The purposeful ingestion of things not typically considered food is known today as pica, after the Latin word for magpie, a bird once held to have promiscuous tastes. It is a term of shifting boundaries. Some have used it to describe any indiscriminate eating, from the scavenging seen in some forms of mental illness to the calculated consumption of a Cessna 150 by French performance artist (and Guinness World Record Holder for Strangest Diet) “Monsieur Mangetout.” In its most common form, it consists of geophagy (the eating of earth), amylophagy (starch) or pagophagy (ice); but also trichophagy (hair), xylophagy (wood or paper), chalk and charcoal, detergent, baby powder, ash. Given that several of these substances, like ice, are consumed under quite ordinary circumstances, most descriptions of pica imply something capricious, uncontrollable, or mysterious. The craving might be so strong that cravers carry coolers of ice or clay in their purses. Migrants might ask their families to mail them clay from home. One seventy-seven-year-old woman in a case report from 1981 said that her craving for gymnastic chalk was invading her dreams.
Betty Jo Patton spent her childhood on a 240-acre farm in Mason County, West Virginia, in the 1930s. Her family raised what it ate, from tomatoes to turkeys, pears to pigs. They picked, plucked, slaughtered, butchered, cured, canned, preserved, and rendered. They drew water from a well, cooked on a wood stove, and the bathroom was an outhouse.
Phoebe Patton Randolph, Betty Jo’s thirty-two-year-old granddaughter, has a dream of returning to the farm, which has been in the family since 1863 and is an hour’s drive from her home in the suburbs of Huntington, a city of nearly fifty thousand people along the Ohio River. Phoebe is an architect and a mother of one (soon to be two) boys, who is deeply involved in efforts to revitalize Huntington, a moribund Rust Belt community unsure of what can replace the defunct factories that drove its economy for a hundred years. She grew up with stories of life on the farm as she watched the empty farmhouse sag into disrepair.
Recently, over lunch in Betty Jo’s cozy house in a quiet Huntington neighborhood, I listened to them talk about the farm, and I eventually asked Betty Jo what she thought of her granddaughter’s notion of returning to the land. Betty Jo smiled, but was blunt: “Leave it. There’s nothing romantic about it.”
Paul La Farge on Thomas Stanford and the Spiritualists
Stanford University’s Spanish Revival campus sprawls between Palo Alto and the foothills of the coastal mountains like a training center for Taco Bell franchise owners, a gigantic testament to the incompatibility of money and taste. It’s hard to walk around Stanford without thinking about rich men: Alumni Jerry Yang and David Filo, Yahoo!’s cofounders, have already become a part of the local mythology, alongside Bill Hewlett and David Packard, who graduated from Stanford in 1934. Even Bill Gates, who never attended Stanford, has left his mark on the university, in the form of the new William Gates Computer Science Building, a yellow sandstone box with smoked glass windows. Its name offers a disconcerting glimpse of the time when people will remember Gates only as a kind old man whose name is on lots of buildings, a sort of Andrew Carnegie of the computer age.
In these forward-thinking days, no one, or practically no one, who visits Stanford thinks of a benefactor whose name was on the library here a hundred years ago, a captain of industry who tried to advance the university into the future as he saw it. His name was Thomas Welton Stanford, and he believed that the dominant science of the 20th century would be spiritualism: the science of ghosts, turning tables, knocking spirits, and crystal balls. For 25 years, Stanford University agreed with him.
Once, when I was in college, one of my closest friends came down with something and developed strange white nodules in his throat. He stood in front of the mirror in our room (we were roommates that semester), his mouth wide open, transfixed by these growths; finally, by dint of a certain amount of coughing, he was able to get a few of them out of his throat into the palm of his hand. “Hey,” he said, “these nodules are really interesting.” “Uh huh,” I said. He held out his hand. “Look, they’re kind of shiny.” I turned away. “You have to see them,” he said. “They’re really strange looking.” “I don’t want to see your nodules,” I said. My roommate tried several more times to get me to look. He seemed surprised that I could be so incurious about the marvels his throat had worked. I felt a little bit guilty—shouldn’t I have been more curious? These were, after all, extraordinary nodules; I might never get a chance to see their like again. And he was showing them to me in the spirit of scientific inquiry. Human beings sometimes produce white nodules; if you want to know what it is to be human, really to understand how human beings work, you should know their unpleasant parts, their small mucoid ejecta, along with the features (faces, secondary sexual characteristics, clothes, thoughts) that interest you in the day-to-day. I was able to follow his reasoning; at bottom I thought I agreed with it, even. It is better to know things about the world than not to know them. But I couldn’t bring myself to look at the nodules.
Reading Nicholson Baker sometimes has the same effect on me. I admire his ability to bring the small features of the world to light; and in principle I agree that everything is interesting, and worthy of careful study, but there are times when I just don’t want to look.
I first read about Volapük in the Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine so violently opposed to anything out of the ordinary that it once studied the dates of thousands of shipwrecks to prove that the moon has no influence on maritime disasters. In his survey of artificial languages from Esperanto to Klingon, the critic Martin Gardner paused to describe the first really popular man-made language in the world, Volapük, and to poke fun at its odd-sounding words. In Volapük, the Lord’s Prayer begins,
O fat obas, kel binol in süls, paisaludomöz nem ola!
No wonder the language died out, Gardner says. Who would want to call “Our Father” fat obas? Who would want to speak something called Volapük? I could think of at least two people: me and my friend Herb. For years he and I had spoken our own language, an idiom made up of old jokes and references to things we did when we were children. Volapük was just what we needed: If we spoke it, we could be sure that absolutely no one would understand us. For a few months we mouthed O fat obasto one another at parties, expressing—and, no doubt, confirming—our distance from everyone else. In secret, of course, we wanted to be understood. One night I told Herb, “If I met a woman who knew Volapük, I’d marry her on the spot.”
A dark-haired woman turned around. “Oh my god,” she said. “You know Volapük?”
On the steamy first day of August 1966, Charles Whitman took an elevator to the top floor of the University of Texas Tower in Austin. The 25-year-old climbed the stairs to the observation deck, lugging with him a footlocker full of guns and ammunition. At the top, he killed a receptionist with the butt of his rifle. Two families of tourists came up the stairwell; he shot at them at point-blank range. Then he began to fire indiscriminately from the deck at people below. The first woman he shot was pregnant. As her boyfriend knelt to help her, Whitman shot him as well. He shot pedestrians in the street and an ambulance driver who came to rescue them….
He requested in his suicide note that an autopsy be performed to determine if something had changed in his brain—because he suspected it had.
I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt [overcome by] overwhelming violent impulses. After one session I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail.
Whitman’s body was taken to the morgue, his skull was put under the bone saw, and the medical examiner lifted the brain from its vault. He discovered that Whitman’s brain harbored a tumor the diameter of a nickel. This tumor, called a glioblastoma, had blossomed from beneath a structure called the thalamus, impinged on the hypothalamus, and compressed a third region called the amygdala. The amygdala is involved in emotional regulation, especially of fear and aggression.
When I was young, I thought Life: A User’s Manual would teach me how to live and Suicide: A User’s Manual how to die. I don’t really listen to what people tell me. I forget things I don’t like. I look down dead-end streets. The end of a trip leaves me with a sad aftertaste the same as the end of a novel. I am not afraid of what comes at the end of life. I am slow to realize when someone mistreats me, it is always so surprising: evil is somehow unreal. When I sit with bare legs on vinyl, my skin doesn’t slide, it squeaks. I archive. I joke about death. I do not love myself. I do not hate myself. My rap sheet is clean. To take pictures at random goes against my nature, but since I like doing things that go against my nature, I have had to make up alibis to take pictures at random, for example, to spend three months in the United States traveling only to cities that share a name with a city in another country: Berlin, Florence, Oxford, Canton, Jericho, Stockholm, Rio, Delhi, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Mexico, Syracuse, Lima, Versailles, Calcutta, Bagdad.
The best year to be a hippie was 1965, but then there was not much to write about, because not much was happening in public and most of what was happening in private was illegal. The real year of the hippie was 1966, despite the lack of publicity, which in 1967 gave way to a nationwide avalanche—in Look, Life, Time, Newsweek, the Atlantic, the New York Times, the Saturday Evening Post, and even the Aspen Illustrated News, which did a special issue on hippies in August of 1967 and made a record sale of all but 6 copies of a 3,500-copy press run. But 1967 was not really a good year to be a hippie. It was a good year for salesmen and exhibitionists who called themselves hippies and gave colorful interviews for the benefit of the mass media, but serious hippies, with nothing to sell, found that they had little to gain and a lot to lose by becoming public figures. Many were harassed and arrested for no other reason than their sudden identification with a so-called cult of sex and drugs. The publicity rumble, which seemed like a joke at first, turned into a menacing landslide. So quite a few people who might have been called the original hippies in 1965 had dropped out of sight by the time hippies became a national fad in 1967.
Summer took off my glasses with a swift, practiced motion, the better to wrap her breasts around the bridge of my nose. “Can you still see okay?” Her first move, it must be said, was devastating. Straddling my legs with her knees on my chair, she flicked her long blonde hair over the top of my head so that the two of us were now in a sort of dark, warm tent, eye to eye. My view of her body was foreshortened, so that her breasts, though not large, obscured most of her slim, bare torso, down to the thighs. It is a view you get in only one other context.
She made a move to kiss me, startlingly, but stopped short and put a finger to my lips. Soon her full length and weight were against me, my cheek meeting her perfumed neck, until she lowered her face past mine and worked slowly down my chest. Midway to my lap she looked up with a coy smile and said, “Hi.” It didn’t work, this little gesture—it was more Jennifer Love Hewitt than Brigitte Bardot—and some mental effort was required to keep the whole psycho-social artifice from crashing down. She tried to reel me back in by rubbing every part of her body that made sense—and a few that didn’t—against my, um, lap. Then I gave her $20 and she turned to sexually assaulting one of my friends.
The city is Las Vegas, naturally, the occasion a bachelor party, the setting a low-rise building just off the Strip with all the size and charm of an airplane hangar. Sapphire, the self-proclaimed World’s Largest Gentlemen’s Club, has taken the strip joint format and supersized it, with evident success. The main “showroom” seats 400 guests, and its attempts to win their hearts and minds fit firmly within the Rumsfeld school of overwhelming force. The lighting grid and sound system are arena quality, the waitresses are numerous and deployed in packs, and the network of catwalks and elevated stages adds a third dimension and a touch of sci-fi to the blitz.
It’s hard to be a writer of scandalous fiction these days. By this I don’t mean a scandalous writer, a bad-boy or girl, which is more a matter of addictions and tattoos, a penchant for personal insult. Calling a better or better-known writer a fraud or a wuss makes for fun copy, but it doesn’t exactly shake the walls of the temple. No, what I mean by scandalous is work that provokes and infuriates with uncanny precision. Assaults on current pieties are a necessary ingredient, but just as important is the pose struck while committing these assaults. This pose, or stance, at its most successful, tends to be a mixture of humor and self-disgust, and its strength, its imperviousness (the infuriating part), stems, like many strengths, from weakness. Criticize, condemn, it says. I already know I’m hopeless, so I will speak my truth, which is that you’re hopeless, too.
There was a time when I fought against an impatience with reading, concealing, with partisanship, the fissures in my education. I confused difficulty with duplicity, and that which didn’t come easily, I often scorned. Then, in my last year of college in Gainesville, Florida, I was given secondhand a list of eighty-one books, the recommendations of Donald Barthelme to his students. Barthelme’s only guidance, passed on by Padgett Powell, one of Barthelme’s former students at the University of Houston and my teacher at the time,was to attack the books “in no particular order, just read them,” which is exactly what I, in my confident illiteracy, resolved to do.
But first I had to find the books, a search that began at Gainesville’s Friends of the Library warehouse book sale. Early morning, the warehouse parking lot was filled with about fifty men, women, and children waiting for the doors to open. At the front of the line were the all-nighters, hard-core sci-fi fans, amateur Civil War historians, and chasers of obscurities, rumored to have been there since before midnight. Some had brought with them hibachis and coolers and battery-powered radios, giving the parking lot the feel of a Gator football pre-game with less angry hope.
Before the weirdness claimed his legacy, Michael Jackson understood his talent—and what he was willing to do for it—better than we ever have
By John Jeremiah Sullivan
how do you talk about Michael Jackson unless you begin with Prince Screws? Prince Screws was an Alabama cotton-plantation slave who became a tenant farmer after the Civil War, likely on his old master’s land. His son, Prince Screws Jr., bought a small farm. And that man’s son, Prince Screws III, left home for Indiana, where he found work as a Pullman porter, part of the exodus of southern blacks to the northern industrial cities.
There came a disruption in the line. This last Prince Screws, the one who went north, would have no sons. He had two daughters, Kattie and Hattie. Kattie gave birth to ten children, the eighth a boy, Michael—who would name his sons Prince, to honor his mother, whom he adored, and to signal a restoration. So the ridiculous moniker given by a white man to his black slave, the way you might name a dog, was bestowed by a black king upon his pale-skinned sons and heirs.
We took the name for an affectation and mocked it.
Not to imply that it was above mockery, but of all the things that make Michael unknowable, thinking we knew him is maybe the most deceptive. Lets suspend it.
Begin not with the miniseries childhood of father Joseph’s endless practice sessions but with the later and, it seems, just as formative Motown childhood, from, say, 11 to 14—years spent, when not on the road, most often alone, behind security walls, with private tutors and secret sketchbooks. A dreamy child, he collects exotic animals. He likes rainbows and reading. He starts collecting exotic animals now.
On the morning of April 21, 1995, my elder brother, Worth (short for Elsworth), put his mouth to a microphone in a garage in Lexington, Kentucky, and was—in the strict sense of having been “shocked to death”—electrocuted. He and his band, the Moviegoers, had stopped for a day to rehearse on their way from Chicago to a concert in Tennessee, where I was in school at the time. Just a couple of days earlier, he had called to ask if there were any songs I wanted to hear at the show. I requested something new, a song that he’d written and played for me the last time I’d seen him, on Christmas Day. Our holidays always end the same way, with my brother and me up late, drinking, trying out our new “tunes” on each other. There is something almost biologically satisfying about harmonizing with a sibling. We’ve gotten to where we communicate through music, using guitars the way fathers and sons use baseball: as a kind of emotional code. Worth is seven years older than I am, an age difference that can make brothers strangers, and I’m fairly sure the first time he ever felt we had anything to talk about was the day he caught me in his basement bedroom at our old house in Indiana, trying to teach myself how to play “Radio Free Europe” on a black Telecaster he’d forbidden me to touch.
Unlike a lot of people in my generation, I was never all that interested in Madonna. I knew about her, of course (how could anyone not?) but I didn’t really want to know, and over the years this forcible knowing engendered in me a blustering sort of resentment. Why do I have to keep hearing about this woman? I wondered, sometimes aloud, jabbing a finger at yet another picture of her yet again transmogrified visage. Part of my problem was that except for a few songs (“Into the Groove,” “Justify My Love,” “Vogue”), I didn’t much like her peppy, tuneful music. And the scandals over the videos for “Like a Prayer” and “Justify My Love,” along with the infamous Sex book struck me as the cheap stunts of a publicity glutton. The birth of Lourdes, with the attendant honeyed photos and MADONNA AND CHILD headlines made me faintly nauseated. And as for the Kabala studies and the mystical face doodles, please. Will she ever go away? I asked. And asked and asked as the years kept passing.
So. Her father was a Survivor. Her mother had not survived. And Mandy? Nineteen years later, Mandy semi-survived, had three months clean, some fluorescent key-ring tags to prove it. Her ex-boyfriend Greg had tags, too, wore them snaked together off his belt. Mandy saw him at meetings, but she worried that he wasn’t letting the program work on him, was maybe just white-knuckling it, a funny thing to say about a black man. Greg had almost finished college before the pipe got him. He possessed such a wry and gentle soul, except for the times he railed at her for being an evil dwarf witch who meant to stew his heart in bat broth (he’d majored in world folklore), and she’d always adored those horn-rimmed glasses that made him look like the professor he could still become if he let go of his rage. But if he had a discipline at the moment, an area of scholarly expertise, it was deep knowledge of how to steal or to lick diseased penises for the teensiest rocks. It wasn’t as if Mandy had been any better months back. But now she was, and Greg, who often shared about what he called his terror runs, appeared to be planning one, the way some people contemplate a Berkshires getaway.
It’s time to take the tour, he says, so we get into his truck, which contains a diligently curated sample of many of the sandwich wrappers available on the North Carolina interstate. Especially a place called Bojangles’. There is also a white Macintosh laptop that looks like what you might call his “outdoor” computer.
As we check out the blackberry bushes and drive past the property of a guy Zach believes might end up being a killer, I tell him I’m just going to run through his résumé and ask him for some free association. “Presuming none of your biographical information has changed…”
"The Manson Family preached peace and love and went around killing people. We don’t preach peace and love…" Jim Kweskin
Five years ago a small community of young white intellectuals and artists from the Boston-Cambridge area moved onto the hill and “took over” several empty apartment houses bordering the park. Relations with the black neighborhood immediately deteriorated, and soon guards, members of the new Fort Hill Community, could be seen patrolling the fort for the first time in almost 200 years.
Since then peace has returned, relations have improved, and there is some question on a recent summer evening why guards are still needed at Fort Hill. Or who, exactly, is being watched. It’s dark, about 9:30 PM, as one of them approaches holding a flashlight. He appears troubled, glancing nervously up and down a long row of houses now owned by the community. Inside the first house some 60 Fort Hill members are eating dinner, methodically cleaning their plates after a 12-hour work day. Suddenly the guard turns and walks briskly to an area at the rear of the houses where garbage is dumped. He shuts off his flashlight and from a large green plastic garbage bag secretly retrieves a suitcase packed the night before. Then, without looking back, he runs as fast as he can, as fast as he’s ever run, past the garages, past the basketball court, past the tool sheds, down the long dirt driveway at the rear, through the winding paved streets of the ghetto and the straight paved streets of the first factories, past the nearest subway station, where they’d be sure to check, to a second station, blocks and blocks away, more difficult to find.
As the sentry boards a subway train, safe for the moment, the interior lights reveal his panting, boyish face. He is Paul Williams, a rock author and first editor of Crawdaddy Magazine, who several months ago gave up his writing career to join the Fort Hill Community.
Going downtown to mau-mau the bureaucrats got to be the routine practice in San Francisco. The poverty program encouraged you to go in for mau-mauing. They wouldn’t have known what to do without it. The bureaucrats at City Hall and in the Office of Economic Opportunity talked “ghetto” all the time, but they didn’t known any more about what was going on in the Western Addition, Hunters Point, Potrero Hill, the Mission, Chinatown, or south of Market Street than they did about Zanzibar. They didn’t know where to look. They didn’t even know who to ask. So what could they do? Well … they used the Ethnic Catering Service … right … They sat back and waited for you to come rolling in with your certified angry militants, your guaranteed frustrated ghetto youth, looking like a bunch of wild men. Then you had your test confrontation. If you were outrageous enough, if you could shake up the bureaucrats so bad that their eyes froze into iceballs and their mouths twisted up into smiles of sheer physical panic, into shit-eating grins, so to speak—then they knew you were the real goods. They knew you were the right studs to give the poverty grants and community organizing jobs to. Otherwise they wouldn’t know.
… and now, in the season of Radical Chic, the Black Panthers. That huge Panther there, the one Felicia is smiling her tango smile at, is Robert Bay, who just 41 hours ago was arrested in an altercation with the police, supposedly over a .38-caliber revolver that someone had, in a parked car in Queens at Northern Boulevard and 104th Street or some such unbelievable place, and taken to jail on a most unusual charge called “criminal facilitation.” And now he is out on bail and walking into Leonard and Felicia Bernstein’s 13-room penthouse duplex on Park Avenue. Harassment & Hassles, Guns & Pigs, Jail & Bail—they’re real, these Black Panthers. The very idea of them, these real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny’s duplex like a rogue hormone. Everyone casts a glance, or stares, or tries a smile, and then sizes up the house for the somehow delicious counterpoint … Deny it if you want to! but one does end up making such sweet furtive comparisons in this season of Radical Chic … There’s Otto Preminger in the library and Jean vanden Heuvel in the hall, and Peter and Cheray Duchin in the living room, and Frank and Domna Stanton, Gail Lumet, Sheldon Harnick, Cynthia Phipps, Burton Lane, Mrs. August Heckscher, Roger Wilkins, Barbara Walters, Bob Silvers, Mrs. Richard Avedon, Mrs. Arthur Penn, Julie Belafonte, Harold Taylor, and scores more, including Charlotte Curtis, women’s news editor of the New York Times, America’s foremost chronicler of Society, a lean woman in black, with her notebook out, standing near Felicia and big Robert Bay, and talking to Cheray Duchin.
Cheray tells her: “I’ve never met a Panther—this is a first for me!” … never dreaming that within 48 hours her words will be on the desk of the President of the United States …
This is the New York Times Best Seller List, from October, 1961. A depressing reminder that we have slid several rungs down the evolutionary/intellectual ladder –– as it stands, today’s NY Times list features a “telepathic waitress” called “Sookie Stackhouse” who solves crimes; no end of mob lawyers; an ex-government operative called “Cotton Malone”; yet another Star Wars novel; two Emily Griffin joints (both, predictably, about weddings); no less than seven works featuring would-be detectives. Sobering.
1 THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY, by Irving Stone. 2 TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, by Harper Lee. 3 THE CARPETBAGGERS, by Harold Robbins. 4 MILA 18, by Leon Uris. 5 THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT, by John Steinbeck. 6 THE EDGE OF SADNESS, by Edwin O’Connor. 7 TROPIC OF CANCER, by Henry Miller. 8 FRANNY AND ZOOEY, by J.D. Salinger. 9 REMBRANDT, by Gladys Schmitt. 10 CLOCK WITHOUT HANDS, by Carson McCullers. 11 THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY, by Sheila Burnford. 12 A MAN IN A MIRROR, by Richard Llewellyn. 13 A JOURNEY TO MATECUMBE, by Robert Lewis Taylor. 14 THE SMALL ROOM, by May Sarton. 15 THE HOUSE AT OLD VINE, by Norah Lofts. 16 MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS, by Evan Hunter.
Next week, Teddy Graubard would have graduated from Dalton—a brilliant teenager, with a mild form of Asperger’s, whose path seemed almost limitless. So what led him to the window?
by Jesse Green
Teddy stood before the eleventh-story window. Other than figuring out how to fold his large body through its small opening, what was he thinking? A family friend would later say he was “probably trying to measure the speed of the wind or the angle of the shadows,” as if the whole thing were just an experiment gone awry. People naturally defaulted to explanations from physics because Teddy was a physics prodigy, having taught himself the subject from a college textbook in eighth grade. In math, too, he was the one who could always find the quickest solution to a problem. But what was the problem he was trying to solve by jumping?
My stepsister Marcia and I share an occasional lust for high grease breakfast foods, and over pancakes and eggs recently, she told me something interesting. Marcia’s daughter, Drennan, was with us — a wily, emphatic little girl who, at 4 years old, is young enough that one can still spell words in her presence and elude — just — the clamp of her curiosity. S-E-X is a big one, of course. Marcia is careful to spell out the name of her ex-husband, Drennan’s father, when speaking of him with anything but the warmest affection. I was surprised, though, when Marcia mentioned that she’d been on a D-I-E-T.
"Why did you spell it?" I asked.
"Oh, I don’t even want her thinking about all that," Marcia said.
We both looked at Drennan, who was smacking her lips over fried eggs and hash browns. I didn’t have to ask what Marcia meant by “all that.” We are both 35, members of the vanguard generation of disordered eaters. When Marcia and I were children, no one had heard of anorexia; I first encountered the term at 13, in 1975, in a magazine article about a girl who had emaciated herself for reasons no one understood. I remember her picture: somber, willowy, standing on a bathroom scale, her shoulder blades jutting out like wings. I looked at her and felt my whole being compress into a single strand of longing. I wanted that. Anorexia.
Early this April, when researchers at Washington University in St. Louis reported that a woman with a host of electrodes temporarily positioned over the speech center of her brain was able to move a computer cursor on a screen simply by thinking but not pronouncing certain sounds, it seemed like the Singularity—the long-standing science fiction dream of melding man and machine to create a better species—might have arrived. At Brown University around the same time, scientists successfully tested a different kind of brain–computer interface (BCI) called BrainGate, which allowed a paralyzed woman to move a cursor, again just by thinking. Meanwhile, at USC, a team of biomedical engineers announced that they had successfully used carbon nanotubes to build a functioning synapse—the junction at which signals pass from one nerve cell to another—which marked the first step in their long march to construct a synthetic brain. On the same campus, Dr. Theodore Berger, who has been on his own path to make a neural prosthetic for more than three decades, has begun to implant a device into rats that bypasses a damaged hippocampus in the brain and works in its place.
The hippocampus is crucial to memory formation, and Berger’s invention holds the promise of overcoming problems related to both normal memory loss that comes from aging and pathological memory loss associated with diseases like Alzheimer’s. Similarly, the work being done at Brown and Washington University suggests the possibility of restoring mobility to those who are paralyzed and giving voice to those who have been robbed by illness or injury of the ability to communicate. If this is the Singularity, it looks not just benign but beneficent.
Clay D., a moon-faced man in his early thirties who, by his own matter-of-fact admission, has spent a good deal of his life “shooting at people” in and around Newark, New Jersey, was talking about his first attorney-client meeting with lawyer Paul Bergrin.
“Someone got killed, and they were trying to put it on me,” remembers Clay, as he asked to be called. “First-degree murder, can’t fuck with that, so I got Paul. He was the biggest name out there. He drove his Bentley down Clinton Avenue, and it was like, ‘Don’t you punks even think about jacking that.’ Everyone said he was wide open. But I didn’t know how wide open until that day. I’m in his office two minutes. He says he’s looked at my case, and only one witness can hurt me. Then he says, ‘Okay, what are we going to do about this person? She’s a user, right? Why don’t we give her a hot shot? Just stick her.’ ”
Asked if it bothered him to hear his attorney suggest such a course of action, Clay laughed and pulled up his shirt to reveal several scars on his abdomen, the result of being shot three times with a pistol. As chance would have it, the shooter was another of Bergrin’s clients, Clay said, not that this mattered.
Stephen W. Smith, ex-Africa editor of Libération and Le Monde, unpicks Rwanda
A number of memories connected with Rwanda play in my mind like scenes from a movie, although I don’t pretend they add up to a film. In 1994 a genocide was committed against the Tutsi minority in Rwanda. All else about this small East African country, ‘the land of a thousand hills’, is open to question and, indeed, bears re-examination. ‘Freedom of opinion is a farce,’ Hannah Arendt wrote in 1966 in ‘Truth and Politics’, ‘unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute.’ The problem with Rwanda is not only that opinions and facts have parted company but that opinion takes precedence.
The first scene: I’m walking beside Paul Kagame, the current president of Rwanda and then a rebel leader, past low picket fences and small prefabricated houses in a residential suburb of Brussels. It’s cold and our breath mingles in the air as we speak. Kagame is swaddled in a thick coat. Even so, he remains a spindly figure with a birdlike face. I can’t warm to him, but I know him well enough by now to hazard the question that has been preying on my mind for a while: ‘Why is it always you, the vice-president, whom I meet when I have dealings with the Rwandan Patriotic Front, and not Alexis Kanyarengwe?’ Kanyarengwe was the movement’s president. ‘Don’t worry,’ he chuckles. ‘You’re seeing the boss. Kanyarengwe is only our front man. You’d be wasting your time.’
If you subscribed to or even occasionally read Sassy, the teen-girl magazine that existed from 1989 to 1996, then that makes you, approximately, a pro-choice registered Democrat who came of age listening to alternative rock. You grew up on R.E.M., the Smiths, the Cure, Throwing Muses, Sonic Youth, Liz Phair, Hole, Bikini Kill, PJ Harvey, My So-Called Life, and John Hughes. Your romantic ideals were forged by repeated viewings of Dead Poets Society, Say Anything, and Morrissey riding around on a tractor in the middle of winter for the “Suedehead” video. You published a zine or bought zines, issued seven-inch singles or bought seven-inch singles. You were probably a high-achieving malcontent, a wearer of black in high school who became a thrift-store-haunting feminist theorist in college. If you were going to get married at all, you were going to marry an enlightened, sensitive man who washed dishes, and you’d do it for enlightened, egalitarian love—not money! Or else you were going to, or did, come out proudly as a lesbian, or you took up with members of both sexes and didn’t feel guilty. You were under the impression that the girls who came after you would never have to shave their legs.
(Note: a pretty accurate picture of life in the publishing industry.)
Kristy taught me how to answer the phone by saying her name, which I quickly turned into an incoherent song. (Later, her boyfriend would call just to make me say it, then laugh and insist he was various conservative pundits.) She showed me how to read manuscripts she didn’t want from agents—by shuffling the pages until they looked like they’d been read—and how to respond to the unsolicited—“Sorry to say that Trouble in Venice just didn’t speak to me the way I’d hoped it would.” Kristy told me I was lucky I came from California because, when she’d first moved to New York from Indiana, she’d been even more clueless. She hadn’t even owned an air conditioner. But now, she said, she’d become almost as ruthless as the publishing ladies she would soon overtake. When her door was closed, she was negotiating with Disney to double her salary. When her door was open, she was inviting editors to a club at her house called “Books in the ‘Burg.” On Fridays, she sent me to fetch her cupcakes, in the spirit that it was I who most wanted her to eat them.
Dr. Ver Eecke, a balding man with thick accent and jowls, looked anachronistically like a philosopher, always in a gray three-piece suit and almost always in his office, working. He took me under his wing and agreed to teach me The Phenomenology of Spirit on a one-on-one basis. He cautioned beforehand that it was “probably the most difficult book in the world.” We therefore agreed that we would focus our attention those months on one section in particular, a section I wanted badly to comprehend, a section Hegel called The Master-Slave Dialectic.
The Master-Slave Dialectic begins as a kind of imagined narrative or myth, which Hegel devised in order to explain on a highly abstract level how mere life, conscious life, might have made the staggering leap to become self-conscious life, or life that is aware of itself, subjective, “I.” It develops into the story of what happens when two “I”s meet each other, when “the-I-that-is-I” encounters “the-I-that-is-other” and both attempt to assert themselves. It becomes the story of a life-and-death struggle, of a fight for recognition.
The Internet is a compendium of broken and distorted souls: the blogs, journals, webcams, personal ads. Out there, self-exposure is no longer a niche activity, but a preoccupation that’s slowly colonizing the Internet, site by site. Let’s start with a text I recently saw online: 942422998 I tricked a good friend into betraying me so that I would have someone to hate other than myself. The post is one of 176,961 anonymous confessions currently on view at www.grouphug.us. Launched in October of 2003, the website attracted more than thirteen million hits in its first three months. As of the writing of this piece, nearly 8,000 posts await approval from at least three readers—any three—who happen to feel like moderating. It’s a public affair, though there are rules. As a moderator, you must understand the purpose of the site, which is, ostensibly, to provide relief, camaraderie, and perspective to the confessants, and hours of reading pleasure to the rest of us (cf. 907626756 i can’t stop reading through these confessions and hoping one of them will be someone confessing they love me). You must flag obnoxious formatting. You must weed out the pomp, gratuitous vulgarity, hate speech, and contact info. You must know the difference—and here is the trick—between a legitimate confession and horseshit.
At a certain point, I underwent what I can only assume was a momentary hallucination of some type. Strange things were happening to Bunny’s face as he spoke. Different races were passing through it, through the cast of his features—black, white, Asian, Indian, the whole transnational human slosh that produced the West Indies. The Atlantic world was passing through his face. I was having thoughts so cryptocolonialist, I might as well have had on a white safari hat and been peering at him through a monocle.
Out of nowhere, Bunny started talking about fruit, all the different strange fruits that grow in Jamaica. I dug his physical love for his home, the reason he could never leave. “You’re talking about soursop, you’re talking about sweetsop. You’re talking about naseberry, you’re talking about June plum. Breadfruit. (That tree the original Wailers met under in Joe Higgs’s yard was a “coolie plum.” I ate one in Trench Town. Toothsome.)
"We have guinep," Bunny said. "I’ve never gone anywhere in the world and seen guinep. We got one called stinking toe. So dry that you gotta be careful how you eat it—it might choke you, the dust from the pollen."