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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

"Peeking Out" (occasioned by Jon Mooallem's New York Times Magazine essay, "Us and Them"

peeking out

Jon Mooallem, “Us and Them,” published in The New York Times Magazine, January 16, 2017

Last Sunday, January 16, 2017 The New York Times Magazine carried an article by Jon Mooallem titled “Us and Them,” a work about the differences and similarities between the Eurasia-living Neanderthals and the “out of Africa” Homo sapiens which we represent.

      Summarizing the first discovery of the now-dead species in valley outside Düsseldorf, Germany, where the 17th-century Calvinist theologist Joachim Neander often took walks, and was later named after him, Mooallem reiterates  many of the hundreds of mistaken theories about the Neanderthals, and how long scientists and other theorists felt the Homo sapiens to be far superior. 
     In fact, he shows us, through a trip to Gibraltar caves where Neanderthal artifacts have been and continue to be unearthed, the two simply represented side-by-side evolutionary versions of human species, who like the “out of Africa” branch, lived in families and communities, fashioned weapons and eating utensils, wore feathers, painted on and carved in rock, and buried their dead. As Mooallem reports, we should perhaps stop imagining “separate species of human evolution altogether: not an Us and a Them, but one enormous ‘metapopulation’ composed of shifting clusters of essentially human-ish things that periodically coincided in time and space.”
      Still, until very recently, many if not most paleontologists presumed the superiority of our kind and argued that it was because of that superiority that we killed off them. Although others had long debated that both versions of humans were in most ways equivalent, it was not until 2010, when a group of evolutionary anthropologists at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig finished sequencing a Neanderthal genome, that it became apparent that before the Neanderthals disappeared, the two groups had often mated, and most human beings still carry up to 1 to 2 percent of Neanderthal DNA. Suddenly the “us and them” paradigm became quite meaningless. 
       The Neanderthal’s died out not because we killed them off or won out on the available resources, but because from the very beginning there were simply fewer of them, and, like vanishing animal species, today, they simply could not keep a high enough birthrate to survive. At their highest density, some scientists estimate, their population might not have filled a NFL stadium. The last Neanderthals, some of them living in the milder climate of Gibraltar, were already a ghost race, a species on the brink.
        The importance of this article, it seems to me, is not simply its fascinating story of who the Neanderthals were, but its expression of how the “us and them” battle delimits our logical thinking. If there are always barbarians at the gate, frightful beings that we feel are inferior to us, we will have difficulty not only in perceiving and reacting to what is inside the gate, but will lose touch with any new possibilities of understanding and comprehension that might lie outside the gate. A wall, symbolic or real, locks “us” up as much as much it might keep “them” out. And a prison, we should recall, does not always provide the best opportunities to learn and grow. 
      Yet, not only in the US, but all over the world, countries and communities seem to be separating the us from the them, refusing to allow the others to cross borders, to come live beside us like some Neanderthals did with Homo sapiens.
      Russia, Poland, China, Turkey, The Philippines, Hungary, and other countries are increasingly being controlled by dictatorial autocrats, who are determined to separate from others and close borders. Even France, Germany, and other forward looking democracies have large populations that would like to close off their borders and pull away from European cooperation. England, as we know, has already voted for such a “pulling out,” which our President-elect Trump openly supports. 
     Compassion and understanding for others, even slightly different for ourselves seems to be fast disappearing. For me, empathy, attempting to feel what another being feels, is a necessary tool in discovering that compassion and comprehension of the “other.” But for some, such as Paul Bloom, whose book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion was recently published, along with an article in today’s Los Angeles Times, argues against that. He represents empathy as a kind of “spotlight” that insufficiently illuminates only those upon whom we focus, and, accordingly, often delimits compassion for larger communities outside of our tribal limitations.   
     Frankly, I think this is a narrow definition of what empathy truly is. If nothing else, practicing empathy, even with close friends, certainly helps us to turn a localized spotlight into a far larger searchlight on those outside our community or tribe. And, yes, it often feels good to empathize and just as often really hurts; but, more importantly, it opens one up to the feelings for and compression of the existence of others—and not just of our kind, but of others “out there,” beyond the wall, beyond that next valley who don’t even look like us or speak another language, worship other visions of god, eat other foods, and participate in different cultural rituals. Empathy helps us to comprehend not just how other Homo sapiens might feel but how animals who, like the Neanderthals, are now dying out, might be saved, how our environment is a planetary not just a local concern. 
       Someday, having built such walls, whether real or symbolic, when we dare to again peek out, might we discover another human type of species, thinking it too is far superior to us, has already taken our place? 
       Near the end of Mooallem’s beautiful essay, he travels to the Netherlands to meet identical twin brothers, Adrie and Alfons Kennis, whose major activity is creating sculptural representations of Neanderthal men, women, and children for worldwide museums. He presents them as almost comical enthusiasts of difference, men, who from childhood on, impulsively drew pictures of Neanderthals, trying to out-do one another. They are also utterly fascinated by all the differences of human types. Observing their computer-saved archives of anthropological films, stills, and photographs of different Homo sapien types, he observes that the brothers cannot pull their eyes away from them, that the two twins—who have lived a life of “self-evident sameness” and who almost finish one another’s sentences—are utterly awed by the vast variety of differences that exist and have existed on this planet throughout the ages: “’All this variation! It’s beautiful!’ shouted Adrie.” 
       “Us and them,” worlds of separation and exclusion, don’t necessarily make for a better or safer society; they merely create a more meager and unimaginative one.

Los Angeles, January 17, 2017

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

"The Eccentricities of Great Booksellers"

the eccentricities of great booksellers

The other day, The New York Times reported that bookseller, Robert A. Wilson, owner of the Village-based poetry store, the Phoenix Book Shop, died in Baltimore at the age of 94.
      The bookstore was popular with numerous New York poets and writers, including Diane di Prima, Denise Levertov, Gregory Corso, Edward Albee and William S. Burroughs. Patti Smith, as she grew interested in the Beat authors, visited often.
     I too visited the store several times over the years, purchasing a great many poetry books, many of them signed by the authors themselves (like the Ted Berrigan poems I purchased there), sold back to the store by unappreciative (or possibly simply impoverished) recipients. It always seemed slightly embarrassing to me to read the names of poet friends to whom Berrigan and others had written personal dedications, but those names also made the books more interesting to me.
      Wilson, who purchased the bookstore far before my New York visits, in 1959, went on the acquire W. H. Auden’s library, when the British poet left New York, and over the years had acquired a wide range of important archival literary books and manuscripts, all of which delighted me on my visits there.
       But it is my very first visit to Phoenix that I remember most. Although clearly something is missing from my memory, as I recall it, I had been simply purveying the book stacks when the somewhat imperious Wilson (and yes, he was somewhat imperious and eccentric) called out, “Hey you, your Djuna Barnes bibliography ought to have provided for numbers that would have allowed new discoveries to be entered into the system; you did it all wrong!” I was stunned: first, how could have he known who I was, and second, whatever did he mean? “I stuttered back, “that was the way my professor told me to do it. But perhaps you are right, there should have been a different numbering system to allow for additions, but I still don’t know how I might have properly allowed for that.”
      Of course, it’s very doubtful that the all-knowing Wilson had immediately recognized me. When I told this story recently to my friend Thérèse Bachand, she replied “I think you’re describing one of your nightmares.”
       No, I thought to myself, it was not truly a nightmare. I was rather amazed and impressed that he suddenly knew who I was. And perhaps he was right. But then, as I had to admit, it is most unlikely that the event I remember truly happened in that way. I must have proffered him my credit card for my book purchases, or maybe even mentioned my name. But I truly do not remember it that way. In my memory I simply recall him just calling out to me with a kind of surreal recognition of my being and failures. But memories are often like that; we forget what we desire to.
       And despite that initial meeting, we got on quite nicely in several later meetings, Wilson often pointing out to me, on later visits, new finds and intimating new manuscripts he had just acquired. After that original visit, I returned to The Phoenix almost every time I visited New York, along with the famous used book store The Strand and the wonderful, if even more argumentative-plagued Gotham Book Mart. Phoenix and Gotham are now long gone, while The Strand continues to offer up piles of literary texts each year. 
      In The Strand, where I purchased dozens of books over the years, I never encountered anyone who might have even seemed slightly negative, but in the other two stores, you had to endure the “eccentricities of the nightingale” personalities of both owners and staff. That is what made The Phoenix and Gotham Book Mart so absolutely remarkable. These people absolutely cared about the titles they sold! 
      I still have dreams of being lured into the basement of the Gotham Book Mart, where the owner, Andreas Brown would show me treasures not yet available to other customers. Yes, perhaps I did dream my first encounter with Robert A. Wilson. But I still cannot imagine that I truly perceive it as a terrible denunciation of my hard work. I truly enjoyed it, and never thought about it as anything but a gentle scolding by a great bibliophile.

Los Angeles, December 12, 2016


Sunday, November 13, 2016

"Opioid and Heroin Use in White, Middle-Class USA"

opioid and heroin use in white, middle-class usa

As my own recounting of “pain,” after knee surgery in 2014 reveals there is sometimes good reason for pain killers such as OxyContin and other powerful drugs. And most Americans, some doctors have indicated, have a difficult time with such pain, particularly long-term back pain and serious bouts with arthritis—pains which I endured for many years before the surgery. Today I still have a daily stiff knee, although, strangely, my left knee—where the bones are still literally rubbing against one another—no longer hurts. I also have a strong aversion to drugs, so, as I reported, I insisted that I receive less powerful painkillers immediately after the first week, despite my continued suffering.
       Thank heaven! For in the years since, it has increasingly become clear that millions of Americans—particularly in the rural areas of New Hampshire, West Virginia, Ohio and Michigan, as well as in parts of California and elsewhere, are now addicted to such pain-killers, and, unable to afford the high costs of their addictions, have turned to slightly cheaper drugs such as heroin.

Even during my operation word had begun spreading about such problems. But in 2016 and into 2017, it became even clearer that the US was suffering a kind of mass epidemic of serious addictions. 
     On August 19, 2016 the small city of Huntington, West Virginia, according to the Los Angeles Times endured 26 overdoses in just a few hours, sending the small police force and emergency servers in chaos. At one location, police arrived to one house where they found seven people passed out, 4 within the house, and 3 outside. Throughout Cabell County, in which Huntington is located, police report that they see from 18 to 20 cases of overdosed people each week.  
      Earlier in the year Sacramento, California saw 11 deaths from opiate mixes in one short period. New Hampshire has one of the nation’s highest number of people addicted to opioids, resulting in a suit from that state against OxyContin’s maker, Purdue Pharma.
      The New York Times reported that on September 18, 2016 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, that in a local Family Dollar store, police discovered an unconscious woman lying on the floor from a drug overdose, while her 2-year old daughter lay next to her, attempting to tug her mother into consciousness. The local police force commented that at about 10% of the drug calls they receive, children are present. There has been a 7.62% increase in child neglect investigations in that area in 2016 alone.
      According to the Associated Press, there were 3,050 people who overdosed during the year, most from powerful painkiller fentanyl. And on September 15th, in the Western part of that state, a couple was found parked on the street, passed out from a heroin overdose, with a toddler in the back seat. The 8-year old boy who discovered them went running off to his parents living nearby, screaming for them to come help. The pictures that were taken of this event have become something close to poster statements of the serious of what is happening throughout the US.


      Similar problems have been discovered among the homeless in Los Angeles who, unable to afford even marijuana are consuming a cheaper, man-made drug called “spice,” which is often sprayed with chemicals that cause deadly results. In LA’s skid row, 38 people had to be transferred hospitals in one August Friday after consuming a batch. And the very next Monday 14 others were found with similar symptoms. The Los Angeles City Council has now requested an ordinance to ban the substance, which can also kill. Perhaps the recent legalization of marijuana, at least in this particular case, will help with the problem.
       But the above reports represent just a few of the numerous stories that reveal that we are slowly turning into a kind nation of zombies, formerly hard-working men and women who, facing pain and aging becoming hooked on devastatingly power drugs, often by over-prescribing doctors and clinics. If job-loss can account for much of the private suffering faced by so many individuals in the poor areas of the country such as upstate New England and the midland’s rust-belt—areas where, incidentally, Donald Trump did very well in the election—drugs has clearly contributed to our cumulative pain instead of relieving it.
     To say something needs to be done is an understatement, as thousands of our citizens are everyday are succumbing to a fate that can only lead to their early deaths and the destruction of their families.

Los Angeles, January 21, 2017

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

"Behind the Wall" (on the Election of Donald Trump)

behind the wall

I woke up this morning terrified. I now live in a country I no longer know, run by a man with no humility, boundless ego, utterly no experience and, evidently disinterested in learning anything about the job.
     Our President is not only a bully, but a demagogue who would, so he claimed several times, send millions now living in this country away from it and would bar people based on their religion and ethnicity. Our new President is a compulsive liar, who has refused to be transparent about his own international dealings and his personal taxes.
      He is a man who has proudly proclaimed that he will get rid of many of the checks and balances by selecting only conservative Supreme Court justices. He and his followers have repeatedly demanded that he arrest his presidential opponent. He and his followers have loudly insisted on constructing a costly and unbuildable wall between my country and another, Mexico. He is opposed to most international trade deals, and wants to undo many of our military and political alliances with other countries. This man highly admires, so it appears, one of the world’s most dangerous dictators, Vladimir Putin, and has even jocularly praised the most brutal leader of all, Kim Jong-un of North Korea.
      Our new president jokes loudly and openly about having groped women and getting away with it because of his celebrity. He and his Vice-President have spoken out against gay marriage and a woman’s right to abortion. Although he has boasted about giving many a woman a chance to serve in his operations, it is also has become clear that he sees them as objects incapable of truly competing in the male-controlled world. Although the press has been quite quiet about it, there are rumors that he raped a 13-year girl.
      Our new—my new president—would take away affordable health care and “reconsider” social security. He is a man who, apparently, believes that if we have nuclear weapons we should use them, that only he can solve world crises such as the rise of ISIS and other international terrorist groups. He wants to return us to water-boarding terrorist suspects and restore other inhumane methods of torture. He knows more than the generals, he proclaims—although it’s been clear all along that he knows very little about international politics, and that, in fact, he knows very little about American politics except for his great displays of bluster. It may be that this president has never read a book—except, perhaps, for his own, written by others.
      Several newspaper journalists have repeatedly described this new President as the least self-reflective person they have ever encountered. In his hate of the media he has banned journalists and entire newspapers criticizing him from attending his conferences and even public gatherings.
     Trump is not a man who truly believes in global warming, and we can surely fear that he will not support further attempts at working against environmental problems in our country or elsewhere.  
      He has denigrated nearly all his Republican opponents, and continually mocked others for illness or any other disability. In his business affairs he has shown that he is racially bigoted, and has, in this campaign, attracted—without rejecting—the worst of racists, including members of the Klu Klux Klan. It is important to recall that he, personally, led the “birther” movement in an attempt to disqualify the black President, Obama, and then, tried to pin that viewpoint on Hillary Clinton. Many of his statements have given evidence of strong anti-Semitic sentiments. His own religious convictions are scanty at best, relating primarily to the “Power of Positive Thinking” tenants of The Reformed Church in America touted by Norman Vincent Peale.
       Although he claims to be a wildly successful business man, it is also apparent that numerous of his business endeavors have been poorly managed and fell into bankruptcy. He is currently facing charges, in fact, for having defrauded mostly poor people in connection with his “Trump College,” a made-up institution that was neither a true educational system nor actually disseminated any knowledge to the so-called students Trump might have been able to provide. He has sued and been sued by more people than any President in our history.
       As Harry Belafonte astutely wrote in yesterday’s The New York Times, Mr. Trump argues for “making America great again,” without really even trying to comprehend what America is, or what he might truly make greater, “reducing all the complexity of the American experience to a vague greatness…a promise that we will return to ‘winning’ without ever spelling out what we will win.” 
       Mr. Trump has shown time and again that, in his self-centric world view, he is a borderline sociopath, if not worse. Esteemed commentator, Fareed Zakaria, has described our new President as a “cancer on democracy.
       Today, I now live in a country where basically the uneducated decided for and against the better educated citizenry. Certainly the very fact that they have been left uneducated and are permanently angry about their denigrated conditions ought to have been taken into better account by the left and even the more moderate of our voters. Historically, we know that it was precisely such rich-poor, educated-uneducated, urban-rural dichotomies that helped contribute to the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler’s fascism in the mid-20th century. And it is sad that we never remembered that fact. But now, I am terrified by what lies ahead. 
      Yesterday, many journalists spoke of healing, but now the wounds have been so completely revealed. As Dana Bash reported on CNN soon after I finished this piece, Trump has ripped off the Band-Aid of American politics. Now we must face the fact that the infection may possibly kill us.

Los Angeles, November 9, 2016