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Smile or Die
Researchers at the University of Kansas have made an alarming discovery. Smiling, they have found, can relieve stress. Even more unsettling, the act of laughing actually improves heart health.

You might conclude that such a connection is good and natural and that such behavior ought to be rewarded with such side effects. It is not in any way alarming, you say, and in fact it makes you smile just to think it could be good for you to do so. What is so unsettling about that? And what planet am I from, anyway?

Well, let me tell you. The study found that these benefits attached to smilers and laughers regardless of whether they were actually amused. The results were associated simply with the exercise of certain facial muscles — those used in grinning — and not necessarily with any genuine feelings of mirth. Fake smiles and phony laughs, in other words, yielded the same benefits as the real thing.

This would be considered wrong on my planet. I concede that put-on facial expressions are a part of the manners that lubricate our social interactions, but let’s face it — a manufactured smile is essentially a lie. It says “I am pleased,” or “I am amused” when that is not necessarily true. It might even be suggested that lying about your emotions is more reprehensible than a simple misstatement of external fact. Should such dishonesty be rewarded and encouraged? Not in my neck of the universe; it may be good for the smiler, but all this insincerity is patently unhealthy for society in general.

And it is not just fake smiles that are reaping these benefits for their owners. Consider, if you will, the snicker. Those teenage girls on the bus the other day, the ones who were snickering at your fashion choices? Be assured that they will lead long, robust lives. Is the smug smirk worn by your jackass co-worker (directed as it seems to be at your abject inferiority) grinding down your self-esteem? Of course it is, but at the same time, it is putting a rose in that s.o.b.’s cheeks.

Think of the Joker, perhaps the most unrelentingly evil character in all of fiction, laughing maniacally while his victims writhe in agony. You can bet that his cardiovascular system is positively throbbing with vitality. And since Batman refuses to kill his hyper-sociopathic ass, he might just live forever. Still think the connection between smiling and health is good and natural? Don’t make me laugh!

There is nothing to be done about this, of course. We are simply caught in the grip of a cruel irony perpetrated by our own bodies. These false emotions seem to enhance the social order and tear it down at the same time. Now, I certainly wouldn’t argue for the trait of grumpiness to be rewarded in this way, since grumpiness has its own way of rending the social fabric. But at least it is an honest emotion honestly expressed.

This world is unfair; surely we can agree on that. Here, bogus facial expressions are granted a special premium for pretending to be real. Were this my planet, however, and if I got to decide such things, I would decree that the effect of expression on the individual would be health neutral — with perhaps a slight bump for honest-to-goodness sincerity.

For the record, I am not smiling.
Why Do People Have to Be So Mean?
It’s a child’s question, and like many such questions it is grounded both in innocence and in wisdom. Why do people have to be so mean? Why do we hurt one another? What possible justification can there be for such behavior?

To be fair, I suppose it could be evolution’s way of controlling the population. War is just meanness on a large scale, after all, and war has a reputation for getting a lot of people killed. Is it possible that such an attitude might be useful in thinning the human herd in a time of scarce resources?

Apparently not. We are killing each other in record numbers (at least in absolute terms), but the population has ballooned to over seven billion — way too many, in my view. The next time someone asks you, “War! What is it good for?”, you can truthfully reply, “I’m not sure, but definitely not for population control.”

All right then, anything else? Could it be a way of naturally selecting the strong and assertive over the weak, thereby strengthening our breeding stock? I don’t think this theory pencils out in the long run. If we really lived in a survival-of-the-meanest world, then wolverines would be running the show.

Unless I’m missing something, then, meanness is a bad thing. Unlike niceness, it is not a boon to human society. It’s not a deterrent to crime, it doesn’t stimulate the economy, and it practically guarantees waste, fraud, and abuse. Plus, it makes everybody feel bad — unless you happen to be a meanie.

This is not exactly news. There have been laws against doing mean things ever since there have been laws. Those laws prescribe punishments, and that threat of punishment has worked to a certain extent. These kinds of laws, however, do not address the root cause of crime: meanness itself.

Religion goes all-out against meanness (unless you count the terrorism, the child molestation, the war, and the virgin sacrifices). Not only does it threaten retribution for bad acts, but it also rewards niceness. Furthermore, religion has come up with the concept of sin, which comes closer to the mark in identifying the problem with meanness. Meanness is seen as a flaw in motivation by most religions, something that might be corrected with the application of a little effort. Still, the religious approach hasn’t exactly worked either. Commandments are being ignored all over the place.

So is there hope? Can anything be done to stop the meanness? Let’s go back to the main question: Why do people have to be so mean? Instead of treating the symptoms, perhaps we should get to the heart of the matter… with technology!

Here’s my hypothesis: people act mean because of bad chemicals in their brains. Those chemicals should be detectable. It’s simply a matter of developing the proper tests. Given the advances we’ve made in science and technology, that should be easy. Once we find those answers, all we’d need to do is summon the will to test everyone for the presence of these bad chemicals. We will have isolated the meanness before it has had a chance to cause mean acts. And then what, you ask? What do we do with this knowledge?

Do we punish people just because of a chemical imbalance? We can’t do that; they haven’t done anything wrong (yet). Do we force them to undergo drug treatments to correct the imbalance? To do so would be a gross violation of their individual rights. Rehabilitation? That only works if there is a real, substantial incentive to back it up.

No, there is only one way to handle this. We test people as described above, and if their blood contains the chemical markers for meanness that I am fully confident exist, then tax the bastards! The higher the readings, the higher the tax! The benefits for society would be immense. Revenues would go through the roof. A whole new industry would grow up around the rush to undergo voluntary drug treatments. Without mean people around, the need for police would disappear — as would the need for armies and navies. The entire defense budget could be eliminated. The world would be at peace, and we’d all be rich and happy!

Wouldn’t that be nice?
What is the scariest animal?

That’s a personal question, of course. Some people are afraid of snakes … something about the slithering is disquieting, although I think there’s more to it than that. To others, even the thought of a big, hairy tarantula scurrying across the kitchen floor will send shivers though their gut. This one also reflects some hidden kinkiness.

I’m not necessarily talking about rational fear (if there is such a thing). It makes sense to be afraid of a tiger, for instance, or a crocodile, or a python. Those dudes will kill you and eat you; you need to be afraid of them. What I’m wondering about are the deeper terrors of the soul.

I’ve heard that the creators of the movie Alien wanted the look of the monster to touch the audience in some primal place, some psychic zone filled with ancestral dread. The teeth, the head, the tail, the knack for exploding out of peoples’ chests — all were crafted to scare you down to the toenails.

But there is something much, much worse. If the Alien is our nightmare creature, then these are her nightmares. Except they are real, and they are everywhere. In the carpet, on the furniture, and all over you!

Mites, they call some of them — such a cute name for such horrific creatures. There are also water bears and pseudo scorpions. Please, don’t Google these. If you do, their great, jagged mandibles, and their hideous visages will surely haunt your dreams. Yes, they are crawling on you right now. Their multiple appendages are insinuating into your skin; their claws are tearing at you, dislodging hunks of living flesh and passing them to the all-consuming maw — relentlessly feeding, feeding, feeding.

Now, I don’t want to alarm you, but you are being devoured in this way constantly. It’s all being done on a tiny scale, but it is no less violent than a tiger attack. At least the tiger is a handsome, noble beast. These creatures wear the face of Satan himself.

And yet, there is no sense in fearing them. After all, there’s not much you can do to defend yourself. Perhaps it's best to imagine them as microscopic bunnies or plump little cupids or tiny cartoon elves frolicking in the misty glens and sheltered dells of your personal landscape. That wouldn't be so bad.

Whatever you do, though, do not think of them as monsters from the depths of your personal hell roaming your body at will and eating you alive. In fact, I’m sorry I brought it up.
Sometimes I fantasize about a world in which words have one meaning and one meaning only. It’s a silly dream, I know. Perhaps there was a time when our ancestors led lives so simple that every object, every act, every situation had one word all to itself to signify it. Theirs would have been a clear, straightforward language that did not require us to sort out definition from context or to guess at what was being communicated.

There would have been no words like ball, for instance. It’s such a simple word, right? It’s round, and it rolls. Probably bounces, too. On second thought, though, maybe it’s a big dress-up party. Or a good ol’ time, or a bullet, or not a strike, or a sex act, or a testicle, or guts, or any conglomeration of stuff of uncertain shape and consistency.

There are many words like ball in the English language — words that have multiple, seemingly unrelated meanings. There does not seem to be any way to stem this tide of metastasizing definitions. I don’t like it, but I have given into it as a byproduct of our complex society. I accept that a kind of entropy is at work within our language, and that we are moving toward a time when all words will mean all things and therefore nothing at all.

Different meanings are one thing. I draw the line, however, at contranyms — words that can mean the opposite of themselves.

Fortunately for my mental health, most of the examples often cited as contranyms are not true opposites, but rather very different applications of the same root meaning. Take bound, for instance. One usage might have you tied up and immobile. Another could have you moving toward a very certain destination. It gives me comfort to know that you could be both: lashed to your seat on the night flight to Rangoon. Bound is not, in my view, a true contranym.

Cleave is another such word. One meaning is to hold tight, the other is to cut or chop. These are seemingly at odds, but if I let my imagination take me back to the word’s origins in Middle English, I can picture Beowulf bringing down his axe to hack a notch in Grendel’s noggin — and having it stick there. Here again, the two meanings might hypothetically coexist and therefore do not illustrate a contranym. An antagonym, perhaps, but I can live with that.

Most so-called contranyms, in fact, fall into the antagonym category. It is distressing to have to spend time doing thought experiments about such words as dust (remove it vs. apply it), left (gone vs. still here), sanction (approval vs. punishment), and oversight (watching vs. falling asleep on the job), but it is important work that needs to be done.

(This is not the time or place to contrast flammable and inflammable nor to discuss which valuable things are also invaluable. I invite you to conduct those thought experiments on your own.)

There is one word on the list, however, that seems impervious to rationalization: ravel. It means, so far as I can tell, both to tangle and to untangle. Right there in the dictionary, one of the listed meanings of ravel is … unravel. I have not been able to find a way around this paradox, and it is deeply distressing to me. There should be no contranyms at all; for such a word to exist defies the fundamentals of clear communication. As nature abhors a vacuum, so too should language abhor a contranym. It is wrong, pure and simple.

So I must persist. The answer to the conundrum, I know, will present itself to me; all I need is to be patient. At times like this, I often think of the ancient Polynesians. I know that I will never live in a world like theirs where meanings are unitary and immutable. And they, in turn, never faced such riddles as these. But as they navigated the Pacific using the art of wayfinding they called a’aa’u’aa’o’o’i, they had to pit their resolve and cunning against a sea of uncertainty just as I do now. Like theirs, mine will be a lonely journey.

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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon