymous protagonist, who is "deemed promiscuous", and yet, is seen as a symbol of chastity.

Cover of Kavita Kané's latest work of mythological fiction, Ahalya's Awakening.
In the book, Ahalya's story takes off from her infancy, right up to the point where she blossoms into her extraordinary beauty and intelligence, after a childhood spent under the wings of sages Vashisht and Bharadwaj. This is followed by her subsequent departure to Rishi Gautam’s ashram. Yearning for an identity independent of her physicality, here, she vows to become a learned rishika, and immerses herself in the study of scriptures and Vedas.

Kané's sixth book, not unlike her previous works, sketches the lives of mythological characters that play their part on the fringes of a greater, more significant story, but whose silent struggles epitomise extraordinary strength and resilience. The former journalist’s sublime portrayals of these lesser-known women of the epics flavour the cannon of mythological literature with the spice of an alternative perspective: one that offers a study of womanhood and of women whose lives underwent dramatic upheavals as a direct consequence of the actions of more prominent heroes and heroines.

In the same vein, "there is very little on Ahalya," Kané suggests, and "more on the impact and implication of this episode mentioned in the Ramayana."

Ahalya’s Awakening then, is also distinctive, for it launches into a story that is twice removed. Contrary to the author's earlier works, such as The Fisher Queen’s Dynasty (2017) — which recounts the belligerence and ambition of Satyavati that would culminate in the Mahabharata — the protagonist of her 2019 work is not related to the principle characters of the epics and appears only briefly in Ram’s journey to the kingdom of Mithila.

Of Ahalya, the author says: "She is an enigma, almost a silent woman, known essentially for her seduction by Indra, her curse by her husband Rishi Gautam for infidelity, and her liberation from that curse by Ram."

Ahalya, wife of Rishi Gautam, the first among the panchakanya or the five virgins in Indian mythology as depicted by Raja Ravi Varma. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Kané adds that ironically, despite being a rather revered figure, Ahalya is also among the most doubted characters in mythology. In spite of being a complex woman, she is rarely ever perceived as one. "Rather she seems a mute, voiceless spectator of her own trials and tribulations," the author says.

But her novel puts these qualms to rest. "I have shown her as a human with her human flaws, mistakes and courage to carry out her decisions," she states.

According to the Brahma Purana, Ahalya, the one without ugliness, was brought to life by the creator of the universe, Brahma himself. The most beautiful woman in the entire world, she was married to the much older sage, Gautam. Later, seduced by Indra in the guise of her husband, she succumbed to his advances and was cursed into living as a stone. She was to remain completely invisible, until one day Ram’s feet brushed against her form, and her ascetic brilliance, attained through years of penance, became perceptible to the world.

However, the thread that intrigued the author is to be found in Jinasena's Harivamsha Purana, which suggests that Ahalaya — the one whose name also means an infertile land — was in fact a Puru princess, and not a divine creation of Brahma. Accordingly, she attributes to Ahalya two doting parents — King Mudgal and his queen, Nalayani, the daughter of Nala and Damayanti, and a twin brother, prince Divodas.

Ahalya’s episode in the Ramayana centres on the motif of punishment for infidelity and seduction, that foretells Sita's banishment from Ayodhya, brought about by a washerman's comment on her character. Ahalya's story also appears much before the story of her grandparents, particularly Nala (with a weakness for gambling), who first finds reference in the Mahabharata.

In Kané's rendition, the king of Indralok is consumed with desire for Ahalya. When the strain of marriage affects his duties, and causes sage Gautam and Ahalya to drift apart, Indra further discovers a want and loneliness in Ahalya that ultimately provokes him into disguising himself as Gautam. Ahalya falls into his arms knowingly, giving in to the charms of the man who has been in hot pursuit of her ever since their eyes met for the first time long ago in a palace courtyard.

Enraged at this infidelity, Rishi Gautam curses them both.

Indra descending from the heavens to meet Ahalya as depicted in Raja Ravi Varma's Indravalokan. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Kané's Ahalya submits herself to her stone-like existence. A perfidious woman, abandoned by her husband and children, and subjected to the jibes of society, she falls into deep meditation, turning her thoughts inwards.

One day, years after Ram liberates her from the curse, Ahalya finds a worried Sita in her ashram, looking for her young boys. Subtly wound into the fabric of the story is a dialogue imagined between the two "most visible victims of patriarchy, both condemned by society." In that instance, Sita, forsaken by her husband-king, and Ahalya, infamous for her sin, find comfort in each other and their common sufferings.

"That’s the reason these ancient stories still appeal to us," Kané points out, "– of the contemporary man, contemporary woman in contemporary times. Of Man with his follies and flaws — they are telling us stories of ourselves. The status and subordination has come through down the ages, through social times, through changed perspectives."

Kané imbues resolute strength in Urmila — Laxman's sultry enchantress — in Sita's Sister, and in the timorous Urvi from Karna's Wife; on her Ahalya and Satyavati, she bestows the qualities of courage and power. She also endows Ahalya with the temerity to commit a transgression, and then accept its consequences. She empowers her with the ability to comprehend human desire, coupled with spiritual awakening.

Ahalya's Awakening brings a short episode of Hindu mythology into the spotlight, highlighting its relevance in a modern society caught in similar tussles of adultery, loyalty, divorce and patriarchy.

(Source: FirstPost)

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Thailand Tiger Temple: More than half have died since rescue

More than half of the 147 tigers that were rescued from a controversial Thai Buddhist temple just three years ago have died, officials have said.

A total of 86 tigers have died since they were moved from the Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua temple, a tourist attraction known as Tiger Temple, in 2016.

Thailand's park service said many had died of a virus, having been weakened by the stress of relocation.

Officials also blamed genetic problems linked to inbreeding among the group.

But conservationists have questioned whether authorities were holding the tigers in safe conditions.

The temple's monks, meanwhile, have denied accusations of animal abuse, trafficking and illegal breeding while the tigers were under their care.

The temple has been closed to the public since 2016.

What happened to the tigers?
Since police raids in 2016, the tigers have been held at two breeding stations in nearby Ratchaburi province as it is believed they would have little chance of survival in the wild.

But only 61 of the original 147 have survived in captivity. Thai authorities said some fell ill with Canine Distemper Virus or CDV. Many had difficulty breathing or eating, and died as a result.

Tiger Temple attracted thousands of tourists before it was closed to the public 2016
Speaking with Reuters news agency, temple caretaker Athithat Srimanee denied the accusations that the tigers died because of inbreeding. He said the government was playing a "blame game".

Edwin Wiek, founder of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT), told the BBC that the big cats were being kept in small, cramped cages, making it easy for disease to spread.

He added that Canine Distemper is treatable with proper food and supplements, access to clean water, and enough space to move around. But a limited government budget made this impossible.

"To be very honest, who would be ready to take in so many tigers at once?" said Mr Wiek. "The authorities should have asked for help from outside, but instead insisted on doing all work themselves."

A lucrative trade
Analysis by Jonathan Head, BBC South-East Asia correspondent

The deaths of so many tigers in two government facilities has refocused attention on the challenges of managing an ever-expanding population of captive tigers, not just in Thailand, but in neighbouring countries like Laos and China.

Despite pledges by both Thailand and Laos to reduce the numbers of tigers held in captivity on so-called "tiger farms", the populations have continued to rise.

There are now around 2,000 captive tigers in Thailand. Many are held by private individuals, not state institutions.

Captive tigers are a lucrative business, popular in particular with Chinese tourists who now make up nearly one third of foreign visitors in Thailand.

They breed easily, and there is always a suspicion that some are diverted into the illegal trade in tiger parts, which then encourages the poaching of South East Asia's dwindling population of wild tigers.

Wildlife campaigners say state institutions in Thailand need better funding to start taking custody of these privately owned tigers, and the tiger industry should be regulated more strictly.

What is the Tiger Temple?
The attraction, run by Buddhist monks, was located in Thailand's Kanchanaburi Province, west of Bangkok.

At its height, visitors were charged 600 Thai Baht ($16, £11) for entry, with additional costs to pet, feed, or take pictures with the tigers.

The bodies of 40 tiger cubs were found in a freezer in the temple's kitchen
A National Geographic report alleged that the monks were operating a for-profit breeding business.

The WFFT also alleged there was evidence that wildlife trafficking took place, but has not provided specific examples.

In December 2014, authorities were alerted after three adult male tigers vanished from the temple. They had been micro-chipped, a legal requirement for captive endangered animals in Thailand, which allows them to be tracked.

The temple's veterinarian Somchai Visasmongkolchai later came forward after resigning from his post and said the microchips had been cut out of the three males.

When police raided the site in 2016, 40 dead tiger cubs were found in the temple's kitchen freezer, along with other animal body parts.

(Source: BBC)

‘We never moved back to Kashmir, because we couldn’t’

A writer tries to make a home everywhere to dull the pain of losing hers after militants targeted the Hindu minority when the insurgency against India erupted.

We vacation hard, my family. Ideally three weeks, and always a home rental, never a hotel. We settle in like we own the place, and have always owned the place. We start with a grocery store, a thrift shop for toys, a visit to the local library. We scope out playgrounds and children’s classes, make some friends, set up play dates.

The Google map I create during my research phase is color-coded, layered, intricate. We set up temporary lives everywhere from Greece to Japan. On our last trip, to Oahu, Hawaii, we did five grocery runs and nine loads of laundry, and spent the rest of the time washing dishes. In the places we stay, there is no turndown service, often no air conditioning, and the elevator always breaks on day two (I’m looking at you, Paris).

The drive to settle in immediately is pathological. I am compelled to ensure that my children are protected from unease or confusion, that they feel safe, enriched, fed, wherever we are.

I originally thought my bone-deep aversion to hotels was borne of all of the moving. Travel aside, I have lived in so many places I have lost count. Born in India, stints in Britain, Saudi Arabia, New York and then dragging a garbage bag full of clothes from a decrepit house to a more decrepit house as a student in Ann Arbor, Mich., plus some time in Italy and now, five addresses in Los Angeles.
Sarah Mazzetti

I have spent a formative amount of time in sterile extended-stay suites while a bunch of these homes were found, furnished or built. Hotels make me feel unsettled, unmoored, worried, and now that I have two children, the logistics are beyond me. How do you cram so many people into a room and all manage to sleep? If you don’t sleep, is it even a vacation? What happens when a growing boy needs breakfast at 5 a.m.?

But I have realized recently my “travel style” runs deeper: I don’t have a home. Yes, I live in a house. But you know how most people have somewhere to go home to?

Despite my best efforts to move beyond it, I have been thinking of my lost home since the eruption of the most recent crisis in Kashmir. I was born a Hindu in Kashmir, as was almost everyone in my family, for probably thousands of years. My parents decided to move abroad for work opportunities in the early 1980s, really so that they could gather funds to build their dream house in Srinagar.

We spent every summer and holiday, probably four to five months a year, in Kashmir. I was born in Habba Kadal, a neighborhood in central Srinagar, its maze of streets lined with narrow, four-story wooden houses.

My parents built their house in the suburban area of Natipora, which at the time had open fields, fresh air and an unobstructed view of the Himalayas. We gently, by hand, carried home china, linens and decorative items for the house. We clambered over rocks and beams at the construction site, watched them polish the terrazzo, proud and excited for our return.

I split time between there and my maternal grandparents’ house, or “matamaal,” in a verdant central Srinagar area, where I was the first of eight grandchildren, doted on by a boisterous extended family. I could draw you a detailed architectural map of both homes. I remember the hidden staircase to the roof at matamaal, the heavy curtains I wrapped around myself, until I dislodged a family of mice.

Afternoons cleaning string beans and corn from the vegetable patch. The time my mother told me not to play badminton in the evening, and it got so dark that I smacked a shrieking bat instead of the shuttlecock. I woke up once in the middle of the night and saw a bear dancing on its hind legs on the lawn. Nobody believes me about this one, but it happened.

After one of many picnics in Pahalgam, a hill town so picturesque you can see it in every Bollywood movie, I was halfway through a tourist-trap horse ride before realizing a pound of chocolate-covered walnuts was too many.

This is all to say: Have you ever heard people talk about how incredible Kashmir was? How beautiful, how peaceful? “Paradise on Earth” is the cliché, right? It was absolutely all of that, no exaggeration. To my 9-year-old self, it was the most magical, joyful place in the world.

At the same time, being Kashmiri has always been difficult. My parents’ generation had seen two wars between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, followed by an insurgency against Indian rule and rapid militarization in the winter of 1989-90. When the violence began, many Pandits, as Kashmiri Hindus are known, were targeted and killed by militants, which terrified us, leading to rushed middle-of-the-night departures by most of our community, including my extended family. I realize I recite these facts simply and without emotion, as a child would. That is so I don’t cry.

We were last at our house in August 1989, and it is now a pile of rubble, I think. The roof was burned off by militants, and snow seeped in to dissolve the rest. In a lifetime of talking to my parents every day, I have never asked for updates. I didn’t want to know, didn’t want to talk about it. I hear my beloved matamaal is a tech sales center. Even typing this out makes my heart clench, and I go back to the drawings in my head.

I have mapped out the houses, room by room, obsessively, for the past 30 years, so that I can remember them. Because I can’t (or won’t?) revisit, it is my only way to access the happiness of those summers at home in Kashmir. It is why I try to make a home everywhere I go. Feeling at home grounds me. It makes me feel the loss less.

We never moved back to Kashmir, because we couldn’t. We just kept moving. But summers in India continued, nothing like before. After we lost our home and our house, six of us spent the summer of 1990 crammed into one room in Delhi, sleeping fitfully. So, no thanks, hotels. The next summer we had two rooms. Eventually, an apartment, also in Delhi.

And I, throughout all of this, was one of the lucky ones. All we lost was a home. So many people suffered much more than we did. So many people are suffering right now. So many Kashmiris’ grief and loss outweighs mine by a factor of thousands. Can we ever go back? Should we ever go back? I have long avoided discussing Kashmir. I am neither historically nor politically fluent enough to unpack these answers.

All I know is, I loved it. I loved it so much. But I live here now.

Priyanka Mattoo is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles.

(Source: NYT)

A farewell to summer

By the time I went to school, I knew the world was changeable the way people were changeable, especially people like parents, with their moods and regrets and sore shoulders. Over the winter holidays, the world was lit by little yellow bulbs on garlands. There was the peacefulness of surprises that would come and that would not be terribly surprising: our stockings always held one orange, one apple, and a pack of chewing gum, along with something else like stickers or brand-new socks. In the car, the world grew purposeful; at the dollar theater, where our dad could take us to see The Princess Bride on a Tuesday afternoon for fifty cents apiece, the world grew relaxed.

Swimming pools turned the world glamorous. Every year my sister and I would look forward to the afternoon when Tulsa’s public pools would open. The pools hosted block parties with free sandwiches served in a long, perfect row, like the world’s biggest snake just lurking in the shadows, and even free cups of pop, which was prohibited at home.

In high school, I would make friends whose parents owned their own pools, but back in elementary school, the swimming pool was still a gift the world would only give for a precious few months out of the year, and only when our parents could make the time to take us. We occasionally also stayed in motels on our way to see our grandparents in Kansas or on our annual family vacation in Nebraska, though these places rarely had pools. But when they did, then the world shot clear up to the tip-top of the peak of glamour, and my sister and I became princesses from Lichtenstein or maybe Switzerland who’d been kidnapped by the Oklahoma criminals who called themselves our parents, and accordingly, on those rare nights, we would not speak to them at all.

Glamour and heartbreak have one thing in common: they both wear off faster than you’d think. By the time I turned ten, I was an old hat at hotel pools, stomping around on the damp cement that encased them like the world was an old, filthy toy I no longer had time for. I no longer cared about underwater handstands, or floating. I slipped quietly into the water wherever the ladder was, suddenly incapable of leaping with abandon.

In the same way, I became inured to the strangeness of hospitals, to the never-ending cries of children in pediatric wards, or the somewhat softer but equally painful sounds their relatives made in the hallways as I drifted by.

It happened in the blink of an eye. One day my sister and I were at school, as usual, and then she was having her first seizure—the first of the many thousands that would come. We rode in ambulances only for the first few times. After that we just carried her out to the car, not even exceeding the speed limit.

When she was six, my sister had brain surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and for a while my grandparents paid for a hotel for themselves and my parents and me. Every second I could, I spent with my sister. But when she was asleep or I wasn’t allowed, my grandmother would take me swimming and read a magazine on a lounge chair while I stood motionless in the very center of the pool, breathing in the chlorine, the water severing my torso like a magician on TV.

When the grown-ups told me my sister was going to be fine, I knew from their tone not to trust them, even though I couldn’t yet figure out what the opposite of fine would be. My sister and I had known for a long time that grown-ups weren’t to be trusted. They lied to us about how the apples and oranges got inside our stockings, and they lied outlandishly about swimming, like that pee would turn the water red. The worst part was not the betrayal, but rather the necessity of continuing to listen, just in case amid all that drivel there might be something that would protect us from some danger so terrible we couldn’t even begin to imagine it ourselves.

Because the watery world was the most alluring to us, we assumed there might be something to all their warnings about aquatic disasters. Otherwise, swimming was too good to be true. We had never known a person who had drowned. We had known a girl who got kidnapped. She was a classmate of mine; it happened on the day before my birthday; I don’t remember her name or face or anything about what happened, only that my birthday did not take place that year.

But we both belonged to an organization called the Camp Fire Girls that rewarded heroism, and every year at our big gathering, some girl would be honored for saving some other girl’s life. I think that made us both hope to save each other someday. That is, at any rate, the effect it had on me.

I always expected my sister to nearly drown. I hoped every summer it would happen. It never occurred to me that I would not be by her side; it was outside the realm of the conceivable that I would for any reason be unable to rescue her—that for any reason she might actually suffer, let alone die.

Once she slipped in a stream, and I grabbed her by the strap of her overalls and tried to drag her toward me until she squealed at me to stop. The water was so shallow I was dragging her over jagged rocks.

When she was in the hospital, and I was at the swimming pool alone, the possibility of my sister vanishing entirely turned the world solid, ejecting all of us, making me too miserable to move. I tried to make friends with the other siblings, and even the other sick kids when they were in periods of outpatient care, in remission or just waiting. One day I played a game in the pool with a boy around my age, nine or ten, who had leukemia, both of us pretending to be pirates, our treasure of a couple of wooden blocks he had stolen from the waiting room at the clinic, thrown to the bottom of the pool.

His presence did nothing to diminish the absence of my sister, but it did restore a little air into the world. My grandmother looked over from her magazine and smiled at us, and I smiled back. Then, all of a sudden, the little boy who had leukemia swam up, pinched my bottom, digging his nails as far into suit and skin as he could manage, and then swam off again.

The world of childhood can seem so much more instinctual than the adult world; children’s behavior can verge on animalistic. On that day, I did not hesitate. I did not, out of sympathy, move on to some new aquatic game. I did not try to reason with him, or explain to him my feelings. I didn’t even yell. Instead, I just got out of the pool and informed my grandma we were leaving. When the boy tried to follow, dripping helplessly onto the concrete, I ignored him. He was dead to me, even though it had already been explained to me that he was dying.

I often think about the disappointment in my grandma’s eyes that day. It was a disappointment I had no sense of yet, the disappointment of all the contradictions of the universe thwarting her progress toward hope. We never talked about what had happened, and I never told anybody else. I knew at the time that I was deciding how to feel, rather than feeling, deciding to have this particular principle rather than any other.

Yet now when I look back on my smaller self I don’t see a conveyer belt of moral precepts. I don’t even really see a self. I see a fluid being struggling to adapt to the damming off of its sister, the first real indication of the boundaries between other and self. I see a creature that felt pain in its veins every time my sister’s blood was taken, that scrambled to escape while she was held in the gigantic tube of an MRI or a CT scan, and that stopped being able to swallow a burger by the side of the road after making the connection between animal suffering and ours.

In some ways, my boundaries have remained permeable. I have now been a vegetarian for thirty years. Now, when my sister has a seizure, or when her lupus or rheumatoid arthritis act up, I must remind myself that our bodies are separate, that they always have been, that I can help her better if I’m not ailing, too—and that often enough my attempts at rescue only bruise her more.

I still think about that boy, and sometimes I associate him with later, more serious assaults by grown men; other times I regret hurting a sick little boy’s feelings, depriving him of a worthwhile distraction, even just a small thing that would have helped him pass the time. But on that day, I did the only thing I could have done.

In my early twenties, my Fulbright stipend proved generous enough that after my year in Warsaw I took my first adult vacation in Dubrovnik and afterward on the beautiful Croatian island of Brač. I had never seen the sea before. The Adriatic overjoyed me. I photographed the sand and shells and pebbles as the water washed over them, bursts of brilliance and their afterglows, their steady tempo. I combed the sand for shells I kept in an old blank CD case to give to my grandma when I had enough.

At first I was scared to drown or accidentally infiltrate a school of fish, in the same way I was scared of getting lost and getting hit by buses and of completely cloudless skies. But, after a while, I started swimming again. Heartbreak and glamour fade, but everyday joy—just like everyday strain—fades less.

(Source: The Paris Review)

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Saudi oil attacks: Why does the US hide oil underground?

In the wake of the attacks on key Saudi Arabian oil infrastructure, American officials have been talking about drawing on a huge emergency stash of oil kept in the United States.

As oil prices spiked, President Donald Trump tweeted they could use the oil "to keep the markets well-supplied".

The oil he was referring to amounts to more than 640 million barrels which are stored in salt caverns beneath the states of Texas and Louisiana. The idea of holding these "strategic reserves" dates back to the 1970s.
A huge volume of oil is stored in caverns beneath Louisiana and Texas

All members of the International Energy Agency have to hold the equivalent of 90 days' worth of petroleum imports, but the US stockpile is the largest emergency store in the world.

Why was it set up?
US politicians first came up with the idea of an oil stockpile in the early 1970s, after an oil embargo by Middle East nations caused prices to skyrocket around the world.

Members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries - including Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia - refused to export oil to the US because it supported Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

The embargo came as a result of the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, also called the Yom Kippur War
The war lasted just three weeks in October that year. But the embargo - which also targeted other countries - lasted until March 1974, causing prices to quadruple worldwide from about $3 to nearly $12 per barrel.

Pictures of cars queuing up at petrol pumps in affected nations became some of the defining images of the crisis.

The US Congress passed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act in 1975. It established the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in the event of another major supply problem.

What is the reserve?
At present, there are four sites where oil is stored: near Freeport and Winnie in Texas, and outside Lake Charles and Baton Rouge in Louisiana.

Each site has several man-made salt caverns up to a kilometre (3,300ft) underground where the oil is stored. This is far cheaper than keeping it in tanks above ground, and safer - the chemical composition of the salt and the geological pressure prevents any oil from leaking out.

The largest site at Bryan Mound near Freeport has a storage capacity equivalent to 254 million barrels of oil.

The reserve's website says that on 13 September there were 644.8 million barrels of oil held in these caves.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, Americans used 20.5 million barrels of petroleum a day on average in 2018 - meaning there's enough oil to keep the country going for about 31 days.

How does it work?
Under the 1975 law signed by Gerald Ford, the president can only authorise the release of oil reserves if there is a "severe energy supply interruption".

Physical constraints mean only a small amount of oil can be moved from the caves each day, meaning even if there is presidential authority to release oil it would take nearly two weeks to hit the markets.

Moreover, the oil is all unrefined. It would need to be processed into fuel before it would be useful for cars, ships and airplanes.

US energy secretary Rick Perry told broadcaster CNBC on Monday it was "a little premature" to talk about breaking into the reserve yet in the wake of the attacks in Saudi Arabia.

Has it been used often?
It was last used in 2011, when disruption caused by the Arab Spring uprisings prompted IEA member states to release a combined total of 60 million barrels of oil to reduce disruption to energy supplies.

The US has millions of barrels of oil stored in underground salt caverns near the Gulf of Mexico
However, the US has sold off large numbers of barrels on a few occasions. President George H W Bush authorised its use during the Gulf War in 1991, while his son George W Bush allowed the sale of 11 million barrels in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

But the usefulness of keeping such a huge reserve at a time when US energy production is booming has been questioned. Some in Washington have even recommended getting rid of it completely.

A report by the Government Accountability Office suggested just that in 2014, saying it could lower prices at the pump for US consumers. In 2017 the Trump administration mooted selling off half the stockpile to help tackle the federal deficit.

Under President Bill Clinton, 28 million barrels were sold off in 1997 as part of a move to reduce the deficit.

(Source: BBC)

Apple's iPhone 11 Pro 'triggering' fear of holes

People with a fear of small holes have claimed the design of Apple's iPhone 11 Pro is triggering their phobia.

At its unveiling on Tuesday, many found their attention drawn to its "ultra-wide" rear camera, with three high-powered lenses packed closely together.

The lenses sit alongside the handset's torch and "audio zoom" microphone.

And hundreds of smartphone users now claim the new design has triggered their "trypophobia", an aversion to the sight of clusters of small holes.
The term "trypophobia" was first coined in 2005 in online forum Reddit and it has since become widely talked about on social media.

American Horror Story actress Sarah Paulson and model Kendall Jenner are among those who say they have the condition.

Vision scientist Dr Geoff Cole, at the University of Essex, was part of the first full scientific study of trypophobia, working with his colleague, Prof Arnold Wilkins.

"We have all got it, it's just a matter of degree," Dr Cole told BBC News earlier this year.

The response to seeing small holes can be very extreme, their study suggests.

Dr Cole and Prof Wilkins reported testimonies from some people who vomited and others who said they could not go to work for several days.

"It can be quite disabling," Prof Wilkins added.

(Source: BBC)

'I was told only boys could be autistic'

Jasmine Ghibli was diagnosed with autism at two years old in America. The diagnosis was taken away from her when she moved to Scotland after her GP decided she was the "wrong sex" to be autistic.

Now at 18, Jasmine has her diagnosis but not without enduring years of frustration at a system that she thinks appeared to forget the female face of autism.

Nicole Bonner, Jasmine's mother, said their GP told them that, "autism isn't for girls - she's just a bad kid."

After moving to Scotland from America, the children's hospital informed Nicole that Jasmine wasn't autistic, and that her original diagnosis was unrecognised.

Speaking to BBC Scotland's The Nine, Jasmine, from Helensburgh, said the confusion around her diagnosis caused her mental health to deteriorate.

She says the lack of support and bullying at school led her to attempt to kill herself three times - the first time was when she was just seven.

Nicole Bonner says Jasmine felt "hopeless"
Jasmine's mum doesn't blame Jasmine for trying to end her life. "She felt hopeless - I felt hopeless," she says.

Jasmine's story is not uncommon. The National Autistic Society's most recent study examining the ratio of diagnosis in men was higher than that in women. The official estimate is now 3:1.

'Being a brat'
There are multiple theories speculating as to why more men and boys get an autism diagnosis. Some reports say that girls are better at camouflaging or "masking" their autism by using mimicking techniques. Jasmine masks her behaviours by copying the people around her.

"It's like putting on a horrendous amount of face paint, and at the end of every day, you have to wipe all of that face paint off," she says. "I'm constantly exhausted."

Jasmine believed she couldn't appear as autistic because she wouldn't get the same treatment as if she was male - "There would be no understanding if I had a meltdown. It would just be perceived as me being a brat."

Jasmine felt isolated due to the lack of support and understanding
She says she was forced to find her own sources of support. She now works closely with the Scottish Women's Autism Network (Swan) as an advocate for autistic women.

"Swan saved her life," Nicole says. "Jasmine would not be here without the support of those kind and understanding women."

Jasmine has also spoken at an autism cross-party group at the Scottish Parliament to share her experiences, and hopes to be an advocate for more awareness in the area.

"I can't express how important it is to empower autistic women and girls," she says. "One of the main reasons I want to raise awareness is that it's so easy to feel lonely and ostracised as an autistic person, but particularly as an autistic woman.

"We are completely underrepresented."

Both Jasmine and her mum are now hopeful for the future
Despite leaving school at 16 with little to no qualifications, Jasmine is going to the University of Glasgow in September to study English Literature, Language, and Linguistics.

"I always knew Jasmine was going to do great things," Nicole says. "That's just what she does - she changes people. She already has."

"People just need to be tolerant, and show a wee bit of love. All she's ever wanted was friendship and kindness."

(Source: BBC)

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Portrait of our white mother sitting at a Chinese men’s table

February 1982

It’s night. The curtains are closed, which gives the room a claustrophobic look. The men are all wearing brown or black, with white. Our mother is wearing blue, which both complements the oranges on the table and is the color that, as a child, I thought of as a white person’s color. When asked what their favorite color was, white kids almost always said “blue.” It’s our mother’s favorite color, too. Mine is red, the Chinese color of happiness. The men match the room, its fixtures and decor. Our mother and the oranges stand out as things that have come in from the outside; things that, like imports or immigrants, have come from elsewhere. Though the oranges agree with the orange chairs, one of the men’s shirt collars, the painting on the wall, our mother is the only blue thing.

This photograph, taken when I was thirteen, always provokes mixed feelings in me. I spent much of my childhood observing the ways in which our Chinese father didn’t belong in the mostly white, English-speaking town where we lived. Chinese parties (sponsored by the small Chinese association of which he was president) were both the one place where our father could speak his native language and a place where our mother was usually miserable. She was shy. She dreaded these parties. They meant stepping out of her comfort zone.

Our father stepped out of his comfort zone every day. He moved through the streets of our California town because he had to in order to survive. Relatively speaking, our mother had the luxury of choosing when (or whether) to step outside her comfort zone and into an all-Chinese situation. But our home—most people’s primary comfort zone—was a place where she felt distinctly uncomfortable. Under our father’s strict rule, she lived on tenterhooks. So it’s complicated.

She has her hand on a glass. When it came to drinking, our parents were virtuous. For our father this virtue had as much to do with saving money as it did with maintaining sobriety. On special occasions, they shared a beer. Our mother had always been a lover of wine and after their marriage ended, she became someone who had a glass of wine or a beer with dinner. In the photo, when I see her hand touching the glass, I wonder if she’s glad to have a little something to soften the blows of the evening. It would be her chance to have a glass of wine or maybe an entire beer to herself.

Not one of the men is looking at her. Their attention is focused elsewhere. The seat next to her is empty, the living thing nearest her, a plant. Plants are one of our mother’s greatest loves. She dreamed of majoring in ornamental horticulture but our father persuaded her to major in microbiology. He’s the one who sent her to college, so I’m not sure she had a choice.

Having the parents I did made me acutely aware of intersectionality at an early age. I searched in countless books for a representation of the complex power dynamics between them, and I didn’t find one until I encountered Marguerite Duras’s The Lover.

The Chinese restaurant scene in The Lover is one of many that leap out at me. Like the image of our mother at a Chinese party, the scene is many scenes rolled into one, an event that happens over and over again. Duras’s Chinese lover is seated at the table with her white family who are all “strikingly alike, especially in the face.” No one looks at him or speaks to him. The only time they turn their heads in his direction is the moment he settles the bill.

He pays. He counts out the money. Puts it in the saucer. Everyone watches. The first time, I remember, he lays out seventy-seven piastres. My mother nearly shrieks with laughter. We get up to leave. No one says thank you. No one ever says thank you for the excellent dinner, or hallo, or goodbye, or how are you, no one ever says anything to anyone.

The lover pays for Duras’s brothers to “gorge themselves,” he pays to be insulted. He’s filthy rich. It is his money that allows their relationship to flourish, to happen in the first place. If he’d been poor, his Chinese-ness would have disqualified him. He never would have been there in his black car at the ferry. He wouldn’t have known French, couldn’t have spoken to her. Without his money, her family wouldn’t have tolerated him. “This is because he’s Chinese, because he’s not a white man.” Despite their hatred of his Chinese-ness, given their precarious financial situation, his money makes it difficult, if not impossible, to dismiss him.

In the photograph, our mother is the reverse of Duras’s lover. She possesses whiteness but no money. Another strike against her: she is a woman. Our father was particularly scornful of “American women,” by which he meant white women. He complained they were fat, lazy, sloppy, loud—never mentioning in the same breath that he had married an American woman who was slim, hard-working, clean, and quiet.

My sister and I speculate on the identity of the photographer. Whose eyes are trained on our mother, if not the eyes of the men at the table? Who has elicited this faint smile? Such a smile strikes us as significant in the context of her usual misery at a Chinese party. Is it a genuine smile or is it a smile that obscures her true feelings?

Mei wonders if our father took the picture, if the faint smile is for him, the empty seat next to her, his. This possibility moves me, though it is difficult to imagine our mother producing even a faint smile for him. In part because of this, in part because of the alien-looking date stamped on the back of the photograph, I imagine it is someone other than our father. The likelihood that she smiled for a stranger out of politeness seems, to me, far greater.

When a woman is unhappy in a relationship, sometimes the only recourse she has is the power to withhold a smile. The powerless often rely on absence or lack as forms of passive violence or action. The refusal to smile is an act of passive resistance.

And yet our father might have been the photographer. This leaves room for the possibility that, in the moment of the shutter opening and closing, a remnant of love still existed between them, which is something the part of me that is their child wants to believe. No child wants to believe they were born of hate. To be born of love is to be born with the capacity to love. It is the only inheritance that matters.

Regardless of who’s looking at our mother, regardless of whom our mother’s smile is for, the image marks her as foreign. The photograph is evidence that once, she stepped out of her world and into our father’s.

Not, as in our father’s case, because she had to—growing up on the South Side of Chicago, she was surrounded by people like herself: white (and black), working class, native speakers of English. Our father wasn’t rich. Something more than necessity compelled her. She could have married the gas station attendant she spoke of so fondly (someone she no longer remembers).

My sister and I indulge in the dream of the gas station man, too, the dream of a white father for both of us, a white husband for her. Someone poor but loving, a sweet talker, someone the opposite of our father. As children we rarely paused to consider that if this white dream man had been our father, we would have ceased to exist.

It was our parents’ idiosyncratic union—riddled with power differentials, rife with cultural, temperamental, and linguistic misunderstandings, set in a world in which, only one year prior, such a marriage would have been illegal—that made us. We were born of their difficult and complicated love and we will never be otherwise.

The men’s table at a Chinese party is the equivalent of the captain’s table on a cruise ship. When I think of it this way I can easily imagine our father taking the picture. He had a sense of humor and would certainly have found our mother’s presence at this table funny and ironic.

As I learned in The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje, who is himself the result of an Asian-European union (Dutch, Sinhalese, and Tamil), on a ship the cat’s table is the table farthest away from the captain’s table. At home, the four of us sat around the dinner table. We ate at a picnic table, which we brought outside when the weather was warm. It gave the room a rustic, temporary look. Like a table belonging to a family of nomads, it was constantly moved back and forth between the family room and the backyard patio. If the house was a ship, the table, when our father was present, was the captain’s table. In his absence, it became a cat’s table. Cats were another thing about America that he hated.

Our father faced the television; it held his attention throughout every meal. My sister and I sat with our backs to it. On occasion we swiveled around to look at it, but the program was always World News, which we found boring. Instead, we watched our father gorge himself on the Chinese food our mother had cooked for him. This was far more compelling, something we couldn’t watch anywhere but at our own dinner table, not even on TV.

Our mother sat facing a row of windows to the backyard. The window sills were lined with her plants—begonias, violets, succulents—which she watered every morning while we slept. If my sister and I weren’t sitting across from her she would have had a clear view of World News. As it was, she spent most of her time looking out the windows, as if waiting for it to end—the newscast, the dinner, the evening, her life. Although he gorged himself right next to her, she didn’t look at our father or speak to him.

As far back as I can remember, she hated him. Maybe that’s why this picture moves me so much. I can’t look at it and believe she never loved him. A shy, soft-spoken white girl from the South Side of Chicago, born in 1947, doesn’t just stumble into a photo like this. The distance between the two places is not unlike the distance between the U.S. and China, a sea she crossed without knowing how long it would take, or how arduous the journey.

(Source: The Paris Review)

Monday, 16 September 2019

I was dilapidated

“What did you have?”

“A boy.”


If your first child is a girl I’m told people say: “How nice.” How nice. My child is of course wonderful but I am also—embarrassingly—slightly proud that he’s a boy. Childbirth is full of such pitfalls, where the wish to be congratulated overrules common sense. I don’t find the standard notion of the good wife very compelling. But the pressure to be “a good mother” according to the prevailing definitions is practically irresistible. I can keep my head when David Holbrook, in his most recent outburst against “art, thought and life in our time,” warns that it is a failure in mothering that produces intellectuals and other pornographers: it’s less easy to steer a clear course through all the varied strictures of the psychoanalysts themselves. Worse still, it’s by no means adequate to try to behave like a good mother, because that involves an act of will: goodness itself is supposed to emerge. Before Bowlby, you had only to keep your children clean and set a decent moral example. Now ordinary selfishness is thought somehow to be expelled in the moment of delivery, or sooner: it’s selfish, you’re told by the masked figures gathered expectantly around you, if you can’t manage without forceps. Better mothers don’t need them.

It’s logical enough. Since having children is a matter of choice, or, some might say, a deliberate self-indulgence, there is an obvious obligation to do the best one can by them. What worries me is that logic is so seldom invoked: naturalness, spontaneity are the mots d’ordre. Which hardly takes into account the fury one may feel at an infant who rages when he should be feeding, and indeed would like to be feeding if only he could stop raging. On the other hand, I find little consolation in the knowledge that if on these occasions I were to act on what I take to be my “natural” inclination and batter my baby, the law would return a verdict of diminished responsibility and I wouldn’t go to prison: I’d rather go to prison. But why is “natural” taken to be a synonym for “good”?

I accept that much of what I’m saying could be ascribed to puerperal paranoia, with the proviso that the form the paranoia takes derives from current attitudes. According to New Society it’s a rare father who can change his child’s nappy. Until children reach an age where they can be reasoned with, the only notices fathers get are good ones. I like changing my son’s nappy—foolish of Freud not to pay more attention to Jocasta’s part in the relationship. But sometimes I wonder why I’m thought to have a special scatological aptitude. People ask me eagerly if I enjoyed feeding him myself: I didn’t. The first weeks of feeding were often very humiliating (I’ve never felt so sympathetic to men’s fears of impotence), particularly when the humiliation was repeated every three hours. Now I’m proud of being a self-sufficient life-support system—farmer, wholesaler, restaurant, and waiter—but initially I felt as if I’d been pinned to a conveyor belt serving a remote and self-obsessed baby. Eager to cram something into my own mouth, I took up smoking; a friend in the same situation started biting her nails.

I’d read plenty of articles about mothers getting upset when their children grow up and leave home, but it seemed a bit much to resent his leaving the womb. Still, he’d been mine before and now I was his. I couldn’t sleep without his permission, I ate for his sake rather than mine, I felt guilty if I took an aspirin, and if I was late home it was as if I was capriciously denying him his means of existence. If I got upset his provisions were threatened, and if the provisions were threatened I got upset. In addition, he was admired and I was dilapidated. Child-rearing manuals have a section on the importance of the mother making the father feel that he, too, has a relationship with the new child—but it was six weeks before I felt I had a relationship with the child myself. My husband was the supervisor, a position that left him free to enjoy the child. “For Dockery a son,” I thought, with uncharitable memories of Larkin’s poem.

In short, I didn’t get depressed because I couldn’t cope, as the books said I might: unless things are really bad you can always grit your teeth and make yourself cope. I got depressed because instead of maternal goodness welling up inside me, the situation seemed to open up new areas of badness in my character. Perhaps pediatricians believe in the power of positive thinking: I’ve always found it harmful. There’s nothing magical about a mother’s relationship with her baby: like most others, it takes two to get it going. Once the baby begins to enjoy feeding, once it starts responding to situations in a way that you can understand and smiling huge smiles and playing and “talking” and watching, then you begin to feel the famous warm glow. Before that you’re on your own, and the least “natural” thing in the world is suddenly to change your character.

(Source: The Paris Review)

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Earth's magnetic North Pole has officially moved

Earth's magnetic North Pole has drifted so fast that authorities have had to officially redefine the location of the magnetic North Pole. The extreme wandering of the North Pole caused increasing concerns over navigation, especially in high latitudes.

Earth's magnetic field is known to have wandered and flipped in the geologic past. Earth's magnetic field is a result of spinning molten iron and nickel 1,800 miles below the surface. As the constant flow of molten metals in the outer core changes over time, it alters the external magnetic field.

What we've seen in the past hundred years is that the location of the magnetic North Pole has moved northward. That migration of the magnetic North Pole was switched into overdrive in the past few years, causing the pole to rapidly move. The increased speed with which the magnetic North Pole has moved prompted authorities to officially update its location. The official location of the magnetic poles is specified by the World Magnetic Model, which acts as the basis for navigation, communication, GPS, etc. around the globe.

The New Location Of Earth's Magnetic North Pole
On Monday, the World Magnetic Model updated their official location of the magnetic north. The model is typically updated every five years and was last updated in 2015. However, the recent rapid movement of the magnetic north prompted scientists to update the model early. In the recent past, the magnetic North Pole has moved 34 miles a year toward Russia. Just a half-century ago, the magnetic North Pole was wandering about 7 miles each year.

Movement of Earth's magnetic pole over time NOAA
Earth's magnetic North Pole is quickly moving from the Canadian Arctic toward Russia. The model update ensures the accuracy of work in governmental agencies around the world. Specifically, NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the U.S. Forest Service use the magnetic poles in their daily operations from mapping to air traffic control. On a more individual level, smartphones use the magnetic north for GPS location and compass apps.

Is Earth's Magnetic Field About To Flip?
While the rapid movement of Earth's magnetic North Pole may cause concern over the potential flip of magnetic poles, there is no evidence that such a flip is imminent. Geologists can interpret magnetic minerals in rocks around the world to reveal the history of magnetic reversals on Earth.

Earth's magnetic poles have flipped many times in its history, with the latest reversal occurring 780,000 years ago and 183 times in the past 83 million years. When Earth's magnetic poles do flip, it won't be a catastrophic "end of the world" scenario. From examining fossil records, there is no evidence that a magnetic field reversal causes increased extinctions, volcanic activity, etc.

However, one big issue will lie in the extensive use our technology relies on the magnetic poles. A reversal would upend navigation and communication systems around the globe. Thankfully, a pole reversal in the past typically takes thousands of years to flip. This will give us ample time to develop mitigating plans. In reality, when Earth's magnetic field does flip, who knows what planet our descendants will be living on?

(Source: Forbes)

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Why don't doctors trust women? Because they don't know much about us

The medical community have known for a century that women are living in constant pain. They’ve done nothing about it

It’s frustrating to have questions that don’t get answered. It’s altogether disturbing to find out that those questions haven’t even been asked.

When I was diagnosed with endometriosis at age 23, I didn’t know enough to ask the right questions. I assumed my gynaecologist had all the answers, and listened carefully to his thoughtful explanations. I thought I knew it all. Or at least that he knew it all. But I was wrong.

It was only after more than a decade of feeling weak, second-rate, wimpy and writing myself off as a hypochondriac that I started to formulate the questions that needed to be asked. This time the questions weren’t about what was happening to my body. They were about how there could possibly be such a lack of knowledge about a disease that has been in the medical textbooks for more than a century.
 ‘While women make up 70% of chronic pain patients, 80% of pain medication has been tested only on men.’ Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

A century of diagnosis and medical science still has no idea what causes endometriosis or how it works, and we are no closer to a cure. How could this possibly be? And while there are many doctors working in the field who are making a huge difference to the lives of people with endometriosis, there are many more who remain ignorant of the disease, who still push tired old myths about its cures, and who treat people with the disease as hysterical.

Not long after I started looking into this I discovered the problem was worse than I even imagined. As I write in my book, Pain and Prejudice, women wait longer for pain medication than men, wait longer to be diagnosed with cancer, are more likely to have their physical symptoms ascribed to mental health issues, are more likely to have their heart disease misdiagnosed or to become disabled after a stroke, and are more likely to suffer illnesses ignored or denied by the medical profession.

Most shockingly of all, many women are living in constant pain and don’t know that it’s not normal; they don’t appreciate that they don’t have to live like that at all.

 Why don’t doctors trust us? The answer turns out to be quite simple. They don’t really know much about us
I discovered that there are 10 chronic pain conditions that predominantly affect women which have very similar symptoms; and that once a person has one, they’re more likely to accumulate others. Endometriosis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, painful bladder syndrome, migraine headache, chronic tension-type headache, temporomandibular joint disorders, chronic lower back pain and vulvodynia affect at least 50 million US women alone.

I discovered that some of these pain conditions have a high rate of co-occurrence with autoimmune conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome and thyroid diseases.

You know what else I discovered? That these conditions are all beset by delayed diagnosis; that a high proportion of women and gender-diverse people eventually diagnosed with these conditions will first be told they have a mental health condition, or are too concerned about their health.

You know what else I discovered? That many of these conditions can be well-managed if caught early.

Why are women still being treated as hysterical, overly emotional, anxious and unreliable witnesses to their own wellbeing?

Why do doctors still treat their patients who are female, people of colour or gender-diverse differently to their white male patients?

Why don’t they trust us?

The answer turns out to be quite simple. They don’t really know much about us.

As Dr Janine Austin Clayton, the director of the US Office of Research on Women’s Health, told the New York Times: “We literally know less about every aspect of female biology compared to male biology.”

To find out why that is, I had to travel back centuries. From the beginning of medicine, woman’s difference to man has marked her as inferior. In ancient times, it was the womb – the most obvious point of difference – that was thought to be the corrupting force, causing all manner of ills experienced by women. Plato characterised the womb as a voracious animal wandering the female body and sucking its life force. In the early modern era, medicine switched its attention to the nervous system, blaming illness among women on “weak nerves”. In the early 20th century, when the endocrine system was discovered, raging hormones became the chief source of blame, intermittent with our corrupted mental states.

All manner of biological theories have been used to justify women’s subordination to men. At the heart of most of them is the idea that women’s reproductive processes – menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding and menopause – consume so much energy that attention paid to any other pursuit would simply strip away their femininity, and the fulfilment of their ultimate purpose: to be good wives and mothers.

All too often supposed cures involved punishment, intended to turn a “difficult” woman into a “good” one. Clitorises were cut off, wombs and ovaries removed, forced feeding and “rest” were prescribed. Leeches were attached to labia and cervixes, and psychological cruelty was inflicted in the name of restoring health and dignity.

But none of these cures were proven, and most of the causes were entirely theoretical – because women have rarely been studied in detail by medical science. You just need to look at a textbook to see that the default human is a slender white man, and any difference has always been considered a deficit: uninteresting and not worthy of scientific pursuit.
 Pain and Prejudice, the new book by Guardian Australia’s Gabrielle Jackson, is an investigation into gender bias in medicine. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Women weren’t included in clinical trials until the 1990s. While we make up 70% of chronic pain patients, 80% of pain medication has been tested only on men. Even in preclinical trials with cell lines and rodents, males have been favoured over females. Researchers have justified this bias by claiming that oestrous cycles in female rodents – and menstrual cycles in human women – would potentially corrupt results. If that were so, wouldn’t it be quite important to find out before selling the drug to women?

Eight of the 10 prescription drugs taken off the market by the US Food and Drug Administration between 1997 and 2000 owing to severe adverse effects caused greater health risks in women than men. A 2018 study found this was a result of “serious male biases in basic, preclinical, and clinical research”.

Making matters worse, medical students are never taught about this knowledge bias. It just doesn’t come up in medical schools that almost everything we know about human biology comes from the study of men. And maybe, just maybe, the women crowding their waiting rooms – the women who they can’t help – are there not because they’re hysterical or making it up or like being sick or want the attention, but because they are sick and in pain, and medical science has no answers for them.

The astonishing lack of curiosity about female illness is hidden by the great strides that have been taken in breast cancer and obstetrics. These areas of medicine are not without their problems but there is no doubt advancements in these fields have saved millions of lives.

But women are more than reproductive machines.

And, while women who live in chronic pain aren’t dying horrible deaths in the prime of their lives – like those who died in such large numbers in childbirth or from breast cancer – evidence shows that chronic pain does lead to anxiety, depression and suicide. For many others, it keeps them at home and out of the workforce, unable to fully take part in life.

I wrote this book because too many women are in pain, and that pain is not taken seriously. It is at once expected and denied. This deprives us of our full humanity. We deserve better.

(Source: The Guardian)

Friday, 13 September 2019

Why is Friday the 13th unlucky? A look back at the history of this ominous date

Roots of superstition can be traced back to arrest of Knights Templar in Middle Ages, subsequently burnt at the stake and condemning us all to misfortune for the wrongs done to them

Today is Friday the 13th and we all know that means bad luck.

After yet another week of Brexit turmoil and England's loss in the Ashes, the sinister date's recurrence feels right on cue.

The superstition surrounding Friday the 13th is thought to originate with the Last Supper, attended by 13 people – Jesus Christ and his 12 disciples – on Maundy Thursday, the night before his crucifixion by Roman soldiers on Good Friday.

The number 13 is therefore associated with Judas Iscariot, Christ’s betrayer, and is regarded as imperfect when compared with 12, which represents the number of months in a year.
The burning of the Templars ( British Library/Robana/Rex)

The union of day and date has also been traced back to King Philip IV of France arresting hundreds of Knights Templar on Friday 13 October 1307.

The Catholic crusaders were apprehended - under pressure from Pope Clement V – over allegations made by an excommunicated former member that new recruits to the order were being forced to spit on the cross, deny Christ and engage in homosexual acts during initiation ceremonies.

The claims – seemingly entirely without foundation – were a convenient pretext for Philip to persecute the wealthy order and waive debts he owed them following war with England.

Charged with moral and financial corruption and worshipping false idols – often following confessions obtained under torture - many of the knights were later burnt at the stake in Paris.

The order’s Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, faced the flames in front of Notre Dame Cathedral and is said to have cried out a curse on those who had so gravely wronged them: “God knows who is wrong and has sinned. Soon a calamity will occur to those who have condemned us to death.”

The events initiated by the holy warriors’ arrest, according to tradition, ensured every subsequent Friday the 13th meant bad luck to one and all, De Molay’s hex ringing out through the ages.

An irrational fear of the date is known as paraskevidekatriaphobia.

In Spanish-speaking countries and in Greece, it is Tuesday the 13th that frightens people. In Italy, it is Friday the 17th. So each country has its thing.

Famous indicators of bad luck include a black cat crossing your path, breaking a mirror, walking under a ladder, opening an umbrella indoors and saying the name of Shakespeare’s “Scottish play” in a theatre.

(Source: Independent)

Ten superstitions of writers and artists

On days like today, we need all the tips, tricks, and good omens we can get. This Friday the thirteenth, we’re presenting you with the superstitions of ten artists and writers who (mostly) managed to avoid bad luck. 

Charles Dickens
Slept Facing North
Charles Dickens (1812–1870) carried a navigational compass with him at all times and always faced north while he slept—a practice he believed improved his creativity and writing.

Audrey Hepburn
Lucky Number Fifty-Five
The screen legend, humanitarian, and fashion icon Audrey Hepburn (1929–1993) had a fascination with the number fifty-five. She is known to have requested the number for her dressing room—as it had also been her dressing-room number for both of the now classic films Roman Holiday and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Dr. Seuss
Wore a Hat When Blocked
The author and illustrator Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904–1991), better known as Dr. Seuss, kept an immense collection of nearly three hundred hats. When facing writer’s block, the place Dr. Seuss would go was his secret closet, where he would choose a hat to wear until he felt inspired.

Ella Fitzgerald
Same Spot on the Stage
The American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996) suffered from stage fright. The jazz historian and musician John Chilton, who played alongside her band, recalled that Ella would go through a sequence of movements on the same spot onstage prior to every performance in what appeared to be a ritual, which he believed calmed her enough to perform.

Gustav Mahler
Unlucky Number Nine
The Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) was hesitant to name his ninth symphony by number and called it Das Lied von der Erde instead. This was because several other composers, including Beethoven and Schubert, died after completing their ninth symphonies. According to his wife, Mahler had a heart condition and thought he could cheat death by not naming a symphony “the ninth.”

Isabel Allende
Starting Date
The Chilean American author Isabel Allende began writing her first novel on January 8, 1981. What had started as a letter to her grandfather who was dying eventually transformed into her book The House of the Spirits. Allende now begins all of her books on January 8. Initially, it was out of allegiance with her first book, but now she says she does it because she can be in solitude, since everyone knows she is not to be disturbed on that date.

James Joyce
Auspicious Number Two
The Irish novelist James Joyce (1882–1941) was nervous about a poor response to his epic novel, Ulysses, which he had worked on intensely. He chose his birthday, February 2, 1922, as the day to publish his masterpiece. Two copies of the book arrived in Paris by train on this day, one for Joyce and one for his bookseller, Shakespeare and Company. Lucky number two worked well for Joyce: Ulysses is now a classic.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Counted Coffee Beans
The master composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) rose at dawn and would immediately get to work. According to his secretary, coffee was the most important item in his diet, and he prepared it very methodically, counting out sixty coffee beans per cup. His routine sustained nine symphonies, thirty-two piano sonatas, and an opera.

Pablo Picasso
Held onto His “Essence”
The Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) would not throw away his old clothes, hair trimmings, or fingernail clippings for fear it would mean losing part of his “essence.”

Salvador Dalí
Spanish Driftwood
The Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dalí (1904–1989) considered himself to be very superstitious and carried around a little piece of Spanish driftwood to help him to ward off evil spirits. Known for his idiosyncrasies, he nearly suffocated once while giving a lecture in a diving bell helmet and suit.

Excerpted from Recipes for Good Luck: The Superstitions, Rituals, and Practices of Extraordinary People, by Ellen Weinstein, published by Chronicle Books this year.

(Source: The Paris Review)