25 February 2015

world wide wednesdays :: imaginationland

so many generic tattoos to answer for...
while i was thinking up a topic for last week's "world wide wednesdays" post, i had two ideas that i wanted to pursue. the one i went with was about brazil, which i thought was appropriate given the proximity to the beginning of lent [which is preceded, of course, by carnival]. i wish i could tell you what the other one was, but, as certain as i was that it would stick with me, i lost track of the idea some time between last wednesday night and this morning.

i'm mentioning this because it is an obvious lesson in the importance of writing things down and it ties in directly to the topic of today's post, which is basically a look at what happens when people don't write anything down for hundreds of years and the mess it can make of your history. today, ladies and gentlemen, we're talking about the celts. [side note :: i'm guessing that some of you are already trying to decide whether you should pronounce that word as if it starts with an 's' or a 'k'. please don't. both are acceptable. if you want to get picky, the original name was an interpretation of a tribal name by a roman and latin speakers of the time would have pronounced it with a hard 'k', as in julius caesar, which you've also been pronouncing wrong your whole life, because a roman would have said it as "yoo-leeus kaiser". the confusion stems from the same place for both examples: the latin language lost the hard 'c' pronunciation at some point and the change filtered down to english through this later latin and old french. the "retro" approach of using the classical latin pronunciation was something that arose as part of a revivalist movement in the 19th century, but more on that a little later. for now, just pick whichever pronunciation tickles your tongue muscles and go with it. believe me, things will be confusing enough without getting hung up on details at this stage.]

chances are when i say the word "celts", you have some idea that's related to a romantic past of druids and red-haired warriors and misty landscapes with enya playing in the background. perhaps many of you take pride in a certain amount of celtic heritage. if you're of european extraction, it's almost likely that you have some type of celtic blood in you, not because your ancestors were druids, but because the term celtic is so broad that it's nearly meaningless in a genetic sense. this is compounded by the fact that many people don't agree one who should be considered celtic, even now in the age of advanced dna typing, because, with such a long passage of time and such a broad area of origin, knowing when to draw the line can get tricky. and then there's the problem of written records: in a lot of cases, there aren't any. celtic written languages are limited to very specific areas and only developed in those areas after about the fourth century, when celtic culture was only a remnant of its earlier self. that means that the information we have on the earlier, more powerful celts comes entirely from other sources, who realised the importance of writing stuff down. it also means that we know next to nothing about the actual origins of the celts, because while their culture was incubating, no one was around to document it.

in getting to know the celts, the most important first step is to realise that all common knowledge we might have about them is tainted. modern knowledge of the celts, and particularly the romanticism that surrounds them, stems not from any meaningful history, but from a celtic revival and nationalist movement that took place across the modern day united kingdom and ireland in the eighteenth to the twentieth century. there were a lot of reasons for this revival, but a key one was that the celtic dominated parts of the islands had become socially and economically disenfranchised, as the rise of the industrial age favoured larger cities, which were of anglo-saxon origin. [reactionary movements against modernisation included such people as the pre-raphaelites, the romantics in literature and the classicists who decided that "celtic", which had been pronounced "seltic" for centuries, should thenceforth be pronounced "keltic". thanks, guys.] a revival of traditions served to assert outlying groups' identity versus the monolithic centre, which had political implications as well, kick-starting the irish nationalist movement. like most cultural identities, it was based more on perceptions of how history might have been and far more on art and literature than on fact. that image of the celtic world has persisted, aided in the latter part of the twentieth century by the new age movement. [side note :: the british isles was not the only place to experience a celtic revival at that time. around the same time switzerland went through something similar, rediscovering their country's roots with the hevetii, a celtic group of tribes who lived in what was to become switzerland in roman times and earlier. ironically for a culture that had no written language, they are known in the contemporary world chiefly for giving their name to a popular font, but in switzerland, they are still closely linked with national identity. the neo-latin name for switzerland is the "confœderatio helvetica", which is why swiss websites always end in ".ch".]

so now that we've established that most of what we know about the celts is, if not wrong, at least highly misleading, we can start looking at who the these people really were. the easiest way to do this is by looking at the celtic languages, which offer the clearest connection between groups. unfortunately, our knowledge of celtic languages starts quite a while after they did, so we're left to rely on third-person accounts and educated guesses. we know that celtic languages are/ were all part of the indo-european family, but they aren't connected to other branches, which means that they split from the original stem and didn't descend from anything else. although the early celts didn't leave any writings, they did leave some brief inscriptions, the oldest of which are found in southern switzerland and northern italy. even at that point, however, it seems that there were a number of celtic languages, or at least dialects, spread over continental europe. the most prevalent theory is that all of the celts originated with the central european urnfield culture, named because of their practice of placing the cremated remains of their dead in urns and burying them in fields. [that might seem like a pretty uninspired way to name a culture, but it's probably better than naming them the buddy-eating culture after the disturbingly widespread indications of cannibalism.]

urnfield culture expanded into the more diverse halstatt and la tène cultures [the source of most of the flourishes we now think of as celtic art], spreading from the "homeland" of central europe and breaking into many, many different groups and by the time the romans took note of them in the second century bce, tribes speaking celtic languages were everywhere. they stretched from the iberian peninsula to the british isles to modern day turkey, which is why i said earlier that anyone with european ancestry has at least a decent shot at having some celtic in their background. the romans interacted with these groups in many different locations and it is from them that we learned that they referred to themselves as celts, or something close to it. the romans, however, decided to call them gauls.

one of the notable things about celtic/ gaulish culture is that they loved to fight. they fought the romans. they fought each other. basically, if there was a battle to be had, the celts were there. the romans were shocked/ intimidated/ probably titillated/ all of the above to find that not only celtic men but also women were up to a fight and even tried to ascribe celtic combativeness to the fact that they let their women boss them around too much. this has given rise to the new age fallacy that celtic cultures were female-centric. they were not. however, there does seem to be evidence to indicate that women were at least more free than they were in roman society. [they had some property rights and were able, under certain circumstances, to occupy positions of leadership, as well as the aforementioned participation in ass-whooping.] since it's the romans who transcribed the history, we're left with the impression that it was some kind of gender free-for-all across the celtic world. [side note :: in every sense. diodorus sicilus wrote that, beautiful as the british celtic women were, the men there preferred to snuggle up with each other, or with whatever men they happened to meet. ok, he didn't say snuggle, but you get the idea.]

celtic territories, just before it all started to go to hell
with that great appetite for fighting, you'd think that the gauls/ celts would have been formidable opponents and to some extent they clearly were, or else they never would have been able to conquer the amount of territory they did. however, pitted against the romans, things started to crumble pretty quickly. part of the problem was that same appetite for fighting: the celts were a broad group made up of dozens if not hundreds of small groups who were at least as interested in fighting each other as they were in fighting anyone else. they were able to put up a temporarily unified front against the romans at first, but ultimately, there was no place in which they were able to prevail. every celtic language on the european continent has been extinct for hundreds of years, because all of the existing tribes fell to the romans and became "romanized", adopting latin in place of their original language.

things went somewhat better for celts in the british isles. celtic tribes in britain were forced out to the edges of the country, but never fully assimilated, either under the romans or by the subsequent anglish and saxon invaders. they were never strong enough to rival the dominant culture for control, but they were able to maintain aspects of their culture, including their own languages. one of the chief reasons that celtic culture is associated with the british isles is that it survived much longer there [long enough to be written down]. all of the remaining "living" [meaning that there are native speakers and children who are learning the language from birth] celtic languages, save one, are in britain: irish gaelic, scottish gaelic and welsh. in addition, two other celtic languages, manx and cornish, have been revived. the so-called insular celtic languages [differentiated from the european celtic languages] were almost all teetering on the edge of extinction at the turn of the century. in the last fifteen years, the number of speakers of each one has grown. [side note :: the one surviving celtic language not in the british isles is breton, which is spoken in the northern french region of brittany. the breton language is closely related to welsh and cornish, having apparently developed from immigrants of those regions who came to france. like the other celtic languages, it has experienced a rebirth in recent years.]

arise, ye bloodthirsty buggers and bitches!
the trend towards celtic revivalism, in a number of different forms, shows no sign of abating. at the moment, only those areas with surviving languages [ireland, scotland, wales, brittany, isle of man and cornwall] are considered "celtic nations", but there are movements in other areas to re-establish older celtic connections. most notably, former territories of the iberian celts [including a swath of northern spain stretching from the basque territories to the atlantic and much of northern portugal] have shown an interest not just in reconnecting with their celtic history, but also in bringing their gallaic language back to life. [the iberians take their celtic heritage seriously. the spanish province of asturias is home to the international bagpipe museum.] some czechs have also gotten in on the game, claiming that their relation to the celtic boii tribe [from whose name we get the word "bohemian"] makes them as much celtic as germanic. that might not be romanticized hot air, either. dna testing conducted in the czech republic at the turn of the century showed a high incidence of a genetic subgroup common among celts, but rare among slavs. [side note :: part of the interest in rediscovering celtic culture in northern spain stems from the fact that regional customs were suppressed under the fascist dictatorship of francisco franco. he sought to unify spain under a single national culture, which was largely drawn from traditions of the andalusia region. franco eliminated the special status given to a handful of spanish provinces fearing- not without cause- that these autonomous regions were breeding grounds for political opponents. ironically, franco himself hailed from galicia, one of the provinces whose autonomy was stripped, and the traditional heartland of celtic culture in spain.]

i'm guessing at this point that not only do you not have a better understanding of who the celts are, but that you're having trouble remembering your own name. yes, it is exceptionally confusing, so let's try to boil it down to basics:

  • the term "celtic" does not and never did refer to a single group.
  • the celts were a very diverse linguistic group and never had a unified political structure.
  • at one time, celtic tribes held some level of control over much of europe.
  • the vast majority of celtic languages disappeared as the tribes were brought under roman control. 
  • celtic languages survived in a handful of territories in great britain and northern france and modern celtic identity is associated chiefly with those areas. 
  • since the nineteenth century, there has been a revival of interest in the celts, although it has not necessarily been tied to historical facts. 
  • other regions with long-standing ties to celtic cultures have also experienced revival of interest in their heritage.

% of population with celtic blood: it's not an exclusive club
much of the romantic and new age claims about the celts can be dismissed as fantasy, however there are grains of truth hidden among them: celtic women, particularly those in great britain, were known to join the men on the field of battle; there were actual druids, but they were more like a caste of elder statesmen and educators, not magicians; celts do have a higher incidence of red hair than any other group. [they're also disproportionately prone to hemochromatosis, but that isn't as exciting.]

as people start to get drawn to the complexities of history, both of the world and their own lineage, it's little wonder that the celts hold a special fascination. they are the bearers of a vast and dramatic history, but have almost nothing to show for it. they seem to be everywhere and yet almost nowhere. vast numbers of people are descended from them [we haven't even touched on communities descended from celts in diaspora, like the new world irish and scottish] and yet no one seems to be able to pinpoint exactly where they come from. they are both the ultimate genetic mystery and the ultimate genetic mess.

24 February 2015

sooner still.

the secret shall be revealed...

it's smaller than a bread box, but larger than a mobile phone, but that might be open for discussion.

23 February 2015

mental health mondays :: eat happy

lots of people shy away from treating mental disorders with drugs, at least until they've tried other options and in milder or transient cases of depression or anxiety, that might be the best way to go. there is some evidence to indicate that unless someone is seriously depressed [although the threshold for determining seriousness is a little unclear], anti-depressant drugs aren't going to be particularly effective, which means you're taxing your liver for no reason. diet, on the other hand, is increasingly linked both to improving mental health and preventing mental issues to begin with. plus, for those who do need medication, eating specific foods and maintaining an overall healthy diet makes for good supplementary medicine.

there are, of course, a few tricks to getting the mental balance right and getting the maximum benefit from what you eat and it's possible to get very, very complicated very, very quickly. so while there is a lot more to learn on the subject, what follows is a very brief primer on how to eat the crazies away with a few key nutrients. first off, though, a little preface about how you should be getting those nutrients.

to supplement or not to supplement

the vitamin/ mineral supplement industry has gone through massive growth and continues to benefit from "superstar" products that become the rage and then are replaced by the next rising star cure-all. [ten years ago if you talked to someone about probiotics, they probably would have thought it was something to do with robots.] fads are often attached to perfectly valid science but, of course, it can be difficult to determine how closely the end product conforms to what's required to reproduce scientific results. moreover, fad products can be dangerous: they're often rushed to market, they can have disastrous impacts on the environment [thousands of pounds of fish are required to produce even a nominal amount of the fish oil used in omega-3 supplements] and they often don't take into account how the body processes ingredients on their own.

that last part is why most people i know who are well-informed professionally or personally about nutrition recommend getting whatever elements you can from your diet and not from supplements. our bodies are not built to process nutrients on their own. they're built to extract nutrients from a whole food. other elements in the food help the body absorb key nutrients, therefore maximizing the benefits and requiring a smaller quantity of those nutrients [since a greater portion of what's consumed is usable]. some elements are better absorbed in isolation than others, or can be difficult to obtain within certain diets that it's worth investing in supplements, but most people should be able to meet their dietary requirements through their food alone. [this leaves aside the question of cost. high quality supplements get expensive and since depression is culturally linked with poverty, they may just be outside the budget of a lot of people.]

with that out of the way, here are a few ingredients with decent science behind them that can help you feel better about yourself, the world and life in general. at least a little bit. [note :: i haven't dealt with omega-3 fatty acids because there's already a metal health mondays post dedicated entirely to them. same goes for vitamin d.]


most people hadn't heard of tryptophan until a few years ago when everyone started talking about how turkey was loaded with it and that it was the element that made you get sleepy after a holiday dinner. ironically, neither of those things are true. turkey is not especially high in tryptophan, although it does contain it, and tryptophan does not make you especially sleepy. you're sleepy because you ate too much and your body is marshaling its resources to digest all the food you put in it. add in a couple of glasses of wine with dinner, potatoes or other carb-heavy foods that trigger the release of insulin, and dessert that caused your blood sugar to spike then drop, and you have yourself a perfect storm of nap time.

tryptophan is an amino acid, crucial for good health and it cannot be produced by the body. that means it has to come through an outside source. fortunately, tryptophan is extremely easy to find, existing in almost every form of protein we consume. eggs, particularly egg whites, are the best source, but it's also present in chocolate [hell yes chocolate is health food], soy beans, fish [especially cod], aged cheeses like cheddar or parmesan, dairy, sesame, chick peas and, yes, turkey and poultry. interestingly, dried foods [including dried egg whites, fruit, and fish] are often better sources than fresh.

tryptophan helps mental health because it allows the body to synthesize serotonin and we all know how important that is to fighting depression. [or do we?] people who are chronically tryptophan deficient [fairly rare and generally linked to an inability to absorb tryptophan] do exhibit signs of depression.

natural tryptophan supplements are generally marketed as 5-htp [5-hydroxytrytophan]. tryptophan is converted to 5-htp in the body, which is ultimately converted to serotonin, so it's like you're taking the nutrient at a more advanced stage. however, there's little research on the efficacy of these supplements and what there is, is inconclusive. additionally, there is some concern that supplementation could [in theory] cause problems for the heart. might be best to wait on this one until there's more evidence available.

one weird little thing that's important to remember about tryptophan is that getting too much of it can actually make you deficient in it. once you've exceeded the amount that your body can handle, it starts signalling that you need to stop and uses the existing tryptophan in your blood to prevent further absorption. but once your body stops absorbing tryptophan, it stops absorbing it entirely, which means that what you're getting is useless to you and what you already have is losing its power. bizarre, huh?

do not consume foods high in tryptophan if you are taking maoi drugs for your mental disorder as the combination can be dangerous. maoi's are not particularly common anymore, in part because of the onerous dietary restrictions they impose. however, in some resistant cases, they're still prescribed when newer drugs have failed. don't worry, your doctor and/ or pharmacist will tell you if your prescription falls within this category.

20 February 2015

making faces :: the elusive ms. leigh

vivien leigh is proof that one need not be in a lot of movies to qualify as a screen icon. the stage was her first love and her main focus throughout her career, despite the fact that two of her performances won academy awards. the combination of her passion for acting, balanced with a sort of indifference to the silver screen is just one of the seeming paradoxes that help make her so fascinating. as such, she makes a perfect inspiration for yet another of nars audacious lipsticks, one that is also a little elusive and hard to define. yes, it's time for another edition of kate's lipstick and film journal...

one of the strange things about vivien leigh is that while she was british and spent much of her working life in her home country [often alongside her husband of laurence olivier], she's best known for two academy award-winning performances as southern belles. the first was scarlett o'hara in gone with the wind, the hot-tempered daughter of a georgia plantation owner during the civil war era. practically every actress in hollywood had tried out for or been considered for the role, but it's difficult to imagine anyone else embodying the character [or making her at all likeable]. thirteen years later, at a very different place in her career, leigh won an oscar again for her portrayal of tennesee williams' faded southern flower blanche dubois, a role she'd become synonymous with on stage. blanche seems eerily like scarlett's future self, living in a fantasy world of a nostalgia-tinted past, refusing to come to terms with the crushing realities that have overtaken her.

it is also difficult not to see parallels between these two performances and the actress herself, the one when she was the epitome of youth and beauty, the second when she was starting to weaken under the strain of a long-term struggle with bipolar disorder and the health effects of a recurring case of tuberculosis that would eventually kill her at only fifty-three years of age. [leigh herself said that she was uncomfortable being so closely associated with blanche, since she felt her time playing the character pushed her over the edge with her own mental disorder.]

19 February 2015

armchair centre back :: you're racist and we hate it

you may have heard that a group of chelsea fans managed to distinguish themselves in paris by refusing to let a black man board a metro train and chanting "we're racist and we like it". as with absolutely everything done in the world today, these events were captured on camera, with the boisterous chanting all too audible. leaving aside for the moment that these people are most likely minions of the antichrist, it's worth noting that not only is this indicative of a racism problem within the sport itself, but a problem with chelsea fans in particular, who are, according to british home office statistics, the most racist fans in the premier league [i.e., the fans who have been arrested/ charged/ convicted most often of racism].

first, here's the video [courtesy of the guardian]:

keep it classy, boys.

initial reports were simply that the fans had resisted the man's attempts to get on the train, but the video seems to show something a little more active. one of the self-declared racists appears to grab him and virtually throw him back on the platform, all amidst the chanting. i'm not exactly sure what kind of brain thinks singing that you're happy to be racist is acceptable, especially in the middle of one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities, but i'm happy enough to go through life without meeting anyone so stupid as to do so.

john terry, an inspiration to chelsea fans in all the wrong ways
to give you a better idea of the intellect at work, however, i direct you to one fan's defense of the group's actions: he claims that they pushed the man back because the car was full [those of us who frequent public transit would say that we've seen people squished into more crowded cars] and that the fans weren't singing about being racist themselves, but rather as an homage to chelsea team captain john terry, who was suspended for racially abusing another player. [terry was eventually found not guilty of criminal racism, but the incident was enough to see him pushed out of his role as the captain of the english national football team. he retained the captaincy of chelsea.] that is seriously the explanation that's being offered: we're not racists, we're just showing our support for our number one guy, who is racist.

i'm guessing no one on that train is splitting the atom anytime soon.

[read what the victim of the abuse has to say about the incident here, in an interview with le parisien. as it happens, he doesn't speak english, although the body language of the fans was clear enough, and was sort of surprised when he found out that video of him was all over the internet.]

personally, i'd love to see what those fans would have to say to club legend didier drogba and to see if any of them individually, had the stones to repeat the racist chanting to his face. for that matter, i'd like to know how proud racists justify cheering a team that owes its success to a wealthy jewish owner and a manager whom many european racists wouldn't consider to be "properly" white. [i'm choosing to interpret as coincidence the fact that chelsea's racial diversity literally pales when compared with other top-tier premier league teams like liverpool and arsenal.]

didier drogba, one of the greatest arguments against racism
racist chants at football matches are unfortunately not rare. indeed, the sort of abuse that gets hurled at players in europe is shocking to north american ears [not because there isn't endemic racism here, but because it has become understood that there are certain things that one just can't say in the general public sphere]. the european football association has punished some teams [notably russian powerhouse cska moscow] for fans' behaviour by banning supporters from attending matches, which also denies the team the revenue it would have generated from ticket sales. however, that's clearly been ineffective, which means it's time to ramp up the stakes a little more. time to hit teams where it hurts- penalizing them points or goals to handicap them in their search for domestic and international titles.

many pundits, fans, players and journalists have condemned what happened in paris and chelsea themselves have said that if and when the fans on the train are identified, they'll be banned from team matches for life. [hey guys, a couple of them have been identified. here's a picture of one of them with ukip leader nigel farage. apparently, the chelsea fan is a big supporter when he's not shoving black men around or singing about what a proud racist he is. and that's in addition to the one who gave the "excuse" interview linked above.] however, it's really the regulatory body that has to step up here. until then, all that others can do is speak out and condemn this sort of behaviour when the opportunity arises.[breaking news! literally as i am typing this blog post, the bbc is reporting that three fans have been provisionally suspended from attending chelsea games, with lifetime bans possible if it's proven that they were involved in the paris metro incident.]

i will leave you with what i think might be the greatest reaction to racist fans ever. [and sparked a trend of footballers posing with bananas to make a statement against racism just ahead of last year's world cup.] it's become a trend now to insult darker-skinned players by referring to them as "monkeys" or making monkey sounds at them. in this case, one fan jeered barcelona player dani alves by tossing a banana at him during a match. [the fan responsible was later identified and banned from matches for life.] alves' response was to grab the banana, take a big bite and proceed with his game with professional cool. yeah, that's right: this man eats racism for breakfast.

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