Category Archives: Non-fiction

Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming

book cover

Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome!

Settle in for a story that is appalling and entertaining, hopeful and disappointing, reflective and sometimes ephemeral.

Life is disappointing? Forget it.

It is a good thing that this advice was not followed. Remembering seems more the thing.

We have no troubles here. Here life is beautiful.

Ummm, not so much. And now, Meine Damen und Herren, Mes Dames et Messieurs, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Ich bin eur confrencier, je suis votre compere…I am your host.

the star of our show:

description
Cumming in the 1998 production – from Wmagazine.com – Photo by Joan Marcus.

“You need a haircut, boy!”

My father had only glanced at me across the kitchen table as he spoke but I had already seen in his eyes the coming storm.

I tried to speak but the fear that now engulfed me made it hard to swallow, and all that came out was a little gasping sound that hurt my throat even more. And I knew speaking would only make things worse, make him despise me more, make him pounce sooner. That was the worst bit, the waiting. I never knew exactly when it would come, and that, I know, was his favorite part.

Alan Cumming, star of stage and screen, notable Cabaret emcee, introducer of Masterpiece Mystery, bluish X-man, Smurf voice, and political operative Eli Gold on The Good Wife, among many other memorable characters, was raised on a large estate in Scotland. His father, Alex, was the head groundskeeper. He was also a mercurial and often cruel and violent parent to both Alan and his older brother Tom, offering ambiguous instructions to the boys and almost always finding the resulting work unsatisfactory, an excuse to justify the punishment that usually followed. Cumming’s experience as a battered child, coming to terms as an adult with some of the reasons for his harsh upbringing, and attempting to finally, decades later, move past it, is the core of the story in Not My Father’s Son. But this is not just a story of the father he knew. It is also about the grandfather he had never met.

description
Mary Darling and Alex Cumming – wedding day – from the NY Times

In 2010, Cumming, having attained a certain level of celebrity, was invited by the British show Who Do You Think you Are (now in the USA as well) to be a subject for their weekly genealogy quest program. The research that was intrinsic to this process would cast light on a black hole in his family history. As awful as his father was, Mary Darling, Alan’s mother, was his angel, always supporting and nurturing him. Within limits, of course. She did not seem to do a very good job of preventing her husband from tormenting their sons. She had last seen her own father, Tommie Darling, when she was eight years old. He had supposedly died in a gun accident in Malaysia in 1951. The family knew very little about him, and had few remnants of his existence. The TV show would follow that trail and find out what had happened to Tommie. (There is a link to the entire program in the EXTRA STUFF section below) Just before this process began, Alan’s father, long estranged, got in touch, passing along a disturbing piece of information.

description
As Eli Gold and Nightcrawler – from NothingButMemory.net

One part of this memoir is travelling along and peeling back the layers of the mystery that was Tommie Darling. (Peter Pan was not involved) As researchers for the program unearth more and more information about Tommie, Alan learns more and more about not only his family, but sees in his ancestor traits he recognizes in himself.

description
Masterpiece Mystery host – from the Boston Herald

Chapters alternate, more or less, between now (2010) and then, the years of Alan’s childhood, the new work prodding recollections of the past. However, it is not all childhood and now. Cumming also tells of his breakdown at age 28 when he was starring in a London production of Hamlet, rehearsing for his breakthrough role as the emcee in the London revival of Cabaret and planning to have a child with his wife. There is some detail here. Later he tells of meeting his current mate when he was 39. He seems to have packs of friends, who remain mostly nameless, in both London and New York, and who function as scenery, for the most part. He offers a few tales from his acting life.

When I joined Twitter I described myself as “Scottish elf trapped inside a middle aged man’s body” and I still think that’s accurate.

Despite Cumming’s elfishness, there is not much comedy in the book. Although Cumming the performer does indeed present a pixie-ish facade, the only real laugh, at least for me, was when he talked about Patti Smith and a particular vile habit of hers. A story about attempting to film against the incessant noise in South Africa during a particularly noisy World Cup is another light moment. A youthful masturbatory scene that one thinks might be queasily amusing turns in another, far more substantive direction.

The two parts of this story now seem so clearly connected, mirroring each other perfectly. I had lost a father but found a grandfather. One of them had never sought the truth and lived a life based on a lie; the other’s truth was hidden from us because society deemed it unsuitable. Both caused strife, and sadness. But now, both combined to reinforce for me what I knew to be the only truth: there is never shame in being open and honest. It was shame that prevented us from knowing what a great man Tommy Darling was. And it was shame that made my father treat me and Tom and my mum the way he did.

Not My Father’s Son is a moving and fascinating tale, and probably would not have been told had Cumming not been world famous. TV programs do not seek out the likes of you or me to give them permission to travel the world looking into our backgrounds. Most of us do not have the resources to delve into our family history so richly. It remains to be seen if the book would have been written had the TV program not been made. Cumming had indeed been thinking about his childhood for some time, but it was the show that prompted him to move ahead with it. What Cumming’s talent did was give him a way to get out of a bad situation. A lesser light might have dimmed if left in that place. One thing the book might do is prompt a bit of reflection. Surely there are leafless branches on all our family trees and Cumming’s tale of looking into his might encourage some of us to consider looking into some of ours. And maybe to look a bit closer at even our known history for a bit of help in explaining how we became the people we are.

description
Tom, Mary and Alan at Tommie’s grave

I have admired Alan Cumming as a performer ever since seeing him in the New York revival of Cabaret back in 1998. I now admire him as a writer as well. He has written a moving memoir of a father lost and a grandfather gained. It is rich with reflection, insight, pain, and healing. Any decent father would be bursting with pride to have a son capable of writing such a book.

Review posted – 10/17/14

Publication date – 10/7/14

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and Twitter pages

He is not on Facebook. Some miscreants have posed as him, but those pages have been taken down

Definitely check out his site. It is a cornucopia of info.

NY Times article on Alan

Here is the full Who Do You Think You Are episode from September 2010

1 Comment

Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, Non-fiction, Reviews

Swimming with Warlords by Kevin Sites

book cover

“If the central government doesn’t stay together,” he said, “I’ll have to find a way to protect my people.”
What he said was a bad sign. “My people” in Afghanistan means one’s tribe. Very few outside of Kabul thought of themselves as citizens of the country—as Afghans.

There is a lot to like in journalist Kevin Sites’s latest report from the front, Swimming with Warlords. Sites takes us from point to point on his journey through geography and history, offering a look at the Afghanistan of 2001 as compared to the Afghanistan of late 2013. He spends considerable ink on warlords, but not enough, IMHO, to justify the title of the book. And this is just as well, because the other elements he finds to report on are even more interesting. He notes the extant miseries, for sure, but also finds some flowers blooming in the rubble, offering the fragrance of hope. He looks at the condition of women, notes gains and losses, bright spots and expectations maybe not so bright as we might hope. He looks at what is likely to happen when the US leaves. One major element here is the conflict between former allies within Afghanistan. Of course, he has been back to Afghanistan several times in between, but it is the bookend experience on which he focuses here. What has changed between the time when American forces attacked in the wake of 9/11, and today, as US troops prepare to depart in 2014?

Sites has certainly seen a lot during his many years in the field, across the war-torn planet, working for major news organizations like ABC, NBC and CNN, and newer entries like Yahoo! News and Vice. He has written two books, In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars (2007) and Things They Cannot Say (2012). His bona fides are impeccable. He even teaches journalism these days in theUniversity of Hong Kong journalism and media program.

There are plenty of villains in Sites’s depiction of what has become a more-or-less permanent war zone, but there are a surprising number of heroes as well, some ambiguously so, others not. The place we know today as Afghanistan, which has been called “the graveyard of empires,” has endured seemingly constant invasions and internal conflict, from the days of Alexander the Great to the present. It seems like the entire place is a huge stadium in which Premier league teams have battled it out among themselves and with the locals, with some notable modern matches having been during the Great Game days of the British empire, the Soviet invasion of the 1970s and 1980s during the Cold War, and most recently, the Western invasion to oust Osama bin Terrorist and his Taliban hosts after 9/11. And it is a favored pitch in which Pakistan does its best to make trouble for India.

“The Taliban is really from Pakistan; they came here to destroy our country. That is clear to everyone,” said Jilani [a former Taliban member]. “In the beginning, I thought it was jihad against international troops, but I found out we were fighting for Pakistani interests—we were getting orders from Pakistan. Most of the leaders are not religious; they want to come to Afghanistan and tax the locals during the time of the harvest and take the money back to Pakistan. There is no jihad.” Jilani said.

I imagine banners being hung from the bullet-pocked remnants of rafters noting local championships triumphs. No 90 minute clock here, no four quarters. Like baseball, perhaps, the game continues until one team wins or one team tires of playing and leaves. The locals have nowhere to go, and all their skin is in the game. There is a very strong home-field advantage amid the crags, valleys and caves of this rugged land, but there is plenty of disagreement about where home actually begins and ends.

book cover

Kevin Sites

The US entered the playing field in the 1980s by providing arms and assistance to locals and some foreigners in Afghanistan in an attempt to make life miserable for the Soviets. In a classic example of the Pyrrhic Victory, the removal of the Soviets led to a continuation of the pre-existing tribal warfare, this time with more and better weapons, the ultimate rise of the Taliban to power and their hosting of you-know-who. I wonder if Charlie Wilson would have voted for the $4 to $6 trillion cost of this seemingly endless engagement.

In retracing his earlier path, Sites notes bridges gone, landscape devastated, military remnants littering the paths that pass for roads, the many minefields, both literal and political. One of the permanent features in a place where landscape defines effective limits is the presence of warlords. Feudalism lives in Afghanistan, where inter-ethnic conflict is merely a superset of conflicts within each ethnic group. If there was ever a concept of loving thy neighbor as yourself, it is unlikely to have extended much beyond the borders of the fief in which one lives. Mistrust, born of centuries of conflict, has deep roots here. Every action taken on a national level is seen as somehow ethnically drive, whether or not it actually is. Cooperation is minimal, fear is ever-present, and allegiances are alarmingly fluid.

Sites looks in on some warlords, living and dead, and some others who function as warlords in fact if not in name. The camp of martyred Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud is now a shrine, and Massoud’s lieutenants have moved on to diverse and often dark occupations. He meets with police chiefs, who point out that they are powerless to enforce the laws as long as coping with the Taliban continues. And it is the police forces that suffer the brunt of the casualties in the fight. However not all warlords are alike. He spends some time with one who seemed to be doing pretty well in taking care of his people, improving their lives with ingenuity and managerial efficiency.

There are some darkly humorous moments, as when Sites recalls a 2001 lodging that, unbeknownst, included an unexploded 500 lb US bomb on the premises, fins up. Check please.

There are moving moments, including a weep-worthy tale of an Afghani father who had lost his daughter to a slightly off-target US incoming, yet betrayed no bitterness.

There are uplifting moments, when Sites talks with a woman who had started a radio station in order to get news and information to Afghani women, many of whom remain under lifelong virtual house-arrest for the crime of being female. Or in learning about Rahmaw Omarzad, an artist who returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban fell and established The Centre for Contemporary Art in Kabul.

There are delightful moments, as when we learn that an Aussie’s contribution of skateboards had grown into an island of hope in the form of an actual institution called Skateistan that includes instruction on far more than keeping one’s balance on wheels.

There are disappointing moments, when we see that many of those who had been educated, and were working on internationally funded development projects will be unemployed and maybe unemployable after the US leaves. Or in learning that Marza, the famed lion of the Kabul zoo, might have been somewhat less magnificent than reputed.

There are bizarre moments, such as learning that a fortress wall built 1500 years ago, the Bala Hisar, which legend holds has incorporated the bones of workers who died in its construction, might very well include some of the special extra filling.

And there are demoralizing moments, as when Sites describes an orphanage that would have been very much at home in the London of Charles Dickens. His report on drug addiction will strike a dark chord as well.

The condition of women’s rights in Afghanistan comes in for considerable attention, as he talks with women about their lives under the Taliban and after their ouster. There is a segment on an American woman, Kimberley Motley , who had started a legal practice in Afghanistan, and another on a woman the Taliban had kicked out of dental school, who had resumed her training and established a national Dental association. It will come as no shock that there remains in Afghanistan a practice of buying and selling wives. And a related tale tells of young boys, bacha bazi, who are treated as sexual pets by the wealthy, a substitute for the females who are kept under wraps.

The book seems a compendium of articles about Afghanistan crammed into a forced structure. But that is not really a problem here, as the information you gain far outweighs any feeling of the structure of the whole being not quite as advertised. Yes, there is a look at then and now, but the strength of the book lies in the collection of individual reports.

GRIPES
There are at least two elements in a book of this sort, the information to be gleaned about the presenting subject, and some insight into the teller of the tale. In this case, the subject is what has changed between 2001 when the Western attack on Afghanistan began following the events of 9/11 in the USA, and the present of the book, the year or so before US troops were scheduled to depart, whether completely or mostly. The other element is the author, him/herself. When you go on a journey, when you will be spending some time with your guide, you would like to know something about him. Sites does offer a few nuggets, and one that is particularly unflattering, but overall the sense I got was that it was mostly name, rank and serial number. While his recollected war stories are indeed interesting, there seems a paucity of info/insight about him. That is an area in which Swimming with Warlords only treads water. At end, we do not really know much more about Kevin Sites than we did before turning to page 1. I expect this is a lot about reportorial discipline, keeping one’s focus on the news and not the reporter, which is certainly a reasonable approach. But in this context, a book, a memoir of sorts, there is a need to be a bit more subcutaneous if an author wants to engender any feeling of camaraderie with his readers. It may be that in his previous books, The Things They Cannot Say and In the Hot Zone there is more of that. Don’t know, have not read those. But there is not nearly enough about KS in this one. I found myself wondering how he got into journalism, how from journalism he got into in-field war reporting. Is his work about adrenalin or something else? What are his values, his ideals? What does he hope to accomplish? What does he do when he is not ducking ordnance in war zones, where and why? Does he have family who worry about him when he is away? You know, stuff. This is not so much a classical road to self-discovery. Sites had already learned a lot about himself and his profession in the years between visits to Afghanistan. This is more like a look at the same eye chart with the optometrist clicking between the younger and more mature lenses. Is it clearer this way, or this way?

The title of the book seems ill chosen. There is indeed one scene in which KS goes for a literal swim with an actual warlord, but the title would make one suspect that the entirety of the volume consists of KS visiting with warlords, and that is not the case. Yes, KS does meet up with a few of these guys, but there is a lot more going on here, and it is unfortunate to have our attention focused on the narrower topic. A better title would have let readers know that he is writing a comparison of then and now. There is an ironic title for one of the chapters in the book, regarding parachute journalism, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, which would have made, IMHO, a better, certainly a more descriptive title than the one that was chosen. Sites may well have been swimming with bearded sharks, but the macho-ness of it adds little in the title selection.

I would not call this a gripe, but the book could use an acronym list, which should include SNAFU and FUBAR among its entries. In fact, the place might as well be name FUBARistan for all the horror that has gone on there over the centuries. An index, a glossary, and a map would have been helpful. If Sites is retracing a path, it would be nice to be able to follow along.

There are plenty of books about Afghanistan out there, (there is a list in the Extra Stuff section below), but Sites’ work has the benefit of freshness. He was there not long ago, at least in book, if not live TV time, and there is an immediacy to his reporting that draws one in, and makes one wonder what might be happening right now. He reports on interesting elements of the current Afghan reality, and finds some informed opinions about what lies ahead. I would not call this a great book, but it is certainly interesting, engaging, and informative. Definitely worth pulling on a suit and going in for a dip, whether with a warlord, shark, or someone a bit less threatening.

Review posted 10/10/14

Pub date – 10/14/14

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Google+ and FB pages

Articles by Sites on Vice

Some other reading on Afghanistan:

I have an Afghanistan shelf with 23 titles, mixed fiction and non. Within that, I heartily recommend the following to enhance your awareness of issues in the region

In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan

Seeds of Terror

Descent into Chaos

The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban

Ghost Wars

Charlie Wilson’s War

Leave a comment

Filed under Afghanistan, Journalism, Non-fiction, Reviews

The Hidden Life of Deer by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

book cover

Stand very still. Breathe as softly as you can. See that little flicking movement? No, not over there, straight ahead, behind the bush. Keep looking. You will see it. I promise. There. Didn’t I tell you? Cool, right? Isn’t she beautiful?

One of the foundations on which the study of nature is based is to be still and watch. Yes, there is a lot more to it, but you have to find some inner quiet, clear your mental and sensory palate, stop fidgeting, and allow the images, scents, sounds and feel of the world cross your senses, settle in and register. Watching and noticing is an excellent place to start. In The Hidden Life of Deer, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has done just that. And she was able to learn a lot without having to look very far beyond her back door in Peterborough, NH.

book cover

The Author

Usually oak trees spread acorns over the landscape every autumn, but in 2007, in Thomas’s neck of the woods, they seemed to be on strike. Reluctant to see the local whitetails endure the particular hardship of cold plus starvation, Thomas took it upon herself to provide something that might help, corn. Deer had been visible on her land forever, but the feeding assured that there would be plenty of deer to watch.

There is probably more written about deer than any other animal. I found 1.2 million websites, 80 books in print, many more out of print and about 100 articles on deer. I really think they are the most studied mammals in the world, but nobody cares about their social lives. They care about the bacteria in their gut in winter, and things related to hunting them — but not what they really are or do. I wanted to just watch them and learn who they are.– from the Mother Nature Network interview

Thompson takes us along with her as she struggles with figuring out how to identify individual animals, and observing the dynamics of interactions among deer groups. There are nuggets of information scattered throughout the book, material that will make you smile as you add it to your accumulated knowledge of the world. Why, for example, do deer nibble and move, nibble and move, instead of chomping down a bit farther in a given patch? Why is food that is ok for deer at one time of year, useless in another? How can deer scat help you determine what direction the critter was headed? How dangerous are antlered buck battles? How can you tell a place is a deer resting spot? How have deer adapted to ways in which people hunt them?

…a useful way to look at another life-form is to assume that whatever it may be doing—chewing bark, digging a tiny hole, wrapping itself in a leaf, sending up a sprout, turning its leaves to face the sunlight—it is trying to achieve a goal that you, in your way, would also want to achieve. In fact, you can be sure of that. The closer you are taxonomically to what you are looking at, the more likely you are to recognize what it’s goals might be, and the further you are, the less likely. Either way it’s fascinating.

Thompson does not fawn solely over deer for the entirety. There is plenty of subsidiary intel here on other forest dwellers. Turkeys come in for a considerable look and you will be thankful, I guarantee it. Bobcat scat (no not a form of feline singing) on a boulder has particular significance, and is not just evidence that the kittie could not make it to the usual dumping ground in time. (see, I managed not to conjure an image of the guy below leaving a deposit in the woods) In fact there is a whole section on varieties of woodland scat that you will not want to wipe from your memory. There is a description of oak behavior, yes behavior, that will make you wonder if Tolkien’s depiction of ents might have more truth to it than most have suspected.

descriptiondescription

Not to leave all the consideration to the critters, Thompson offers some observations on human selection and characteristics as well.

suppose we had evolved in the northern forests, rather than simply arriving there as an invasive species. We certainly wouldn’t be naked—we’d be permanently covered with dense fur—and when our pineal glands told us that the days were getting short, we’d do a lot more than simply feel gloomy—we‘d redouble our efforts to find food, and we’d start breeding so that nine months later our young would be born in the spring. Allegedly we do eat and breed a bit more in the autumn, but if we were truly a northern hemispheric species, we’d do it in grand style…The reason we don’t have thick fur and a breeding season is not because we’re superior beings, but because we evolved where such things were not needed.

She also goes into some unusual hunting rituals humans engage in, wondering if the practices in question might extend into pre-history. She refers to such learning, handed down from generation to generation, as The Old Way, ( a subject she explores in depth in her book of that title) whether it is the passing of information by ungulates or homo sap.

In fact Thomas, an anthrolopogist, as well as a naturalist, has spent considerable time in Africa, living with and studying the Ju/’hoansi people of the Kalahari, writing about what she learned in The Harmless People, Warrior Herdsmen and The Old Way: A Story of the First People. She is best known for The Hidden Life of Dogs. She has also written about felines, in The Tribe of the Tiger: Cats and their Culture

Thomas is very easy to read. You need not be concerned with getting lost in scientific jargon. She is very down to earth, and very accessible. There is a spare beauty to her prose. She has also written several novels, (Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife most prominently) so she knows how to frame and tell a story.

For most of us, city-dwellers by and large, opportunities for wildlife observation are much more limited than they are for those living so much closer to actual wilderness. But we need not be starved for information, insight, lore and wisdom about the natural world. Just as Thompson provided corn for deer to help get them from one year to another, so she has offered, in The Hidden Life of Deer, knowledge and nourishment for the mind and the soul. You will learn a lot reading this, some of it very surprising. The book has been found by many readers since its publication in 2009. Do yourself a favor and hunt down a copy, then sit somewhere where no one can see you and read it very quietly. I advise against twitching your ears.

Review posted – 9/5/14

Publication date – 2009

This review has also been posted on Goodreads.com
=======================================EXTRA STUFF

A PBS Nature Video – The Secret Life of Deer

The Quality Deer Management Association, a hunters site, yes, really has a lot of info on whitetails

A Lovely interview with the author on Mother Nature Network

A Publisher’s Weekly profile of Thomas, Rebel with a Cause

An interesting youtube vid of Thomas talking about The Old Way

There are six parts to this Daily Motion interview with Thomas. Here is a link to the first of those.

1 Comment

Filed under Non-fiction, Science and Nature

A Deadly Wandering by Matt Richtel

book cover Hi, welcome. I’m happy to see you are settling in to read this now. But…what?…really?…please…ignore that chirp that just told you a new e-mail arrived. It is probably just another add for Viagra or penile enlargement. It is almost never something critical, so…hey…come back. Son of a bitch. (Taps fingers on desk, plays some solitaire, checks watch) Ah, you’re back. Took long enough. Geez. All right, can we get back to it now? You remember? The book is A Deadly Wandering, a pretty amazing look at attention, the demands on it, how it functions, how it is being compromised, and what the implications are for some aspects of that. Stop, no, do you have to answer the phone now? Can’t it wait? (sighs loudly, checks e-mail on a separate screen; weather.com lets us know upcoming conditions in another tab; who is pitching for the Mets tonight?) Oh, you’re back, sorry. Been there long? I must have wandered off. Focus.

I know a little bit about distraction. My job entails constant blasts of it. I work as a dispatcher for a security company. I have a dozen or more sites checking in every hour to make sure our guards are not sleeping (or that they know how to set the alarms on their cell phones). People call asking for their schedules. People call at 2 in the morning to let us know they will not be showing up for their 6am shift. They call because they just turned the wrong way and the cell phone in their pocket somehow redialed the last number they’d called. They call at 4am to let us know they will not be coming in for their 6am shift. They call asking for direction when there is some event at their site that requires handling. Our clients call, sometimes asking for emergency ASAP coverage in diverse places across the continent, sometimes to add ridiculous increases to the number of guards they want for a morning shift at a large institution. Our security guards call to ask if their check is at the office, or to inquire as to why the totals on their checks did not match what they expected. They call to let us know they have arrived at their post. They call to let us know they have clocked out for the day. They call at 5am to let us know they will not be in for their 6am shift because they have a newly discovered “appointment.” There are many, many calls. It makes it damned tough to keep a log of all the calls, particularly when half a dozen arrive at the exact same moment. It makes it tough to prepare the multiple reports of overnight activity, all of which have to be transmitted during the busiest time of the morning. In the middle of this, the boss comes in, drops papers on my desk and asks when this or that person arrived at or left from a post sometime in the last week or so. For someone who is, shall we say, not comfortable with being interrupted, this presents some challenges. And it presents a real problem. I write the bulk of my reviews while at work. And to enter notes, do research on items, and then compose actual reviews of books during this time can be a bit difficult. Thoughts that have not made their way into a file are in constant danger of vanishing into the ether with the next barrage of incomings. I scream sometimes. I frequently forget what I was doing before the latest set of calls. And, struggling to remember, I am interrupted yet again by the next set. The one good thing about this blitzkrieg of interruption is that I am not enduring it while behind the wheel of a ton-plus hunk of metal hurtling down the road at 60 mph. My sanity may be in jeopardy, (or long gone) but I present no existential threat to the rest of humanity. The same cannot be said for the main character in Richtel’s story.

By all accounts nineteen-year-old Reggie Shaw is a decent young man. A Mormon, he was eager to serve his community by preparing for and then undertaking an LDS mission. His first try had come up short, so he was back home, working until he could build up enough moral credit to try again. In September, 2006, while driving a Chevy Tahoe SUV, Reggie had his Cingular flip-phone with him and was texting with his girlfriend. A witness reported seeing him weaving across the center line multiple times. Finally, Reggie weaved too far. The results were fatal. Reggie came through ok but two scientists were killed as a result of Reggie’s texting, leaving wives and children to pick up the charred pieces of their lives and go on without their breadwinners, husbands, fathers. Reggie denied he was texting when the accident occurred.

Matt Richtel is a novelist and top-notch reporter. He won a Pulitzer for a series of articles, written for the New York Times, in which he detailed the national safety crisis resulting from increasing use of distracting devices by drivers. He has written a few novels and even pens a comic strip. There is nothing at all amusing, however, about the tale he tells here.

book cover

Matt Richtel – from his site

The core of A Deadly Wandering is how constant distraction, particularly while in a car, kills. Richtel looks at the case of Reggie Shaw as a prime example of how the distractions that have become embedded in our lives have unintended consequences. Richtel spends time with Reggie, with the cop who pursued the case when most officials wanted to brush it off and move on, the surviving family members, and a victim’s advocate who pursued prosecution of the case. Richtel also talks with several neuroscientists who have been studying the science of attentiveness. That material is quite eye-opening.

There are legal questions in here regarding where responsibility lies for such events, and how far communities are willing to go to punish violations and even to establish that such behavior is not permissible. Where does your freedom to act irresponsibly interfere with my right to stay alive? There are scientific questions about how the brain functions in a world that seems to demand multi-tasking. How does the brain work in dealing with attentiveness? What is possible? What is not? Where are the edges of that envelope?

When drug companies want to bring to market a product for public use, they must go through a significant review process to make sure their product is safe to use. Before auto manufacturers can bring a vehicle to market they must put it through safety testing.

But neither Verizon nor any other cellphone company supports legislation that bans drivers from talking on the phone. And the wireless industry does not conduct research on the dangers, saying that is not its responsibility – From – Dismissing the Risks of a Deadly Habit

And the corporations know what they are doing with their techolology.

If you take yourself back millennia, and you’re in the jungle or you’re in the forest and you see a lion, then the lion hits your sensory cortices and says to the frontal lobe, whatever you’re doing, whatever hut you’re building, stop and run.
Well, here’s what scientists think is happening in this data era, is that these pings of incoming email, the phone ringing, the buzz in your pocket, is almost like we get little tiny lions, little tiny threats or, let’s say, maybe little tiny rabbits that you want to chase and eat, you get little tiny bursts of adrenaline that are bombarding your frontal lobe asking you to make choices. But these in some ways aren’t these modern bombardments; they’re the most primitive bombardments. They’re playing to these most primitive impulses and they’re asking our brain to make very hard choices a lot.
– from the Terry Gross interview

In addition, and in a chillingly similar impact to other addictive substances, our communications technology knows how to make itself feel crucial to us.

when you check your information, when you get a buzz in your pocket, when you hear a ring – you get what they call a dopamine squirt. You get a little rush of adrenaline. So you’re getting that more and more and more and more. Well, guess what happens in its absence? You feel bored. You’re actually conditioned by a kind of neurochemical response. – also from the NPR interview

Richtel follows Reggie’s story through to the end, at least for some of the players here. Laws have been changed. New knowledge has been gained. Responsibility has been allocated. Amends have been attempted. It is a moving tale. In addition, you will learn a lot about what science has found about how our brains handle multiple concurrent demands. You will learn about change in how distracted driving is being addressed by our legal system. But most of what you will get from reading this book is a chilling appreciation for what is involved in distracted driving. You might even be persuaded to switch off your phone the next time you get behind the wheel. At least I hope you are. I would like to live a bit longer and not be taken out before my time because someone was talking on the phone with their friend, texting with their significant other, or trying to order penile growth products from the road. I would like to live long enough to spend at least a few more nights screaming at the phone to stop ringing at work so I can get some writing done. That call you were thinking of making while in the car can wait. It really is a matter of life and death. A Deadly Wandering is must read material. Please, please pay attention.

Review posted – 7/18/14

Publication date – 9/23/14

This review has been also been posted at GoodReads

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

A list of Richtel articles in the NY Times’ Bits blog

The Pulitzer site includes links to all the pieces in Richtel’s award-winning series. Very much worth checking out

Another article Richtel did looked at the benefits of uninterrupted face time free of technological intrusion, from August, 2010, Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain

There is some great material in Richtel’s 2010 interview with Terry Gross on NPR, Digital Overload: Your Brain on Gadgets

There are some interesting pieces on Oprah’s site. Distracted Driving: What You Don’t See is pretty good. And it is worth checking out Oprah’s No Texting Campaign

Leave a comment

Filed under Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain, Public Health, Reviews

How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman

book cover And it came to pass that I read and ye shall learn of a pretty amazing book. Biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman takes on the subject of how, in history, the notion of Jesus as god developed. Was it there from the beginning? How did it arise? What does it even mean? Was he considered divine by believers before conception, at conception, at baptism by John, when he died on the cross, when he rose from the dead, when he headed upstairs to the executive offices? And the answer? Yes.

As with many mysteries there is a paucity of physical evidence. One might consider Ehrman’s task a very challenging episode of [Incredibly] Cold Case Files, or maybe fodder for a new version of a favorite show (as if there are not enough already) CSI Antiquity.

Not much to work with here as far as physical evidence goes, but Ehrman does apply his considerable skill to analyzing what documentation we have, tracing provenance, to the extent possible, applying what we know of the period(s), and lasering in on crucial questions.

description
The author

Ehrman makes it very clear that he is not about trying to turn anyone away from a particular set of beliefs.

I do not take a stand on the theological question of Jesus’s divine status. I am instead interested in the historical development that led to the affirmation that he is God.

Or who said what, and when, where and why did they say it? And who saw what, where, when, how and why?

My knowledge of the period is extremely limited. Twelve years of Catholic school taught me a lot more about obedience than it did about biblical scholarship, and while I have read the odd book here and there about the period, I claim no particular expertise, so am not in a position to offer a particularly educated consideration of the information presented here. Ehrman, on the other hand, has written vast amounts on things biblical. I refer you to his considerable bona fides, here. I am inclined to give his very accomplished, educated interpretation of the material he examines a bit more weight than I might the opinions proffered by individuals boasting lesser scholarly accomplishment.

Key, of course, is the belief that Jesus rose from the dead. Without that there is no such thing as Christianity, as prophets and Messiahs were sold by the gross at the dollar-store equivalent of the era. In fact, Ehrman opens his book citing an unnamed individual whom one might expect is JC, as the details are incredibly reminiscent. But no, it turns out to be another prophet entirely. (No, not Brian) His pilot was not picked up by the world at large, so you might find him in the antiquity channel’s version of “Brilliant but Cancelled.” And he was not alone. But, since any Tom, Dick, and Appolonius could claim to be a prophet, it was the claim that Jesus was resurrected that was key to a long run, and Ehrman focuses on that.

He looks into the details of Jesus’s death and supposed return. For example, how likely was it that he was buried at all? The answer will surprise you. How about the likelihood that someone who had just tried to have him done in would arrange a burial? How likely might it be for wanted criminals, as the apostles were, to stick around after their chief had been so harshly treated? It continues, but you get the idea. Each tiny piece needs to be examined.

One of the things that Ehrman does consistently and well is to define terms. Divine? In what sense? There is a lot of variety in levels of divinity. Ehrman points out a pyramidal structure common to many religions, and how supposedly monotheistic faiths shuck and jive trying to explain how the multiple divine entities in their religions do not violate the monotheism-shrink-wrap guarantee covenant (it’s in the mouse print). He applies his piercing logic to notions of resurrection as well.

For [most ancient people—whether Christian, Jewish, or pagan] the human realm was not an absolute category separated from the divine realm by an enormous and unbridgeable crevasse. On the contrary, the human and divine were two continuums that could, and did, overlap.

(Bette Midler knows about that, for sure) So what was it that was supposedly seen?

It was widely believed in antiquity that the spirit we have within us was also made of “stuff.” It was material. But it was very highly refined material that could not be seen with the eyes. (Kind of like what people think when they imagine they’ve seen a “ghost”—there’s something there, made of stuff, since it can be seen, even though it’s pure spirit.) When Paul speaks of a spiritual body, then, he means a body not made up of this heavy, clunky stuff that now makes up our bodies, but of the highly refined, spiritual stuff that is superior I every way and is not subject to mortality.

Who knew there was such a level of detail to consider? Was the risen Jesus made of chunky human flesh or the sort ectoplasm more usually associated with someone like, say, Slimer . Or was he some ethereal non-substance?

And what about the veracity of the stories that were told of the supposed resurrection?

Even apart from the fact that they were written forty to sixty-five years after the facts, by people who were not there to see these things happen, who were living in different parts of the world, at different times, and speaking different languages—apart from all this, they are filled with discrepancies, some of which cannot be reconciled. In fact, the Gospels disagree on nearly every detail in their resurrection narratives

So, we are relying, in the gospels at least, on an inconsistent story, from multiple non-witnesses, that was the end result of a decades-long biblical version of the game telephone? These days, of course, you can probably become a god, or at least obtain, Wizard-of-Oz-style, a document attesting to your divinity, by sending a certain sum to a particular web site. (GodsRUs.com would be my guess). It was so much more complicated back then.

So, what might be less than divine in Ehrman’s examination? Well, we are digging through some very old material here, and it is not surprising that in a book focused in the Middle East a bit of sand gets in. The level of detail does, on occasion, cause one’s eyes to ascend to another level of being. But I found this a fascinating, and educational read, opening up many notions to consideration that I had never really thought about. Whatever it may do for your spirit, this book will definitely stimulate your brain.

Whether you find this examination of history divinely inspired or deserving a place on the lower levels of you-know-where, it is certainly a fascinating look at a critical element of history, and, by implication, religious belief. But don’t take my word for it. See, feel and read it for yourself. And if it doesn’t work for you the first time, hey, you can always come back to it.

Posted May 23, 2014

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Ehrman’s blog, Christianty in Antiquity

Check here for a very nifty collection of audio and video clips of the author

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Non-fiction, Religion, Reviews

The Bees by Laline Paull

book coverThe Bees is a powerful tale of what life might look like to a hive member. This is not your kids’ Bug’s Life, but a very grown-up, compelling drama that includes both sweetness and considerable sting. There are several elements that might make one think of Game of Thrones Drones. Corruption on high, battles of succession, sinister enemies, both in the hive and outside. Not only must all men die but winter is coming, twice. There is also a lot of religious reference here. This sits atop a marvelous, deep portrayal of a world that is very alien. And to top it off we are led through this journey by a character who, while far from perfect, is a very good egg, or was.

description

Bee life cycle

Of course Flora 717 might not have been considered a wonderful egg to those around her. She was born to the Flora caste, a group responsible for, ironically, cleaning up, a sanitation caste, essentially untouchables. But this Flora is a bit different. She is larger for one, possessed of great determination, curiosity, and a capacity for speech that is mostly suppressed among her peers. Still she is different and that is not usually allowed. The police are about to remove her (Deformity is evil. Deformity is not permitted.) when a Sage intervenes. Sages are the priestess class. Their intentions however, are not entirely holy. This Sage takes Flora under her wing, and the story is on. Sometimes it is good to spare the deviants, and experiment a little. We get to see many aspects of hive life through Flora’s five eyes, but also through her six feet, which are able to interpret vibrations in the floor, and her antennae, which she uses to sense scents and for more direct communication with other bees. That Paull can make the very alien sense environment of bees understandable to those of us with only four limbs and no antennae at all (well except for our friends in intelligence) is a triumph on its own. The Hive Mind is considered for its positive and negative aspects as well.

book cover

Laline Paull

Paull tells about the origin of the story on her web site

A beekeeper friend of mine died, far too young. In the immediate aftermath of her death, I began reading about the bees she loved so much. Very quickly, I realized I was exploring the most extraordinary ancient society that was like a hall of mirrors to our own: some things very similar, others a complete inversion, whilst more were fantastically alien and amazing. The more I read the more I wanted to find out, but when I learned about the phenomenon of the laying worker, I became incredibly excited by the huge dramatic potential of that situation.

Her feeling of loss is very much present here. Bees are not the longest lived creatures on the planet, and more than a few see their end here. But there is another element as well, from a recent interview posted here on Goodreads,

Becoming a mother changed me and made me stronger—but evolution is never easy. I didn’t write Flora from an intellectual perspective but in a very visceral way: Motherhood made me a more passionate person—or allowed me to express that innate side of myself much more. So perhaps that’s why Flora works as a character: There’s primal truth in her motivation. She accepts her life one way, but then a forbidden force takes possession of her. Called love.

description

Religious nomenclature permeates the tale. The Queen is not only a temporal ruler, but is considered divine as well. This is helped along by her ability to produce pheromones in vast quantity that can soothe her hive family. There are sacraments in this world, a catechism, rituals, prayers, some of which will sound familiar. There are also some virgin births. And what would religion be without a little human sacrifice, or in this case bee sacrifice. It is a place in which religion is joined to politics to generate Orwellian mantras like Accept Obey Serve, Desire is Sin, Idleness is Sin, From Death comes Life Eternal, and the like. And, of course, there is some Orwellian behavior. Life is held cheaply, particularly for those not of the favored groups, and the jack-booted police that enforce the rules are definitely a buzzkill. The death penalty is more the norm than the exception, and it is often applied immediately and energetically.

description

Western honey bee

Flora’s explorations of the world are entire adventures on their own, as she encounters not only adversaries like wasps, spiders and crows, but man-made hazards as well. On the other hand she experiences the longing of the flowers, and the expanded internal horizons that result from expanding one’s horizons externally. She has a particular longing of her own, which fires the engines of her determination.

The Bees is a fast-paced, engaging, invigorating tale that will have you flipping pages faster than a forager’s wings. You will come away not only with the warm feeling of having shared a remarkable journey but will find yourself eager to learn more about our buzzy brethren, well, except for Nicolas Cage. And you might even find yourself tempted to get up and do a

description

Waggle Dance

======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

In Paull’s site there is a photo of a Minoan palace map that informed her hive layout. Worth a look .

The May 2014 GR newsletter features a brief interview with Paull

That buzzing in your ear might be more cause for concern that you’d realized. New project aims to upload a honey bee’s brain into a flying insectobot by 2015

Leave a comment

Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Literary Fiction, Religion, Reviews, Science and Nature

Communication: From Pheromones to the Internet and Beyond by Max Swanson

book cover

In Communications: From Pheromones to the Internet and Beyond, Max Swanson, a long-time researcher with Atomic Energy of Canada, and physics prof at the U of North Carolina, offers a wide-ranging overview of communication, from unicellular beasties to complex organisms, from humans to machines, from proximate to distant, from the physical to the abstract, from then to now and from now to the future. Along the way he looks at communication as it pertains to religion, politics, education, government and marketing. He casts an eye on self and spiritual communication as well. He has clearly given the subject a lot of thought and presents myriad ways in which communication occurs, including, but not limited to sight, touch, sound, feel, language and even ways of communication that might not seem obvious, such as DNA. There are significant and valid points raised here. One is the importance of education for females. Another is the danger of concentrating media control in too few hands. Yet another looks at the historical experience of nations that base their education systems on testing to the exclusion of all else.

I had very mixed feelings about Communication. It is unclear to me who the intended audience is. It comes across as equal parts fascinating and obvious. There are plenty of jaw-dropping items, where you are pleading for Swanson to tell you more, tucked in between sections that make one want to wonder aloud “yeah, and?” Here is one of the latter, on the relative merits of information vs misinformation.

Wild swings in the stock markets and the global economy are due in large part to panic or euphoria caused by inadvisable spin of financial news, whether good or bad. On the other hand, timely worldwide flow of information facilitates the realistic evaluation of news, the distribution of goods, the coordination of health maintenance, and timely warnings of disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis.

Duh-uh.

However, as a springboard for investigation of its composite elements Communication is marvelous. Have a class of 12th graders read this and there is huge potential that each will come across something that stimulates their curiosity. They won’t so much be able to satisfy it here as be prompted to a journey that might lead somewhere exciting, even if they do that search on handheld communication devices, and have to occasionally be zapped with tasers whenever they text someone or resume that game of Angry Birds. Here is one of the fun items:

In Egypt, thousands of years before the Christian era, giant obelisks may have provided a unique and innovative long-range communication system. By striking these obelisks, priests in Luxor and other religious centers could have created resonant sounds heard many kilometers away.

If you are thinking, as I did, that this sounds like a fab idea for an action/adventure novel, sorry, it has already been taken. Damn! Maybe as an element in a video game? And another:

Most humans are capable of hearing sounds with a frequency between 20 hertz ad 20,000 hertz (cycles per second) and volume greater than 5-15 decibels. [Are decibels digital temptresses?] Hearing is best in the frequency range between 1,000 and 5,000 hertz. Some very low frequency sounds cannot be consciously heard, but are accompanied by a vague feeling of unease when in their presence. This feeling may be associated with the phenomenon of ghosts.

Seems like he buried the lead there, slipping in an item we could use a bit more on, but it is off to the next topic straight away.

I am sorry to report that much of Communication reads like a text book, and is sorely lacking in the sort of humor that someone like Mary Roach brings to science to grease the intellectual in-ports. But there are also many fun items to be found here, no question. The issue is balancing the delight of taking in the juicy bits with the not-so-exciting other elements. Bottom line for me is that I am glad I read it. I learned some new things, which is like heroin to me, and that made trudging through the rest an acceptable cost. It might be for you too.

Posted April 11, 2014

I received this book through the GR FirstReads program.

Leave a comment

Filed under Non-fiction, Reviews, Science and Nature

Kidding Ourselves by Joseph T. Hallinan

book cover

Realism has its limitations

Don’t I know. But after reading Joseph Hallinan’s Kidding Ourselves, you will find a way to get rid of those extra pounds; you will finally step up and demand that raise you have been denied for the last several years; you will ask out that person you have had your eye on for so long; you will give up that nasty habit, you know the one; and you will finally get around to writing that book. All you have to do is want it enough, and think positively. Yeah, right. We have been fed a steady diet of positive thinkology from Norman Vincent Peale to Professor Harold Hill to Tony Robbins, from cultish directions like EST, and from con artists from Ponzi to Madoff.

descriptiondescription

Ponzi – old and new

Barbara Ehrenreich, in Bright-Sided , pulled back the curtain on a lot of the sort of scamming that the think-positive sorts have been inflicting on us all. I share her views on this stuff. Most of the see-no-evil promulgators seek little more than to divert our attention from the real societal causes of many of our maladies, and in doing so pad their own pockets. Most of us, for example, are not struggling financially because we got too little education, the wrong sort of education, are lazy, unfocused, not good enough, not beautiful or strong enough, or are bad people who deserve what happens to us. It is because the rich SOBs who run the world decided to steal more than they already had, and have the power to make government hold us down while they go through our pockets, and then demand that we thank them for the privilege.

Blaming the victim is a national, no, a global past-time, and urging people to believe that the fault is in them and that if they just had a better attitude they would succeed, is the sort of tangy Kool Aid that people like Jim Jones have been peddling for a long time.

This is all to say that I approached the book with a full magazine of attitude and an itchy finger. So, is this guy another in a long line of con artists trying to blame the victim? Turns out, not so much. At ease, soldier.

book cover

The author – from Wikimedia

Joseph T. Hallinan is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, who reported for the Wall Street Journal, has written on the prison system, and wrote a 2009 popular psychology look at some of our many imperfections as human beings, the how and why we are the way we are, Why We Make Mistakes. Hallinan’s latest, Kidding Ourselves, a relatively short book (210 pps in my proof), looks at a narrow range of human behavior, although it does manage to cover a fairly wide swath of human (and sometimes non-human) experience. He is not so much promoting the notion of looking on the sunny side of life as taking a pop-psych microscope to the behavior itself. He breaks down the many ways in which homo sap practices self-delusion, and it is not exactly all positive.

Health-wise, he offers evidence that one’s attitude definitely matters. Expecting a positive outcome has measurable palliative results, independent of the pharmacological benefit of drugs or procedures applied to a medical problem. The obverse is true as well, expecting the worst can often bring it about. One really can die from, say, hypochondria, or a broken heart. Depression does cause physical harm to those who experience it.

Hallinan looks into the relationship between our perceptions and reality. You know that right-wing uncle who insists that Obama was born in Kenya and is a Muslim? You showed him all the evidence, right? And the result? He absolutely refused to accept the facts, clinging instead to his attitudes. I’d want to smack him too. Hallinan looks into this and offers an explanation for this seemingly inexplicable dedication to ignorance.

The book is about how we need to feel some control in our lives, almost more than anything else, whether it is that the cross-walk sign might flash “Walk” sooner in response to our pressing a button, whether it is that we can, through wise investing, control our financial future, or whether we believe that by repeating some ritual behavior we might therefore succeed in some endeavor. And we kid ourselves in order to be able to feel that there is something, anything, that is under our control. Otherwise we feel completely hopeless and the implications of that are not good. One result of this is that the confidence we gain from our beliefs, regardless of their basis in reality, can sometimes make the difference between success and failure, improvement or relapse, life or death.

This is, as noted, a short book, so one does not expect a deep, heavily detailed scientific treatise. It is pop-psychology, written by a journalist, not a scientist, meant for readers like you and me. That said, my antennae started to vibrate a time or three when I felt that the analysis was particularly, and problematically blindered. For example, Hallinan cites surveys of public attitudes regarding taxation that shows a persistent degree of dissatisfaction despite changes in rates over time. Problem is that the rate change under study is the top marginal tax rate, the rate paid by the highest wage-earners. Most people are not affected by this, so why would their attitude change at all? And given that taxes on working and middle class wage-earners had not dropped, and may even have gone up over the time span covered in the study, it is no surprise that general attitudes toward taxation would have seen little change. Another section looks at the persistence of false beliefs, as if they exist in a vacuum.

How could so many people persistently believe something unsupported by facts?
“I don’t have an explanation for that,” said pollster Jim Williams. “All I can say is that we have looked at that in other places in the past and it’s never gone away.”

Fuh real? How dim are you guys? Have you never heard of the 24/7 Lie Network at Fox, the masses of newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch or Clear Channel broadcasting, right-wing radio, and the gazillions of know-nothing web-sites that sprout like algal blooms in the path of agricultural runoff? Sure, people will cling to nonsense in the absence of such assistance, but when it is blasted into your brain constantly, it will have an impact. So yeah, it does seem sometimes that the author has been a bit blind to some obvious real-world factors, which is ironic, as he points out the bias inherent in some well-known scientists here as well.

But he does offer quite a few examples of real scientific studies that indicate that sometimes mind-over-matter really….um…matters. Not, of course, in other-worldly sorts of manifestations, like making that missing limb grow back, or altering the immediate balance in your bank account. But to the extent that confidence comes into play, and it does come into play quite a bit, it might not hurt to accentuate the positive, Whistle a Happy Tune , hum a little Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah or channel a small, very, very small dose of Stuart Smalley. You may be a loser, a 97 pound weakling, too fat, too skinny, too old, too young, too tall, too short, but the extra boost that confidence, fueled by religion, superstition, and downright nonsense injects really can make a difference in many of life’s outcomes.

He makes a case that self-delusion, as a defense against hopelessness, is a crucial element in what it means to be human, and that it has provided actual evolutionary advantages. It may be that to err is human, but it would appear equally human to convince ourselves that we were right all along. Hallinan maintains that self-delusion not only exists across all human cultures but is present in animal psychology as well. Rats kid themselves too.

There will always be a danger that the limited range covered in this book will be taken by the con artists of the world as being more than it is and be presented as an “I told you so.” It isn’t. It is specific, illuminating and fascinating. I kid you not.

This book was received via GR’s First Reads program – Thanks, guys

Review Posted – March 21, 2014

Publication date – May 20, 2014

=============================EXTRA STUFF

I did not find a web-site for the author unadorned, but here is one for his earlier book, Why We Make Mistakes.

Here is a wiki on a 1986 essay by philosopher Henry G. Frankfurt that seems germane, On Bullshit

And a few more musical links that fit right in, from Stevie Wonder, George Michael , and The Monkees. So many more could work here.

In Salon, an excerpt from an interesting book by Oliver Burkeman, Positive Thinking is for Suckers

Leave a comment

Filed under Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain, Reviews

My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel

book cover Scott Stossel has a problem, anxiety. Big-time. Had it all his life. Think decades of therapy of the talk and chemical varieties. But, he has also had a successful career as a journalist, and is currently the editor of the Atlantic magazine.

Anxiety, when it’s not debilitating, can bring with it certain gifts: a heightened awareness of your environment; more sensitive social antennae; a general prudence about risk-taking; a spur toward achievement. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard believed that the greater the anxiety, the greater the opportunity for growth. I think there’s definitely something to that—though when my anxiety is at its worst I’d trade away the opportunity for growth in exchange for the anxiety dissipating. (from the Bookpage Interview)

Just what is anxiety? What causes it? What are its effects on individuals and society? How has it been viewed historically? What might be done about it? Stossel sets out to look at these and other questions. The wrinkle here is that he uses his personal lifelong battle with anxiety as a lens through which to examine the various understandings that have been put forth about this condition and the treatments that have been tried over time. The historical and analytical elements are fascinating reading, but relating the information to his personal struggle makes Stossel’s a very human approach.

book cover

Scott Stossel

If getting definitive answers to questions is important to you, and not getting such answers makes you uncomfortable, anxious even, you probably should pass on reading My Age of Anxiety. If, however, you enjoy the mental stimulation of seeing the history of how medical science and society at large has viewed what we, today, call “anxiety”, then this significant work should offer you the palliation you require.

So, what is anxiety? Stossel’s response reminded me of Tevye’s, in Fiddler on the Roof, to the question of why the Jewish people maintain certain traditions. “I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition.” Stossel does not break out into song, but offers a comparable explanation, at least to begin.

If Freud himself, anxiety’s patron saint, couldn’t define the concept, how am I supposed to?

Even contemporary investigations with the highest of tech have not been able to pin it down definitively. There are even different schools of thought over where the primary cause of anxiety lies. Is it in the electromagnetic functioning of the brain, or in the swath of chemicals that also make up our biology. Charmingly, these two camps are referred to as “Sparks” and “Soups.”

Is anxiety genetically determined? There really is a thing that researchers call the Woody Allen gene.

description
From Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex

Anxiety has offered fodder for cinematic investigation, both serious and satirical, an area that did not receive much attention here. But one could be forgiven for believing that Hollywood product seems to exist, in large measure, in order to instill fear in the population. book cover “Be afraid. Be very afraid.“ The release of Jaws certainly gave many an unwarranted fear of being slurped down by a mega-fishy. There is both the Hitchcockian treatment of acrophobia and Mel Brooks’ somewhat lighter take, depending on whether you prefer your anxiety high or low. And of course newspapers do all they can to flog fear as a means of pushing product. book coverThere are enough cop, medical, serial killer and zombie programs on the tube to provide plenty of fodder for nurturing our nervousness. Maybe it is the minority of us who are immune to this constant barrage of market-driven promotion of paranoia. Is it any wonder people are so afraid of so many things?

Do drugs and the ad campaigns of big pharma create more anxiety? Stossel looks into this possibility. Despite the real benefits of some of the products made by large pharmaceutical companies, maybe big pharma is something we should be frightened of.

Lest one think Stossel has written a completely dry, scientific, or at least reportorial investigation, you should know that in talking about one of his primary personal miseries, emetophobia, or fear of vomiting, he does seem to take on a bit of a Mary Roach persona while describing some very painful and embarrassing personal experiences. My scatologically-inclined inner twelve-year-old was giddy at times.

description
An out of body experience

When Stossel writes of shyness and stage fright, I was whisked back to my early youth, kindergarten or first grade. A school performance. I stood at center stage and recited, “Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater…” I got through the words, but by the time I walked off stage, my trousers had acquired considerable extra moisture. It got better. I had battles with anxiety over the years as an adult as well. Not nearly to the degree that Stossel did. There was a time when I was so burdened with anxiety that my armpits would become viciously inflamed. Not exactly something that might land one in a hospital, for sure. But pain-enforced arms akimbo is not a normal way to present oneself to the world this side of a workout vid. It jars when one is in a suit and tie. It does not matter what caused this somatization. No one turned me into a newt. It did get better. This pales before the travails endured by the author, nearly bolting from his own wedding out of terror that he would boot his lunch, throwing sports matches just to get off the court and stop worrying that he might toss his cookies in public. His anxieties did not make for a happy adolescence in the already terrifying world of dating. (There is plenty more. Read the book to find out just how fortunate you really are.) But I do understand at least a bit, on a very personal level, how anxiety can be physically debilitating. So the book held definite appeal. I imagine that many of us have suffered from anxiety of one sort or another, in varying intensities. It can’t hurt to learn a bit more about where this particular form (or more properly, range of forms) of misery originates.

One of the treatments Stossel looks at (and experienced himself) is a thing called exposure therapy. Basically one must confront the thing one fears most over and over until one internalizes the fact that the thing one fears will not do the damage one imagines. It is Mary Roach territory again when he writes of his own exposure therapy treatment, and its effect on those treating him. I can imagine, however that this might not be a particularly helpful approach were one’s fear something like, say, emasculation, or being hit by a car.

He writes of the fascinating connection between the brain and the stomach. Those who suffer from anxiety also have issued with control-freakishness. It was news to learn that there is even a standardized scale for measuring this. That it is called Rotter’s Locus of Control Scale does not give one great confidence in the intent of its designer.

There is a wonderful section on blushing. Those of us who are always on the lookout for Darwinian understandings of human behavior will definitely perk up at this. And speaking of Darwin, his is one of many household names Stossel cites as prolonged and acute anxiety sufferers. There is also an enlightening passage on how we get the word panic from the Greek god Pan. You will learn a bunch of nifty new words, well, probably new to you. I know a lot were new to me.

Fox News troll John Stossel is Scott’s uncle, so it is clear that there is definitely something sinister swimming about in the family gene pool. At least that particular strain does not seem to have afflicted Scott. His younger sister, Sage, an artist, not only suffers considerably from anxiety, she also just published in December a book that deals with it, Starling. Thanksgiving must be interesting at Stossel family gatherings.

I have one particular gripe about the book and it has to do with physical format. The volume I read was an ARE, so formatting may be different in the final, hard cover edition. But in the volume I read, the page count comes in at 337. No big whoop, even if it is a dense read, and it can be. But the sheer volume of footnotes at the bottom of pages is such that it felt much, much longer. (Maybe call them feetnotes?) There are pages that consist of three lines of actual primary text and what seemed vast, unending streams of subsidiary material in print that seemed to call for an electron microscope. I became almost phobic about turning the page. God knows how much more footnote was lurking there, determined to triple the time it would normally take me to completely read a page. And it should be pretty clear that one of my personal tics is a need to read all the footnotes. And they are definitely worth reading. What I wish though, is that the author had found a way to incorporate that very interesting material into the text of the book itself, at a human-friendly font-size, and let us know up front how long the book really is. It felt like a bit of a cheat to me, stuffing so much material in through that particular back door. If it is really a five or six hundred page book, fine, I’m a big boy. I can handle it. But don’t tell me it’s 337, then cram in another 200 pps of material. Grrrrr. That said, if you do not share my footnote-reading compulsion, it will be a much quicker read for you, but you will miss out on a lot of fascinating stuff. So maybe the solution here is to just tell yourself that the book is maybe 50% longer than the page number indicates and adjust your expectations accordingly.

It took a lot of work and a lot of guts for Stossel to expose his personal struggles to public view. Reading My Age of Anxiety may not do anything to remove your particular fears, phobias, neuroses or anxieties, but it may at least offer some comfort from the knowledge that one’s difficulty is unlikely to be unique, that anxiety, like death, taxes, corruption and bloody-minded stupidity has ever been with us, that one suffers in the company of some of the greatest minds humanity has ever produced, that there is likely some relief to be had chemically, and that there can be real personal and social benefit from having at least some anxiety. Unless your fears have to do with reading very informative looks at widespread human problems, works in which the reportage incorporates the personal to illuminate the universal, you might want to risk taking a peek at My Age of Anxiety. There is nothing to be afraid of.

==================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

NY Times article about Scott and sister Sage publishing books at the same time, about the same subject, although very differently

Bookpage interview

This was named one of Oprah’s 17 books to pick up in January

Stossel on Colbert, a fun interview.

2 Comments

January 20, 2014 · 10:37 am

3500 by Ron Mills

book coverBenjamin Mills was born in December 1993. His body seemed to be developing normally over the next year, but all was not right. Soon after his first birthday, he was diagnosed with autism. Ron Mills and his wife, Sara, had been handed a parenting burden far in excess of that which most of us must contend with, and far greater than most could handle. Their marriage, strained further by Ron’s depression at the death of his father, and no doubt by chronic sleep deprivation and financial woes, failed. But one thing that did not fail was the love Ron and Sara had for their son, and their dedication to do whatever they could to help him.

When Ben was five, he developed a particular affection for a Sorcerer Mickey Mouse doll and a corresponding fondness for Disney films, well, parts of them anyway. It was the beginning of what would become a lifelong relationship for Ben. He even managed to learn how to use the VCR in order to play his favorite parts, over and over and over and over. His first sort-of words were neither “Mama”, “Dada”, “More”, or even “No”. They were fill-ins to omitted words in the song The Bare Necessities that Ron would sing to him. Later, Ben listened to Disney music through his headphones as a way to drown out the overwhelmingness of his surroundings. Given his love for things Disney, Ron and Sara wondered how he might fare with a trip to Disneyworld. It turned out to be, for Ben, the happiest place on earth. Not all black and white. There were a few bumps. But, Ben came alive there as he had nowhere else.

book cover

Ron Mills – from his website

Months later, after enduring all sorts of disruption from Ben:

I would think about his maddening behaviors, and then think about the Ben that I had seen skipping his way through the Magic Kingdom, and I began to wonder if he actually belonged there.

Ron and Sara considered a drastic measure.

Kinda tough to give your kid the Disney experience if you are living in Seattle and the park is located diagonally across the continent. It may be a small world, but it’s not that small. Despite being divorced, despite the strains of having to find two new places to live, and two new jobs, and despite there being no guarantee that the magic of his Disney experience would not vanish in a puff of theatrical smoke, Ron and Sara decided to take one more trip, just to make certain, and after that worked out, they moved to Orlando.

I have my issues with the Disney corporation. All is not magical in the Magic Kingdom. But there is a place and a time, and this will not be the place or time where I discuss some of the more maleficent leanings of the Monstro-size Disney corporation. For today, and for the gaze we cast on 3500 we will put that aside and go all hakuna matata. Don’t worry. I haven’t gone entirely soft. But for now we will accentuate the positive.

Ben became a regular at Walt Disney World, with a particular attachment to Snow White’s Scary Adventure ride. Not an attachment like you or I might indulge in, but a serious, and repetitive attachment. He rode the ride several times every time he went to the park, and his parents took him there very often.

Bring Ben to WDW was a form of immersive therapy for Ben, and his behavior took a definite turn for the better. The WDW staff came to recognize him and supported him in diverse ways. There are some particularly moving episodes Mills relates in which the “cast member” employees and management go out of their way to make Ben’s experience a magical one. Snow White held a special place in his heart and when the “cast member” in the role engaged him in person, he was agog.

description
Ben as a teen, with Snow – from the author’s site

Ron Mills’ story is a straight ahead narrative, this, then that, and then the other. He has a fluid style and is very easy to read. You will zip-a-dee-doo-dah through 3500 quickly. Telling the story was the goal here, and it has been accomplished. I enjoyed the book. It is a moving chronicle. If I have a gripe about 3500 (you knew there had to be at least one, right?) it is that the volume of information offered on autism, per se, and not just Ben’s experience, is about as thin as Cruella Deville. I do understand that Mills is writing as a caring parent and not as a scientist, but one would think that Ben’s story would have offered an excellent opportunity to teach the rest of us something more about this challenging condition. I wondered, for example, about what the latest theories might be as to causation, what treatment modalities were considered. Are there any research projects afoot that might hold a key to understanding cases and treatment?

While Walt Disney World, the Disney corporation and many of the exceptionally kind and caring people who work in the Disney organization went out of their way to help Benjamin Mills, it shines through that the real Magic Kingdom here was the one constructed by Ben’s parents and caregivers. Really, would you move across the country, alongside your ex, on such an enterprise? Love continues long after the theme park rides end, and the gates close. Love and patience, in Jumbo-sized quantities, are what it takes to help an autistic child cope in a world that is not nearly understanding enough. Have some tissues at the ready, particularly when Ben is the last rider on Snow White’s Scary Adventure, before the ride is closed forever. You will most definitely be moved by this magical tale.

I received this book via GR’s First Reads program

Review posted on GR – January 7, 2014

===============================EXTRA STUFF
You can find more information on Ron’s experience with Ben on the web site that he and his wife run, the unfortunately named Shmoolok.com Definitely check out the Good Day Sacramento video interview on the media page there.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, Non-fiction, Reviews