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Notes from Shale Country: May 31, 2012

In Jots on May 31, 2012 at 7:57 am

The recent University of Buffalo study that touted the Marcellus Shale gas industry’s improved environmental safety performance over the last four years has been called into question by the Public Accountability Initiative of Buffalo.  Timothy Considine, the lead author of the recent environmental safety report on fracking, received funding (apparently unrelated to his work at U.B.) from the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the Wyoming Mining Association, the American Iron and Steel Institute and the American Petroleum Institute.  They all sound pretty impartial, don’t they?  The University of Buffalo admitted that although the report was labeled as “peer-reviewed,” this “may have given readers an incorrect impression.”  That impression being, namely, that anyone not connected directly to the gas industry reviewed Considine’s numbers.

Some interesting, and more reliable, numbers have been compiled by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Powdermill Nature Reserve.  “After analyzing all of the data, Powdermill believes that since 2000, the state has permitted 9,848 Marcellus Shale wells, of which 6,391 are either drilled and/or producing. There are currently 2,457 active permits that could eventually be drilled.  Another 349 wells have either been abandoned, plugged, declared inactive, shut-in or their status is unknown.”  That’s only in Pennsylvania and represents a massive, unregulated threat to the state’s water supplies and green spaces.  Just the fact that an independent group had to spend 10 months compiling numbers that should have been meticulously maintained by the DEP is disturbing.  For now, Powdermill’s database is available only to “known researchers and government officials” but soon we laypeople will be able to locate the nearest shale wells with ease.  The information might be frightening, but vital in understanding the environmental impact of fracking.

In Washington County, a farming family has brought a lawsuit to court against Range Resources for the contamination of their water supply, which they say sickened and killed some of their livestock.  The lawsuit alleges Range “had contaminated the groundwater with chemicals from a leaking drilling waste pit and a 3 million-gallon hydraulic fracturing fluid flowback impoundment as early as November 2010.”  Water tests were performed by Range at the behest of the family.  According to the suit, Range sent the family and other nearby residents pared-down reports from these tests showing no contamination, but “full and complete test results, subpoenaed from Range but never revealed to residents near the Yeager well site, show that chemical contaminants similar to those found in the fracking flowback impoundment and the drill cuttings pit were also found in water samples from wells and springs.”  All of these contamination issues are opaque, which is compounded by the industry’s unwillingness to identify many of the proprietary chemicals used in the fracking process.

Of course, if you’re a doctor in Ohio, you might be privy to the identities of those chemicals.  But, according to the Ohio State Medical Association, “the wording of the provision” allowing doctors knowledge of the chemicals “could keep physicians from complying with mandates for public-health reporting.”  Doctors are not, under the current provision, allowed to share their knowledge of the fracking chemicals with anyone, even other, uninformed, health professionals.  So much for free information.  I hope there are some good Ohio doctors willing to snitch.

Much of Europe has already started banning the practice of fracking.  The continent sits on “an estimated 639 trillion cubic feet of shale gas resources” four times the supply of the Marcellus Shale.  The ban, which is in effect in France, England and Bulgaria is a boon for the U.S. industry, the only reason Bloomberg would ever report on the issue.  Oh, and French wine producers are worried fracking would pollute the water supply used for their precious vineyards.

-Michael Buozis

Photo Credit: businessweek.com

A More Evidence-Based DSM

In Essays on May 28, 2012 at 11:17 pm

A Report on the 165th APA Convention and DSM 5.0

by Tony Brown

Strolling in Center City Philadelphia two weeks ago, I was suddenly in a crowd of regimental striped neckties, inconspicuously small pearl earrings and credential-laden nametags. The American Psychiatric Association was in town. Their mission? To do what has only been done three times in the past sixty years of the organization’s history—majorly revise their bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

The association was hosting its 165th annual convention and the atmosphere sometimes seemed a scaled down version of the neon-lit streets in New York City’s Times Square — minus the police sirens. A heaving mass of tourists, some dodging, others captured by the van-sized big screen monitor on wheels at the corner of 12th and Market streets. The lunchtime chatter in the nearby coffee shop was all about the forthcoming DSM 5 and how it would surely change the practice of psychiatry. A curbside food truck had become a point of convergence and passionate conversation between opposing sides. Whether for or against, everyone seemed to be talking about the DSM.

The DSM is used by researchers and clinicians ranging from cognitive and psychodynamic to family and interpersonal disciplines. Practitioners use the DSM as a resource for the classification of mental disorders. Treatment of those disorders; however, is not covered. The American Psychiatric Publishing organization plans to officially unveil the updated 5th edition at the American Psychiatric Association’s 166th annual convention.

An important change will be in the name of the publication. Since its first iteration in 1952 as DSM-I, tradition has maintained the use of Roman numerals to designate each edition. The DSM-I, for instance, was followed by DSM-II and so on, the sequence interrupted only in the case of a minor revision such as when DSM-III evolved into DSM-III-R. Those expecting the upcoming fifth edition to be christened DSM-V will be surprised to find out that the association has dropped the Roman numerals. That is to say, about mid-May of 2013 in San Francisco, the new DSM 5 will be released. The change facilitates the probable need to release an update within the next few years. Thus, instead of using the old cumbersome system of adding an “R” for “revised” after the roman numeral, this allows a more Internet-friendly and software-friendly designation of DSM 5.1.

The DSM 5 is also supposed to incorporate the growing discovery of molecular, imaging and other relevant scientific information. The change has the potential to affect even non-psychiatric fields of medicine. For example, the ability to correlate mental disorders with biochemical and anatomical anomalies will empower so-called “biological” practitioners, i.e., internal medicine, emergency and family physicians to more quickly identify psychiatric illness.

A biochemical-based view of depression, for instance will recognize the bi-directional relationship of body and mind. Science has shone light on what is at the very least a filamentous thread between depression and the hormone cortisol; and also a correlation between depression and major disease processes like cancer and heart disease. Unfortunately, many standard hospital order sets—a collection of orders, used to normalize and facilitate the ordering procedures for frequent clinical presentations—are not as progressively inclined. They are assembled using an accumulation of all known information about patients who have presented with the same complaints or disease process, with expectation that such data-driven order sets will translate into evidence-based clinical decision making. Ideally, order sets should help streamline the practitioner’s differential diagnoses and treatment procedures, leading to a reduction of sick days for the current patient and freeing up beds for future patients. Order sets express an institution’s interpretation of current medical literature. Therefore, given the more scientifically based DSM 5,we can hope to see that progress reflected in hospitals’ order sets.

The American Psychiatric Association’s increasing dependence on evidenced-based science means that it will also be able to more meaningfully assess the marginal philosophies that pop up in every profession. “Attenuated Psychosis Syndrome,” for example is a controversial diagnosis that has been excluded from DSM 5 because of its lack of evidence-based support. The diagnosis was meant to identify potentially psychotic patients at an early age, but because of its overdependence on hallucinations as a symptom, it threatened to erroneously diagnose the 70 to 80 percent of people who experience hallucinations but otherwise fail to fit the diagnosis of psychosis. Benedict Carey of the New York Times reports on this theme in this month’s article, “Psychiatry Manual Drafters Back Down on Diagnoses,” as does Jennifer Kahn in, “Can You Call a Nine year-old a Psychopath?” – also in the New York Times. Physicians like Allen Frances, former Duke University psychiatry department chairman and head of the task force that published DSM IV say that the endless scientific information at our fingertips not only mandates the recent evidence-based left turn of the American Psychiatric Association, but also justifies removing psychiatrists from their “first among equals” status in the mental health community.

In that vein, Dr. Steven Hyman, the former head of the National Institutes of Mental Health and the present Director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, gave a plenary speech about the strengths, limitations and mistakes of past DSM editions. In the latter role, he is helping to design the new Research Domain Criteria (RDOC). RDOC will be a DSM specifically for research, interpreting illness from a biological perspective instead of clinical. Dr. Hyman also points out the need for a Research Diagnostic Criteria (RDC) to round out a system of three complementary nosologies. Specifically:

  • RDC (Research Diagnostic Criteria): A resource compiled from clinical research
  • RDOC (Research Domain Criteria): A resource compiled from biological research.
  • DSM 5: A resource compiled from clinical, biological, professional, social and economic research. This resource would be used in the day-to-day practice of medicine and business of medicine, for example by the heath practitioner and Health Maintenance Organization.

Considering the landmark decisions that the APA made while here, I guess I should tolerate, even appreciate their science-tourism of my city. Indeed, we were a part of history. The part where the American Psychiatric Association began thinking more like brain scientists, throwing out unsupported theories, and appreciating the biopsychosocial elements of mental health.

Tony Brown is a former U.S. Army (Reserve) Medical Officer, and currently completing his studies as an M.D./PhD/MBA candidate, with a research thesis titled, “Radiological Identification of the Neurological Correlate of Consciousness.”

Photo Credit:  examiner.com

Say it Ain’t So, Rose

In Jots on May 25, 2012 at 8:44 pm

Last Monday, Charlie Rose hosted a discussion of the recent $2 billion (or $4 billion, depending on who you talk to) loss by one of JP Morgan’s divisions, in a risky investment still shrouded in mystery nearly two weeks later.  Gillian Tett of the Financial Times and Steve Rattner, former Counselor to the Treasury Secretary weighed in on Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon’s hesitation in revealing all the facts surrounding the failed investment.  Rattner’s apologetics were not surprising.  He kept asserting Dimon’s need to put his company’s interests first.  Dimon sharing too much information might hurt other investments and general investor confidence in JP Morgan.  Neither Tett, nor Rose, suggested Rattner’s defense smelled of the deceits of old-time confidence men.  Tett recently wrote a book in which Dimon played a central role, and Rose made sure to disclose his own personal relationship with the CEO.

Rattner also kept reiterating the implications of his own friendship with Dimon.  Viewers might appreciate these disclosures, but one must still ask why Charlie Rose cavorts with high-profile bankers.  On Friday, on Washington Week, Gwen Ifill discussed Dimon’s fall from the good graces of President Obama.  Now Dimon may serve as a poster boy for the ills of insufficient regulation, repeating a lesson we all should’ve learned four years ago when Dimon was weathering the storm of the financial crisis and sitting comfortably in his role as Obama’s favorite banker.  Is Dimon still Charlie Rose’s favorite banker?

-Michael Buozis

The Oldmanboychild

In Reviews on May 24, 2012 at 9:41 pm

by Michael Buozis

The year is 1980.

Sam Weir brings Cindy Sanders to the local movie theater to see Steve Martin in The Jerk.  Sam is a geeky freshman at William McKinley High School in Chippewa, Michigan.  Cindy Sanders is not a geek.  She is a member of the school’s cheerleading squad.  When Sam gives Cindy an heirloom necklace, she takes it reluctantly and refuses to wear it because it’s old and Sam didn’t spend any money on it.  Sam, arguably the least geeky of his friends, ditches his old crew of geeks to hang out with Cindy’s vapid, but more popular group.

Cindy is a young republican.

“Poor people shouldn’t get handouts.  They should get jobs.”

Sam grimaces.

All of this would be acceptable to Sam.  But it’s not, because Cindy does not laugh for a moment during The Jerk.

He hates these cans.  Stay away from these cans.

Sam says, “Isn’t this great?”

Cindy looks around the theater, perplexed by the laughter of the audience.

“Yeah.  I guess so.”

“You want some popcorn or something?”

“Will popcorn make this movie funnier?”

“You don’t think this movie’s funny?”

“I think it’s stupid.  I mean, come on, how old is this guy?  He’s got grey hair and he’s running around like a five-year-old.”

Cindy gets an idea.

“Sam?”

“Yeah?”

Cindy leans over into Sam’s seat and kisses his neck.  This is, by far, the furthest Sam has ever gotten with a girl.  Cindy is the crush of his young life.  But he is repulsed by her touch.  How could anyone say such things about Steve Martin?

The scene appears in an episode of Freaks and Geeks, called “The Little Things” co-written by producer Judd Apatow.  You all know Judd Apatow.  But don’t judge this little-seen television show by his later work.  Freaks and Geeks has none of the obscenity of Superbad, and resists the sappy sentiment of Knocked Up and the tedium of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Funny People.  The characters are the creation of Paul Feig of Bridesmaids fame, but the naturalistic affect and balance between understated comedy and realistic drama is more akin to Greg Mottola’s excellent 2009 film Adventureland, featuring Jesse Eisenberg as a recent college graduate stuck in suburban Pittsburgh working amusement park rides for a summer job.  In fact, Freaks and Geeks resembles the latter movie more than any of the other work of the show’s creator and executive producer.

But this review is not about Freaks and Geeks.  I just can’t help plugging this underappreciated show any time it comes up.  The Complete Series is the kind of DVD set you immediately pass around to your friends when you learn they’ve never seen the show.  Do people even buy DVDs anymore?

In the immortal words of Rob Gordon in High Fidelity, “…what really matters is what you like, not what you are like… Books, records, films — these things matter. Call me shallow but it’s the fucking truth, and by this measure I was having one of the best dates of my life.”

And by this measure, Sam Weir rightfully dumps Cindy Sanders.

“He’s got grey hair and he’s running around like a five-year-old.”

These words, used by Cindy to ridicule The Jerk, perfectly summarize Steve Martin’s powers of humor.  Martin has always been an oldmanboychild.  From his first appearance on SNL in the mid-70s to his underwhelming latter-day role as Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther movies, Martin has practiced a brand of inoffensive, silly humor with an inexplicable tinge of knowing sophistication.

Martin continues this tradition in his new book, The Ten, Make That Nine, Habits of Very Organized People. Make That Ten.

“I can’t believe he got paid for a book of his tweets.”  My wife said this.  She’s walking on thin ice.  Just kidding.

Only a sampling of said tweets can give one any idea of Martin’s microblogging humor.  It’s dad humor, to be sure, but slightly cool, slightly ironic dad humor.

“(Attempting to class-up Tweets) I think it was Oscar Wilde who said, ‘Is it gay in here or is it just me?'”

“Conversed with shrink about followers being funnier than me.  He really made me laugh.  Shrink funnier than I am.”

“At 6pm PST, starting overnight caviar on toast-points fast, giving up capers and diced hard-boiled egg yolk condiments.”

“Bin Laden porn videos included ‘I Can See Your Nose,’ and ‘Is That a Toe I see.’”

Sometimes the responses from Martin’s followers are funnier than his original tweets.

Martin:  Rare Bird Alert #3 on Amazon!  I’m as happy as a clam.  Wait.  Are clams really happy?

@gropious3:  The chilling sound of clam-laughter has caused many fishermen to quit the sea.

Martin:  Out on the town today.  I tried to tweet but couldn’t find a tweet booth.  Maybe they’re a thing of the past.

@Heidi_vonM:  And then when you find a tweet booth you know it’s probably gonna be broken and smell like pee inside :/

Albeit, none of these lines are mind-bogglingly funny, and many of them lose the element of surprise of a continuous twitter feed which they rely on for full effect.  But that might be the point.  Steve Martin, a 66-year-old comedian who has ventured recently into old-timey banjo records and literary novels and screenplays is the only major comedian of his or many subsequent generations to fully capitalize on and explore the comedic possibilities of 140 characters.

In his introduction to The Ten, Make That Nine, Habits of Very Organized People. Make That Ten., Martin writes, “I started tweeting for purely commercial reasons.  I realized that when I did a television show to promote a book or record, and that television show had an audience of, say, four million people, about four hundred of them rushed out to buy the book or record.  I figured if I had a Twitter audience of four hundred thousand – an audience that was tuned into me – and I promoted a book, then four hundred thousand of them would rush out and buy my book.  Instead, forty of them rushed out to buy my book.

“All this tweet material turned out to be good for one thing only: tweeting.”

Martin has made another royal waste of time, under the ruse of new technology, a little bit more bearable.

Discussed in this essay:

The Ten, Make That Nine, Habits of Very Organized People. Make That Ten., by Steve Martin. Grand Central Publishing. 2012. 105 pages. $16.

Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series.  Shout Factory. 2004. 6 Discs. $70.

Notes from Shale Country: May 21, 2012

In Jots on May 21, 2012 at 5:44 pm

The Park Slope Food Cooperative, in my old neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, is threatening to boycott all agricultural products grown and produced in areas of upstate New York where fracking, a controversial new form of natural gas drilling, occurs.

Armstrong Environmental Services in East Lampeter, Lancaster County (the agricultural region where the produce and dairy cooperative my family currently uses is based), has been treating waste water from fracking since 2011.  According to Charlotte Katzenmoyer, Director of Public Works for the City of Lancaster, “It’s waste that has a lot of toxins and chemicals that are not normally seen in sanitary waste. We want to make sure that the river we’re discharging to is not being harmed by something we can’t treat.  I mean we’re not equipped to handle that type of waste.”  How reassuring.

New York state, for its part, is watching Pennsylvania learn the ins and outs of the environmental impact of insufficiently regulated fracking in the north central part of the state.  The number of environmental accidents compared with the number of wells drilled is down to 26.5% from 58.2% four years ago.  25 of those accidents are considered major events.  New York state will have lots of material to study.

So will Geisinger Health Systems whose Weis Center for Research in Danville is looking into using a massive cache of health information collected from 2.6 million patients from 44 counties.  By comparing health statistics from the same populations pre-fracking and post-fracking, clinical studies can help identify negative health effects, whereas the fracking industry’s proprietary chemicals, which are pumped into the Marcellus Shale are not available for public scrutiny.

Today in Lyndora, members of Marcellus Outreach Butler planned to demonstrate outside of State Representative Brian Ellis’s office.  The protesters planned to wear tyvek suits and bring Ellis water from the Woodlands neighborhood in Connoquenessing Township where residents fear fracking has contaminated drinking water.  Rex Energy, the company responsible for drilling in the area, denied that any proof of contamination has been found.  According to Jessica Sinichak of cranberry.patch.com, “The Rex Energy report also indicated older oil wells in the region—possibly with deteriorated casing and antiquated drilling fluid management around the wellheads—might have affected the groundwater quality.”  If it’s dirty, don’t blame Rex.

-Michael Buozis

Photo Credit:  nyshalegasnow.blogspot.com

Anarchoterroristhipsters

In Jots on May 18, 2012 at 8:38 pm

The Occupy protests in Philadelphia and other cities across the country have welcomed people of many political persuasions to join their encampments and activities, since the movement’s birth in the fall of 2011.  Cindy Milstein, a controversial anarchist activist held Anarchism 101 teach-ins at Dilworth Plaza and facilitated the “People’s Foreclosure” of Wells Fargo at 17th and Market Streets.  In Seattle, anarchists smashed store windows and committed other acts of vandalism to disrupt an otherwise peaceful May Day protest.

Early this month, a group of five anarchist members of Occupy Cleveland were arrested and charged with plotting to blow up a bridge in Ohio.  In the Huffington Post, Thomas J. Sheeran and Andrew Welsh-Huggins, wrote, “Occupy protesters must ask serious questions about their open-arms policy” in light of this development.  The Occupy groups must also take heed of the manner in which these five men were apprehended.  An FBI informant, reportedly an ex-con, according to Sheeran and Welsh-Huggins “played an active role in the plot” and the anarchists “bought the explosives – actually fake – from an undercover employee.”  While this description might not qualify as entrapment, I’m sure the full story of this plot will be long in coming to light, and it leads me to wonder if the FBI is turning garden-variety vandals into terrorists or just misguided felons.

-Michael Buozis

An American Masterpiece of the Saddest, Crappiest Kind (Mostly)

In Reviews on May 17, 2012 at 5:27 pm

by Michael Buozis

Darius, Ritter, Bub and Pee Wee, a crew of evangelical Christians who make sure everyone knows they’re from West Virginia at the annual Creation festival of Christian Rock in rural Pennsylvania, fry up frog legs and hear the low growl of a mountain lion in the night.  Pee Wee brings a couple of pretty Jewish girls, Jews for Jesus they must be, to the campfire one night and the girls tell the older guys, all in their twenties except for Pee Wee, they’re going to hell for getting tattooed and eating water-dwelling creatures that don’t have fins.  Darius plays keyboard like a virtuoso, like the little kid in Deliverance played the banjo.  He’s a savant, maybe.  They all work construction, and beyond being from West Virginia, they want the world to know they love God, or they love Jesus.  Both, if the world can stand to know three things about them.  Or is that still just two?

Worth Sullivan, singer of the band The Moviegoers, gets shocked when his lip touches a microphone which is hooked up to an old solid state amplifier.  The rubber soles of his Chuck Taylors do not protect him from making a conductive connection.  His left hand touches the strings and frets of his black telecaster.  A metal cross singes into his palm, a stigmata.  His younger brother records the strange things Worth says while recovering from the shock-induced coma.

“I am not…repulsed…by man-to-man love.  But I’m not into it.”

“Mom, meet Dad; Dad, meet Dixie Jean.”

“Check this out – I’ve got the Andrews Sisters in my milkshake.”

The Miz and Coral and Melissa, members of a Real World cast from ten years ago, appear as celebrity guests at venues across a dreary national university town club scene, getting drunk beyond belief, all of the time.  They talk like they’re still on the show, making profound statements about the difference between reality television and reality.

Quoth the Miz, now a no-neck professional wrestler, “I have a lot of knowledge to share.”

When Axl Rose was eighteen, he smacked a young boy’s mother because she was trying to defend her son from another boy whose concrete-obsessed father had instilled in him a vile hatred of tire scuffs on pavement.  Dana Gregory, that concrete-obsessed father’s son, keeps a scrap of paper in his wallet with lyrics from “Estranged” off the Use Your Illusion II record.

“But everything I’ve ever known’s here.

“I never wanted it to die.”

Michael Jackson named both of his sons Prince after an enslaved ancestor named Prince Screws.  After the Civil War, Screws became a tenant farmer on his old master’s land in Alabama.  Two generations later, Prince Screws III gave birth to Kattie Screws, who in turn had ten children to Joseph Walter Jackson.  The rest is well known.

I’ll be completely honest.  I don’t give a damn about any of these people.  They are not people I need to know about.  The knuckleheads at the Christian Rock festival might, in and of themselves, offer some anthropological interest.  But the rest of these characters are the fodder of tabloids, or worse yet, hometown high school gossip.  I’d never pick up a book chock full of essays about them, but somehow John Jeremiah Sullivan turns each of his subjects, in his recent book Pulphead, into a sharp observation of humanity without the harsh judgments of typical polemical commentary.

Sullivan’s trip to Creation shows the bittersweet conflict between the allure of illogical fellowship and rational, honest thought.  His love of the band of West Virginians shows a great tenderness, unexpected from a liberal culture fanatic.  The particulars of Sullivan’s brother’s neurological recovery are sweetly humorous and so much different from most drudging hospital stories.  Though tinged with irony, Sullivan writes with such convincing enthusiasm about The Real World, his interest in the drama and entertainment value of it trumps the sociological analysis that could be made.  A respectful, though not reverential, appreciation of Michael Jackson may not have seemed essential before Sullivan wrote it, but suddenly, it is.  The sadness surrounding Axl Rose’s past, brings up not only the sad failings of Sullivan’s own working class past, but the stark emptiness of small towns everywhere.

Sullivan also writes about people I have a prior interest in reading of, namely Andrew Lytle, the longest-lived of the Southern Agrarians (think Robert Penn Warren) and an influential editor of the Sewanee Review, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque a noted and eccentric botanist and polyglot of early-19th century America, and Geeshie Wiley, a pre-war female blues singer, whose six extant records include three of the most chilling American tunes I’ve ever heard.  Sullivan explores the aftermath of Katrina and the surging Brueghelian chaos of a Tea Party rally.  He visits the unnamed caves of Tennessee to see ancient paintings and footprints, asks Bunny Wailer about one little obscure note in one little obscure song, and invents a paranoid scientist to link a string of news reports about unprovoked animals attacking humans.

These topics have inherent value, and sometimes Sullivan’s bravura voice and personality get in the way of his telling.  His presence is overwhelming in most of his essays, so much so that his subjects merely frame his own creativity.  This is fine when his subjects are disposable, but when they have gravity it just gets in the way.

Still, Sullivan’s honesty shines forth in his telling of his relationship with Andrew Lytle.  The affection bleeds into spurned homosexual advances and a demented devotion to literature as art.  While the telling detail is always forthcoming in Sullivan’s essays, the self-important melodrama is unnecessary.  In “At a Shelter (After Katrina)” he describes a giant sea tortoise swimming through a woman’s kitchen, but this striking image is weakened by his tedious focus on a personal quarrel in a traffic jam.  Never sacrificing the human elements of a person wholly, Sullivan’s grasp of the grotesque Right, the Tea Party, southern bigots, and insurance company lobbyists, is deep and rich.  The history of Rafinesque is only tangentially related to Sullivan personally, but somehow he twists everyone back into a dear old friend, a conduit into the core of him and all of his readers.  In his exploration of Tennessee’s unnamed caves, Sullivan creates a new frontier of undiscovered worlds, in a world saturated with development, mapped from top to bottom.

Sullivan manages to make a long, possibly tedious search for some garbled lyrics on an old blues 78 into a journey into the past and an appreciation of an American art form.  He wipes the dust from history and makes it look brand new.  He also manages to endear himself to the outsider in all of us.  Unlike another of our great essayists, Christopher Hitchens, Sullivan is not interested in educating his readers.  He wants to entertain us.  He’s one of the kids you hung out with in high school, only a lot funnier.  In his Real World essay, “Getting Down to What is Really Real,” he leaves a club early, to avoid another night of debauchery with the Miz and Coral.  He’s struck, when the Miz smiles at him from across the room, by how friendly these fake people are.

“In that moment, I found it awfully hard to think anything bad about the Miz.  Remember your senior year in college, what that was like?  Partying was the only thing you had to worry about, and when you went out, you could feel people thinking you were cool.  The whole idea of being a young American seemed fun.  Remember that?  Me neither.  But the Miz remembers.  He figured out a way never to leave that place.

“Bless him, bros.”

Bless John Jeremiah Sullivan, too.  He’s more of a bro than he knows.

Discussed in this essay:

Pulphead, by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2011. 365 pages. $16.

The Black Slick Spreading on the Sea

In Jots on May 14, 2012 at 5:31 pm

Earlier this month, Steve Coll sat with Charlie Rose to discuss his new book, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power.  Coll mentioned an interesting anecdote about John Brown, Chairman of British Petroleum during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.  Brown, already in Alaska for B.P. business, chartered a helicopter to fly over the Prince William Sound so he could view the devastation caused by his competitor’s carelessness.  In a memoir, published only in Britain in 2010, Brown wrote “I flew over and I saw the black slick spreading on the sea and I thought about all of the whales and all of the wildlife that would be damaged and I thought to myself, ‘There’s now one corporation in the world that will be the most hated and that’s ExxonMobil.”  Talk about schadenfreude.

Six weeks after the book came out, you’ll remember, Deepwater Horizon blew out, exploded and sank, leaving a gushing well that would release nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

-Michael Buozis

Photo Credit: noaa.gov

Ten Words for Two Billion

In Reviews on May 11, 2012 at 9:31 pm

by Michael Buozis

I must make a disclaimer.  I am out of my depth.  I know very little of China.  The people.  The politics.  The economy.  The history.  I have only the most cursory knowledge of any of it.  I know Mao.  Or at least I know that no one seems to agree whether he should be on the same historical shelf as Hitler and Stalin or Marx and Trotsky.  (Hopefully those distinctions are meaningful for all.)

I’ve met some of the emigrants, chatted with them about how uncomfortable they are with their children’s fascination with Japanese cultural and disregard for their own heritage.  I’ve seen the blind dissident, Chen Guangcheng, capture the world’s attention and make the top U.S. diplomat, one Hilary Clinton, squirm in her seat.  I’ve read rumblings in the Western media about the plight of the Uyghers.  I’ve heard the faintest murmurs about Deng Xiaopeng’s facilitation of modern Chinese economics.  I know the murkiest generalizations about the geography of China’s eastern seaboard, but almost nothing about the rest of the massive country.  I know the Chinese speak many dialects, some mutually unintelligible, and not in the way I find the speech of someone from Alabama unintelligible.  I know the economists don’t agree on whether to fear China or to embrace its tremendous growth.  I know the U.S. military, or at least those in the Pentagon, assume the 21st century will be filled with conflict, however contained and diplomatic, in the Asian theater.

I’m missing a few things.  But you get the idea.  My knowledge of China is superficial.  It amounts to a fraction of the whisper the Chinese political machine allows to escape its borders, which in turn is the result of a censorship surely unparalleled in human history, in scope and breadth.  The roar of expression must be deafening, but we only hear half of the official version of Bo Xilai’s ouster.  He plotted three ways to kill a police chief to protect his wife from prosecution for the murder of a British businessman.  Though the politburo used this convenient controversy to end the career of Bo, who they thought was too charismatic, too Western, the police chief will surely be convicted of treason, a worse crime than murder or collusion.  What of this, if anything, do we believe?

A discussion of China deserves many more than ten words, but Yu Hua uses this as a conceit to organize essays about his homeland in his recent book China in Ten Words.  Each of those ten words – People, Leader, Reading, Writing, Lu Xun, Revolution, Disparity, Grassroots, Copycat, and Bamboozle – serve as jumping-off points for Yu to tell stories, mostly of growing up in China.  Yu’s China is a country where one’s relationship with the state is in many ways more central to life than one’s relationship with family, friends and community.  For most of Yu’s life, in China, nothing was more important than revolution.  Expressions of revolt, however contrived in the framework of the Communist Party or State Capitalism, were the prime mover of all social interactions.

Maybe this is still so.  I wouldn’t know.

In “People,” Yu makes evident the insular nature of China.  None but the most major figures are commonly known outside of the country.  We know Mao, Deng, Zhou.  But who’s heard of Zhao Ziyang?  To be fair, I should not endow my ignorance to all Westerners.  Maybe most Americans over a certain age would have at least some familiarity with the name?  For some reason, I’m doubtful.

In the 1960s Zhao Ziyang was the Secretary of the Communist Party in Guangdong, a promising popular voice of moderation in a time of great change in China known as the Cultural Revolution.  Because of his moderate views, the Red Guards, a reactionary youth movement, removed him from power, parading him through Guangdong in a dunce cap, denounced as “a stinking remnant of the landlord class.”

In the 1970s, Premier Zhou Enlai helped bring Zhao Ziyang back into the political fold.  His market reforms in Sichuan province helped heal the desperate wounds created by the Great Leap Forward.  He became a popular, successful leader, engendering a laudatory folk-saying, “If you want to eat, look for Ziyang.”

While serving as General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1989, his voice was conciliatory with the protestors, whom hard-liners labeled as counterrevolutionaries.  Here are some of his words, spoken through a bullhorn to a group of protestors on Tiananmen Square.  This would be his last public appearance, sixteen years before his death.

“Students, we came too late. We are sorry. You talk about us, criticize us, it is all necessary. The reason that I came here is not to ask for your forgiveness. What I want to say is that you are all getting weak, it has been seven days since you went on a hunger strike, you can’t continue like this. As time goes on, your body will be damaged beyond repair, it could be very life-threatening. Now the most important thing is to end this strike. I know, your hunger strike is to hope that the Party and the government will give you a satisfying answer. I feel that our communication is open. Some of these problems can only be solved through certain procedures. For example, you have mentioned about the nature of the incident, the question of responsibility; I feel that those problems can be resolved eventually. We can reach a mutual agreement in the end. However, you should also know that the situation is very complicated. It is going to be a long process. You can’t continue the hunger strike longer than seven days, and still insist on receiving a satisfying answer before ending the hunger strike.”

These are not the words of China’s government today.  The democratic reforms and dialogues opened by Zhou were swept under the table, with the man himself.  State Capitalism is not democracy.  Copycat smart phones are not democracy.

Or are they?

Yu is not as much of a dissident as we might like.  After all, his books, though appreciated abroad, are also published and celebrated in China.  If he were too critical of the current state of things, his voice might not be heard at all.

The worship of Mao and the way he enters the personal lives of everyone in China is a supreme example of the cult of personality, and completely unimaginable in the contemporary United States and most of the rest of the world.  Perhaps at some point in the past, every American lived with the personalities and wisdom of the specters of the Founding Fathers, but I doubt this relationship ever took the same precedence as the relationship every person in China assumes with the words and image of Mao.  Yu suggests this too may pass, but he never pretends to identify a breaking point where political insularity tips into democratic freedom through the avenue of market expression.

Yu observes China as a massive cultural experiment, where ideas can be tested on the grandest of scales.  The culturally deprived, which was everyone before the Cultural Revolution, actually starved for culture.  So, when books became available, everyone waited in line to get them, just as they would do for food or any other necessity.  In a way, all people in China had to create fictions about themselves, defensive Big Character Posters, which helped them publically save face, a game of socialist facades.

I question Yu’s integrity, given his flattering essay of the national writer of pre-Cultural Revolution China, Lu Xun, whose works were the only literature available other than Chairman Mao’s quotes and poetry.  How could his work be other than compromised by censorship?

Still, Yu is able to give an intimate picture of life in China.  Most of his portrayals are honest and complex.  The line between acceptable, encouraged rebellion and treason, capitalist-sympathizing is imperceptible and amounts to a mere trick of presentation and attitude.  Though the second richest country in the world, China is only the one-hundredth richest when considered per capita, showing a huge disparity between the State Economy’s beneficiaries and those left behind.  The idea of the “grassroots” people finding money and power in the smallest opening of a marketplace is a strange, skewed version of America’s own Horatio Alger story, the “rags-to-riches” tale which inevitably leads back to rags.  The Chinese people have found their own unique types of freedom, in the entrepreneurial copycat spirit of commerce and co-opting things that are controlled by the state, on a smaller, more personal level.

At the same time, Yu plays into certain stereotypes of modern China.  The theme of powerless people pulling one over on the system or anyone in power runs through these essays, as if it must be an important part of Chinese life.

The narratives here are, on the surface, mostly quaint.  Schoolchildren lampoon their teachers.  Real estate agents bamboozle the media.  Young Yu extracts the slightest bit of erotica from political propaganda.  Yu Hua paints a vivid portrait of his home in China in Ten Words, but many of the blemishes we expect have been corrected and censored, so the picture cannot be taken for reality.

Discussed in this essay:

China in Ten Words, by Yu Hua. Translated by Allan H. Barr. Pantheon Books. 2011. 225 pages. $26.

Crying All the Way to the Grave

In Jots on May 10, 2012 at 8:46 pm

On Tuesday morning I brought my daughter to the Roxborough Library for Toddler Story Time.  The storyteller, the energetic children’s librarian, shared some sad news.  “Maurice Sendak died this morning.  He was 83.  He had a stroke.  So today we’ll be reading some of his books.  I read these to my children when they were little, and some of your grandparents read them to your moms and dads when they were your age.”  She pointed to a table where many of Sendak’s books stood on their opened spines. Whether or not this is the best way to talk about death with a large group of children under five years old, frankly and matter-of-factly, I was heartened by the response of the kids.  They sat quietly and listened to Where the Wild Things Are and Pierre (A Cautionary Tale), shouting out in a chorus of “I don’t care” when the librarian gestured to them.

As an adult, I appreciate Sendak’s pictures more than I ever did as a child.  But I’m really interested in how he lived and how he died.  Sendak was an avowed atheist.  Last September, in the last of a string of conversations with WHYY’s Terry Gross that lasted almost thirty years, Sendak speaks of his full life, the joy he has taken in being an artist, being a gay man, reading books.  His voice cracks when he speaks of friends who have died.  He has, at this point, outlived a lot of people.  But he never seeks the emotional oblivion and anesthetic of faith or religion.   “Since I don’t believe in another world, when they die, they’re out of my life.  They’re gone.  Forever.”  He embraces the pain, cries all the way to the grave, loving those who’ve gone before him and those who will come after.  “I am in love with the world.”  This is not enough comfort for all, but for some of us, it is everything.

Listen to a compilation of Gross’s conversations with Sendak here.

-Michael Buozis

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