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Head Cases

November 21, 2014 | by

An illustration from Les gens de Medecine dans l'oeuvre de Daumier. Via the Wellcome Library

Migraines are the most glamorous of headaches. Mysterious, debilitating, unpredictable: they get all the press. Who wants to talk about the workaday irritation of a tension headache, the dull thud of dehydration, the queasy slosh of sinus infections? That’s not sexy. By definition, even; the headache is the punch line to half the Andy Capp jokes in the world. 

But migraines! Everyone relishes a migraine. They have a literal aura! Migraines foster the sort of pure narcissism that only intense, essentially benign pain can. We sufferers (that’s how it’s described, “migraine sufferer”) feel it is meet and right that the migraine should be dramatized in films like Pi or White Heat; this strengthens the perception that migraines are the hallmark of geniuses, or at least psychopaths. Joan Didion writes about them; of course she does. In “In Bed,” she describes the purification arising from this crucible of pain:

The migraine has acted as a circuit breaker, and the fuses have emerged intact. There is a pleasant convalescent euphoria. I open the windows and feel the air, eat gratefully, sleep well. I notice the particular nature of a flower in a glass on the stair landing. I count my blessings.

Yes, Joan, yes! That’s it exactly! Of course, she also says, “My husband also has migraine, which is unfortunate for him but fortunate for me: perhaps nothing so tends to prolong an attack as the accusing eye of someone who has never had a headache.” I disagree. What migraine sufferer wants to share the limelight? After all, we all know in our hearts that no one in the history of the world has ever experienced basically unserious pain like we have.

It’s a bit like cats on social media. On the face of it, social media is a boon for cat fanciers, so long isolated from the easy socialization of other pet owners. And on the face of it, it is indeed a vibrant online community. But the suspicion cannot help but intrude, first, that everyone really thinks her cat is the cutest, the wackiest, the wittiest, the best. And second, that this conviction is unshakeable. 

So it is with migraine sufferers. On the face of it, we’re collegial. Oh, you get migraines, too? We compare triggers (Tyramines? Blood sugar? Hormones?) and triptans. Have you tried Zomig? Maxalt? Imitrex? What about the spray? And then the one-upsmanship begins. How often? For how long? Where is your pain localized? Really, behind the eyes? Interesting. I didn't realize that qualified as a migraine! Light sensitivity? Nausea? Have you tried biofeedback? Beta-Blockers? Botox? Acupuncture? Going GF? (That’s recent.) What about that codeine stuff you can only get in Europe because the FDA hasn’t approved it? Have you been to the ER? How many times? Have you seen a neurologist? (We all have; there’s never anything wrong with us. At least, nothing detectable.) Of course, if anyone plays the “Cluster Headache” card, the conversation is over, and the rest of us have to trudge sullenly away.

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Call Me Madam

November 20, 2014 | by

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Photo: Karen Horton

In my defense, I was really little when my mom took me to my first concert at a grown-up concert hall. The music was for children, but I was still too babyish; I demanded to leave in the middle of act I so I could pee. I have no memory of what we heard that day, but the elegant bathroom made a huge impression on me. “Who was that lady?” I asked my mother, after a uniformed woman had handed me a paper towel and my mom had dropped a bill in her basket. And she explained: that was a Madame Pipi.

For a long while after that, I was obsessed. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” adults would ask me. And I would answer, “A Madame Pipi.” It seemed to me the most glamorous job in the world; to be surrounded by grandeur, dressed in a smart uniform, and have a bowl of money, besides. To a small child, all grown-ups seem important and magisterial; bathrooms loom large; the adult measures of income and status do not apply. I made myself a Madame Pipi outfit with a small apron, although my parents would not allow me to be on duty when we had guests. Read More »

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Another Evening Gone

November 19, 2014 | by

If you never have, watch this 1964 episode of the BBC show Monitor, in which John Betjeman interviews Philip Larkin. It is twenty-four minutes well spent. There’s the poetry: Larkin reads “Here” and “A Study of Reading Habits” and “Toads Revisited” and “Church Going” and “Wants.” Betjeman inventories the wares of a Hull department store like a mystical incantation.

There's the deliberate portrait of Larkin's circumscribed existence: we see his flat, the cemeteries and streets where he walked, and of course, the library where he worked.

Betjeman was a great champion of The Whitsun Weddings, and his knowledge of and admiration for Larkin’s work is clear. The portrait is certainly what both poets would have wished, carefully orchestrated from its location to its doleful closing quotation. And yet, there is the great, odd moment when Betjeman says, “I envy you, being a librarian. It must be marvelous to have something to fall back on.”

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Them Apples

November 18, 2014 | by

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An illustration by Philip Dadd for P. G. Wodehouse’s William Tell Told Again, 1904.

According to legend, it was on November 18, 1307, that the Swiss patriot William Tell shot an apple off his son’s head. After refusing to pay homage to a Hapsburg liege, Tell was forced to submit to the test of marksmanship. Later, Tell killed the tyrant and went on to many a daring exploit in the service of the Old Swiss Confederacy.

Although the William Tell legend is mentioned in books dating back to the late fifteenth century—and one can find similar marksmanship myths throughout the world—it was Schiller’s highly politicized play that canonized the apple-centric version, and, buoyed by Switzerland’s post-Napoleonic patriotism, made the archer iconic. Schiller had never visited Switzerland; he got the idea from his friend Goethe, who returned from a trip bearing tales of local lore. In 1804, the play premiered at Weimar under Goethe’s direction. (The popular Rossini opera—and the resulting Lone Ranger theme—was based on the play.)

Although a part of the German dramatic canon (and initially a Nazi favorite), the play came into disfavor with Hitler. After a 1941 assassination attempt by a Swiss-born activist, the Führer banned William Tell, reportedly lamenting, “Of all people Schiller had to glorify this Swiss sniper.” Read More »

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Banned Books

November 17, 2014 | by

Once Upon a Potty

An illustration from Once Upon a Potty.

Once Upon a Potty was written in 1975 by the Israeli author and illustrator Alona Frankel to help her son toilet train. (Its Hebrew title is Sir Ha-Sirim, literally “Potty of Potties.”) Since it was translated into English in 1980, it’s never gone out of print, and now it’s regarded as a picture-book classic, a helpful resource for the parents of young children. 

It was banned in my house. My mother disliked the use of euphemisms she deemed babyish—wee-wee, potty, “a hole to woo-woo from”—and illustrations she found “creepy” and “disgusting.” I can still recall first hearing what would become one of her most oft-repeated phrases: “I don't care for that at all.” She sniffed at households that owned the book and curled her lip when we saw it on store shelves. 

As a result, Once Upon a Potty took on the luster of the taboo. Like a nineteenth-century schoolboy with a French postcard, I would read it—or, anyway, look at it—furtively whenever I was unobserved: at other toddlers’ houses, in the children’s room of the library, at the local Y where I did tumbling. Particularly shocking to me was the final illustration: the triumphant coil of tempera feces in a puddle of yellow urine. And the accompanying text! Exuberantly babyish, frankly scatological, my mother's nightmare incarnate. “Bye-bye wee-wee,” it reads as the excrement disappears down the toilet. “Bye-bye woo-woo.” Read More »

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The Soul of Wit

November 14, 2014 | by

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Photo: Carpe Donut NYC

While contemplating the purchase of a hot-cider doughnut at the aptly named Carpe Donut truck, one finds oneself thinking about food-truck names. Many have; it is one of the consolations of modernity that we live in the golden age of food-truck nomenclature. Or at least the first age.

Anyone who has worked in a business district or watched an episode of Street Eats knows it’s not enough to have a truck and a grill: your name should ideally be gimmicky, fun, and filled with attitude, to underlie the anarchic spirit of the whole enterprise. Sexual innuendo is of course desirable. Puns are a plus. In the words of an academic with whom I once spent a tedious dinner, “Language informs consciousness: we know this.”

But did you know that there is a food-truck-name generator? Of course there is. (I have no knack for it; my key words—scampering, spinster, maple—were apparently not sufficiently cheeky, even after I added sullen to the mix for extra attitude.) But then, I didn’t really need it; I already have the perfect name. Ogden Nosh. We’ll sell franks, but of course, they’ll be called Doggerels. The way some fast-food chains give their customers discreet Bible verses on the bottoms of cups, we’ll force-feed our patrons nonsense verses. And, naturally, on the side of the truck will be written the following: “A door is what a dog is perpetually on the wrong side of.”

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