Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Pica poll

     Pica is an interesting ailment. Technically a mental disorder, it is the compulsive consumption of non-food materials: dirt, for instance, or old paint, chalk, or hair.* While some studies suggest that mineral imbalances might be a factor, and certain groups, such as pregnant women suffer from it more frequently, the causes are mostly psychological rather than physical: stress, psychosis.
     Since I know some of my fellow aging journalists read this effort, I should acknowledge a second meaning of the word "pica"—a typographic unit of measurement. I have an old pica pole right here from the pre-computer days.
      Both meanings are nearly half a millennia old, and both are from the same root. Pica is Latin for magpie. The first definition in the Oxford English Dictionary has to do with rules regarding religious offices—not sure how the bird figures in there—and the type size somehow comes from that. The Oxford doesn't speculate, but maybe the typography term evolved from the printing of these rules. Or the black-and-white bird. The printing sense goes back to 1588, but the disease—and this is surprising, since we think of medicine as modern—is even older, 1563. "The magpie," the OED notes, "being a miscellaneous feeder"
      I've never met anyone afflicted with pica, to my knowledge. But if I came upon such a person, a box of plaster of Paris in one hand, while the other shoves big fistfuls of white powder into their chewing mouth, I would not take in the scene then begin to laud the merits of filet mignon. I would not argue. I would not discuss. I would gaze, startled, then back away. Excuse me, not my table. What other reaction could there be? One does not casually lead another away from deep disturbance. That is a job for professionals.
      This sums up my current political position regarding supporters of the president. It isn't politics, it's pathology, so I never argue with them. Never. I hardly even bother keeping track of their current set of rationales, lies, delusions, malice, misunderstanding, folly, fear, and whatever else leads them to support, still, despite everything, an obvious liar, bully, fraud and traitor—obvious to people other than themselves, of course. If they haven't snapped to the situation long ago, what am I going to tell them? 
      I don't want to diminish the significance of those people. They bode worse for this country than anything their hero could say or do. The current president will fade, please God, someday. But his supporters will remain, and anybody who thinks they will be marinating in shame, or regret, or even reconsideration, just isn't paying attention. Just as they spent eight years under Barack Obama howling and clutching at themselves and batting away health care, so they will return to being the permanent opposition. I'm looking forward to that because, really, who could reasonably expect anything else?
      It's liberating, in a way. Less stress. Fuck 'em, fuck the horse they rode in on. You can't fix them and shouldn't try. Fans of the president—the name sticks in my craw at this point—do still write me. Incredible as it is, they are either are just now detecting a certain anti-Trump bias in my writing, or pretending to, pretending that the scales have just fallen from their eyes. I usually wordlessly block them, knowing that anything I say will only antagonize them further. Sometimes, I admit, if somebody says that my carefully reasoned column is just ker-ray-zeeeeee, I might indulge my own little private obsession, and reply by quoting one of my favorite lines from Samuel Johnson: "I have given you an argument, sir. I am not also obligated to give you an understanding."
    Doing that enlightens them not at all—I can only suppose—since they go in the filter. For all I know they write back heartfelt replies, explaining how my wise response has made them see the error of their ways. I never check.
     Where am I going with this? Heck if I know. Well, maybe I do. It's Tuesday, and I have to write something. Grabbing old stuff and putting it up was beginning to seem unambitious. The usually mid-July lethargy is mixing with the four-month pandemic slough—I'm finding it hard to get motivated knowing that whatever I do today I will be back here doing it again tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow into infinity, or close to it.
      Although: I ordered some of those green tea mints from Sencha. They have a pleasing tea flavor, zero calories and are fun to ruminatively pop while reading or writing. So that's something new.

* On Facebook, my friend Joseph Schlesinger made this fascinating contribution:
Is it possible to be a pica elitist? The following is from Stephen Birmingham's "Our Crowd," describing the eccentricities of financier James Seligman's family:
James's son Washington had curious dietary theories, and lived on charcoal and cracked ice and almost no food. His teeth were black from chewing charcoal, and the ice he sucked between the bites of charcoal made him a somewhat noisy dinner companion. Whiskey was also a part of his diet, and he always had a glassful before breakfast. He had his suits constructed with a special zinc-lined pocket to hold his ice cubes, and once, when his tailor mistook Washington's instructions, Washington cried out, "No! No! The right pocket is to hold the ice! the left pocket is for the charcoal!"--to the bewilderment of other customers in the shop.

Pica pole.


  1. Compulsive eating of ice is also a sign of pica.

  2. I have both worked in a shop where two linotype machine were used to set lead type and lived with a person that ate dirt and drywall. Though they made a concerted effort to conceal this behavior

  3. State of the Union:

    The President of the United States replied, when asked on Fox News Sunday whether he would accept the results of the election: “I have to see.” How is that anything other than treason — even just suggesting that he might not accept the results of an election? The fact that he did it in 2016 doesn’t make this any easier for me to understand.

    Also, his remarks about the test that he’s been bragging about “acing”, evidently a basic cognitive test, examples of which are all over the place online, were stunning. Trump boldly and cluelessly stated “You couldn’t answer many of the questions” to Chris Wallace, the interviewer. That, by itself, is a delusional assumption on his part. But the fact that he’s so proud about nailing this test is just through-the-looking-glass stuff. As Wallace noted, one of the “hard” questions that Trump was referring to is apparently to count back from 100 by seven.

    I mean, c’mon, it’s been evident that the Emperor has no clothes from the get-go. (“Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” e.g.) But to have his nakedness so blatantly exposed on national TV like that is chilling. Yet, the country just rumbles on, trying to pretend that he’s simply garden-variety stupid and 99th-percentile evil, when he shouldn’t be allowed to preside over a taco truck, let alone a nation in a pandemic. Most of us grudgingly proceed to marvel at whatever the next outrage will be. And his Cult 45 followers, as Neil notes, aren't bothered by any of it, at all.

  4. I have never forgotten the kid in my kindergarten class who ate the clay we were given to play with. He did it repeatedly, despite many admonishments. Finally, he was expelled. I saw him later on, while shopping with my mother at the A & P, and said: "That's the clay-eater who was expelled!" My mother, always the nervous type, hustled me away as though he had plague germs. I occasionally wonder what became of him. Did he join a gang? Play in the NBA? Work in a factory? Die in Vietnam?

    I did not learn about pica and pregnant women and mineral deficiency until years later. It was common in the South. But I went to kindergarten in East Garfield Park, in the early Fifties. It was still a very diverse neighborhood back then. There was a good deal of poverty. Many families were struggling. Some were without phones, or had no bathtubs. Perhaps the kid had a mineral imbalance, passed down from his mother. Or maybe he was just hungry.

  5. I had (and maybe still have) that ruler in silver color. I worked at the Southwest News Herald when we still had to cut and paste. I was a "keyline/paste up artist". That's a killed job.


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