Something to Sink my Teeth into

Brown Lady

Brown Lady

Skeptical thinking can sometimes take the fun out of stuff. Most people enjoy the thought that there’s a little magic in the world, that there’s some solid foundation for centuries old legends. Many of us love to be titillated by the horror of stories about ghosts, werewolves, sorcerers, vampires and the like. But when it comes right down to it, no matter how many people relay their “true” stories and experiences with spirits, magic, and the un-dead, logical thinkers just can’t quite bring themselves to succumb to the hype. In fact, they tend to move in the opposite direction; to find an answer that explains away these creatures and gives a reason for their existence in age old tales and popular culture but not in real life. Sometimes they are successful in debunking myths, other times the challenge is more difficult. For instance, how do you prove or disprove the existence of magic? A believer will say it exists because they believe it does. A skeptic will say it can’t be proven to exist, so therefore it doesn’t. Stalemate. But something more solid, of the flesh (if I may say so), is an easier target to disprove for a skeptic. If you trace back the myths surrounding preternatural creatures to their origins, you can unearth (pardon the pun) some pretty compelling evidence that they do not, in fact, exist.

Mina and Dracula, Bram Stoker's Dracula

Mina and Dracula, Bram Stoker’s Dracula

I know. I know. Bubble burst. Sorry. So why, you ask, am I callously destroying your happy world of rainbows, unicorns and vampires? Well, actually, because in the instance that I am about to explain, the truth is cooler than the fiction…in my humble opinion. It’s actually kind of grosser too…but if you’ve seen CSI…you’ll be okay. What the heck got me thinking about this in the first place? Well, I’ll tell you. I happen to be one of these logical thinkers who also loves the world of fantasy and magic. Of all the nasty, villainous creatures, the vampire tends to intrigue me the most. This is likely due to it’s relevantly recent incarnation as a sexy, brooding, bad boy…which I think most women of my generation (and younger) can appreciate. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not obsessed by the vampire, but I do enjoy the stories that have come out in the last 20 years or so. My head was first turned by the 1992 film version of Bram Stokers Dracula. Although most people have slammed the movie, I have to admit I loved the romance in it. Then, 6 years later, Buffy the Vampire Slayer arrived on tv and I was hooked. Since Buffy, there have been many movies and many television shows about vampires which have been created and targeted to the teenage crowd; one of the latest is The Vampire Diaries on tv. I am now hooked on that which is the main reason why vampires are at the forefront of my mind these days.

Damon Salvatore – The Vampire Diaries

I’m told I’m way behind the curve on this one…vampires…but that’s the way I roll so bear with me as I might have something to say that you haven’t heard before. But, before I get into that, I have to ramble on a little more. My first impulse was to research why vampires have become so sexy recently – well…recent as in the last 100 years. That topic, however, has already been covered extensively (I was warned) so I decided that it would not be a good angle for me. If you’re interested read here and here for a start. With that scrapped I turned to another aspect of vampire lore – the legends of vampires world wide. Turns out it’s also been donea lot (again…I was warned). But one point of interest that came of this initial research was that I discovered that in the Middle East and Turkey there seem to be no legends of vampires whatsoever. Weird, I thought, since all of the old world (Europe, Asia, Africa, and Russia) have long established legends. So, being ever so resourceful and curious, I contacted my friend and fellow blogger, Abufares, and asked him about it. He was only aware of regional oral folklore but not much else. As far as he knew, stories of vampires just didn’t exist. They had all sorts of myths of demons and such but no vampires. He said he’d look into it, but it appears I piqued his curiosity beyond a little research. If you go to his blog, you will find out what he discovered in his own post on the topic. At this point, as I am writing this, his findings are still a mystery even to me. Ah, you gotta love blogging.

So with two dead ends already in my research, where was I to go from here? I thought about it for a while. I really needed something to sink my teeth into (I know…witty, eh?) and I asked myself what did I really want to know about vampires that I have never read before, that no one, in my experience, has ever talked about? Well, the answer was very simple and yet something I hadn’t considered. In two words…forensic pathology. I’m betting, however, I need more than two words to satisfy your curiosity now, don’t I? No…I’m not about to explain how the dead can rise again, scientifically…well, actually…I am…sort of. What started it all seems, to me, to be kind of a chicken and egg situation (I can’t seem to find a good, clear answer). However, I shall muddle my way through the history first to get to the good stuff. Most of the vampire folklore we (in North America) are familiar with comes out of 17th and 18th century Eastern Europe; areas like Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and East Prussia (modern day Poland and Russia) were most prolific in their story telling. In fact, the citizens in these countries had worked themselves into such a frenzy about supposed vampire attacks that even government officials had become involved in hunting and killing the creatures. There were two well documented cases in Serbia, Petar Blagojević (Peter Plogojowitz) and Arnaut Pavle (Arnold Paole) who, apparently came back from the dead and attacked the locals. Government officials even examined their bodies after they were finally “killed” and confirmed their findings in reports. These reports, of course, spread like wildfire and reinforced the hysteria which became commonly known as the “18th Century Vampire Controversy”.1

~ Autopsy 1700’s

But what did they find exactly? This is where the very interesting (and slightly gory) forensic pathology comes into play. I imagine that what the government officials, mentioned above, saw was similar to what the people (probably peasants) who first started the stories found when they exhumed corpses of the supposed vampires. Now, this part, if you’ll forgive me, is a bit of conjecture. I’m not sure whether the stories about vampires started because someone dug up a corpse or whether a corpse was dug up because of the stories (chicken and egg). I hazard to guess, however, that due to medical error and the invention of embalming fluid several hundred years off, it is possible the the first “vampire” was an unfortunate soul who had been buried alive, struggled and scratched their way out of the ground, and returned to his family or friends for shelter only to be killed “again” or chased off in terror. You can imagine that their bodies, particularly their hands, would be mutilated and bloodied and their pallor from lack of oxygen and shock would be quite white with maybe a bluish tinge. Chances are, they may also be suffering from the illness or injury that put them near death so all in all they appear rather ghastly. Can you blame their family and friends for becoming hysterical upon the return of their “dead” loved one?

Exhuming Vampires

Whatever the real instigating factor, according to Paul Barber, a research associate with the Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California, it was well documented by “literate outsiders” that digging up corpses was a fairly frequent event in Eastern Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries.2 The problem was that, particularly among the peasantry, understanding of decomposition was very limited. In fact, I really don’t think they had any understanding at all. And herein lies a good theory about what vampires truly were. As an example, here is an account of state of the body of Petar Blagojević:

“The hair and beard — even the nails, of which the old ones had fallen away — had grown on [the corpse]; the old skin, which was somewhat whitish, had peeled away, and a new fresh one had emerged under it. . . . Not without astonishment, I saw some fresh blood in his mouth, which, according to the common observation, he had sucked from the people killed by him.”

Barber explains away any supernatural possibilities with the following:

1. Although many people believe it to be so, hair does not grow on a dead body. What actually happens is that the skin recedes making it appear as though the hair is longer.

2. Nails do fall off of dead bodies, however new ones would not grow. Likely what the observer saw were the nail beds which looked like new growth.

3. When the observer writes about the skin, he is describing “…skin slippage: epidermis and dermis. Many accounts remark also on the “ruddy” or “dark” color of the corpse, a phenomenon that may be caused by decomposition and a variety of other things as well. Contrary to popular belief, the face of a corpse is not necessarily pale at all, since pallor results from the blood draining from the tissues. If the person was supine when he or she died, the face of the corpse may be pale; if prone, the face may be dark. Those parts of the corpse that are lower than the rest may be gorged with blood that, having lost its oxygen, is dark and causes the skin to appear dark as well. And the parts that are under pressure — where the weight of the body is distributed — may be light in color because the (now dark) blood has been forced away from the tissues. The dark coloration resulting from the saturation of the tissues with blood is called “livor mortis” or “lividity.” It is this phenomenon that allows medical examiners to determine whether a body has been moved after death: If lividity is present where it shouldn’t be, or not present where it should, then the body has been moved.”

4. Blood at the mouth, although appearing “fresh” to the observer was likely not tested as to its freshness. The truth of the matter is that exhumed bodies often have liquid blood at the mouth. “The reason the blood migrates to the mouth is that the body, as it decomposes, bloats from the gases produced by decomposition, and this bloating puts pressure on the lungs, which are rich in blood and deteriorate early on, so that blood is forced to the mouth and nose.”

Kind of takes the wind out of the vampire stories, doesn’t it? But isn’t it cool? Well, if you’re not thoroughly convinced I have one more trick up my sleeve. This is another very interesting point by Barber. Many times, once a corpse was exhumed and the dead were deemed to be vampires, a stake was driven through them to “kill” them once and for all. The observer claimed that the vampire “came to life and cried out”. According to Barber, the observation was correct but the conclusion was not. When you drive a stake into a decomposing body, the gasses which have accumulated in the body are driven out. Air is forced past the glottis and it appears as though the body cries out”…but this is not because the body is still alive.” Clearly, forensic examiners today would never deem a body to be that of a vampire given the above observations but we can understand how the ignorance of the observers could lead to the conclusions they had, and also to the sheer terror of the locals who were easily convinced of the supernatural.

Costume or real? ;)

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there are many who still firmly believe in the existence of vampires; there are many who believe they are vampires. I can’t really account for the second group. I suppose if you decide you’re a vampire, who am I to say otherwise but being a decentant of a bloated corpse is not terribly enchanting. Sometimes it’s easier to believe the stories of the supernatural. They appeal to our sense of wonder and they’re much more exciting to talk about than the boring predictability of logical forensics. And forensics takes the sexy right out of vampire unless, of course, the forensic examiner is extremely sexy him/herself. (CSI) But seriously, I’m sure it wouldn’t take much to dig further than I have to find other logical explanations for vampire “sightings” and stories (rabies, porphyria, contagion to name a few)3. Is there a harm in believing in vampires? If it leads to hysteria and/or death, either personal or mass, then yes. But if it’s simply a pass time, a way to connect with others, an enjoyment of telling thrilling tales, then no. If you get right down to it though, common sense and logic will tell you how far to take it and what to believe. Enjoy it for what it is, myth and fantastic fodder for novels, movies, and Halloween costumes. Have fun but don’t bite….okay, maybe a nibble… :-)

Goodbye Robin

I was a small child during the disco era so it wasn’t until my teenage years that I heard the Bee Gees. I actually don’t recall how I came to know about them. They were a group that was so immersed in the music world that I think that they had become a common household name. You just knew the Bee Gees. Who could resist at least toe tapping to Stayin’ Alive? Even to this day, I have to get up and dance to it. I wouldn’t say I was a die-hard fan, buying every album they ever released (in fact I haven’t any), but I am a long-time fan always enjoying the unique harmonies of the brothers Gibb whenever I hear them.

Not only did the Bee Gees put out a huge collection of music and hits, written, sung, and produced by them, but they also wrote for other singers who made hits of their songs like Dionne Warwick, Barbara Steisand, and Celine Dion. They are such a powerhouse of musical talent despite the tragedies which plagued the family. In 1988, Andy Gibb, the youngest brother, died at the age of 30. In 2003, Maurice died unexpectedly at the age of 53. And now in 2012, we have lost Robin to cancer at the age of 62. Barry is the last surviving brother.

My sister wrote a status update on Facebook (inspiring this post) asking why Robin Gibb was not getting the same huge funeral that was given to Whitney Houston. My take on that statement is that she was not endorsing the ostentatiousness of Whitney’s funeral. She was wondering why someone like Robin Gibb, whose talent was undeniable and who gave such positive contribution to the world of music, would depart from this world with such little fanfare. I think the tributes to Robin have been plentiful but not glitzy. Sometimes simple and low-key is much more respectful and tasteful.

It would be nice if I had enough clout in the blogging world that I could start a memorial of sorts by asking all bloggers to write a short post in memory of Robin. For all I know, it’s already been done and I missed the party. But since I don’t have that kind of influence, I’ll do my part and hope that I might inspire a few others to also do the same.

So without further ado, here’s to you Robin Gibb. Thank you for so many years of beautiful song and music. Rest in Peace.

One Last Gift

Today is the 7th anniversary of my mother’s passing. I normally don’t mark the day as I would rather remember her on her birthday – only 15 days from today. It feels more positive, I guess. This year, however, I had a task. There’s a long story behind why I still have some of my mother’s ashes in my possession. Certainly some people keep ashes but that was never my intention. I always wanted to free them. It seemed wrong to keep them confined as they had been for so many years already. So today was the day to do this and what a perfect day it was.

Mom enjoyed being by a lake. Her favourite was Lake Huron, its magnificent shores outlining the South Western edges of the province of Ontario. As a child she spent summers by the water or tooting around in a small motor boat. As an adult she took every opportunity to be by a lake until she and my father were able to purchase a cottage of their own in the early 1990’s. I can still clearly see her sitting relaxed in her beach chair in the sand, a golf hat perched on her head, her large, blue-tinted sunglasses and big, happy smile decorating her face. She was definitely in her element there.

Unfortunately, I don’t have easy access to Lake Huron. It’s a good 9 hour drive from Ottawa. So I decided that Lac De L’Argile, the lake at which my cottage sits, would be an appropriate memorial place both for her and for me. Today, Lac De L’Argile sparkled like a pool of diamonds. It really couldn’t have been more beautiful. I brought the ashes with me to the dock and sat for a long time, in solitude, admiring the view. Then, as I struggled with the thought of releasing what was left of my mother, the tears came. I never imagined it would be that difficult.

I could have wallowed in my emotions for a long time, but suddenly I heard her voice in my head, pragmatic as always, “For God’s sake, Isobel, stop crying and let me out of this container!” I had to laugh out loud, and, with that, clambered down upon the rocks at the side of the dock. I had no idea then, if there was a right or wrong way to release a person’s ashes so I stuck my hand in them and tossed a handful into the wind. They didn’t feel as I had expected. They were more granular. The thought of what that could mean both unsettled me and comforted me. I stuck my hand in a second time and watched the ash catch the wind and then settle into the wavy waters.

To be honest, the effect was less than overwhelming. I’d always imagined a wisp of light ash being carried across the lake like a veil and I would feel my mother’s soul being lifted and freed from the bounds of the earth. But then my imagination always has a streak of romantic unreality to it. What else was I to do then? Let the water carry them away? I upturned the container and the ash slid into the waters just beyond the shore.

That is when the most unexpected and beautiful thing happened. Instead of floating on the water’s surface, the ash began to sink and appeared like a white, linen sheet obscuring the view of the bottom. Then slowly, as the waves continued to gently toss them, the ashes began to plume and then roll along and over the underwater rocks like mists. Long, scroll-like tendrils reached out, swirled and then disappeared, over and over again. It was like an ever-changing, ever-extraordinary work of art. It took a long time to dissipate, maybe 30 minutes, and I found I was so intrigued by it I couldn’t take my eyes off it for a moment.

I climbed back onto the dock and stood to take in the extent of what the day had to offer. As the sun shone on my face, I smiled from the heart. My mother’s body and soul were finally free. Funny thing is, I thought I was doing something for Mom, but I think she did more for me – just as she did in life. Her one last gift is an experience of unexpected beauty I’ll never forget. Thank you, Mom. I miss you and love you. Rest in peace. <3

Unbelievable Cruelty – Hamzeh al-Khateeb

Emotionally, I cannot write much about this 13 year old child except to say that he was tortured, mutilated, and killed in custody of Syrian Security sometime between April 29th and May 21st. He was from the city of Daraa where there have been many large demonstrations against the Assad regime which often end in violent attacks by the Syrian forces. Many demonstrators there have been arrested or killed but this death was more than anyone could take. For the full story, please see this BBC article.

My only hope, and I’m sure I share it with many others, is that his death was not in vain and that his story will bring about the demise of an unbelievably ruthless and cruel regime. My wishes are that the light of his young soul will bring peace to a country and that the world will not forget him.

Rest in Peace, dear Hamzeh.

Terrifying Tornados

This morning I listened with horror as they described on the news the terrible storms and tornadoes that ripped through some of the southern US states.I have a sort of horrid fascination with tornadoes, as I suppose most people do. The one that touched down in Tuscaloosa, Alabama was reported to be a mile wide and rated a 5 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. I can’t even fathom something that big or ferocious. Apparently it was one of 160 tornadoes that hit the area. I’ve never seen a tornado in real life and now that I have children, I’m not at all interested in witnessing a funnel cloud forming. We just experienced wind gusts at 100 km/h which did some serious damage. An EF5 tornado reaches wind speeds three times (or more) than that. I just shake my head. How terrifying.

My heart goes out to the families who lost loved ones, and to those who lost their homes to the storms.

Pet Adoption: The Humane Approach

Charlotte "Lotty" McGonagall

This last week has been one of the most challenging in a while. Our family cat went missing the day before Halloween and we searched far and wide for her for days. It was only when someone kindly called with a tip, five days later, after seeing one of our “Missing” posters, that we found the body. She had been hit by a car and died in some dense bushes only twenty feet from our house. I was crushed. She was a beautiful cat, and although she was with us for only a few months, she had captured all of our hearts. It wasn’t until I buried her, under the bird bath in our garden, that the tears finally subsided. There’s something to be said for the ritual of burial. It seems to soothe the heart somehow.

The kids’ way of dealing with the tragedy was to contemplate getting another cat. At first, this idea didn’t settle with me very well. They are so used to being able to replace anything broken, with another one from the store; an attitude unfortunately firmly ingrained in our society of plenty. I hesitated because I didn’t want them to have the same attitude toward a living being (I really don’t want them to think this way at all about anything, but they learn it very easily). At the same time, however, I could see how having a new pet might breathe life and happiness back into the void that was left by Charlotte, our first cat, so I agreed.

Charlotte was purchased at PetSmart, one of the large pet stores here in Ottawa. But she was not the product of a kitty-mill. She had been rescued by the SPCA in Quebec and offered for adoption in the store. She had been spayed and cost a hefty $245. They claimed that she was four months old (which I always doubted, she looked older) and that enabled them to charge more. Up to six months is considered a kitten, older is an adult. Adults cost less. But how do you argue the age of a stray cat? Regardless, we were so happy to bring her home, I forgot about the inconsistency. Besides, I had nothing to compare their service to. That was, until yesterday.

During my time searching for the missing Charlotte, I had made several visits to the Ottawa Humane Society in their Lost and Found section. While I was visiting I had a chance to witness the hustle and bustle of the people working there and the sheer volume of animals being sheltered there. All those I dealt with were extremely friendly, helpful, sympathetic and very professional. The animals (cats) were confined to cages but looked comfortable and well fed. They had extensive charts attached to each cage which outline the health and status of each animal. Although my heart went out to each and every one, I was comforted knowing they were in good hands. Many would be adopted or fostered until they could be adopted.

When the decision was made to adopt another cat, I would go nowhere else except the Humane Society’s Adoption Centre and I’m so glad I did. They have well trained adoption counselors who fully investigate the adopter through an extensive questionnaire. I was also able to question them about anything I was unclear about and they answered me comprehensively. What impressed me the most, mainly because I compared this experience to that of PetSmart, was what I got for my money. The total cost for adoption, with taxes, was $216. That included spaying, microchipping, a six week coverage of pet insurance, and a City of Ottawa pet license – oh and a collar which the animals are not allowed to leave without. All in all, it was an excellent experience that far surpassed that of a pet store purchase.

Minerva "Minnie" McGonagall

Best of all, we saved a cat’s life. Minerva is a common barn cat variety – a shorthair tabby – but she has already made us fall in love. She’s playful and affectionate…the perfect combination for a house with young children. With her sweet, inquisitive, little face and kitten mischievousness, she brought happiness into a home that had been stricken with sadness. If you are thinking about adopting a pet, and don’t necessarily need a purebred, consider the humane society or SPCA wherever you live. I highly recommend it and your new pet will thank you with furry affection. Also, you might consider supporting your local shelter by donation or volunteering. I am definitely thinking about both options…they are a worthwhile investment in time and/or money. ♥

Hopes Dashed: Jessica Lloyd

I didn’t really have the energy to write tonight but the news was so shocking that I had to write something. Some of you may have heard about the disappearance of Jessica Lloyd several weeks ago from her home in Tweed near Belleville, Ontario. For those of you who haven’t, you’ll see her photo under “In Memory of:” in my sidebar and you can click the link to the original story. She was a 27 year old woman who vanished suddenly on January 28. Extensive searches of the area over the past few weeks were slow to turn up anything.

Today, however, her body was discovered on a country road near Tweed. The police had already begun to link her disappearance to that of another woman in November (who was also found murdered) and to some previous home invasions and sexual assaults of women in the area.

Now here’s the shocker. As reported here, the man charged with the murders of the disappeared women, and with the home invasions and assaults of the others, was none other than the top commander at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, Col. Russell Williams.

As wing commander at CFB Trenton, Williams oversaw operations at the air force base, which according to the Department of National Defence is “the heart of Canada’s air mobility forces.”

Well, isn’t that nice? Bastard. Not such a “shining bright star” now are you? Have fun in prison for the rest of your life.

Rest in Peace, Jessica.

Ottawa Tragedy: Constable Czapnik

Constable Czapnik (Ottawa Police)

Everyone in Ottawa was trying to prepare for New Year’s festivities when a hush fell over the city as the reality of a tragic event unfolded before us in the news. On December 29th, Constable Eric Czapnik was brutally stabbed to death. Nobody likes to hear about the death of a police officer any time. An officer’s death usually occurs in the line of duty and often is as a result of going up against armed criminals during a robbery or a similar situation and it is always sad. There are several things, though, that makes Constable Czapniks death particularly tragic and in a way that the incident haunted me, even now.

According to my neighbour who knew him well, Czapnik had always wanted to be a police officer like his father had been back in Poland. Czapnik immigrated to Canada but never pursued his dream until several years ago and at the age of 48 he was recruited to the Ottawa Police. He was the oldest recruit in the history of the force and he was a very proud member and really well liked by his fellow officers. He would have probably only served for about 10 more years at most before retiring.

Then, suddenly, Czapnik was murdered because, and only because, he was a police officer. And to rub more salt in that wound…he was killed by another officer…a suspended RCMP officer, Kevin Gregson. Apparently Gregson had a psychotic grudge, presumably for his suspension, and decided to take it out against anyone he could find who was wearing a uniform. Czapnik really had no chance against him. He was stabbed while in his cruiser and Gregson knew exactly where to cut him to cause death.

Paramedics (Ottawa Paramedics)

Here’s another kicker. Czapnik was sitting in his cruiser just outside the Emergency Department of the Ottawa Hospital. Four paramedics rushed out when they saw what was happening and three of them managed to subdue the attacker. But the fourth, who tried to save Czapnik, was unsuccessful. Regardless, it was a very brave and superior show of professionalism on their parts.

Czapnik’s death affected so many people. Of course there was devastation of his family…he had four children, the youngest, a three year old son. But the city practically shut down for his public funeral. A procession of nearly 2000 police officers from Canada and the US marched solemnly along the streets lined with hundreds of civilians who had come to show their respect.

I think what really upsets me about this murder is the randomness but I’m not really sure if that’s all. I haven’t been able to reconcile it and probably one can’t except to say that Gregson was obviously crazy. But that doesn’t really help. All I can say now, and anyone can say, is rest in peace Constable Czapnik. And then we can hope that Gregson is brought to justice or, at least, confined so he can’t hurt anyone else.

Funeral Procession (Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press)