Mater incerta

In 2002 Lydia Fairchild, a 26-year-old woman living in Washington state, was already a mother of two kids, with a third one on her way, and without a steady job; she had decided to seek public assistance.
The procedure required her children to undergo DNA testing to confirm that their father was indeed Jamie Townsend, Fairchild’s former partner. It should have been a routine check, but some days later the woman received a strange call, asking her to come in the prosecutor’s office at Social Services.
And that is when her world almost fell apart.

Once she went in, the officers closed the door behind her and started drilling her: “Who are you?”, they kept asking her repeatedly, without her understanding what was going on.
The reason behind the relentless questioning was absolutely unpredictable: the DNA tests had proven that Jamie Townsend was actually the children’s father… but Lydia was not their mother.

Although the woman kept repeating that she had carried and delivered them, the results categorically excluded this possibility: the genetic profiles of her children were in fact made up for one half from their father’s chromosomes, and for the other half from the chromosomes of an unknown woman. Lydia Fairchild was facing the risk of having her kids taken away from her.
Before the woman’s despair, Social Services ordered a new test, which gave exactly the same results. Lydia showed no genetic link with her children.

During the following 16 months, things got worse. The officers launched court action to remove her custody rights, as this could turn out to be a case of abduction, and the state even had a court officer witness her third child’s delivery, so that DNA test could be run immediately after birth. Once again, the newborn baby showed no genes in common with Lydia, who then became a suspect of acting as a surrogate for payment (which in Washington state is considered gross misdemeanor).
Lydia Fairchild was living a true nightmare: “I’d sit and have dinner with my kids and just break out crying. They would just look at me like, ‘What’s wrong, Mum.’ They’d come get me a hug, and I couldn’t explain it to them, because I didn’t understand“.

Her lawyer Alan Tindell, though initially perplexed by the case, decided to investigate and one day stumbled upon a similar story that happened in Boston, as described in a paper on the New England Journal of Medicine: a 52-year-old woman, Karen Keegan, had undergone a hystological exam in view of a transplant, and the results had shown no link between her DNA and her children’s.
Quite often the solution for the most intricate mysteries turn out to be disappointing, but in this case the explanation was just as incredible.
The lawyer understood that, just like the mother the scientific paper was about, Lydia too was a chimera.

Tetragametic chimerism happens when two egg cells are fertilized by two different sperm cells and, instead of developing into two fraternal twins, they fuse together at a very early stage. The chimeric individual is equipped with two different genetic makeups, and can develop whole organs having different chromosomes from all the others. Most chimeras do not even know they are, because the existence of two cellular lines is not often noticeable; but they carry inside them for instance the liver, or some other gland, that should have been part of their unborn twin.
In Fairchild’s case, the “foreign” organs were her ovaries. Inside of them were hidden those unknown chromosomes that formed the genetic makeup of Lydias’s children, as was confirmed by the examination of the cells obtained via pap test.

Finally the court dismissed the case. In the court hearing, the judge openly wondered how reliable could DNA tests be, as they are even today held essential in forensic cases — but what if the criminal is a chimera?
Today Lydia Fairchild is back to her normal life, leaving this terrible adventure behind. And some years ago she gave birth to her fourth daughter; or, if you will, the fourth daughter of that sister she never had.

The New England Journal of Medicine paper mentioned in the post can be read here. To discover some less-known istances of chimerism, I suggest this articolo.

The Museum of Failure

I have a horror of victories.
(André Pieyre de Mandiargues)

Museums are places of enchantment and inspiration (starting from their name, referring to the Muses). If they largely celebrate progress and the homo sapiens‘ highest achievements, it would be important to recognize that enchantment and inspiration may also arise from contemplating broken dreams, misadventures, accidents that happen along the way.

It is an old utopian project of mine, with which I’ve been flirting for quite a long time: to launch a museum entirely dedicated to human failure.

Lacking the means to open a real museum, I will have to settle for a virtual tour.
Here is the map of my imaginary museum.

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As you can see, the tour goes through six rooms.
The first one is entitled Forgotten ingenuity, and here are presented the lives of those inventors, artists or charlatans whose passage on this Earth seems to have been overlooked by official History. Yet among the protagonists of this first room are men who knew immense fame in their lifetime, only to fall from hero to zero.
As a result of an hypertrophic ego, or financial recklessness, or a series of unfortunate events, these characters came just one step away from victory, or even apparently conquered it. Martin F. Tupper was the highest grossing anglo-saxon XIX Century poet, and John Banvard was for a long time the most celebrated and successful painter of his era. But today, who remembers their names?
This introduction to failure is a sort of sic transit, and pushes the visitor to ask himself some essential questions on the ephemeral nature of success, and on historical memory’s inconsistency.

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John Banvard (1815-1891)

The second room is entirely dedicated to odd sciences and wrong theories.
Here is a selection of the weirdest pseudoscientific ideas, abandoned or marginalized disciplines, complex systems of thought now completely useless.
Particular attention is given to early medical doctrines, from Galen‘s pneuma to Henry Cotton‘s crazy surgical therapies, up to Voronoff‘s experiments. But here are also presented completely irrational theories (like those who maintain the Earth is hollow or flat), along other ones which were at one point influential, but now have an exclusively historical value, useful perhaps to understand a certain historical period (for instance, the physiognomy loved by Cesare Lombroso, or Athanasius Kircher‘s musurgy).

This room is meant to remind the visitor that progress and scientific method are never linear, but rather they develop and grow at the cost of failed attempts, dead-end streets, wrong turns. And in no other field as in knowledge, is error as fundamental as success.

The third room is devoted to Lost challenges. Here are celebrated all those individuals who tried, and failed.
The materials in this section prove that defeat can be both sad and grotesque: through multimedia recreations and educational boards the visitors can learn (just to quote a few examples) about William McGonagall, the world’s worst poet, who persisted in composing poems although his literary abilities were disatrous to say the least; about the clumsy and horrendously spectacular attempt to blow up  a whale in Florence, Oregon, or to free a million and a half helium balloons in the middle of a city; and of course about the “flying tailor“, a classic case of extreme faith in one’s own talent.

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Next, we enter the space dedicated to Unexpected accidents, often tragic-comic and lethal.
A first category of failures are those made popular by the well-known Darwin Awards, symbolically bestowed upon those individuals who manage to kill themselves in very silly ways. These stories warn us about overlooked details, moments of lessened clarity of mind, inability to take variables into account.
But that is not all. The concept behind the second section of the room is that, no matter how hard we try and plan our future in every smallest detail, reality often bursts in, scrambling all our projects. Therefore here are the really unexpected events, the hostile fate, all those catastrophes and fiascos that are impossible to shun.

This double presentation shows how human miscalculation on one hand, and the element of surprise “kindly” provided by the world on the other, make failure an inevitable reality. How can it be overcome?

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The last two rooms try to offer a solution.
If failure cannot be avoided, and sooner or later happens to us all, then maybe the best strategy is to accept it, freeing it from its attached stygma.

One method to exorcise shame is to share it, as suggested by the penultimate room. Monitors screen the images of the so-called fail videos, compilations of homemade footage showing common people who, being unlucky or inept, star in embarassing catastrophes. The fact these videos have a huge success on the internet confirms the idea that not taking ourselves too seriously, and being brave enough to openly share our humiliation, is a liberating and therapeutic act.
On the last wall, the public is invited to hang on a board their own most scorching failure, written down on a piece of paper.

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The final room represents the right to fail, the joy of failing and the pride of failure.
Here, on a big bare wall, failure and fortune are represented as yin and yang, each containing the other’s seed, illusory opposites concealing only one reality – the neverending transformation, which knows no human category such as success or failure, indifferent, its vortex endlessly spinning.
To take failure back means to sabotage its paralyzing power, and to learn once again how to move and follow the rythm.

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Above the exit door, an ironic quote by Kurt Vonnegut reminds the visitor: “We are dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different“.

Ischia’s creative graves

Art, construction and redemption

Post and pictures by our guestblogger Mario Trani

The island of Ischia, pearl of the Neapolitan Gulf, holds a secret.
It’s a sort of exaltation, a deviant behavior caused by the very limited living space or maybe by an instinctive desire of marking the territory: it’s the plague of frauca — the unauthorized construction, in infringement of all local building regulations.

The Ischian resident, in order to be (or to think of himself as) respected, has to build, construct, erect.
It might be just a screed, a dry stone wall, a second floor or a small living quarter for his son who’s about to get married. All rigorously unauthorized, these supplements to the house are built in disregard of those strict and suffocating rules he feels are killing his creativity; and which often force him to demolish what he so patiently constructed.

No family is without an expert in this field, and often more than one member is mastro fraucatore or mezza cucchiara (nicknames for a master builder).
But the free zone, the real no man’s land where all the islanders’ construction dreams come true is the graveyard.

To walk through the avenues of the Ischia Municipal Cemetery means to discover surprising tombs the relatives of the deceased decorated with materials found around the island: lava stones from the volcanic Mount Epomeo, polished rocks from the many beaches, sea shells and scallops; stones from the Olmitello creek or pizzi bianchi of carsic origin.

conchiglie della mandra

tronco d'albero tagliato nella sua sede originale come verticale della croce

pietre levigate del bagnasciuga

pietre bianche dei pizzi bianchi

conchiglie e pietre levigate del bagnasciuga

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pietre levigate del torrente olmitello

Other tombs incorporate remainings and leftovers from unauthorized constructions, such as unused bricks or decorated floor tiles.

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No grave is similar to another, in this array of different materials and colors. But there is a specific niche of funeral art, reserved to those who worked as fishermen.
To honor the deceased who, during their lifetime, bravely defied the sea for the catch of the day, granting the survival and well-being of their family, a peculiar grave is built in the shape of a gozzo, the typical Ischian fishing boat.

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This is a touching way of saying a last goodbye, and looking at these hand-crafted graves one cannot help but appreciate the genuine creativity of these artisans. But the tombs seem to be the ultimate, ironic redemption of the heirs of Typhon: a payback for that building urge, that longing for cement and concrete which was constantly repressed during their lifetime.

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