Dealing With The Wonders Of Phlegm

I’ve just recently come out of my bad autumn allergy period, which means my runny nose and intermittent coughing have finally stopped, my head isn’t congested any more, and I sound like a normal person again.

Oh, and I’ve stopped producing phlegm wads, thank you very much.

large_6667d0ec-6086-4e4b-80fe-2f6603e60c8fOf course, phlegm and mucus are crucial parts of the body’s defensive mechanisms.  Through millions of years of evolution and natural selection, they were developed to protect the mouth, throat, lungs, and the rest of the human respiratory system by attracting and trapping the materials to which you are allergic.  You then expel the bad stuff by coughing up the little globs.  In my case, they eventually worked, because the allergic reactions have ended.  Having to endure the crawly river of mucus down the back of your throat and the phlegm clods in your mouth when allergy season hits is just the price we pay for keeping a healthy body healthy.  Still, it’s disgusting and irritating, and when you’re in the midst of it you can’t brush your teeth enough to get rid of that peculiarly salty phlegm wad taste.

This year, I tried to be proactive about the phlegminization period, which meant turning to the internet to see what the various “health care websites” have to say about dealing with it.  Of course, they’ve all got tips about what to eat and what to do, from gargling salt water, to consuming foods with lemon, ginger, garlic, and ginseng, to guzzling guava tea and downing zinc.  As I read, I wondered whether all of these “health care websites” are regulated in any way and whether they actually have any scientific basis for their instructions and tips — as opposed to trying to convince you to try a product or advance some other agenda.  After all, when you do a normal open-ended internet search you’re just calling up random websites that do something to get listing priority so they end up on the first page of results.  So I decided that, rather than going to the store, buying raw ginger root and other ingredients, and trying to prepare the concoction that one website said would help moderate the phlegm flow, I would just endure.  Notwithstanding my allergy, I was clear-headed enough to reach that conclusion.

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Getting Goosebumps

I’m a goosebump kind of guy.  Put on the right piece of music — preferably opera or a stirring piece of classical music — and I’ll be reacting with the familiar chills running up and down my arms, leaving the little hairs vibrating.  The selection above from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, or a beautiful Puccini aria from La Boheme, or Wagner’s Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, among many others, will do it every time.

What causes goosebumps or, to use the more elegant French term, frisson?  (Either of which, incidentally, is preferable in my book to the description used by some researchers —  “skin orgasms” — which makes a pure, deep, emotional reaction to music sound a little bit tawdry and embarrassing.)  Scientists aren’t quite sure.  It’s pretty easy to identify the kinds of music that provoke the reaction; typically the selections involve soaring notes or unexpected changes in volume, tone, or harmony.  But why do some people experience a noticeable physical reaction to such auditory stimulation?

Some scientists theorize that there are evolutionary roots to the reaction, because the arm hair response would help to warm our much hairier ancestors, but that doesn’t make much sense to me.  After all, a significant portion of humans — somewhere between 20 and 40 percent — never experience goosebumps, which seems like a pretty big percentage if you’re positing that the reaction is somehow significant to evolutionary success.  And I can’t exactly picture early hominids listening to Mozart or Bach or their prehistoric equivalent.

Other researchers think the goosebump phenomenon is tied to personality.  The goosebump group will like this:  some research studies indicate that those who shiver with frisson tend to get high marks in a personality trait called “openness to experience,” which is linked to a lot of positive characteristics like unusually active imaginations, appreciation of beauty and nature, intellectual curiosity, interest in trying out new experiences, and enjoyment of variety in life.  That makes us goosebumpistas sound pretty superior, but I honestly doubt that there’s really a big difference between us and the frisson-free folk.  I think it’s simply that people react to music differently.

There’s a reason why music was developed in the first place, after all.  It enriches our existence and makes us feel good — a sensation that some of us experience physically.  And we should be glad for that, too.  Who knows?  Maybe we wouldn’t have had the rich human tradition of beautiful music, in all its forms, if our ancestors hadn’t experienced a shudder of frisson once in a while.

Space Suit Chic

We’ve got a little bit of a “space race” going these days, 50 years after the first one.  This particular space race is about which commercial entity is going to be the provider of choice for both travel and delivery of space-related services — like creating working flight suits that people would wear on space voyages, and other necessary components of routine life in space.

space-x-suitLast week SpaceX unveiled the look of its flight suit to great fanfare.  Some people described the suit — which is sleek, futuristic, and basic black and white — as looking like the imperial stormtrooper outfits from Star Wars, but it clearly has a certain style.  Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, says the suit is functional, not a mock-up, and has been tested to double vacuum pressure.  Interestingly, Musk also noted that SpaceX was focused on both esthetics and functionality in designing the suit, and that is was “incredibly hard” to balance the two, while focusing on one or the other would have been a lot easier.

Earlier this year, Boeing gave us a peek at its version of a flight suit, which passengers would wear on the Boeing Starliner spacecraft that is intended to deliver passengers to places in low-Earth orbit, like the International Space Station.  Boeing’s announcement got a less less attention than the SpaceX unveiling, but then Boeing isn’t quite as cool as SpaceX.  Boeing’s flight suit, which is “Boeing Blue” in color, looks a lot more like an updated version of the Apollo suits we remember from the glory days of moon shots and lunar rovers in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

space_suit_630Of course, Boeing and SpaceX are just two of the companies vying for supremacy in the corporatization of space, and flight suit design isn’t going to finally and conclusively determine who gets a leg up in the competition.  But the disclosure of things like flight suits is important nevertheless.  It shows that companies are hard at work on the necessary nuts and bolts of spaceflight, and you can bet that for every item, like flight suits, that get public attention there are dozens of less interesting devices that are being developed, streamlined, and perfected.

The unveiling of flights suits has another important function, too:  getting people talking about spaceflight again.  When I was growing up, it seemed like just about every kid wanted to be an astronaut, and the space program was a constant topic of conversation.  In the cool occupation pyramid, “astronaut” was at the pinnacle.  The aspirational dreams of youngsters may not have made a difference in how the American space program was operated, but it provided an important core of support for NASA, and many of us still harbor those inner dreams even though the manned space program has basically had a 45-year hiatus.  If the disclosure of the SpaceX and Boeing flight suits cause kids to begin dreaming about space again, it would be a good thing for those of us who feel that our future lies out among the stars.

Eclipse-Watching In Atlanta

It’s a festive, communal atmosphere in the Atlanta airport right.  Rather than the normal mass of hurrying, grim-faced travelers, friendly people are crowding the windows, passing eclipse sunglasses back and forth, and craning their necks to see an eclipse that is supposed to be 97 percent of totality.  Outside it’s like twilight.

It’s easily the most amiable, neighborly feeling I’ve ever experienced in an American airport.  Too bad it only occurs during eclipses!

Eternal Questions

Some questions seem to be eternal ones.  Typically, they involve choices between competing views that are so obviously debatable, with good points to be made either way and strong, often passionate proponents ready to vigorously argue either side, that they’re just never going to be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Think Beatles versus Stones.  Apple versus Microsoft.  da Vinci versus Michelangelo.  Star Wars versus Star Trek.  Einstein versus Newton.  The Gettysburg Address versus President Trump’s Twitter feed.

You get the idea?  So, is cone versus basket filter one of them?

This is a question I’m ill-suited to resolve, because the niceties of coffee brewer technology are lost on me.  Obviously, there is a difference between the basket and cone approaches.  One directs the water flow through coffee grounds that are configured to end in a fine point, and the other doesn’t.  The difference in approach and design apparently is so significant that, when you go to buy coffee from one of those high-end coffee snob shops, the barista will ask you whether you have a basket or cone filter coffee brewer.  In short, the cone versus basket debate even affects how they grind the coffee for you.  Why?  Beats me!  But I sure as heck want to get the coffee ground in a way that is most suitable for the battered, aging coffee machine we’ve got at home — one of the basket-filtered variety.

I raise the potentially volatile basket versus cone question because we’re thinking of replacing our coffee pot with a new one.  In the past we’ve had both cone and basket design machines, and to be honest I really haven’t noticed a marked difference in the quality of the coffee they produce, because my coffee taste buds just aren’t that nuanced.  But now we’re being asked to definitively choose, again — like being exiled to a desert island and being told that you can only listen to the Beatles or the Stones while you’re there — and I want us to make a good, reasonably educated choice.  And presumably one design isn’t definitively better than the other, because manufacturers keep churning out machines with both designs, leaving people like me in a quandary on this question that evidently involves significant judgment and taste.

Can somebody out there who is knowledgeable about the topic and pays attention to their coffee let me know the competing views on the seminal cone versus basket filter issue?  Simply put: why should I care?

Compulsive Talkers

Recently Kish and I went to a show at Schiller Park.  We positioned our lawn chairs at the best available spot, sat down to wait for the show to begin, and then endured about 25 minutes of the woman sitting directly in front of us talking, non-stop and loudly, to the woman sitting to her left.  We weren’t eavesdropping, either — anyone who was sitting within a 15-foot radius couldn’t avoid overhearing her monologue.

Person Annoyed by Others TalkingWhat was she talking about?  It was a rambling story about driving somewhere, with people the woman to the left clearly didn’t know, because the talker had to keep explaining who was who.  Since we came in mid-gab, we don’t know how the story began.  All we know is that the woman to the left said not one word, while the talker went on, and on, and on, telling a story with no apparent point or purpose.  Only the start of the show finally, blessedly, shut her up.

What, exactly, makes some people talk too much?  It’s hard to understand for those of us who don’t.  As we walked home and considered the astonishing torrent of blather, Kish and I concluded that the woman must have been either stupid, for thinking that her pointless tale would have been of interest to anyone, or totally clueless, for not recognizing that she was boring the snot out of the woman she was talking to — or maybe both.

Interestingly, psychologists can’t seem to put their finger on exactly what causes compulsive talking.  Constant chatter is one of the recognized symptoms of people who have ADHD.  Some compulsive talkers are manic.  Breathless yakking also is associated with anxiety disorders, where people simply can’t deal with companionable silence and feel the urge to talk, talk, talk to avoid any gaps in the conversation.   Some articles link compulsive talking with narcissism and power relationships, where the talker believes their conversation must be intrinsically fascinating and keeps talking as a means of maintaining control.  And there is even a recognized mental condition, called logorrhea, in which people talk constantly and, often, incoherently.

Whatever the psychological cause might be, exposure to a compulsive talker is a useful exercise, because it makes you reflect on your own speech patterns and tendencies.  Our experience with the nonstop chatterbox reminded us that it’s important to shut up, take a breath, and listen to what others have to say every once in a while.

Sleepless, But On Guard

Everyone knows that, as you get older, your sleep patterns change and, for the most part, get worse.  A lot worse.

The arc of sleep goes from the totally out like a light sleep of the very young to the 12-hour power-sleeping capabilities of college students, but it’s all downhill from there.  By the time you’re in your 40s, 50s, and 60s, the realities of shrinking bladder capacity and ever-present concerns about developments in your career and family life combine to make sleep a fitful exercise, with lots of tossing and turning mixed in.  There’s not much REM sleep to be had.

neanderthalerScientists think there is an evolutionary reason for this unfortunate trend — one that goes back to caveman days.  They say older folks sleep less soundly because their role in the tribe was to be alert for potential predators, attacks from warring clans, and other lurking disasters.  In caveman days, the blue-haired set would go to bed earlier than the rest of the tribe.  Then, with their lighter sleep habits, they would be roused by the sounds that a nocturnal animal would make upon entering the cave and could give the alert, so that the more youthful members of the tribe could help to fight the predator.  And the sleepless oldsters would also be first up in the morning, to get that all-important fire going and be ready to deal with any unwanted intrusions by bears or wolves or sabertoothed tigers.

It’s nice to know that there’s an exciting explanation for experiencing poorer, less satisfying sleep as you get older, and that in the dawn of humanity a codger my age would be quickly roused to alertness in order to grapple with cave bears and save the tribe.  I’d still trade it for a solid seven hours of sound sleep.