If you thought Tyra’s hamsters and their histrionics were entertaining, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

There’s a lot of evidence of the awesomeness of Australia’s Next Top Model, but I think last week’s commercial for a feminine-hygiene product, which involved the model’s hosting a 30-second spot while holding a large stuffed beaver (“I was surprised how many girls didn’t know what a beaver was” … “I thought the link between the product and the beaver was pretty clear”), speaks for itself:

Jezebel reports on a new exhibit in France aimed at educating children and teens about sex. Elsewhere, teachers, parents, and students debated sex ed in Indian high schools; the education ministry in Israel pushed for programs to raise awareness about sexual violence and harassment; and in America, the battle continues over abstinence-only courses and those with a more comprehensive view of sex education. Is it me, or does it seem strange that other cultures are attempting to embrace the availability of information vitally important to public health while America seeks to repress it? Perhaps this is not a fair assessment — indeed, maybe I should be criticizing other countries for not more wholeheartedly embracing sex education to this point — but I am continually amazed about the ignorance displayed by so many of my countrymen (and women) concerning more base affairs than should probably be mentioned in this space. No, I don’t think that 11-year-olds should be trading sexual favors, and in general, I think a lot of people have sex before they’re really ready — but isn’t it more effective to, at the very least, equip those with the options in front of them with basic facts about reproduction, rights afforded by our Constitution (and judicial precedent), and resources they can turn to if they get in a jam?

One of my latest guilty pleasures has been doing Google Book searches on my favorite topics. A search for “tea” yielded a full scan of Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea, a meditation upon the social meaning of the beverage (particularly in Japan, but larger meaning can certainly be extrapolated). Okakura writes:

Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the ordinary facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life. … [W]hen we consider how small after all the cup of human enjoyment is, how easily drained to the dregs in our quenchless thirst for infinity, we shall not blame ourselves for making so much of the tea-cup.

Okakura also offers insight on the foibles of globalization (applicable, still, 100 years after he penned this tome):

Unfortunately the Western attitude is unfavorable to the understanding of the East. The Christian missionary goes to impart, but not to receive. Your information is based on the meagre translations of our immense literature, if not the unreliable anecdotes of passing travellers.

(And, an addendum in the form of a cool link: the National Institute of Health has an interesting collection of info on America’s tea craze, which blossomed right around the time Okakura’s book came out.)

While in Bradenton, I developed an unnatural obsession with birds. I donno; sometimes I’m like that. As such, you are now privy to some of my pictures (including, of course, some poor amateur Photoshopping).

 

For the rest of my myriad shots … –> The Birds!

On my former blog, I wrote about Art Garfunkel’s awesome reading list, which chronicles the books he’s read since 1968. Nick Paumgarten’s written a lovely piece in The New Yorker about Garfunkel’s literary habits; it’s a nice juxtaposition to Caleb Crain’s “Twilight of the Books,” an essay that examines reading habits in America and the possible repercussions of our increasingly digital lives.

It’s mere happenstance that on Martin Luther King Jr. Day I am reading Lawrence Hill’s Someone Knows My Name, the fictional narrative of a slave in the eighteenth century. But it’s no surprise that I’m captivated by the absorbing story of Aminata Diallo, which Hill chronicles with a deft sensitivity I didn’t entirely expect from a middle-aged man.

The Times’ glowing review focuses on the power of language to undermine great social ills. But rather than being overtly political, the text strikes me as a testament to the importance of independent voices echoing in the night:

If I live long enough to finish this story, it will outlive me. Long after I have returned to the spirits of my ancestors, perhaps it will wait in the London Library. Sometimes I imagine the first reader to come upon my story. Could it be a girl? Perhaps a woman. A man. An Englishman. An African. One of these people will find my story and pass it along. And then, I believe, I will have lived for a reason.

Much has been written on the place of witness and testimony in creating a case for change; what is so compelling about this book (and others like it) is that it asks for nothing directly, but rather allows the narrator’s voice to ring clear as a sounding bell, audible long after the the gong is initially struck.

A side note: Anyone have suggestions for similar narratives about non-African slaves? I’m particularly interested in reading something similar about the experience of indentured servants from India in the Caribbean. Looking into reading The Counting House (David Dabydeen), Maharani’s Misery (Verene A. Shepherd), The Last English Plantation (Jan Lo Shinebourne), or Bechu (Clem Seecharan). Tips or insight?

 

An interesting review of Christopher Lane’s Shyness: How Normal Behaviour Became an Illness over at Spiked; an excerpt:

[T]he range of ‘healthy behaviour’ is being increasingly narrowed. ‘Our quirks and eccentricities – the normal emotional range of adolescence and adulthood – have become problems we fear and expect drugs to fix’, Lane writes. ‘We are no longer citizens justifiably concerned about our world, who sometimes need to be alone. Our affiliations are chronic anxiety, personality or mood disorders; our solitude is a marker for mild psychosis; our dissent, a symptom of Oppositional Defiant Disorder; our worries, chemical imbalance that drugs must cure.’

Also worth checking out is Allan V. Horwitz and Jerome C. Wakefield’s The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder.

The culturally specific treatment of mental illness (which in the U.S. seems to have manifested itself in the dogged belief that merely popping a pill can cure any ailment) is particularly stark if you’ve spent any time overseas. Combine that with the absolutely ridiculous prices of prescriptions (for example, in the U.S. — if I were not covered by insurance — I would pay about $400 a month for two prescriptions I’ve been taking for several years; in India, I could buy their generic equivalents for less than $5 a month), and it’s difficult not to be skeptical about the way in which we sketch the lines circumscribing normal and abnormal (albeit “treatable”) behavior.

(And, a postscript with a bonus link to an intriguing essay by Eric G. Wilson, “In Praise of Melancholy.” In addition to touching on some of the issues surfaced above, Wilson writes:

I for one am afraid that American culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am concerned that to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. I am finally fearful of our society’s efforts to expunge melancholia. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?

Well, well said.)