Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Åsne Seierstad: One of Us

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In June of this year I went to a talk at the Berkeley Book Festival about the "Roots of Violence." I went because Mac McMclelland was speaking and Adam Hochschild was moderating. The panel discussion was mediocre but one of the panelists,  Åsne Seierstad, was amazing. She framed her talk in the context of #blacklivesmatter, though her story had little to do with the current upheaval. She told the story of the 2011 mass shooting in Norway and how Anders Behring Breivk, the shooter, was captured alive. Not only that, but Norway doesn't have the death penalty: Breivk will die a natural death and possibly be free after the maximum sentence of 22 years. (It turns out the sentence can be renewed, but I didn't know that until reading her book.)

As I left the book talk and looked at twitter, like I do, my feed was blowing up with the story about an officer involved shooting: the Oakland Police Department had shot a man in his car near an offramp by Lake Merritt. As of this moment, it's still not clear why this happened: the man appears to have been passed out, whether due to drugs or sleep, with a gun in the passenger seat. Whether there was an alternate way of safely disarming him or not, the point Seierstad had made was clear: in Norway, a maniacal, homicidal, fanatical man who had killed approximately 80 people was captured alive and given his day in court. In Oakland, a man who had not killed anyone was shot and killed. I had a hard time breathing.

I was eager to read "One of Us" and was not disappointed. The book is fast-paced and hard to put down. There were a couple spots where I felt some discrepancies between the book and the talk, but if you missed the talk, you won't notice these. I was surprised as I felt the talk exaggerated slightly the amazingness of the Norwegian response to Breivk. It's possible that he was captured alive not due to the well-meaningness of the Norwegian police but rather, due to their ineptitude. During the talk, it sounded like Breivk's mother was a psychotic woman who really broke her kid. In the book, it sounds more like he may have been what they now call "on the spectrum," and that mom was emotionally brittle and, by the time of Breivk's terrorist attack, totally off her rocker. In all, the story is a devastating portrait of a man's sad trajectory from poorly performing to fanatically murderous. "One of Us" shows how even the most perfect places can be torn apart by this type of madness.

Monday, September 14, 2015

So Sayeth The Queen

These two books have exactly nothing to do with each except that I just read them both. At least the books on The Shelf were related by proximity- I can't even pretend that. I mean, I guess they were both in the Berkeley Public Library, along with a bajillion other books. But mostly, I just read them both, and I need to return them both, so I'll write about them both. I'm also going to make a VERY tenuous connection: they both discuss very beautiful women. It's my blog, I'll do what I wanna.

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I didn't know this but Gwyneth Paltrow apparently gives lots of health and beauty advice. You probably did, especially if you're a woman, but I'm not shy- I'm one of the most out of it girls around. I recently, in fact, had my first DIY adventure and applied coconut oil to my skin. It felt fantastic, and, although I think I read this book while I was trying this experiment, I'd probably say that it helped. I also know that it most likely didn't, and I can say with 100% certainty that rolling around in the sand cured my skin bumps and that the exfoliating scrub I made with the coconut oil and sand has not stopped the skin bumps from coming back. I can also say that I continue to try, even with evidence aplenty that it's not working.

Duh, Timothy Caulfield writes. Why, Timothy Caulfield asks? Why do we (especially women) listen to celebrities (I just listened to what other people suggested, probably celebrities) and buy/try/do crazy things? Why won't we listen to science, even when we know we're doing the wrong/useless/foolish/overpriced thing? "Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?" is Caulfield's attempt to answer this question. His answer, unsurprisingly, is basically, yes. He tries her advice and anecdotally, it doesn't work. He also looks at the science behind it, and disproves it. He talks to experts, who without fail roll their eyes. Here's one expert when asked about Gwyneth's very popular master cleanse: "By considering weight as a chronic condition [themacinator notes, for context: not being OVERweight, just having a weight], and lifestyle changes as its treatment,... you can never abandon the treatment or the weight will return." Caulfield continues: "If the maintenance of weight loss is your goal, you'd better like your 'treatment.'" Ultimately, no one is going to live on the ingredients of Gwyneth's cleanse (lemon juice and cayenne) forever- so the weight is going to come back. This is just one of many many examples.

The problem is, our time and society tells us to be young and "healthy" (read: skinny). "Popular culture is completely drenched in images of young, thin women. In many ways, the dominant image of modern popular culture is young, thin women." (I would add young, thin, white women, but Caulfield never really deals with race- one major flaw of his book.) With social media, we feel extra close to "our" celebrities, and we have also developed into a society with even more (if it's possible) focus on what can be shared in a two dimensional selfie: we are all on all the time. (I have some hilariously awful stories about my most recent trip to Hawaii and girls posing basically everywhere for selfies. I just wanted to tell them to chillax and enjoy the ocean. I tested it out by taking a selfie- my first. It felt Very Very awkward.) Worse, we compare upward and find ourselves (and everyone else) lacking: "Popular culture acts like a cruel, constantly operating dissatisfaction machine."

Caulfield also discusses how important celebrity has become in our culture, and what an outsized, improbable role it plays for us. Basically, you're never going to be a celebrity- you're just not going to make it in sports, music, fashion, whatever. It's not going to happen. But the numbers are scary: When I was growing up (and before, obviously) 25 years ago, here are the top five career goals for grade school kids: "teacher, banker, doctor, scientist and vet." Now? "Sports star, pop star, actor, astronaut, and lawyer." Another study found that more than half of 16 year olds had "fame" as their career goal. What does that even mean? What do you want to be when you grow up? Famous. FAMOUS? There are so many problems with this, not least, that statistically, you're not going to make it. How sad to have this ambition that is Never Going To Happen. Further, how bad for the psyche to think you can do it, when statistically, you just can't. Even worse, the ambition is something that can't happen with hard work- I can be a vet if I want to go back to school and work hard (not going to). But I can't be a model or an athlete, no matter what. My genetics won't let me, and models and athletes are models and athletes because of a fantastic combination of genetics and good fortune. People who make it, and many more people who don't, sacrifice time and money and time and money that they could be putting in on real, likely careers.

This is a good book. It's a depressing book, and written in a funny, humorous, readable way (which can sometimes get annoying). Most people won't believe what Caulfield is saying, which I think he knows. Those of us who do believe him, probably already believed him, which, again, I think he knows. But with all the emphasis on celebrity in our lives, the work is important.

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Then I read my next Dumas book. Unlike the other books that I've read by Dumas (there are 300, if I read them all, I won't blog them all, I promise), Queen Margot is a saga- the story of some French kings and, of course, Queen Margot of Navarre. I kind of loved Margot- a hilarious, strong female character with a strong, silly female best friend. Margot and her husband, Henri, the King of Navarre have an understanding: they can each have their own love (and sex) interests, but stay together in ambition, even when that means conniving against her (pretty atrocious) family. I loved sagas as a kid- this one wasn't the best ever, but, originally published in the mid 1800s, it was a lovely period piece of the 1500s. Ride in a litter, anyone?

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Eula Biss: On Immunity

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Eula Biss has written a beautiful small book about the currently hot topic of vaccines without actually writing about current events. Instead, she takes a broad view, as her title says, and looks at immunity- what is behind the new fear of vaccinations? What is behind vaccinations and the concept of immunity? This isn't just a medical book, though, it also deals with literature and Biss's personal narrative as a mother and a scholar. "On Immunity" is an odd book, for sure, but a beautiful and thought provoking one.

At the outset of the book, when Biss is first placing her journey to understand the questions of inoculations and immunity in context, she discusses the idea of trust. At the time of writing, trust in the government was (is) at a low due to ongoing ludicrous wars and corporations seem no better: foreclosures and layoffs were (are) at all time highs. Biss was repeatedly urged to trust herself as a mother and to have "consumer confidence." She was disturbed by the constant refrain among other new mothers; the "worldview they suggested: nobody can be trusted." She contrasts this to her thoughts about trust: "Even now," she writes, "years after my son's birth, I remain interested in the precise meaning of trust, particularly in legal and financial terms. A trust- in the sense of a valuable asset placed in the care of someone to whom it does not ultimately belong- captures, more or less, my understanding of what it is to have a child." What does it mean to be a mother, to have the trust of bringing someone into the world placed upon one of us, but not be able to trust anyone else? Further, do we have responsibilities to others undertaking this process? Or are we only concerned about our own bodies, our own children, when we're talking thinking about who to trust?

Biss makes an important historical comparison: Debates over vaccination are often couched in the language of slavery and are discussion of power. I recently walked by a protest outside of Berkeley City Hall where a small group of white people was protesting with signs about the Tyranny of Mandatory Vaccination. Historically, this has also been the case: in the 1850s, anti-vaccinators drew on the "political, emotive, or rhetorical value of the slave, of the colonized African." But when push came to shove, this constituency was really concerned with white English citizens. Are modern anti-vaccinators now truly concerned with the concept of tyranny? Do they worry about dictatorships or slavery? Are they also concerned about the dangers that they, unvaccinated, pose to others? As Biss puts it, "It might be just as meaningful now for the rest of us to accept that we are not purely vulnerable. The middle class may be 'threatened,' but we are still, just by virtue of having bodies, dangerous. Even the little bodies of children, which our time encourages us to imagine as absolutely vulnerable, are dangerous in their ability to spread disease." She describes an unvaccinated child who spread measles to 11 other children, 3 of whom were infants too young to be vaccinated. Whether we want to admit it or not, our bodies are not merely innocent receptacles under the yoke of a terrible, untrustworthy government.
This is a radical inversion of the historical application of vaccination, which was once just another form of bodily servitude extracted from the poor for the benefit of the privileged. There is some truth, now, to the idea that public health is not strictly for people like me, but it is through us, literally, through our bodies, that certain public health measures are enacted.
If we are going to put trust in things, it means imagining ourselves as part of the larger whole. It means that our bodies aren't independent beings; Biss's sister points out that independence is an illusion. It is a distinct disconnect how down-to-earth communities like Berkeley with such understandings of the relationships between all living things, of ecosystems, of the necessity of recycling and have such a disconnect about the fact that we, as human beings, need to work together as embodied beings towards public health.

There's a lot of great stuff in here- I could go on. Without getting hysterical (and in fact, while getting poetic), Biss refutes arguments that you might not even know are arguments against vaccinating. Did you know that people really think that medical companies are getting rich on vaccinations? They're not. There is also a TON of misinformation about a) what's in vaccines and b) if it's really bad for you. People in places like Berkeley and Marin have a lot of time to worry about this: "Wealthier countries have the luxury of entertaining fears the rest of the world cannot afford."