Half-Baked Idea

The untold story of the early 21st Century is how synthetic communities (e.g. forums, Facebook groups, Tumblr, blogospheres, subreddits, etc.) can exacerbate or even create mental problems by rapidly spreading dysfunctional ideas, worldviews, and behaviors. Cases in point:

  • “Pro-ana” websites that glorify anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders. Members of these forums often trade tips on how to starve themselves or throw up, how to survive on 300 calories a day or less, how to deal with side effects such as hair loss, etc. Can offer support and entrench someone in their disorder at the same time by reinforcing bad thinking patterns.
  • Incel websites where “involuntarily celibate” men trade bitter stories and anecdotes about their failures and issues with women. Focus tends not to be on self-improvement but on blaming others, such as desirable men, desirable women, women in general, society, etc.
  • Shoplifting blogs that share tips, tricks, “haul” pictures, etc. can stimulate and trigger cravings to shoplift. Most users are probably not kleptomaniacs but it can still lead someone to engage in risky behavior that they otherwise wouldn’t. (Similar phenomenon with certain websites about self-harm, drug use, and other compulsions.)
  • MLMs often rely on synthetic and para-social connections to sustain themselves and keep their members invested and investing. Can lead to compulsive spending on “inventory” that never shifts, ruining real relationships by badgering people to buy (“Hey hun!“), and keeps the dream alive even when the market is completely saturated.
  • Political extremism. Political posts across the spectrum are full of heightened emotions and aggression, with some people openly calling for the enemy to be gutted or burned alive. This isn’t new, though there’s more of it now. I’ve seen more posts casting politics as an existential struggle.
  • Fan clubs for mass murderers.

On some of these websites, the most negative/toxic/painful content floats to the top and gets the most attention and reinforcement. Can create a toxic loop where the reader/user/member looks for support, feels worse, looks for more support, feels even worse, looks for more…can’t psychologically return to “no support,” which keeps them locked in even though the support they get is not helping. Attempts to get them to break free come to nought, because it feels like they’re being torn away from their only real support, i.e. “the one group that gets it” or “the people who really understand me.”

Feature photo by Christoffer Engstrom on Unsplash.

New Words of the Week: Chatoyant, Cicerone, Kilim, Lagniappe, Serape

I learn or relearn new words almost every week. Then I post them here.

A cat with vivid green eyes staring at the camera. Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash.
Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash.

chatoyant, adj. Having a narrow luminous streak perpendicular to the direction of the fibers, as in tiger’s eye gemstones or the sheen off a spool of silk. From the French “chatoyer,” i.e. “to shine/reflect like a cat’s eye.”

The chatoyant gem shone at us from the bottom of the pool.

Landscape with Roman ruins by Paul Brill.

cicerone, n. (pl. cicerones). A guide who takes visitors to museums, galleries, ruins, and other places of interest, and explains the historical, cultural, scientific, or aesthetic significance of these sites. An old-fashioned word for “tour guide,” essentially. Since many of these guides like(d) the sound of their own voice, the word gently pokes fun at their gabbiness by tying them to a great Roman orator.

The word “cicerone” has taken on a new meaning in the past half-decade. The Cicerone Certification is for “hospitality professionals with proven experience in selecting, acquiring and serving today’s wide range of beers.” The exam might be taken by bartenders, brewers, or restaurant managers who want their beer selection to be a cut above the competition.  If you come across any sneering references to “draft beer lists designed by a cicerone,” they’re referring to someone who’s taken this certification, not a tour guide who likes to talk.

Greg became the cicerone of the group, expounding on the geological and historical significance of every rock face and ruin, until a church bell chimed right as he said that the “bells had not rung for over a hundred years.”

Louisa’s interest in culture began and ended with the cicerone-curated beer list at the Cupcake Brewery in Williamsburg..

A two-panel Aksaray kilim.

kilim, n. (pl. kilims). A flat tapestry-woven carpet or rug, made with the traditional flatweaving techniques practiced across Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Balkans, and North Africa.

Golden-hued wooden walls, large kilims, thick-piled rugs spread across the floor, and a roaring fireplace, all worked on Tom like a sedative.

lagniappe, n. (pl. lagniappes). A small gift given to a customer by a merchant at the time of a purchase, e.g. a small eraser with a purchase over $25. Adapted, by Louisiana French speakers, from the South American Spanish la yapa/ñapa for a free extra.

Burt’s Ice Cream’s newest lagniappe––a keychain pendant with orders of three or more cones––has driven business through the roof.

El Sarape Rojo by Alberto Garduño.

serape, n. (pl. serapes, also sarape/sarapes). A blanket-like shawl, with colorful patterns and fringed ends, traditionally worn by men in Mexico.

It wouldn’t be a Western without gunfire, buried treasure, and a few men facing each other in dusters and serapes.


Feature photo by Tim Bennett on Unsplash.

Why are essential oils so popular?

You might have noticed an uptick in articles, posts, and social media chatter about essential oils in the last few years. I know I have. Until a few years ago, I’d never heard of essential oils being touted as a cure or treatment for anything, aside from maybe a stuffy nose. Health food stores sold them in wooden racks, hippies used them as perfumes, crafty types used them to scent homemade candles. Like stone lanterns or Nag Champa incense, essential oils were a home accessory for homes with Tibetan prayer flags on the premises. Especially if the residents weren’t Tibetans.

Fast forward to today. I know at least two women who’ve sold essential oils through Facebook. Both are Christians, with nary a prayer flag in their homes. Because I have small children, I’ve been informed (occasionally by strangers) that vaccines are not as effective at preventing disease as, say, a blend of melaleuca and lemon oils. And sales are booming––up from $55 million in 2015 to $133 million in 2018.

Where is this coming from? How did essential oils make the leap into mainstream (or mainstream-adjacent) society? Why are essential oils so popular now, especially among Christian stay-at-home moms? Most importantly, why are these oils considered a treatment for everything from autism to cancer?

What Are Essential Oils?

A hand pours essential oils into a diffuser giving off steam. Photo by Drew L from Unsplash.
Photo by Drew L from Unsplash.

An essential oil is an oil extracted from a plant that contains the plant’s “essential” or characteristic fragrance. Essential oils can be made from barks, leaves, rinds, and flowers.  They are usually extracted by distilling the plant using steam, though they can also be cold pressed, ram pressed, or slow folded, depending on the plant.

Essential oils are very aromatic. A few drops of oil can stink up a room for hours. Because they’re so concentrated, a little goes a long way. They can be used to scent lip balmsbath bombs, and other cosmetics.

Essential oils can be dangerous to ingest, especially in large quantities, and can cause rashes or even allergic reactions when applied to the skin, especially if they’re not diluted in a carrier oil. The following oils are not safe to ingest:

  • Oil of wintergreen is chemically related to aspirin. A small amount of wintergreen oil can be fatal to children. Oils are rapidly absorbed in the body, which can lead to children being poisoned and falling ill very rapidly.
  • Pennyroyal oil is poisonous to the liver.
  • Eucalyptus oil, camphor oil, and sage oil can cause seizures if swallowed. Camphor oil is especially dangerous, and cause cause seizures within minutes of absorption. According to the National Capital Poison Center, “amphor poisoning also occurred when skin preparations containing camphor were applied repeatedly on children – more frequently than the label recommended and/or covered up with extra clothing.”
  • Nutmeg, and nutmeg oils, can cause hallucinations, nausea, and vomiting if too much is ingested.

A Short, Incomplete History of Oils as Medicine

A green mortar and pestle containing leaves and dried flower petals. A hand drops oil into the pestle from a frosted glass bottle.
Photo by Katherine Hanlon on Unsplash.

This “trend” is the latest iteration of a phenomenon that spans multiple religions and civilizations. Anointing (≈ blessing, treating) with oil was practiced across the ancient Near East. Ancient Egyptians [PDF], Greeks, and Jews all used oils for a wide variety of purposes: to prepare food, to make perfumes and cosmetics, to treat illnesses, perform religious rituals, and confer status on the anointed recipient.

Anointing with oils is mentioned throughout the Bible. The Book of Exodus includes detailed instructions on how to make oil to anoint priests, as well as “the tent of meeting, the ark of the covenant law, the table and all its articles, the lampstand and its accessories, the altar of incense, the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and the basin with its stand.” Several books in the Old Testament, including Leviticus and Numbers, contain painstaking enumerations of when and when not to use oils in offerings to God, how much must be used, and when it should be used during the offering.

Anointing oils are prominent in several of the gospels. The Good Samaritan poured oil and wine into the wounds of the injured man before bringing him to the inn. When Jesus sends out the twelve apostles, they “drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.” And when a sinful woman pours perfume on Jesus’ head, he admonishes the Pharisee who scoffs at her, saying, “You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.”

These anointing oils were probably not pure essential oils, which can be caustic when applied directly to the skin. Some of the more elaborate anointing oils, such as the anointing oil described in Exodus, contain ground spices that would have given the oil a strong scent. Essential oils are quite time consuming and expensive to extract, so they would be used for special purposes, which may or may not include healing

Why was oil so widespread as a treatment for illnesses? Have oils proven to be useful in treating illnesses or infections? Generally speaking, no––especially when we’re talking about serious, chronic conditions, such as asthma or cancer.

Anointing Today

Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953, the day of her coronation.
Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953, the day of her coronation.

Anointing with oils never went away. The Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches still use oils to bring comfort and strength to the sick, to anoint clergy, and to bless the newly baptized and confirmed. The Anglican Church still practices holy unction, including royal unction, i.e. anointing a new king or queen with holy oil before their coronation. These rituals are not as prominent in Protestant denominations––many, in fact, do not practice it at all. Perhaps this is why so many Protestants and Evangelicals have cottoned onto the essential oils craze, out of a desire for this sort of ritual in their life.

Anointing and healing oils aren’t limited to the Occident. The Buddhist “eye-opening” ceremony sanctifies a painting or statue by “painting in the sculpture’s pupils, pricking the eyes with a pin, or anointing the eyes with a liquid such as oil.” Oils are also used in ayurvedic (traditional Indian) medicine, e.g. in “oil pulling” mouthwash, where a person swishes oil around in their mouth for up to twenty minutes, in order to “pull” toxins and debris out of the mouth.

Many newer religious movements have adopted oils into their rituals and practices. Mormon priests use oils to anoint the sick. Some neopagans and wiccans also use oils in their spells and rituals, often using blends of different herbs to attract a desired outcome or result. And plenty of new age belief systems and movements have used oils––essential or otherwise––in their practices.

“There is no new thing under the sun.”

A bottle of I'm Fabulous Body Oil. Photo by Anis M from Unsplash.
Photo by Anis M from Unsplash.

Today’s #oilymama may be misguided, but she’s reaching back to something ancient, whether she knows it or not. A Jungian might say this arises from our collective unconscious, an instinctive or primal return to the “old ways” during a time of uncertainty. Some people embrace more ancient treatments and cures, even if they’re far less effective than what’s new, out of a distrust of the medical and pharmaceutical industries.

Why now? I don’t think there’s any one answer. Multi-level marketing companies, such as doTERRA and Young Living, encourage this trend, selling through social networks and close-knit church communities. Political and cultural uncertainty play a role, though it’s hard to tease out exactly how. Growing distrust of modern medicine leads people to look for alternatives, even if they’re not very effective. All these trends combine together to create a perfect storm for essential oils to serve a quasi-spiritual, quasi-medicinal role similar to the one it served in antiquity.

I grew up in a hippie-filled town, and went to Catholic school for nearly a decade. Still the religious, cultural, and medicinal significance of oils escaped me. They were simply not around while I was a kid. The hippies I knew stuck to light Buddhism, meditation, crystals, bentonite clay in a glass of water. Essential oils were around, but not a huge part of day-to-day life. I never remember oils being used during mass, or discussed during religion class. Lorenzo’s oil is the closest thing I can think of––a “miracle oil” that could help young people with chronic, degenerative disease, although clinical trial results have been mixed. Why essential oils are popular now, and weren’t then, is not entirely clear, but in the long run, they’re not going anywhere.

Feature photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash. Thanks to the commenters on this post, especially avocadosungoddess11, for their input.

“10 Notable Figures Who (Probably) Died Virgins”

An illustration from Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market, by her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

I published a short piece on vocal.media, “10 Notable Figures Who (Probably) Died Virgins.” All but one of the figures are from the 19th or 20th Century, though I’m sure there were many lifelong virgins in earlier centuries. I’m just not educated/literate enough to know who they are.

Here’s an excerpt:

There is no way to prove a negative. You can’t prove that someone has never had sex, and absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. However, based on what is known about these notable figures, they were either chaste, near-chaste, or very, very good at keeping their private lives private.

Read the whole thing here.