What is the significance of number 13?

For most of the citizens that live in the Western world, the number 13 has been a portender of bad luck that should be studiously avoided. Haven’t you noticed that in many hotels of supposedly sophisticated cities, there is never a floor No. 13? Or a seat No.13 in a bus or train? Or a cafeteria bill that ends with it? It never happens.

Across many cultures the number 13 has been a sign of pending or actual bad luck. The striking similarity of the assignment of blame for bad deeds in so many cultures might be related to the fact that they used the solar-lunar calendar to mark the time. There are approximately 12.41 lunations per solar year, which results in 12 true months and a smaller 13th month—its odd, out-of-sync image marked it as “weird.”

A major social event of the Middle ages seared the memory of Friday the 13th in the collective memory of all the European civilizations we inherited in the Americas. Philip IV, king of France, was extremely envious of the generalized prestige and vast wealth of the Templar Order that had fought in the Crusades to liberate Jerusalem. Its Grand Master, Jacques de Morlay, had joined the ranks of the warrior priesthood in 1265 and had fought valiantly in the Syrian campaign. When Saladin retook the Holy City from the Christian armies in 1291, he moved with all his staff to Cyprus.

The King of France was desperate to secure fresh funding for his treasury, for which he engaged the help of the Pope Clement V to rob the Templars of their wealth. Jacques de Morlay was summoned to the Vatican to supposedly discuss a crusade with the Roman Curia, but it was a vile set-up to round up all the Templar top brass. On October 13, 1307 they were all arrested under the orders of the king and brutally tortured to extract a confession of fabricated debauchery and theft in their ranks. Based on a partial confession by the victimized Morlay, the Pope demanded that all Templar members should make a similar confession; they initially did to protect their leader, but they recanted it when the Pope emissary came to investigate personally.

The machinery to crush the order and steal their wealth was already unstoppable. In 1309 and 1310, Morlay appealed directly to the pope who blatantly ignored him. In March 1312, the church deconsecrated the Templar Order and two years later a papal commission of three cardinals “corroborated” the criminal charges against Morlay and his superior staff; that same day they were all burned at a stake in public. Some onlookers later said that before dying Morlay cursed the treacherous king and foretold that he would die without a male heir. That prediction did come true.

These series of events provoked great commotion in the continent, searing a date in their collective memories. The Templars were arrested on Friday the 13th, 1307. That date corresponded to the old Julian calendar that was widely used at the time. It had been proposed by the administration of Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. after extensive consultation with the Greek mathematicians and astrologers; it was progressively replaced by the Gregorian calendar, promulgated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.

What do you think? Please tell us.

Don’t leave me alone.

 

 

Superstitious artists – Charles Dickens

If you receive a knife as a gift, you must return that odd courtesy with another gift.

Charles Dickens was one of the most popular writers of his times and he received a trove of gifts from his admirers over the course of his career, including cutlery. In 1850 his novel David Copperfield, which he considered as his masterpiece, was published in England; William Brookes, the owner of the Sheffield tool company William Brookes and Sons, was miffed to learn that Dickens had used the name “Brooks of Sheffield” to ridicule his main character and wrote a letter to him. The author replied that: “it is one of those remarkable coincidences…I had no idea that I was taking a liberty with any existing firm, and why I added Sheffield to Brooks (of all the towns in England) I have no…knowledge. It came to my head as I wrote.”

Mr. Books was so satisfied with the writer’s courteous response to his concerns that he sent him a beautiful cutlery case in 1851. Alarmed at the prospect of being left out of that budding friendship, Dickens immediately prepared an autographed first copy of his book with a nice letter. That book will come to auction in London soon. For all his savvy knowledge of human character, Dickens respected old wives’ tales. Defiantly superstitious he always carried a navigational compass with him in order not to lose his way—artistic inspiration—with the contact of worldly distractions. To receive the inspirational influence of the muses, his bed always had to face North.

The author plied his trade in the beginning of the Victorian period that started with the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837 and ended with her passing away in 1901. Despite all the purported social sophistication of Victorian middle and upper classes, they mostly believed in the mystical aspect of life and respected certain ingrained traditions at home. When a person died, all the mirrors of the place where the wake was being held had to be covered with a black cloth, lest the spirit became trapped in one of those gateways. All the clocks in the household were stopped to mark the mourning and to avoid bad luck for the survivors. The fear of opening an umbrella inside a home came from that era.

As many other writers, Dickens believed that the presence of a cat was necessary to maintain the inspiration in the artist’s residence. Mary Dickens, daughter of the author, said that initially cats were not allowed in the household because they had many birds. However, she received a white kitten called Willamina from a London friend and it instantly became a dear member of the family, developing a devotion for her father.

What do you think? Please tell us.

Don’t leave me alone.

Graphology – art, science or pseudo-science?  

-“Doctor…You have many personalities inside you—like Henry Kissinger.”

Of all the insults and effronteries we have received in our medical career, nothing comes even close to that dictum said by a psychologist specializing in Graphology. Not that we did not appreciate his diagnosis of a troubling psychological fact, which we have had serious suspicions of for years, but rather his bold comparison to that awful character. He was responsible for abetting the terrible repression of many progressive militants and organizations in Latin America during the seventies and eighties; our back still hurts from the heavy blows of a policeman ‘s baton when he cornered us during a street protest against the military dictatorship in Uruguay. If you want to know the details, please refer to our novel where we make Didier, one of the central characters, relive the terrible fear and pain we experienced that day.

During a prolonged break between patients’ scheduled appointments where we both consulted, he had encouraged us to write a paragraph to analyze our writings. Even though we were initially distrustful of the proposition, we politely accepted it. After just a few minutes of examining the contours and pauses of our writings, he started to accurately describe most of the positive and negative sides of our personality. He even had an irrefutable concluding remark: “above all, you do enjoy the histrionics.” Touché. We may try hard to conceal our true feelings and thoughts, but not our writings.

According to the British Institute of Graphologists: “Sumerian merchants were the first to codify their transactions in a recognizable script in 3000 BC and the first understanding of an individual’s character form their handwriting goes back to 500 BC when Confucius warned ‘beware of a man whose writing sways like a reed in the wind.” In the seventeenth century a school of Graphology was created in the university town of Bologna—the first public university of our planet. La Dotta was, and still is, the siege of scholarly research with yearly courses for interested students.

Is it an art or is a science? Most graphologists would vehemently argue that, as the interpretation requires original empirical skills bordering on artistic expression, it is both. But its detractors claim that it is only a pseudoscience with limited use. Graphology has been extensively studied and discussed in the think-thanks and institutes of the modern secret services like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Unfortunately due to the secrecy they operate under, most of that material remains sealed out of the public purview for years until it is finally de-classified like the two reports we will discuss here.

In a now declassified 1993 CIA report, the analyst E.A. Rundquist said: “it is interesting that graphologists require some of this investigative information (sex, age, national origin and profession) as a prerequisite of their analysis. They also get the informational content of the handwriting specimens themselves.” Is he insinuating that graphologists are playing the game with a foul hand? In fact the use of biographical information might set the limits for the “inspirational take-offs” of enthusiastic graphologists in their work. In spite of his skepticism about it, he said that: “ for the clandestine services, however, graphology as a validated assessment technique might have application in a sufficient number of instances, those where background investigation is impossible, to warrant considerable research to determine its effectiveness.”

Keith Laycock, a self-declared amateur graphologist, wrote in a now de-classified 1994 CIA report that: “the art of handwriting analysis-graphology…has two branches: an established and ‘respectable’ one devoted to the identification of individuals for their handwriting, and a black sheep-branch dealing with the assessment of personality.” The author said that, in spite being an amateur, he believed that the black sheep variant is very useful to assess the personalities of person that are otherwise difficult to evaluate. He believed that any serious assessment of Graphology must settle these issues first:

a) How far do we propose to go in plumbing the ramified depths of a subject’s character?

b) How do we handle the semantic problems which plague character descriptions?

c) What do we do about standards for judging the ethical aspects of character?

The author believed that first the requirements of the job must be determined to limit the extent of the study for these parameters: desirable, dubious or disqualifying traits. Ever since Congressman, and then President, Theodore Roosevelt designed the American Civil Service Corps in the beginning of the 20th century (to terminate the abominable corruption in hiring practices of the ethnic political parties ) the recruiters of the security services have not been interested in a complete psychological portrait of the candidate but just to properly vet him/her/sie for big character flaws or weaknesses.

The second problem is related to semantics: what is an honest or brave person? The author believed that: “definition of such words is a practical impossibility since the third unknown, an ethical standard, is involved. If we could establish agreed ethical standards, we could, no doubt, compose definitions which would be adequate, but there does not now appear to be now such a set of standards.” Does that set exist at present? Thus author believed that Graphology is more a art than a science, for which the real consistency of a practitioner’s results must be determined across several experiences in order to weed out the charlatans and dilettantes that claim to be experts in the field.

Almost thirty years after these two reports were produced, the major questions they put forward remain largely unanswered because more reliable studies might still be needed. Or perhaps they do exist already, guarded in a dark vault in the catacombs of Langley…

What do you think? Please tell us.

Don’t leave me alone.

Gravitational influence of the Moon

Since Ancient Times, humans have realized that the Moon has a big influence on planet Earth. Modern science showed us that the Moon modifies our planet’s tides, weather and temperatures. Elizabeth Merriam wrote: “since the Moon’s gravitational force depends on distance, at any given time, the portion of the Earth closest to the Moon (i.e. directly underneath it) is most strongly influenced by gravity. This means that when the Moon is over an ocean, the water is pulled toward it, creating what is called the tidal bulge. As the Moon orbits the Earth, the tidal bulge acts like a wave sweeping around the Earth. This effect causes the tides.” The relative distances of the Sun, Earth and Moon can affect the size and the magnitude of our planet’s two daily tidal bulges; the shape of the shoreline, including the presence of bays and estuaries, can increase the size of tides.

In any given 24 hours-period there are two low tides and two high tides, separated by a span of about an hour; during the new moon and full moon, high tides further increase in size and the low tides further decrease in size. The first and last quarter moon moderate the size of high and low tides. The weather is influenced through the presence or absence of water currents that can alter the continental temperatures like the Gulf current and the El Niño phenomenon have steadily done. The gravitational pull of the Moon can affect the land and atmosphere in a much-lower levels. What many ancient cultures have done is to study the possible effect of the Moon on human beings.

Animal physiology is affected by the seasonal, lunar and circadian rhythms in varying ways; even though the seasonal and circadian influences were studied, the lunar one is less well known. The lunar cycle supposedly influences the menstruation, fertility and birth rates; researchers have proposed that the level of melatonin and endogenous steroids might be the hormonal mediators. During full moon days, the birds lose the variations of their melatonin and corticosterone levels. The structure of the pineal glands and the taste sensitivity of laboratory rats are affected by the lunar cycles. The gravitational pull  of the moon may trigger the release of hypothalamic hormones. What seemed to have been a “traditional truth” for old cultures is just being unveiled by science.

The correlation of the lunar cycles and fertility/births has been contested by meta-analysis of data. The records of 11,961 live births and 8,142 natural births (not induced by drugs or C-sections)  during 1974-1978 In the University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center did not show any significant relationship with the lunar cycles. The study of 564.039 births in North Carolina from 1997 to 2001 did not show a significant correlation either. A 2001 review of 70,000,000,000 birth records from the National Center for Health Statistics also failed to find a meaningful correlation.

Two studies have found evidence that a full moon can exacerbate the aggressiveness of patients with Mental Disorders, especially Schizophrenia; a methodical analysis of data confirmed it. People with Epilepsy have less seizures when the moon is less illuminated and there is a clear sky. The Sussex Police in the UK claimed that there was a rise in violent crime in their streets during the full moon period, which has been reiterated by their peers in Ohio, Kentucky and New Zealand. A statistically dubious study found an increase of fatalities in Dade County during the full moon.

What do you think? Please tell us.

Don’t leave me alone.

Superstitious artists – Frida Kahlo

When she had a miscarriage in 1931, Frida Kahlo asked her physician to see the dead fetus; he adamantly refused but he gave her a medical textbook where she could learn about fetal growth. She had three traumatic miscarriages during her lifetime, and she carried an emotional burden. She wrote in her dairy that: “ I am not sick, I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.” Her profound angst and suffering were positively sublimated in her artistic creation.

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón was born on July 6, 1907 in Coyoacán, a small city in the outskirts of Mexico City, to Guillermo Kahlo, a German-born photographer, and Matilde Calderón y Gonzales, a homemaker of mestizo (mixed-race)origins. Her childhood was particularly sad as her parents did not love each other and the Mexican revolution bankrupted the father’s photography business; at age 6 she contracted polio, which made her right leg shorter and thinner than the left one. She became a recluse at her home where she was mentored by her loving father in art, literature and photography. She started school later than her sisters and did not follow them to a convent school ( her mother was a religious fanatic) and went to a German school. After being expelled from it, she went to a vocational school where she was sexually abused by a female teacher. She was accepted in the National Preparatory School that fostered the indigenismo—the assertion of the cultural values of native people to counteract the European colonizing influences of the elite classes. When she was about to enter medical school, a traffic accident disabled her.

After a slow recovery, she began to socialize in an artistic circle with overtly leftist leanings; she joined the Communist Party and in 1928 she married Diego Rivera, a famous painter who was twenty years her senior and had two common-law wives. In 1929, Kahlo and Rivera moved to Cuernavaca, which had been the theater of some of the worst fighting in the Civil War; there Frida’s sense of Mexican identity surfaced as she  dressed with the traditional colorful dresses of the Mexican peasantry, especially from the matriarchal society of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. In 1930 the couple moved to San Francisco, California, where Diego Rivera was commissioned with several high-profile murals and they were entertained by the polite society of the time. Extremely annoyed by her husband’s frequent infidelities, Frida started her agitated life as a lover of many men and women, a fact she never cared to conceal to anyone, including Diego himself.  In 1931 the couple returned to Mexico but soon left for New York City for the opening of Diego Rivera’s retrospective in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) Being very fluent in English and a good communicator, Frida interacted naturally with the American press, unabashedly claiming that she was in fact the best painter of the two. Brave girl.

In her self-portraits, Frida used many images and symbols of Pre-Columbian people like the Aztecs and the heavily Christian-influenced colonial culture; her work is embedded with Superstition. In order to search for her true identity and gender, she used different costumes and masks with a troubling surrealist perspective, mixing life and death in her work. Her painting evoked the strong yet protective matriarchal figures of tehuanas, mythical goddesses of Ancient Times in Mexico. In her well-illustrated  book, Suzanne Barbezat said: “as a teen and young adult, Frida experimented with different styles of dresses. She was clearly aware of the power of clothing in crafting her identity and enjoyed making a statement and even shocking people with her different looks.” The symbology of roots is present everywhere as both a testimony to her heritage and her feelings of entrapment. She considered that trees were the natural agents that linked us humans through the different generations and that they were a symbol of hope.

Frida bared her soul and body in her paintings in order to “exorcise” the profound angst that she felt all her life due to her many physical disabilities and her three failed attempts at motherhood. Her canvas is brutally splattered with human tissue and drips warm blood, one drop at a time. She was branded as the feminine voice of Surrealism. When she arrived in a traumatized Paris in January 1939, due to the looming signs of war, she had difficulty to retrieve her tableaus from the Customs Agency and the gallery’s owners that agreed to show her work vetoed all of them except two for the exhibition because they considered her work “too shocking for the Parisian public.” In spite of the limited exhibition, she was admired and the Musée du Louvre bought The Frame, the first time that the haughty European institution acquired a painting from a Mexican artist.

As a physician that delivered several babies with the aid of midwifes and nurses during many stints as an Emergency Ward attending, we can attest to the bloody brutishness of the birthing process. It is a terribly stressful experience for all of those present, foremost for the mother, but yet fabulously exhilarating. Our first delivery occurred  in a Saturday night shift in the city hospital of San Miguel del Monte in the Provincia de Buenos Aires of Argentina. Fast asleep in the on-call room, we were suddenly awakened by the on-duty nurse: “Doctor, a pregnant woman just came in…It’s happening.” Half-awake, we jumped into our shoes from the bunk and we followed her, shaking, to the Obstetrics ward.

There we found two scrubbed-up nurses , at the ready, staring at us, waiting for our instructions. It must have been one of the scariest moments of our life. By far. Gently, the nurses lead us through the tried-out routine from the clinical protocols that we have learned in Medical School, which allowed us to put our knowledge into action . Suddenly our mind’s dense fog cleared out and we found our purpose as a physician. After a few minutes of gentle coaching to the mother and a timely episiotomy to open up the canal  (the midwife slammed the knife on our hand and showed us where and how to cut), so the baby could have more space to pass, she was able to push the baby in our hands. In that instant we knew that there was a much higher entity that had enabled that miracle. Bedazzled by the first cry of the newborn, we showed him to the sweaty, happy mother.

–“What is his name?” we asked her.

-“Federico,” she whispered.

That same night we prepared a long letter to our dear grandmother Yolanda who always reminded us of the feat. It was, and still is, one of the proudest moments of our whole medical career.

What do you think? Please tell us.

Don’t leave me alone.

 

 

 

 

The “uninvited” visitors  

Some books, you pursue all your life. Some other ones. pursue you all your life.

A French teacher once told us forthrightly: “ I know you like Maupassant…He’s a witty, funny, concise narrator that had a flamboyant lifestyle and a tragically premature demise due to syphilis. But avoid Contes Fantastiques because you might never be able to calmly fall asleep again.” She warned us to never read Le Horla with a camouflaged whisper, as if she were fearful of the tale. Not inclined to have any surprises in our reading material, we dutifully followed her advice.

A few years ago, our daughter Noël Marie attended an Italian language course in Venezia during the summertime; when she came back to Miami, she proudly showed us the presents she bought. –“Dad, I went to an open-air bookstore in La Giudecca on a Saturday and found these for you.” She ceremoniously pulled out three vintage-looking bound collections of stories, a city map, and an innocuously looking soft cover white booklet. What was it? Contes Fantastiques… It found us.

Guy de Maupassant was born on August 5, 1850 in the Chateau de Miromesmil, Normandy, into a bourgeois family of freethinkers; his parents divorced when he was 11 years old and he briefly attended a Catholic school until he purposefully provoked his expulsion from it. He went to a lycée in Le Havre and in the fall of 1869, he started to study Law in Paris; the following year he volunteered as an infantryman in the Franco-Prussian war of 1871, which resulted in a humiliating defeat for France. He was demobilized in 1871 and returned to Paris to finish his Law studies. His father helped him get a commission first in the Ministry of Marine and then of Public Instruction. Laure, his mother, was friendly with Alfred LePoittevin, a close friend of Gustave Flaubert; she asked the latter to “keep an eye” on the young man and help him in his budding literary career. Introducing him to other writers, Flaubert said: “He’s my disciple and I consider him like a son,”

Maupassant enjoyed swimming and boating in the Seine with his coterie friends on weekends; oftentimes they invited des “filles gaies” to accompany them along their excursions. Once he became rich with his publications, he bought several boats and even resided in one of them. Like his brother, he discovered that he had syphilis at an early age but refused any kind of treatment. In 1880 he contributed his short story Boule de Suif to a compilation of six stories about the Franco-German war that Emile Zola was preparing; it was the best one and became an instant hit with the public. It narrates the vicissitudes of a prostitute in a stagecoach that gets raped by a German officer without being helped by any of her previously obsequious voyage companions. It depicts the hypocrisy of society at large and its somber tone would mark all his later works. A fierce naturalist.

As his brain was suffering the ravages of Neurosyphilis, he wrote his scariest stories with a clear mind, dismissing the naysayers’ critique that he had been possessed by maddening hallucinations. Le Horla was written in 1887, a few months before he turned psychotic and admitted to an asylum. In a gripping emotional crescendo, it tells the story of a young bourgeois that, after spontaneously waving at a Brazilian four-mast boat, has the certitude that an invisible entity jumped off the ship and took residence in his home. Horla is a composite of “hors” which means “outside of”, and “la”, which means “there.” He maniacally feels its presence in all the little details of his home.

The central character believed that this “uninvited” visitor was only the advance scout of a larger army of similar beings that were waiting for the right moment to take over our planet. He noticed that one glass of water that he had left full one night, was inexplicable empty the following day. He believed that the mysterious invaders liked to drink water and milk when he was distracted. He had nightmares and when he woke up, he felt observed or that somebody was kneeling on his body.

How many times did we have the fleeting sensation that there was a goblin at home? We can’t find our keys-chain, even though we swear that we had put it on the table the night before… We chastise whomever lives with us for drinking our beer, even though they said they didn’t …. We can’t find the 20 bucks we had in our pocket, even though our hubbies swear they didn’t search our pants… And worse of all, for those like us that like to bring a glass of water to the nightstand, we have the impression that someone might have drunk some of it during our sleep. Never happened to you?

A last-minute development: that copy of Contes Fantastiques is nowhere to be found now. Is it lurking in a darkened corner of our flat ready to jump on us when we are at our very weakest?

What do you think? Please tell us.

Don’t leave me alone.

Talking with the Departed

-“Doctor…Need to talk to him… Just one more time—please help me.”

Pamela X. is the smart middle-aged lady from Coral Gables that we featured in one of the earliest, and most heart-wrenching, posting of our series of Emotional Frustration in an article titled as “The Gone Son.” We narrated how one Saturday morning her only son had committed suicide. The lack of apparent signs or causes for that tragic decision had baffled her distressed parents, especially because he had left no note and had not shared his intention with any other family members or friends. In honor of him, we addressed the issue of Suicide in our book “Emotional Frustration-the hushed plague.”

In spite of being followed and medicated by the best psychiatric team of Dade County, she always occasionally came to visit us in the following years, despite the fact that we could not add anything. Well, that is not entirely true…She progressively hinted that she wanted us to recommend a good medium in order to contact her deceased son. She was still hurting from his tragically unannounced decision to take his life and she desperately wanted to ask him a few things. Initially we played dumb evading the request altogether (for which we have a lifelong experience with opinionated ladies), but we came to the conclusion that if we did not help her, she would end up cheated by charlatans. We reluctantly gave her the contact info of a friend-of a friend-of a friend-of a friend… We did not want to be present at the séance nor do we want to discuss what she told us.

Mediumship is the practice of supposedly being able to actively communicate with the spirits of the departed by gifted individuals called mediums that act individually or as a part of larger conglomerate in Shamanism, Voodoo, Candomblé and others (we will discuss them in other posts) The most common interventions are the take-over of the medium’s body by a spirit who engages directly with the interested party or the relaying of the spirit’s messages by the medium. It became a very fashionable entertainment with the upper European classes in the Nineteenth Century; some serious scientists of the time like Pierre Curie researched it and eventually became converts. Other scientists concluded that the phenomenon could be explained by suggestion and telepathy. In a 2005 study Drs. O’Keefe and Ciaran, from the British Psychological Society, concluded that there was nothing supernatural in that practice and that mediums could not possibly contact with the departed.

The continuing fight between believers and non-believers of Mediumship misses an important anthropological fact. Above all, it should be considered as a cultural phenomenon that has been reproduced in countless settings. Humans, unlike all the other animals, are constantly anguished by the idea of death and what lies beyond; moreover, we always feel that there is something else that we should have said. Or done. Some persons take refuge in religion, others in esoteric cults and still others in unproven ways. When we finally relented to ease the access of Pamela X. to a medium. we wanted to protect her from shady operators that would have raided her purse and spiritually harm her even more. Even though we have our serious doubts about the practice, which seems like a sophisticated form of hypnosis to us, we believe that it might have some healing effects for some patients, like the Charcot’s sessions in La Salpétriêre had for his.

What do you think? Please tell us.

Don’t leave me alone.