Monday, July 28, 2008

We're in ur dopaminergic reward-related brain regions, stimulating ur brain

I recently read about research done at the Baylor College of Medicine about the effects of a baby's smile on a mother's brain. This is my report.

The Study:
Called "What's in a Smile? Maternal Brain Responses to Infant Facial Cues", the study was conducted by three Ph.D. psychologists and a medical doctor. They sought to prove that a smiling baby will cause a measurable response in the brain of the mother.

Twenty-eight first-time mothers were shown pictures of their own babies and the babies of others displaying various degrees of happiness. Then the mothers' brains were studied via MRI.

When first-time mothers see their own infant's face, an extensive brain network seems to be activated . . . Dopaminergic reward-related brain regions are activated specifically in response to happy, but not sad, infant faces.


I mean, look at this:

Now unless you are married to me then you are not the mother of these babies. Just one of the babies is smiling -- slightly (while the other looks on with an expression of mild concern) -- and yet I'll bet you can still feel your dopaminergic reward-related brain regions being stimulated.

I am, in fact, most likely not the father of any of these babies:

And yet my dopaminergic reward-related brain regions are so stimulated it's borderline indecent.

Which brings me to my real problem with this study. Not only was it unnecessary, it also worries me a little that so much attention is being drawn to this issue. I mean, if the folks at the DEA (or Nancy Reagan) were to take notice of just how much babies stimulate our dopaminergic reward-related brain regions, they would almost certainly decide that baby faces should be declared controlled substances. And if baby faces are outlawed, then only outlaws will have baby faces.

Think of how the world would change. People hiding in alleys with baby strollers. "Psst . . . I've got twins in here. Happy ones. You wanna look?".

Sarah, Grandma, Harrison, Grace, and I would certainly be cruising the streets looking to score some smiles. We're all into baby smiles in a big way. We act like idiots for Kennedy and Shepard until our dopaminergic brain regions are stimulated, which lasts until we walk away for a few minutes and start craving our next fix.

The twins would be big earners on the grin market. Shepard is full of big goofy smiles, and he usually adds a "oooooh" or "uga" to the mix. He can be completely ticked off and screaming about something, but when we make eye contact with him he'll pause, smile, and say "agaa" before going back to complaining. Kennedy gives shy little smiles complete with twinkling blue eyes. She tries to talk, but she hasn't quite figured out which nerves to use, so her mouth will start to move but then she ends up flopping her arms or sticking out her tongue instead. It's a bit like trying to beep the horn of your car but turning on the wipers instead, and it must be frustrating for her, but it's cute to watch. You can see the gears turning in her head. "Maybe it's this one," she seems to be saying, "no, that's my right leg". Every once in the while she gets a sound out and it's exciting for everyone involved.

I know the smiles are just a gateway expression. As Harrison got a little older I became addicted to giggles. Tickling would do it at first (and still does, actually) but after a while I had to resort to whole physical comedy routines to get my giggle fix. I know as he gets older it will get harder and harder. Grace is a tougher audience yet. Hopefully at least one of the twins will turn out to be a fan of my Three Stooges-style comedy (I'm betting on Shepard) to get me through the next decade or so. After that, there's only one solution.

No wonder parents push so hard for grandkids.

* I know someone will ask (Mom) so I will point out here that the title of this entry is an Internet meme. You see what I did there?

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Bow Just Makes It Worse

Larry had his lion cut and bath today at the vet. You see the glow in his eyes? That's not flash. It's hate.

The Larry capture went much better this morning than in the past, which is good because just Wednesday I finished my course of antibiotics from the last time. Sarah and I both wore thick work gloves, and when Larry was cornered on the stairs we threw a towel over him. He didn't fight much after that.

We put Larry in a "soft" carrier, the kind made like a gym bag with lots of mesh. While Sarah got ready to go she put him by the front door. Larry is terrified of doorbells (it means kitticidal people are waiting to get in the house). When the babysitter rang the doorbell, the cat carrier started to shake and actually moved across the floor. Gravity and physics in general are no match for Larry Terror. We must never try to travel by air with Larry. If shampoo is too dangerous for airplanes then trying to smuggle Larry aboard would have to be considered a terrorist act.

Apparently Larry was quite the rug when they extracted him at the vet, though, and he didn't have to be sedated. Nobody lost any blood. Larry came back with no tangles and smelling pretty. You can see from the pictures they had to get pretty close to the skin.

The bow, I think, is just rubbing it in.

Edward also had an adventurous day at the vet. He had four molars pulled (under general anesthetic) because of decay. Edward had a canine tooth pulled about a year ago for the same reason. I wasn't too worried about him losing the canine because (a) as an indoor cat he has never had to incapacitate prey by biting the jugular, and (b) general principle (he is a feline, not a canine). But I was worried he wouldn't be able to crunch his dry food as well with the missing molars. So far, though, he's doing OK. I guess if the "sick" teeth were sore, he might actually do better now.

Overall, Edward is doing much better than I would if I had four teeth pulled.

So for Louis, Larry, and Edward, it's been a tough week. Ivan, you're next . . .

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Shear Cruelty

On Sunday morning I awoke to find that I had slept until 10:30. I was suspicious. It's very unusual that I'm not the first one up, and almost unprecedented that I would be allowed to sleep so late. The only time that happens is if Sarah is consumed with some project. She's much like a child in that way: long silences mean she's up to something. For example, I might expect to find the furniture of a room completely rearranged, or the walls painted, or the contents of a file cabinet spread around the floor for reorganization.

After a while, I gathered my courage and sat up. I immediately got a look at what Sarah had been doing.

You see, one of Sarah's many skills is cutting hair. She isn't very versatile. She only knows one haircut. But if you want your hair to look something like mine, and don't mind that it will turn out looking slightly different each time, then she can handle it. This started years ago, when I returned from the barber to (yet again) hear Sarah list all the things the barber had done wrong. Sarah finally convinced herself that she could do a better job, got one of those home hair cutting kits (which came with a 10 minute video - Sarah's only training to date), and set to work. And she has been quite successful with my hair, if you accept as the measure of success Sarah's own satisfaction. That is the standard she and I both use, so things have worked out fine.

After a while, as owners of multiple long-haired cats, we learned how much grooming costs and how expensive it is to get really bad matted fur cut out with clippers. "Well," said Sarah, "I've got clippers." At that point of course she meant my clippers, and I had to share with the cats for a while until she finally purchased a new set for the cats. For a variety of reasons Louis and Larry have had particularly bad tangles this season. Whole sections of their hind-quarters and stomachs are covered with fur that is not only tangled, but compacted and cemented together with cat spit. Something had to be done.

This Friday Larry will be washed and given a "lion cut" at the vet. It will be expensive, but for various reasons Larry's problem should be handled by professionals.

That still left Louis, and to some extent Edward. Sarah went into Single-Minded Problem-Solving mode. She ordered new, more powerful clippers. I knew why, but for some reason I didn't stop her.

So what I saw, when I sat up sleepily in bed Sunday morning, looked somewhat like Louis sitting at the top of the stairs. Louis is our large brown tabby Maine Coon. Louis is an impressive creature with his broad facial features, heavy mane, thick fur, and long, bushy tail. I say what I saw looked "somewhat" like Louis because he no longer completely matched that description. The face (fortunately), the mane (amazingly), and the tail were unchanged. But the rest of his fur - his thick, colorfully striped fur - was gone. So the overall look - the "gestalt" of Louis, if you will - had changed dramatically. He had transformed from grand creature to the apparent survivor of some freak lawn mower accident. Louis now looked like a poorly-sheared sheep, his body like a field harvested by a drunken farmer with a three-legged mule.

Louis glanced up briefly and gave me a look of undignified panic that just made him appear that much more pathetic. Then he went back to grooming frantically, following the universal cat logic that licking fixes everything. Louis appeared to think that if he just licked enough his fur would grow back. I left him with this delusion, hoping it would soften the shock for a while.

I felt guilty, not only for oversleeping and leaving poor Louis defenseless against Sarah On A Mission, but also because I had known this was coming. The clippers had arrived at our doorstep two nights before, and Sarah had - much like this morning - disappeared quietly upstairs. When I went to look for her I found the bedroom door closed, and upon opening it I found Sarah sitting on the floor, holding her new clippers, surrounded by various shades of brown fur. I eyed her suspiciously.

"Louis is under the bed," was all she said in explanation. I later found Louis grooming one of his back legs, which was now bare.

I knew she wasn't done. Yet I had let it happen. So this, really, is my fault:

I'm sorry, Louis. And Edward: RUN!


Thursday, July 10, 2008

Flex Time

Well, hello there Reader. I see you're checking out the new Ford Flex. Pretty nice, isn't it? Between you and me, I think this could be one of the vehicles that saves Ford Motor Company. Remember the Taurus? No, the first one. This could be the next Taurus.

The price? You cut right to the chase, don't you Reader? I admire that. Well, Reader, it costs less than you'd think for a vehicle like this. After all, Bold Styling, Seats Seven, 24mpg
(your mileage may vary) - this thing has got it all.

I have one of these at home. At the moment The Wife is diving it while we wait for her new car to come in. But I did get to take the whole family out in it over the weekend. Let me tell you, Reader, it turns heads. The Wife is always getting questions about it. Don't you think your Significant Other would like it?

Yes, Reader, Ford got it right with this one. More even than the Fusion and the Edge, this car shows what they can do when they aren't just going for size. I do hope people will give it a look. I'm from a third generation Ford family, after all. Ford was distracted by the windfalls of cheap gas, but cars like this show that they're finally coming around.

No, no flexible fuels just yet, Reader. That's not what "Flex" refers to. It still runs on gasoline. I've got to think, though, that Ford has a plan. After all, the competition is getting heavily into electric. There's also hydrogen. Clearly gasoline's days are numbered. I'm sure someone at Ford has a plan, right Reader? Right?

If you're interested, Reader, The Wife has an X-Plan discount code she could give you. And believe me, if you've got a Significant Other and four kids then the Flex is the coolest way I've seen to get them around.

What, Reader? You don't have four kids? Well, I've got the name of a guy in LA who can help you out, Reader. Price? There you go again, Reader. Right to the chase. I admire that.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Twins

That's Shepard in front, Kennedy behind him. Taken July 4th outside the Saline Evangelical Home.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Larry the White Lion

We have four cats. It's a long story, but the short version is that after grieving for our beloved Stanley, an apparently healthy Main Coon cat, we went back to the same breeder to get one, maybe two others. We came away with three. Two of them were from the last litter of the impressive Surfer Dude, a champion and sire of more than 15 CFA Grand Champions. We named the colorful brown tabby Louis Armstrong Orwig, and his all-white brother we named Lawrence Welk Orwig. (Speech pathologists I worked with later laughed when they heard we had named them Louis and Larry. Harrison, who was three at the time, still has to work hard to pronounce their names correctly.)

Larry, we were told by the breeder, would be a particularly good match for a house with a child. All-white Main Coons tended to be calm, they said, and deaf. The sounds of kids would not disturb him.

As it turned out, Larry is not deaf. And he most decidedly is not calm.

The root problem is that Larry has major anxiety issues. You know that cat who is afraid to go to the vet? Yeah, the one who runs in terror when he hears the vacuum cleaner and hisses at kids? Right. NOTHING like Larry. Larry is, to coin a feline version of a human psychological term, a few kibbles short of a full bowl. Larry is convinced that humans, under most circumstances, are trying to kill him. Try to pick him up? Murder attempt. Walk in his direction? Felinicide. And attempting to pull a tangle out of him, no matter how gently, is the same to Larry as if you were pulling off a limb. I don't know if it's neurological or psychological, but this one messed up kitty.

This is particularly tough because Larry is, of all the longhaired cats we have had (six so far) the one who most needs grooming. White cats are susceptible to staining around the eyes and mouth but we've given up on that. The biggest challenge is his fur. It is long and very fine. Think cotton candy with claws and teeth. Regularly washed and brushed, Larry would be gorgeous. Since that isn't possible, though, he ends up a mass of tangles, which are cemented together by Larry spit into a dense, carpet-like layer over parts of him. At that point the only solution is to cut them off with grooming clippers.

Yes, we own grooming clippers. We have four longhaired cats. We're getting ready to buy our second set of clippers.

Larry can be quite sweet in his own insane way. If a person is sitting on the couch and not making sudden moves (for instance, when feeding a baby) then they are not regarded as murderous. Larry will approach warily, gradually working up to nuzzling us with his powerful nose and jaws. He'll flop over so we can rub his chest and even massage his paws. But make a sudden move, recross your legs, look like you might stand up, or touch one of his tangles, and there is the sound of claws on carpet and he's gone.

Trapping Larry is an operation like you might have seen on the Crocodile Hunter (or maybe Cops), only more dangerous. The night before, while Larry is upstairs having dinner, we shut the doors to the back rooms of the basement. This eliminates his most effective hiding places but also tips him off that something is about to go down. The next day, we station one person at the top of the basement stairs. Then a second person goes downstairs in search of Larry. It's impossible to actually catch him, but the attempt sends him dashing up the stairwell, where he realizes he is trapped. At this point Larry is terrified and out come the claws. Yesterday he added teeth to the mix, which is why I'm typing this with a painful, swollen hand.

Last year one of Larry's back claws got away from me and he made a long, deep gash on the inside of my forearm near the wrist. I walked around for weeks looking like I had made some sort of sloppy suicide attempt. I still have a scar. Yesterday, Larry freaked out even more and twice sank his sharp teeth into my hand near my thumb. Although not as disfiguring as last year's injury, it was more serious. As the day went on it became more painful and inflamed, and I ended up spending a few hours at the doctor's office getting antibiotics.

As for Larry, in a couple of weeks he's going to get a fresh start on his coat. We're dropping him off at the vet where he will be washed and given a "lion cut," which means he'll be clean and tangle-free. He'll probably also be more comfortable in the summer heat, which is what the lion cut is really for. And maybe it will be a chance for us to re-establish a relationship of trust with him, getting into a routine of daily brushing that he will enjoy.

That would probably require some serious psychoactive drugs though. That kitty is nuts.