Friday, November 26, 2010

The Damp November of the Soul

Was it my imagination? Ever since the time changed earlier this month I’d been feeling sort of blah---no energy, wanting to take a nap in the afternoon, difficulty focusing on work and projects, craving for sweets, putting on a lot of weight, no desire to go out and deal with other people---“social withdrawal.”

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

--Melville in Moby Dick

OMG, these are classic symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that occurs in relation to the seasons, most commonly beginning in winter!

SAD was first systematically reported and named in the early 1980s by Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D., and his associates at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Rosenthal was initially motivated by his desire to discover the cause of his own experience of depression during the dark days of the northern US winter. He theorized that the lesser amount of light in winter was the cause. Rosenthal and his colleagues then documented the phenomenon of SAD in a placebo-controlled study utilizing light therapy. A paper based on this research was published in 1984. Although Rosenthal's ideas were initially greeted with skepticism, SAD has become well recognized, and his 1993 book, Winter Blues has become the standard introduction to the subject.

It’s hard to believe that the amount of ambient light reaching your retinas during daylight hours would have such an effect on your mood, but it does. Think about the number of animals that go into hibernation or “winter sleep.” Who is to say that a residual effect of this impulse doesn’t occur in modern humans?

Although they say it doesn’t affect everyone, Subsyndromal Seasonal Affective Disorder, a milder form of SAD, is experienced by an estimated 14.3% (vs. 6.1% SAD) of the U.S. population. The disorder may begin in adolescence or early adulthood. I remember my first twinges of it at that age, just before moving to Florida (from Vermont).

It’s said that the blue feeling experienced by SAD sufferers can usually be dampened or extinguished by exercise and increased outdoor activity, particularly on sunny days, resulting in increased solar exposure. Certainly Florida living with its warm weather and outdoors lifestyle cuts down of the endocrine, hormonal (or whatever) effects causing Seasonal Affective Disorder. But I’ve known people even there who were “victims” of this malady.

Now that we are living in North Carolina, it’s come back. As soon as I realized what might be happening, I started spending more time outside in the sunlight during the morning. Yes, it does seem to be working.

In some northern areas people use a light box. It seems a little ridiculous to picture someone eating their breakfast next to an array of 100 watt light bulbs, but they say it works. And for those who suffer from this syndrome, it enables them to ward off depression.

There was a businessman from Connecticut, who may or may not have been a SAD sufferer, but when he became successful, he built an indoor pool with banks of sunlamps and tropical foliage. There he drank his morning coffee, before the sun even came up. I really think he had the right idea.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Oh, It Counts, All Right . . . .

. . .But sometimes you have to wonder who is doing the counting. It's a lesson we should have learned in 2000, when the country waited two months to find out who would win the presidential election, during which time "hanging chad" worked its way into the American vocabulary.

Many people were concerned when the "fix" seemed to be computerized voting machines that would record the votes electronically. "Technology to the rescue." They pointed out that the only sure way to maintain the public trust was to have a printed ballot, which provide a concrete paper trail. Anyone who has any experience with computers know that a whole database can be extinguished by the click of a mouse or a surge of electricity at the wrong time.

As long as there's a paper trail, election officials can do a recount, even if the ballots are scanned optically by machine. Devices like the Accuvote system proved themselves in numerous recounts, with close to 100% accuracy.

Of course as long as there are politicians, there will be someone who will find a way to gain the upper hand in an under-handed way. In a not-too-distant primary election, someone sent back an absentee ballot which had the box to be filled in next to two of the candidates' names, but nothing next to the third guy's name.

The elections people quickly and quietly corrected the mistake, but left some of us thinking. "That was just an honest mistake, wasn't it?"This year in another election in a different state, yet another disturbing issue came up. The voter signs an affadavit attesting to his identity and right to vote. The affadavit contains a bar code. The voter brings it to another table in the polling place, where a clerk gets out a paper ballot which also contains a bar code. The he scans both bar codes, and hands the blank ballot to the voter.

The question is: does that mean that they can find out how you vote? The official answer is, "No, of course not. They wouldn't do that anyway."

But the computer types we have talked to say, "It'd be a piece of cake." Not every jurisdiction has a political machine that might, say, tinker with the property assessments depending on how someone voted. But it's enough of a threat just thinking that someone could find out, if they wanted to, to have a chilling effect not only on free speech, but on your right to choose your candidates.

It's something to think about. As a retired lawman who was in a position to know once told me, "Free elections are our last bastion of freedom."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Dry Bite

A story related by a friend, found at the bottom of the shoebox:

As an (undergraduate) student of botany I was fortunate enough to take part in several excursions to the Caribbean islands and Central America. One such trip took us to Panama, where an international non-profit organization maintained a research facility strategically located between coast and mountains.

Although we were primarily there to work and learn, I was looking forward to a promised midweek excursion to the nearest town, which would be a chance to have an informal conversation with our professors and visiting graduate students, some of whom were attractive females (but I digress).

After a long day of collecting and cataloguing samples of the native flora, a van and driver appeared to take us into town. In the tropics there is little of what they call twilight in northern zones. By six o’clock night had already fallen. As we made our may down the rough, darkened path to the van, one of the graduate students complained that someone had let a branch snap back on the path and hit her. She thought she might be bleeding.

As we drove into town over the bumpy road, the driver turned on the overhead light in the van for a minute and turned around to look. Something had scratched her above her tank top, right alongside her breast. He snapped off the light and kept driving.

A short time later we arrived in town, where there were lights and the promise of beer. The graduate student was still carrying on. “Boy, that hurts,” she said to no one in particular. “If you’re bending a branch to get by, the least you can do is give the person behind you some warning.”

“No, Señora, that was not a branch,” said the driver, turning to address her. “That is the bite of a fer-de-lance. There is a type here that climbs in the bushes at night.”

“Oh, my God!” she said. “What are we going to do?”

“Nothing,” replied the driver. “You see, they do not always inject the venom. They just bite. We call this a "dry bite." You can get some Neosporin to put on it, if you want to.”

“But are you sure it’s a dry bite?” She was starting to panic.

Pero sí,” he said. “If it wasn’t, where you were hit, you’d have been dead by the time we got to town.”