I rush through the Japanese night, devouring it


I confess, dear reader: I’ve always had a problem with William T. Vollmann. I can’t fail to admire his tender heart and wide-awake conscience, and it’s hard not to appreciate his energy, his intensity, his unstoppable curiosity about the world and everything in it — women, violence, death, war zones, the night. Who else would give us a subtitle, as in his new book, that spills over and over, and begin a work of 504 pages, complete with bibliography, glossary, chronology and five appendixes, with a modest disclaimer about his “short book”? Actually, it is short when compared with his seven-volume 2003 treatise on violence, “Rising Up and Rising Down,” and the 811-page novel, “Europe Central,” that won the National Book Award in 2005. It’s now been all of 10 months since the 1,306-page Vollmann opus “Imperial” appeared, serving up every­thing you’d thought to ask about the Mexico-California border, and much you probably hadn’t. In the age of Twitter and 24-frame-per-second attention spans, such almost demented obsessiveness is itself an exhilaration. My problem has been that paragraphs that seem to last as long as other writers’ chapters can suggest a kind of deafness and self-enclosure, or suit­cases into which you push every scrap you’ve ever collected, underwear and index cards spilling out the sides. These go a little oddly with a 24-page chapter (as in “Kissing the Mask”) on “What Is Grace?” Whenever I read about another of Vollmann’s earnest attempts to rescue a prostitute from the life she’s possibly chosen, I applaud his romantic hopefulness as much as I worry about his Quiet Americanism. And if any place would seem profoundly ill-suited to his hyper-wordy, over-the-top, madly indulgent approach — his love of gaucherie, uninflectedness and analytical filler — you’d think it would be the land of haiku and Noh plays. As they say around Kyoto, there’s a reason humans were given two ears and only one mouth. Reader, I was wrong — in part.

more from Pico Iyer at the NYT here.

Saturday Poem

Powwow Ghazal

Can you hear the drums? Can you hear the drums?
Tonight, the reservation is aflame with drums.

Who's that drum group? They're good, but they're kids.
They have no idea how their lives will change with drums.

And what about those drummers? O, they're old school.
They're everybody's elders. They've gone gray with drums.

O, listen to that singer! He's equal parts joy and hurt.
His hands and vocal cords are bloodstained with drums.

Damn, look at that fancy dancer spin in circles.
She's weeping! The girl is going insane with drums.

Who's the head man dancer? He's been sober for ten years.
Now he only gets drunk, stoned, and dazed with drums.

Who's the head woman dancer? That's a grandmother.
She speaks in sermons. She offers us grace with drums.

That jingle dancer, ah, she's a reservation beauty.
Talk to her, cousin, because you can get laid with drums.

That nostalgic Indian is wearing blue suede shoes.
He's the Indian Elvis, mixing his pomade with drums.

Hey, look at that tribal cop with a shiny badge and gun.
She wants to solve a crime. She's Sam Spade with drums.

But don't forget that powwows can be dangerous too.
You better duck or get punched in the face with drums.

Do you have a question? It can be answered here.
There is nothing that can't be explained with drums.

No, I'm lying. Indians are glorious deceivers.
We love to obscure, obfuscate, and exaggerate with drums.

During powwow, even God wants to sing and dance.
So God makes thunder, lightning, and rain with drums.

Nobody has gone to bed yet. We've been awake for days.
I sometimes think that every Indian is made with drums.

by Sherman Alexie
from Blackbird; Vol.8 No.2; Fall 2009

“Anatomy of an Epidemic”: The hidden damage of psychiatric drugs

From Salon:

Md_horiz The timing of Robert Whitaker’s “Anatomy of an Epidemic,” a comprehensive and highly readable history of psychiatry in the United States, couldn’t be better. An acclaimed mental health journalist and winner of a George Polk Award for his reporting on the psychiatric field, Whitaker draws on 50 years of literature and in-person interviews with patients to answer a simple question: If “wonder drugs” like Prozac are really helping people, why has the number of Americans on government disability due to mental illness skyrocketed from 1.25 million in 1987 to over 4 million today?

“Anatomy of an Epidemic” is the first book to investigate the long-term outcomes of patients treated with psychiatric drugs, and Whitaker finds that, overall, the drugs may be doing more harm than good. Adhering to studies published in prominent medical journals, he argues that, over time, patients with schizophrenia do better off medication than on it. Children who take stimulants for ADHD, he writes, are more likely to suffer from mania and bipolar disorder than those who go unmedicated. Intended to challenge the conventional wisdom about psychiatric drugs, “Anatomy” is sure to provoke a hot-tempered response, especially from those inside the psychiatric community.

More here.

Lose your teeth, lose your mind

From PhysOrg:

Tooth Researchers at Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine (GSDM) link and periodontal disease to cognitive decline in one of the largest and longest prospective studies on the topic to date, released in this month’s issue of the . Dr. Elizabeth Krall Kaye looked for patterns in dental records from 1970 to 1973 to determine if periodontal disease and tooth loss predicted whether people did well or poorly on cognitive tests. She found that for each tooth lost per decade, the risk of doing poorly increased approximately eight to 10 percent.

More cavities usually meant lower cognition too. People with no tooth loss tended to do better on the tests. Dr. Kaye says inflammation is a possible cause, noting that other studies found higher levels of inflammation markers in people with Alzheimer’s. “Periodontal disease and caries are infectious diseases that introduce inflammatory proteins into the blood,” she says. “There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence that inflammation raises your risk of and it could be that gum inflammation is one of the sources.”

More here.

Should the pope resign?

Richard Dawkins answers the question in the Washington Post:

ScreenHunter_03 May. 01 10.10 No. As the College of Cardinals must have recognized when they elected him, he is perfectly – ideally – qualified to lead the Roman Catholic Church. A leering old villain in a frock, who spent decades conspiring behind closed doors for the position he now holds; a man who believes he is infallible and acts the part; a man whose preaching of scientific falsehood is responsible for the deaths of countless AIDS victims in Africa; a man whose first instinct when his priests are caught with their pants down is to cover up the scandal and damn the young victims to silence: in short, exactly the right man for the job. He should not resign, moreover, because he is perfectly positioned to accelerate the downfall of the evil, corrupt organization whose character he fits like a glove, and of which he is the absolute and historically appropriate monarch.

No, Pope Ratzinger should not resign. He should remain in charge of the whole rotten edifice – the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution – while it tumbles, amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.

More here.

Talking With Tony Judt

Christine Smallwood in The Nation:

ScreenHunter_02 May. 01 09.36 In October historian Tony Judt gave a lecture at New York University, where he is a professor and director of the Remarque Institute, on the fate of Western social democracy. The talk was remarkable not only for what was said but for how. Judt–who has advanced amyoptrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease, and is paralyzed from the neck down–had memorized his talk, which he delivered from his wheelchair, his face partially obscured behind the breathing apparatus he calls his “facial Tupperware.” Several months later he published a version of the talk in The New York Review of Books, and when that caught fire he expanded the talk into a short book. Ill Fares the Land (Penguin Press; $25.95) traces the history of the postwar state in the United States and Europe, showing how rampant privatization, an excess of individualism and the worship of the market have produced unacceptable levels of inequality. Disparaging both extreme left- and right-wing solutions, Judt makes a case for social democracy, advocating a new conversation about our collective responsibilities as citizens, humanists and human beings. –Christine Smallwood

You write that Ill Fares the Land is for young people. When you were young, was there a book that did for you what you want this book to do for others?

It was a very different world. I was born in 1948, so I'm a '60s kid, and in the '60s everyone talked all the time, endlessly, about socialism versus capitalism, about political choices, ideology, Marxism, revolution, “the system” and so on. I grew up in a world where the social democratic state was the norm, not the exception. So when I think of books that really influenced me, they were books that went against the grain of those times. They were, for example, Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. Or Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. Or the book edited by Richard Crossman called The God That Failed, which was a collection of six essays, all by ex-communists, all by guys who were still on the left, by and large, people like Koestler, or Ignazio Silone in Italy, or Richard Wright, who were disillusioned communists but still committed leftists in one respect or another. Those are the kinds of books that influenced me, and it was because they were written by people with a very strong voice who were not necessarily simply opposing everything that existed. They were neither conservative nor revolutionary, but autonomous voices. What I'm trying to do in Ill Fares the Land is to write not from an ideological or political position but against the grain of current thought.

More here.

Why Athletes Are Geniuses

Carl Zimmer in Discover:

DerekJeter The qualities that set a great athlete apart from the rest of us lie not just in the muscles and the lungs but also between the ears. That’s because athletes need to make complicated decisions in a flash. One of the most spectacular examples of the athletic brain operating at top speed came in 2001, when the Yankees were in an American League playoff game with the Oakland Athletics. Shortstop Derek Jeter managed to grab an errant throw coming in from right field and then gently tossed the ball to catcher Jorge Posada, who tagged the base runner at home plate. Jeter’s quick decision saved the game—and the series—for the Yankees. To make the play, Jeter had to master both conscious decisions, such as whether to intercept the throw, and unconscious ones. These are the kinds of unthinking thoughts he must make in every second of every game: how much weight to put on a foot, how fast to rotate his wrist as he releases a ball, and so on.

In recent years neuroscientists have begun to catalog some fascinating differences between average brains and the brains of great athletes. By understanding what goes on in athletic heads, researchers hope to understand more about the workings of all brains—those of sports legends and couch potatoes alike.

More here.