And Carry On

I hate the Keep Calm memes. It isn’t just that I don’t like the choices, flippant or worse, of words used to finish that sentence–although I won’t soon forget eating dinner with my family at our local pub about a week after Sandy Hook and finding ourselves at a table next to a couple sporting matching tees that read “Keep Calm and Carry Guns.” It frustrates me that people can’t be bothered to google a little bit of history. If you aren’t aware of its origins, the now iconic Keep Calm and Carry On poster is what the British Ministry of Information was secretly holding in reserve to be used for morale-boosting after its people were conquered by the Nazis. You know, after Hitler had bummed everyone out by executing his plans to do things like publicly hang the royal family, and kill off British children with disabilities, and punish non-whiteness and non-Christianity and homosexuality with life sentences to be served at concentration camps. Thinking about the intent of that poster still has the ability to hurt my heart a little, knowing how frightening that time was, when it wasn’t clear that right would prevail, or that anyone would ever be safe again. I wish it commanded more respect.

I find myself thinking about the sentiment behind the original Keep Calm posters the morning after the shock of this presidential election. Let me stop you there, I’m aware that Donald Trump has not, to date, perpetuated a genocide, and I am not comparing him to Hitler. Among other reasons I don’t care for argument by analogy. But do I listen to my elders, who were there for the Second World War, when they tell me they’ve seen this before? You bet I do.

There is an elderly man who lives in my neighborhood, and with whom I sometimes chat at the bus stop. I don’t know his story, only that he appears to be in his 90s and speaks with a German accent. I imagine he has seen a lot. So it chilled me when, several months ago after violent conflict at a Trump rally in another state, my neighbor told me in tones of deep resignation, “That is the end of democracy.”

Being American doesn’t mean the same thing to me today that it meant yesterday. I am disappointed, and I am afraid. I am afraid for democracy, and for peace, and for myself, and for my countrymen, and for my country. I’m pretty sure Donald Trump and his supporters have no plans to hang the first family…but I’m not that sure. I don’t think the president elect cares one fig what happens to children with disabilities, queer Americans, immigrants, Muslims, or Jews. If he doesn’t actually want to kill the people he despises, well, he doesn’t care enough to defend our lives either.

And I’m angry at myself. I’m angry that I didn’t realize that I was living in the middle of a battleground state. I should have been the last to underestimate the racism of Wisconsin’s white people. They are my patients, and they tell me all about it. From the mom wearing confederate flag nail art in her child’s hospital room, to the man who confides in me why he won’t rent to Mexicans, to the granny that tells me she isn’t racist she just doesn’t care for black people because she can’t stand laziness. Mostly I am angry that I vanished up my own behind worrying about getting into a residency and I let that and the other stresses in my life distract me from the work that needed to be done. I owe amends.

Today, as we grieve, there is nothing else to do but carry on.  I think Jay Smooth puts it best when he says, “We come from a tradition of resistance. Just as surely as America’s history is the story of…hate, it is also the story of our resistance.”

Though it’s not sufficient, as a future pediatrician I’m responsible for carrying on with the training that will allow me some small power to protect children. Children with disabilities, children who survive abuse and neglect and violence, children living in poverty, children in danger of being separated from their families by deportation, children traumatized by discrimination of all kinds.

I’ll leave  you with a different British propaganda poster, one that was printed and circulated during the worst violence visited on the British people:

freedom_is_in_peril_defend_it_with_all_your_might-svg

On the Virtues of Whining about your Illness

Feeling sick is hard. File this one under Things you Don’t Need a Medical Degree to Know. Or file it under Things of which Everyone in this Culture Needs Constant Reminders. No argument from me either way, they’re both true. A few days after Hillary Clinton took her politically disastrous header into a limo I came down with my own respiratory illness that, if it didn’t actually make me pass out, that was probably only because my attending sent me home to lie down. Actually the same attending sent me home three separate times.

I don’t know for sure what I had, but it sucked, both in the absolute sense and the life out of me. First it was just a cough. Then it was a really unpleasant cough productive of truly disgusting sputum. Then I got winded walking a very normal 1.5 miles home from clinic. Then I felt like I had swallowed a hot poker then stuck it down my trachea for good measure. Then came headaches and fevers. Then the malaise, by which I mean I was not up to doing ANYTHING. Like, not even typing in bed. Not even mousing. Although between the cough and the fever I couldn’t actually sleep, I wanted very badly to remain horizontal. Rather than raise my head off the pillow I watched eight episodes of this feculent series in which the only actor of color plays a servant with almost no lines, and the principal female character’s main thing is that she is possessed by Satan every time she has intercourse (oh and somehow the plot just somehow leads to her repeatedly getting put in four-point restraints but not clothing). Just when I thought I was getting better I lost my voice completely.

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Point is, I felt like a dog’s armpit. So it was easy to empathize with the Democratic candidate for president while everyone was debating whether a) getting pneumonia is a sign of weakness b) not staying home when you have pneumonia is reckless c) coming to work with pneumonia is for tough guys d) not mentioning your pneumonia is fishy e) whether Hillary Clinton is being actually being slowly poisoned. It was such a pure distillation of our culture’s perverse relationship to sickness.  I mean, for the record I agree with item b, but most people really have no choice about whether or not to go to work sick. Next year, if all goes according to plan, I will be one of those people.

As a person with the good fortune to expect general physical wellness on a typical day, I usually try to be stoic about illness out of respect for everyone I know that’s living with chronic disease and probably has limited sympathy for my temporary discomforts. I don’t know if it was the fever making me a little loopy, or my frustration at having made it through all of third year without getting sick only to get knocked on my behind in the middle of an elective I’d been looking forward to for months. And also in the middle of residency applications, did I mention that? At the moment I submitted mine my temp was 102.8. I’m certain that I uploaded a picture of myself with my application and not this picture of the kid that dressed as a fart for Halloween, but only because I double checked in the morning. So yeah, I was in a weird mood, and for whatever the reason, this time I threw myself a big, public, pity party.

epicwhine

Really everyone was very sympathetic, even people who endure significant pain on a regular basis. I have great friends and colleagues. But here’s where I’m going with this. I think it is actually good to whine about being sick, or injured, or otherwise uncomfortable in your body. We’re all under a lot of pressure to perform good health. Sometimes for concrete reasons, like fear of discrimination, sometimes for more nebulous reasons, like fear of seeming weak. It’s the worst for people with chronic disease, who paradoxically can expect less sympathy from their support network the longer their disease goes on. When that’s your new normal, everyone expects you to suck it up and accept what’s happening to your body. I see this even in the hospital, a place that exists only so that people can go there when they’re sick. I’ve had numerous patients apologize for complaining about their symptoms, or for feeling upset about them, even though it is literally my job to find out in great detail how they are feeling. But who can blame them? They live in the same world that considers it a personal failing on Hillary Clinton’s part that a bacterium (afaik) colonized her respiratory system.

So I think everyone should whine. People who are acutely ill should whine. People who are chronically ill should feel especially entitled to whine. Because feeling sick is really hard. And when everyone tries to act healthy all the time, it makes it easier to pretend that being sick is an aberration. And it makes it easy to deny how profoundly it affects people’s lives. Maybe being honest about your own experience will make it safe for the next person open up about theirs.

Why I Don’t Need a Mirror

Like a lot of things that have made my life better, this one started by accident. When we moved into our current apartment, we decided to take the doors off the closets, and the closet doors happened to be where the full length mirrors were installed. I fully intended to put them back up, but in the time it took us to unpack, I began to notice that not having mirrors was changing my behavior. And it was good.

I’m not sure I was fully aware of the Socially Acceptable Outfit Vortex until I was well out of it. But it would go something like this. I would get dressed. I would stop to check myself in the mirror. Something about what I saw made me unhappy–the look I thought was classic turned out to be dowdy, the color combination was too hard to pull off, the length of the hem made my knees look wide. So I would change my top. Back to the mirror. This combination looks weird. Go change into different pants. Back to the mirror. Pretty soon I was just looping between the dresser and the mirror, rejected clothes piling up on the bed. I have been late to work because of this behavior. I have lost so many hours I could have spent doing literally anything else. The cycle never ended in my leaving the house feeling like I had nailed the right outfit, and was ready to take on the world. In fact it almost never left me feeling okay.

SleepingBeauty

When we moved my mirrors to the basement, this behavior essentially ceased. The frankly pretty nutbars routine I’d been performing since early adolescence just fell out of my life. And I did not miss it. In place of the “how do I look” ritual, I was checking in with how the clothes felt. Over time I proved to myself that I could trust my own judgment. It turns out I am sufficiently competent at getting dressed that it’s not usually necessary to check my work.

Life without a full length mirror requires some changes, but some of them I had already made. For example I had gotten rid of the clothes that didn’t fit me. The range of possible sartorial disasters is actually pretty limited when all your clothes fit. On two or three occasions, I got to the office and found that my bike shorts were a tad too long for my skirt. And one time I wore my shirt inside out until 2 in the afternoon. But nothing bad happened because of those mistakes. I turned my shirt right side out and moved on with my life. Eventually I stopped wearing that skirt, and I didn’t miss that either. I began to gravitate to really reliable, low-maintenance garments that required no thought because I knew I liked how they looked on me. Then I went further.

One day I was complaining to my husband about the unfair double standard in professional dress for women and men. I pointed out that his entire process for getting dressed in the morning was 1) Grab the shirt on top of the shirt stack 2) Grab the pants on top of the pants stack. And he has never once tried something on and then come to me for an opinion on whether looks too masculine, or not masculine enough. I told him I just wanted what he had. “Well,” he asked me, “What’s stopping you?”

I took that question seriously. The double standard is real, but it’s up to me how much I choose to bend to it. I started asking myself what, actually, was the point of getting dressed. I’m not using clothes to attract a mate or make a best-dressed list. If I want to intimidate my enemies, I have a better weapons.
Gloria

My work clothes in particular only have one job, which is to perform professionalism. I resent that I am graded on my ability to dress preppy (see also this important piece by Jacob Tobia), but that’s a post for another day. Point is, I do not work at Vogue. Nobody cares if I curate a tasteful capsule wardrobe in a variety of neutrals, or wear a giraffe-print jumpsuit to clinic every day, as long as my cleavage is covered and I don’t wear jeans. If there is a professional advantage to looking trendy, or having a varied and creative wardrobe, the payoff is pretty small proportionate to the amount of time, money, and stress that it requires. I think it’s awesome when other people express themselves creatively through their clothing, but when I looked at it hard I had to admit that most of the time I wasn’t expressing myself, I was just trying to pass for acceptable. So I opted out.

I now wear a black sweater and a black pencil skirt pretty much every day (sub in black jeans on the weekend). Every now and then I have the urge to change things up, but I usually regret it. I can now get ready for work in under ten minutes, and usually don’t have to think about my clothes for the rest of the day unless a baby barfs on me. I don’t wonder how I look cause I know my clothes really well, and I also know my own body.

I always thought of people who didn’t have full-length mirrors as people who couldn’t stand to look at themselves. But I’m pretty sure there are a lot of people with mirrors who also can’t stand to look. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I find I treat my body with more respect when I skip the daily appraisal. I don’t need a mirror to tell me how I look if I know how I see myself.

You Don’t Have to be Nice: Advice for Young Women Scientists and Others

If nice has been working out for you so far, that is fantastic. High five, keep it up. Nothing I’m about to say applies to you. But feel free to check back in someday if you find that, despite all your efforts to be nice, something is troubling you. People around you aren’t acting like you’re a nice person. Maybe they tell you how nice you are, but behave as though that’s a weakness. Maybe you did something nice, but it made you feel sick.

If you want my advice, here are a few things you do have to be in order to succeed professionally, and/or to like yourself. You must be respectful, fair, honest, and generous. You need not, however, be nice.

Here’s the difference. Niceness comes not from your own integrity, but from your perception of other people’s perceptions of you. It locates your conscience in someone else’s feelings, which you can never really know, and certainly cannot control. Being nice is great when you can manage it, but it is not the same thing as acting right, because doing the right thing sometimes carries the risk of angering or alienating other people.

Nice

Nice means waiting your turn to speak, instead of interrupting the guy talking over everyone else. Nice means sparing someone’s feelings, instead of answering a question honestly when no one else is going to. Nice means smiling and nodding, instead of questioning a person’s expertise or authority to get her to listen to someone with less power. It means avoiding a painful subject, instead of giving someone a chance to confide in you. It means letting bad behavior slide, instead of hearing the awkward silence when you point it out. It means agreeing to help someone, even when you know the help he is asking for will really hurt him.

Nice interferes with your ability to work. It means never disappointing, and never showing people that their desires are less important than your needs. It means accepting the scut work that interferes with you doing your real job, because you don’t want to seem ungrateful to have been hired. It means letting someone else take credit for your work because you want to be a team player. It means not getting the support you need because you don’t want to ask for “special treatment.” It means constant distractions in the form of self-criticism and futile attempts to read other people’s emotions. It means wasting energy you could use for working, on presenting yourself as accomodating, unthreatening, and quiet–qualities that actually make it harder for you to succeed, unless success is defined as minimizing the number of people who dislike you.

The hell with nice. You know who’s nice? Todd Alquist is nice.*

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If you’re going to do real work, you must give up the idea that it is your job to make everybody happy. I mean, friend, that is a very, very big job. People feel and act the way they do for very complicated reasons that most of the time have sweet Fanny Adams to do with you. Being nice enough to fix all that is a fantasy–literally, you would have to be the nicest, most powerful witch in the history of Beauxbatons to pull that off. It can’t be done.

So it also means accepting that someone, right now, might be calling you a bitch behind your back. It’s not the end of the world. I know someone’s calling me one, probably more than one person, and probably more than one insult. You can’t actually protect yourself from that. No matter how hard you try to hide your confidence, or keep your voice small and questioning, not even if you start every sentence with “Sorry, this could be way off but….” Yeah, you might reduce the number of people who think you are a narcissist, or a bitch, or an Angry Black Woman, or a Dragon Lady, or a man-hating dyke, or an ugly feminist, or whatever it is you’re afraid to be called. But some of them will still think that anyway, because you are existing in their space. And others will fall for your act, and start to believe you really don’t know what you’re talking about, that you’re a pushover, that you have nothing to say–assuming they actually notice you at all.

If somebody tells you you’re not being nice, it might mean you messed up, but it also might not. And it does not mean that you are a bad person. There is a big difference between discomfiting the occasional meanie-pants and treating the whole human race like garbage. If you and I know each other (and if you’re reading my blog, there’s a good chance we do), it’s quite possible that in the course of acting according to your own integrity you will alienate me. Big whoop. I’m highly likely to get over it. And if I don’t, there are lots of people in this world, and some of them like you a lot, and those people are just as important as I am–and so are you.

There are real costs to letting go of nice. The question you’ll have to answer for yourself is whether or not the alternatives cost you more. Personally, I am more willing than most to take certain kinds of risks. That means that I make more errors of commission than of omission, and that I screw up more than most, and have to make more amends. Add to that my distaste for indirection, and…people who later became my friends have described their first impressions of me (all of them, I suspect, softpedaling), as “Someone I wouldn’t want to mess with,” “Someone I wasn’t sure liked me,” or “Terrifying.” So there are probably great people out there I will never get to know cause they don’t think I’m a nice person. I can live with that.

I am how I am for a reason, and it’s got nothing to do with the impression I am making. It is because I want to be at peace with the choices I’ve made. The worst regrets of my life, and my true wrongdoings, are times when I failed to speak up, and someone who couldn’t speak up got hurt. And you know what else? It’s just as good a reason to speak up when the person who’s going to get hurt by your silence is you.

It’s cool to be nice, but it’s more important to be brave.


*If you haven’t watched Breaking Bad then this reference won’t mean a lot to you but just take my word for it both that Jesse Plemons can act, and that you do not want to model your professional relationships after those of the character he played on that show. Those of you who have watched Breaking Bad should definitely check out these mashups of Todd Alquist screenshots and Things Boys Do We Love. Those of you who are unfamiliar with that sexual-political-grammatical travesty should trust me when I call it the tumblr equivalent of an esophageal varix.

Eyes on your own treadmill

I so very much and so very deeply hate “gym season.” I hate it as a construct and I hate it for making everything at the gym so awkward. But don’t worry, I’m not mad at all the people who join the gym in January to atone for holiday behavior. Look, I get it. You spent the last week of December eating deep-fried peppermint bark, drinking sparkling absinthe, and snorting baby formula to stay awake for the ball drop. We’ve all been there. Now, understandably, you have rebounded to the other extreme, making the maple-vinegar-tea enema cleanse your new year’s resolution, and it’s fine. I would like to say that I sympathize, cause no one enjoys the kind of hangover you’re experiencing, but I can’t sympathize with you because I’m not thinking about you. At least not at the gym. I vaguely sense that you are there, but really I just came to work out cause I like to feel good and not exercising makes me feel otherwise.

No, really, welcome to the gym. Sure, most of you are going to practice your short-lived overexertion with all the faith and all the sanctimony of a neophyte Scientologist, but that is vital to the gym’s business model. Thank you, really, for allowing the doors to stay open, so that people have somewhere to move their bodies when it is -22ºF and the schools are closed to prevent children from freezing to death in the time it takes them to get from their doors to the school bus (not an exaggeration).

The gym regulars, on the other hand, are driving me up the wall, and not in a good, rock wall kind of way. They are scanning the cardio room, taking inventory, making knowing eye contact with other regulars. They are mentally separating the wheat from the chaff that has come to hog the equipment with its chaffy chaff-hands.

I do not look like a gym regular. Who knows if I even count as one; I am more of a gym irregular depending on the vagaries of my personal and professional schedule, and many of my planned gym days end in my living room with Billy Blanks, Jr. I clearly lack a budgetary line item for workout clothes. As a rule I’m fine with that, but now I feel like sticking my phone in the strap of my sports bra cause I forgot to wear the sweatpants with pockets makes me…conspicuous.

Suddenly I am performing. I am this close to laying my elbows on the floor, because that is obviously not something a new year’s newbie could do. On the other hand I will avoid attempting plank because I am rubbish at plank and planking for twelve seconds before collapsing on my face with a bellow is exactly the kind of thing chaff would do.

All I’m saying is gym season hurts gym-goers. It turns half of us into pathetic, projecting, self-censoring children, and the other half into judgmental buttwipes. This is a matter of no importance to medicine, public health, policy, or social justice, but it happens to be true, the end.

stretch

Oh were you watching me stretch? I didn’t even notice.


photo credit: Shar Ka via photopin cc

 

Ment for Each Other

The English language is alive. I’m cool with that. No matter how I might feel privately, I won’t ruin anyone’s day over using impact as a verb. I’m don’t care if ask is universally pronounced as “axe” a hundred years from now (and not only because at age 132 I will be unlikely to care about much). I fully support Tina Fey’s creation of the word blorft–a person as obviously blorft as myself has lots of occasions to use it. As long as no one gets hurt, by all means do things for the “lulz.” But you know what’s just a bridge too far? The fake word mentee.

I know, I know. It’s in the dictionary. What I really mean is not that the word is fake but that it is an abomination. Mentor is the name of a character in Homer’s Odyssey. Old Mentor takes Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, under his wing and imparts to the young man all kinds of wisdom.* When you call a teacher or an older colleague a mentor, you invoke a metaphor that compares the relationship between the older and the younger person to the relationship between Homer’s characters. You are not invoking a duality like employer and employee, trainer and trainee, detainer and detainee, because–please hear me on this–there is no English verb to ment. Try it out. Does any of this sound correct to you?

  • Richard Wright mented a young Ralph Ellison through the early years of his writing career, but the two eventually parted ways.
  • Haymitch is the only victor available in District 12, so he has to ment both Katniss and Peeta.
  • Though she no longer practiced medicine, she enjoyed menting her young colleagues.
  • I couldn’t face going to my high school reunion, so instead I stayed home and got mented.

Puh-lease. There is a perfectly functional verb to be used in those sentences (well, maybe not the last one), and the verb is to mentor. So why not call for the use of the word mentoree? Well, cause then you’d need the word mentorer, and this whole thing is enough of a haggis as it is. I don’t think the term Telemachus is going to catch on any time soon, but we could call the relationship that of mentor to mentored. That would be absolutely correct and would not sound especially weird.

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Image courtesy of nationalgeographic.com

When you use the word mentee, you just sound like you are making a slur against manatees. I can practically hear one of those racist dipwads that’s always misappropriating Chris Rock’s old standup routine trolling, “Aw yeah. There are two kinds of sea cows. There are manatees…and there are mentees.” Oh, I should warn you that once you start thinking of it that way, it gets hard to un-think it. The alternate meaning sure puts these sentences, culled from the OED, in a new light:

  • “What is the typical economics class but a contact between the conservative teacher and his mentees?”
  • “An older crafty male mentor uses Svengali-like power to mesmerize a young female mentee.”
  • “Although Garrison doesn’t think that mentors need to be best friends with their mentees, he does think that both partners should feel simpatico on some level.”

So before you thoughtlessly slap a suffix on a nonexistent verb, think for a minute about how you sound. If for no other reason, the manatees deserve better.


*Mostly. Sometimes Mentor is just a human suit for the goddess Athena.

Even Joke Charts Must be Clear

My second year of med school, I nearly failed my pulmonary class. The reason was that I decided to celebrate my 29th birthday by driving to Chicago to attend Edward Tufte’s one-day course on Presenting Data and Information–totally worth it and I’d do it again. I not infrequently find myself in journal clubs where the rest of the group is, say, expressing their horror at the promiscuity of a kinase (yeah, that’s a thing), and I’m going “Look how they scaled their axes. How are we supposed to take these authors seriously?” My reputation for graph-related crankiness has grown to the point where colleagues send me examples of really horrible graphs–this one just gets better every time I see it. But I’m not using this post to make impassioned pleas to the scholars and scientists of the world to pull themselves together and learn how to use error bars for crap’s sake (I mean, really how hard is it?). Today I am appealing to jokesters.

Joke charts are wonderful comedy. Wonderful. But if you don’t make a readable chart, no one’s going to get the joke. Cause the chart is the joke, so to get the funny you have to understand the chart. See? The inspiration for today’s impassioned plea was none other than Matt Yglesias, who recently published the following:

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I’m an Yglesias fan, and this is a genuinely funny idea. But I didn’t laugh when I saw it, because I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on, and by the time I could, I felt more like crying. The point of the figure is that until last month or so, there hadn’t been a living ex-pope for a really long time. The joke is supposed to be that for 999 years, the number of popes per year holds steady at one, and then in 2013 the number jumps up to two. If that’s not immediately obvious, it’s probably because, thanks to the poorly chosen tick mark intervals on the y axis, that big horizontal line clearly tells us that the number of popes has held steady at some number between 0.9 and 1.2.

As to the years…well I thought that was just a stream of random digits at first (pro tip: if you need to label your axis “year” to clarify, your figure might have issues). On closer inspection we realize that it is representing the numbers 1013 to 2013 with a tick mark every fifty years. Not super useful–I don’t orient myself to the passing of centuries using the year 1513. Actually, I use the year 1517 when Martin Luther nailed up his theses, because that’s what my Modern European History teacher told me to do, but surely it would be simpler for most people to use the year 1500? And then for some reason there is not one data point for 2013 but a whole column? Representing, I suppose, that there are simultaneously all possible numbers of popes between one and two, a phenomenon known as Schroedinger’s Pontiff?

There’s also one last small problem, in that the data are incorrect (see Pope Gregory XII, who resigned in 1415, ending what Medieval scholars call the Belt and Suspenders Period* during which there were two popes all the time for 39 years). But that’s a topic for another day.

Now consider and compare, if you please, two different versions of a pie chart gone viral in support of marriage equality (yum..viral pie).

Image

As with all good memes I have no idea who created these (Option A came from here, and Option B came from here). But the way I imagine it, Option B’s creator looked at Option A and said, “Holy farts, why is that pie chart in 3-D?” Option B’s funnier anyway.

Another example of pie charts gone awry is this one, which was published by HuffPost Comedy before election day 2012:

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I really want to love this one. But I just can’t laugh at a pie chart that is not only gratuitously 3-D, but rotated on its side at some bizarre angle like the pie took a self-portrait for its OkCupid profile. Wedges are not the ideal method for representing relative quantities, but plumping and rotating them makes it even harder. Especially when those wedges are too small for the labels, necessitating that the rotated/angled pie be covered in pointers like an electrocuted hedgehog. This would have been an equally hilarious but much less fatiguing bar chart.

In summary, the funniest part of a joke in chart form is the quantitation. Otherwise, you could just type up the Internet’s billionth top-ten list. If you want to communicate quantities, you have to make a nice, clear, economical chart, same as everybody else. And then add the farts.

*Medieval scholars don’t do that.