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.)


Image licensed under Creative Commons by Flickr’s net_efekt.

Two interesting stories in the Wall Street Journal today on different sides of mental illness: The first explores the ways in which certain drug companies may have exaggerated the effectiveness of prescription medications used to treat mental illness in the U.S., and the second looks at how families in China grapple with the mentally ill.

The second story perturbed me a bit; the narrative centers on a family that constructed a cage in which they imprisoned their son, who had stabbed a neighbor to death. I think what bothers me is that it implicitly borders on the belief that something of this nature wouldn’t happen in the U.S., that the way we construct mental illness is so evolved as to avoid any such irrational, desperate measures. I’m sure if one looked closely enough at court records or crime blotters in the U.S., it would be easy to find similar stories — exhausted parents with no money, no insurance, and no other options make choices that in hindsight seem unnecessarily cruel; I doubt the reporter meant to conflate Chinese culture and an individual’ behavior, but lacking context or broader epidemiological details, the story makes me a bit uneasy about what readers might infer.

Today it was widely reported that mortgage lender IndyMac will cut its workforce by 24% — or about 2,400 employees; just another headline in a paper full of the depressing consequences of the housing-market shakeout from this summer, at first glance, but some reports chose to highlight a rather interesting factoid.

About 400 of the employees cut are based in India.

There’s such a to-do about people in India “taking our jobs” that (in an admittedly sickening way) it’s almost refreshing to hear that they’ll also be affected by the downturn. See, fellow Americans? It’s not as if people in the subcontinent are immune to shocks to the economic system. Certain people benefit, and certain people get screwed, and eventually we all either find a way to adjust, or we sell our Harley-Davidsons and move back in with our parents.

In this spirit, I recommend Steven Landsburg’s op-ed today in the Times, “What to Expect When You’re Free Trading.” We all want that damned Wal-Mart smiley-face to whistle down the aisles as prices fall, but you can’t have everything: higher wages and no job loss and prices dwindling ever lower. Something’s gotta give — which is not to say that we can’t endlessly debate the fairness or unfairness of whatever snaps at the stress — but something’s gotta give.

I’d prefer if the Western press featured better coverage of international stories, or if there were less anachronistic synopses of current events in India, and I just happen to be more fascinated by social phenomena than by economic shifts. But I’ll take this glimpse into the country — even if it’s only a passing glance as the door behind which millions of lives teem closes — as a start.

 vet.jpg

(Photo from NYT, courtesy the man’s family)

The New York Times began a new series today, “War Torn,” that focuses on crimes and wartime experiences of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan who have committed killings (or been charged with them) after coming home. The first piece, “Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles,” is a heart-breaking, provocative, and essential piece of reportage. The paper also offers multimedia case studies, a slide show, an audio interview with a psychiatrist, and an excerpt from a related book.

 “Town by town across the country, headlines have been telling similar stories [of violence committed by veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan]. Lakewood, Wash.: ‘Family Blames Iraq After Son Kills Wife.’ Pierre, S.D.: ‘Soldier Charged With Murder Testifies About Postwar Stress.’ Colorado Springs: ‘Iraq War Vets Suspected in Two Slayings, Crime Ring.’

Individually, these are stories of local crimes, gut-wrenching postscripts to the war for the military men, their victims and their communities. Taken together, they paint the patchwork picture of a quiet phenomenon, tracing a cross-country trail of death and heartbreak.

The New York Times found 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed a killingi n this country, or were charged with one, after their return from war. In many of those cases, combat trauma and the stress of deployment — along with alcohol abuse, family discord and other attendant problems — appear to have set the stage for a tragedy that was part destruction, part self-destruction.”

This story hits home for me, having two brothers that have spent time fighting in both countries. I don’t see either very often, and when I do, the subject is off-limits. Occasionally, something about their time there will slip out — one Christmas, right after Saddam had been captured by the U.S. (“like a rat!”), one of my brothers kept mentioning how he swore he saw Hussein driving a taxi around Baghdad, and how he should have just shot him in the fuckin’ head right there, while he had a chance, how he always regretted not shooting the driver in the fuckin’ head. Another time, when someone asked if he had killed anyone, my brother got quiet, then noted that people there got killed all the time, but that the military was very respectful, that he had helped bury dead combatants in mass graves as soon as possible out of respect for Islamic mores and customs.

It’s hard to hear these stories, and even harder to figure out how to process them (imagine how hard it must be for my brothers themselves). As I’ve begun writing this, I’ve gotten…increasingly agitated, simply because I don’t know how to make sense of it all, or how to work my concern for my brothers (and people I went to high school with, and other acquaintances) into everyday life. But as I continue to ponder the subject, looking forward to the next story in the series, I’d like to leave you with a quote from Brockton D. Hunter, a criminal defense lawyer:

“To deny the frequent connection between combat trauma and subsequent criminal behavior is to deny one of the direct societal costs of war and to discard another generation of troubled heroes.”

It’s difficult to make sense of stories in which there may be no winners, only losers, only gaping holes where pieces of ourselves used to be. But it’s important to review them and cast a critical eye on them — and I applaud the Times for highlighting this important issue.

 

 The International Herald Tribune offers a guide to New York’s libraries in “A Bookworm’s Holiday.” Unsurprisingly, the Rego Park branch of the Queens Library (which, by the way, is the No. 1 library system in the U.S. by circulation) was not highlighted; I go there every weekend, and though I appreciate the teeming hordes of library patrons, it can be quite annoying to fight with the unwashed masses (once, a woman even forcibly pushed me while I was browsing the CDs and loudly accused me — wrongly, I might add — of flatulating with abandon).

Today’s rec reading is, inevitably, Gloria Steinem’s piece in the New York Times, in which she argues that “gender is the most restricting force in American life.”

I’m not sure I agree with her assessment (nor do others; my favorite critiques are at Slate and Feministing); I’m not sure you can isolate elements of an individual (race, gender, age, physical ability, wealth, appearance, etc.) and say unequivocally that, by mote of sex, a woman can never be a political front-runner, but I am glad that Steinem is continuing to challenge the subtle pervasiveness of sexism. Because, let’s be honest, Obama getting misty-eyed would be considered genuine and winning, while Hilz’s “emotional” answer to a voter’s question about how she manages everything made four front pages, all musing on the continued viability of her campaign. Harumph.

The New York Times reports today that an Illinois man, Subhash Chander admitted to setting a fire that killed his daughter, son-in-law, and their son because he saw their marriage as a “cultural slight” — his daughter married a man from a lower caste.

The story is disturbing on a number of levels, but what I found perhaps most alarming was the way in which the story is being reported here: it seems that the man’s lawyers are making a move to defend the charges of murder and arson by making the case about culture. He’s Indian! There is still caste discrimination in India! He’s been conditioned to think this way! Yes, what he did is wrong, but it’s a little less wrong, because it’s just the nature of his people!

OK, I may be taking it a little too far. But is it really necessary, after peppering the story with references to caste and culture, to close with these words?:

Smita Narula, the faculty director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University School of Law who has studied the effects of the Indian caste system, said violence over caste differences and intercaste marriages still occurred in India, although discrimination against the lowest caste has been outlawed for decades.

“What is surprising,” Ms. Narula said, “is that it might happen here.”

Why is it so surprising? Hateful people do stupid things all over the world. Immigrating to America, or even living in America, doesn’t insulate you from adopting ideas or viewpoints from foreign lands. Would it also surprise Ms. Narula that I had arguments about American politics when I lived in Delhi? Does it surprise her that my husband still makes morning and evening tea for us, a tradition he grew accustomed to in India?

(Alternative voices from The Indian Express and The Hindustan Times.)

Excellent op-ed in the Times today, “Putting a Plague in Perspective,” by Daniel Halperin (a senior research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health and the 2005-06 HIV prevention adviser in southern Africa for USAID) — Halperin marshals an argument that by focusing on funding AIDS projects in Africa, rather than wider public health concerns to address problems such as inadequate access to safe water. He writes:

“Many millions of African children and adults die of malnutrition, pneumonia, motor vehicle accidents and other largely preventable, if not headline-grabbing, conditions. One-fifth of all global deaths from diarrhea occur in just three African countries — Congo, Ethiopia and Nigeria — that have relatively low H.I.V. prevalence. Yet this condition, which is not particularly difficult to cure or prevent, gets scant attention from the donors that invest nearly $1 billion annually on AIDS programs in those countries.

I was struck by this discrepancy between Western donors’ priorities and the real needs of Africans last month, during my most recent trip to Africa. In Senegal, H.I.V. rates remain under 1 percent in adults, partly due to that country’s early adoption of enlightened policies toward prostitution and other risky practices, in addition to universal male circumcision, which limits the heterosexual spread of H.I.V. Rates of tuberculosis, now another favored disease of international donors, are also relatively low in Senegal, and I learned that even malaria, the donors’ third major concern, is not quite as rampant as was assumed, with new testing finding that many fevers aren’t actually caused by the disease.”

“Wombs for rent: Surrogacy business booming in India” (Associated Press)

The Indian/global press has been covering this story for some time now, but it’s a pretty compelling stuff, so I’ll let the article’s nut graf speak for itself:

“More than 50 women in this city [Anand, India] are now pregnant with the children of couples from the United States, Taiwan, Britain and beyond. The women earn more than many would make in 15 years. But the program raises a host of uncomfortable questions that touch on morals and modern science, exploitation and globalization, and that most natural of desires: to have a family.”

“Why some U.S. soldiers feel at home in Iraq,” Lawrence Kaplan, Slate

Christmas isn’t the best time to ask your Marine stepbrother whether he’s going back to Iraq or not. After — what, six years? — B’s term was up; he initially signed on the the reserves to put himself through college (a bachelor’s in exercise science, of little use unless one wants to be a gym rat for life). He was on the front line invading Iraq (driving a truck that was fitted to detect landmines) and returned once (or was it twice?) to the country, fighting a war he didn’t want to understand, but coming back for occasional holidays, when he would tell us he was sure he saw Saddam Hussein driving around in a taxi (“I should have just fucking shot him, I should have just fucking shot him”) and then describe, using the Thanksgiving turkey as a guide, how to quickly kill a man with little more than a pocket knife. He’s gruff and blunt and never shies away from what he feels is his duty; when they asked him if he wanted to reenlist, he deferred for a bit to think about it, because he didn’t want the new guys to go to Iraq without someone there who “knew” the place. Noble, or maybe foolhardy; a way of reenvisioning his hastily chosen displacement?

(I still don’t know what he decided; I could e-mail his girlfriend, or ask our parents, but I almost don’t want to know.)