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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
by Douglas Messserli

 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 hundreds of thousands 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. Ohio sued all the major producers of narcotic pain-killers by mid-year.

      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 to 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 powerful 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 have clearly contributed to our cumulative pain instead of relieving it.

     An editorial in The New York Times on January 16, 2017, not only reiterated the national tragedy of opioid and heroin-substitute abuses, but spoke to a previously unexplored problem about its effects upon the children of those who abused and died.

     The editorial began by expressing that “Opioid overdoes have claimed more than 300,000 lives in the last 15 years, including some 33,0000 in 2015 alone.” But it immediately brought up the fact that nationally, the number of children, often removed from parents for drug abuse, had risen substantially. Between the years of 2012 and 2015, foster care had jumped 8% nationally, and suggested that at least 32.2% if these cases in 2015 were a result of parental substance abuse. Citing a particularly tragic situation in Pennsylvania, where a couple, having died from apparent overdoes, and left their baby behind to die from starvation, the editors went on to suggest that the problem was possibly even far worse, citing that one group, Generations United, had estimated that 2.5 million children now live with relatives of family friends rather than their parents. “In Texas” (where funding has been substantial cut),“conditions have gotten so bad that officials have assigned dozens of foster care children to sleep in state offices and other temporary shelters.”

     A major contribution to the problem, argued the Los Angeles Times in a June 2, 2017 article by Karen Kaplan, had to do with a simple-minded argument expressed in just five sentences in the 1980 edition of The New England Journal of Medicine. Those sentences argued that of the cases on report to date, only four cases of 11 reported from major medical centers could be traced to actual addiction among individuals who had no history of previous addiction.

     As Kaplan makes clear, however, these examples were only from patients who still remained in hospitals, while making no account of those who had returned home and might have had more private problems with addiction. Moreover, no specific examples in these sentences were included. Yet, even as millions of Americans became addicted to opioid painkillers from 1999 to 2015, these same sentences were cited again and again, among 608 papers arguing for the drugs non-addictive qualities. Even as the major drug producers began to see more and more evidence that their products had led to more than 183,000 deaths as a result of patients with addiction, they continued to obfuscate through restatement the 1980 article and outrightly lied to doctors and others who proscribed the drugs. Kaplan sites as a major example was a 2002 statement by Dr. Sian Iles, associate professor of radiology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia in the International Journal of Clinical Practice:

                   Fear of addiction may lead to reluctance by the physician to prescribe.
                   However, there is no evidence that this occurs when prescribing
                   opioids for pain.

In a 1999 report in Nursing Economics, nurse-practitioner Nancy Kowal, at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, Massachusetts, wrote:

                    This pain population with no abuse history is literally at no risk for

     The very same week when the Los Angeles Times piece was published, The New Yorker featured a long essay by Margaret Talbot, focusing in on just one city in West Virginia, Martinsburg, population about 18,000. This city, reports Talbot, along with the entire “eastern panhandle” of West Virginia in which it is located, has “devastated” the population where nearly everyone has family members or knows someone who is a heroin addict, brought about by an addiction to painkillers. Just a few paramedics must work as long as 24-hour shifts for the Berkeley County Emergency Medical Services in order to save dying addicts by providing does of life-saving Narcon.

     The essay begins with a dramatic event—the kind we are now hearing daily in newspapers and magazines across the nation—where at a Little League baseball game, two individuals suddenly collapsed and lay dying from a heroin overdose. Talbot captures the horror of the event:
                 Two of the parents were lying on the ground, unconscious, several yards
                 apart. …The couple’s thirteen-year-old daughter was sitting behind a
                 chain-link backstop with her teammates, who were hugging her and com-
                 forting her. The couple’s younger children, aged ten and seven, were
                 running back and forth between their parents, screaming, “Wake up!
                 Wake up!” When Barrett and Mulligan [the paramedics] knelt down to
                 administer Narcon…some of the other parents got angry….saying “This
                 is bullcrap.” “Why’s my kid gotta see this? Just let ‘em lay there.’”

     Although many in the community express similar sentiments in the local newspaper, others, particularly those with family members who suffer similar addictions, are more sympathetic. And some have even gathered into groups, such as the Hope Dealer Project, run primarily by three women, who, recognizing that the small town of Martinsburg has little available to help addicts, take in those who are willing to try to break their addiction, traveling with the to sometimes long away destinations in other states to help them get care. But even after, they continue to try to place them on further programs that work to help their patients from relapsing. Nonetheless, the possibility of falling back into addiction is common, and Talbot’s article is dotted with stories of families who sons, daughters, husbands, and wives, had broken the habit only to take up heroin again, often ending in their deaths.

      West Virginia, with its hard-working miners and poor, often uninsured, often sickly citizens, was particularly hard-hit by Purdue Pharma OxyContin marketing.
                 Some states became inundated with opiates. According to the Charleston
                 Gazette-Mail, between 2007 and 2012 drug wholesalers shipped to West
                 Virginia seven hundred and eighty million pills of hydrocodone (the
                 generic name for Vicodin) and oxycodone (the generic name for Oxy-
                 Contin). That was enough to give each resident four hundred and thirty-
                 three pills.

      The addiction, moreover, is not limited to hard working fathers and mothers, but to their children, observing their own parents taking drugs and, sometimes, even being encouraged, perhaps, to imbibe. West Virginia has an overdose death rate today, so Talbot reports, of 41.5 per hundred thousand people, with New Hampshire having the second highest, at 34.5 per hundred thousand.

      Affecting the state even harder, is the number of children removed from parental care because of drug abuse, which rose from 970 in 2006 to 2,171 in 2016. Entire families have been uprooted, now living with aunts, uncles, grandparents, and foster parents. And people are dying daily in private and public spaces. How could we imagine a more destructive world other than conjuring up a city under the siege of a war?

       Finally, if anyone might imagine that the attention this drug crisis has now received might have meant that there has been some resolution of the problem, the June 6, 2017 front page of The New York Times revealed it as a delusion. In fact, deaths from drug overdose have startlingly risen in the last year, and are likely to be even worse by the end of this year. With more than 59,000 deaths in 2016, reporter Josh Katz summarizes, “Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50.” And beyond the states named above, there have been significant increases of such deaths in other East Coast states, particularly in Maryland, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Maine. As Dr. Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control (C.D.C.) concluded, it’s the only aspect of American health that is getting significantly worse. It is now estimated that over two million Americans are dependent on opioids, and an additional 95 million used prescription painkillers in the past year.

       If the Senate were to pass the new health care act approved by Paul Ryan and the House of Representatives and approved by Trump, even the few services already provided would become nonexistent or severely curtailed, and the possibility of recovery made even more difficult with the cuts to Medicaid. Even the small offering of hope the thousands of addicts now have would be dimmed, and an entire generation of small-town, mostly white, hometown citizens would ultimately disappear, leaving their lost children behind.

       There have been many instances, unfortunately, of derelict behavior by the government in American history, but this may be one of the worst.     


Los Angeles, January 10, 2017, January 16, 2017, June 1, 2017, and June 3, 2107, June 6, 2017