Wampus Cats, Odd Diseases, and Medicinal ChocolateLeave a comment
October 30, 2014 by libroshombre
The ebola scare and calls for quarantines remind me of a favorite word: “cattywampus.” People seem to favor certain words, while others grate on the nerves. For instance, “twerk,” the naughty dance, is one I despise, and my wife loathes “dollop,” “creamy,” and other foodie expressions. But we both like “cattywampus,” meaning “askew, crooked, diagonally positioned: cater-cornered.” A.Word.A.Day says “cater,” once meant “diagonal,” coming from the French “quatre,” or “ four.” “Cater” originally sprang from the Proto-Indo-European “kwetwer,” which has nothing to do with twerking, but is the source of “square,” “quadrant,” and “quarantine,” which literally means “a period of forty days.”
Cattywampus also reminds me of the wampus cat, as in the Itasca, Texas High School mascot. Wikipedia says the wampus cat was “a creature in American folklore, variously described as some kind of fearsome variation on a cougar.” One representative form was the “Ewah,” a Cherokee myth in which a woman disguised herself in a cougar skin to spy on men having sacred hunting conversations. She was caught and the shaman turned her into a half-woman, half-cat that some say still roams the woods of Eastern Tennessee bemoaning her transgressions.
Ewah’s could be cat owners suffering from Toxoplasmosis, according to a recent Atlantic Monthly article titled, “How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy,” by Kathleen McAuliffe. McAuliffe wrote about the quest of Czech evolutionary biologist Jaroslav Flagr to ascertain whether a wide-spread parasite called Toxoplasma gondii that’s transmitted to humans by cats is “quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons, changing our response to frightening situations, our trust in others, how outgoing we are, andeven our preferences for certain scents. And that’s not all. He also believes that the organism contributes to car crashes, suicides, and mental disorders such as schizophrenia.” Flegr estimates that “Toxoplasma might even kill as many people as malaria, or at least a million people a year.”
The theory is gathering big-name support, such as the Stanford University neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, who says Flegr’s “studies are well-conducted, and I can see no reason to doubt them.” In fact, Sapolsky’s studying how Toxoplasma turns “a rat’s strong innate aversion to cats into attraction, luring it into the jaws of its No. 1 predator … the organism rewires circuits in parts of the brain that deal with such primal emotions as fear, anxiety, and sexual arousal.”
My first public library job was Assistant Head of Adult Services in Odessa, Texas, a terrible library so rotten that few people ventured there, leaving me lots of time on my hands. One day I came across a handbook of medical symptoms full of black and white photographs of disgusting illnesses, including other scary parasites like Gordian worms and Lancet liver flukes. Most memorable was black hairy tongue disease, described by RareDiseases.org as “abnormal elongation and blackish or dark brownish discoloration or staining of the thread-like elevations” that can affect heavy smokers with bad oral hygiene.
Stiff person syndrome’s far worse. It’s “characterized by progressive rigidity and stiffness” and the symptoms include spasms, chronic pain, impaired mobility, and postural deformities.” Today pictures of even more horrific diseases are only Google searches away, but in the pre-Internet days, those photos were striking.
Fortunately, all winds eventually blow both ways. Last week’s NY Times included an article titled “A Bite to Remember? Chocolate Is Shown to Aid Memory.” That’s correct: eat seven average-sized bars of dark chocolate daily for a few months and your memory could jump by 25 percent. The project’s senior author, Columbia University’s Scott Small, said test subjects aged 50 to 69 who drank a cocoa flavanol-enhanced drink daily for three months “performed like people two to three decades younger … and about 25 percent better than the low-flavanol group.”
The main flavanol involved, epicatechin, improves blood circulation, heart health, and memory in tests on snails, mice, and humans, but its mostly processed out of milk chocolate. Candy bars contain little unadulterated chocolate, and “most chocolate uses a process called batching and alkalization. That’s like poison to flavanol.”
You can start researching chocolate at our public library, where the catalog shows 767 books on the subject. Or maybe not. As Ingrid Bergman said, “Happiness is good health and bad memory.”