Beyond the Machine Age

Posted in America, Clips, Culture, Geography of Madness, Science on August 10, 2016 by frankbures

From Undark:

It used to be that when I looked in the mirror, I saw many things: a body; a collection of cells; a fantastic kind of machinery. I didn’t see these things because they were a reflection of reality, or because the body and brain are, in fact, machines. I saw them because I was born in America, and that is my culture.

In our country, we have what’s known as a mechanistic understanding of our bodies. We imagine ourselves to be machines made of meat and bone. We see the doctor as a mechanic whose job is to find the broken parts and fix them. For at least a century this has been our primary metaphor for talking about sickness and health, about how our bodies work and break down. In its popular 1960s television special, National Geographic flatly described the human body as “The Incredible Machine.”

The body is incredible, but my view of it as a machine — the validity of that metaphor — started to break down in the process of researching my book, “The Geography of Madness,” about the so-called “cultural syndromes.”

“Of course, one cannot think without metaphors,” Susan Sontag wrote in her 1989 essay, “AIDS and its Metaphors,” “But that does not mean there aren’t some metaphors we might well abstain from or try to retire.”

Read the rest here.

newbod

Eating Alone Together

Posted in Africa, America, Culture, Travel on July 29, 2016 by frankbures

the-rotarian-column-dinnerFrom The Rotarian:

There is a new ritual in American life. It goes like this: Whenever you invite someone to dinner, you must inquire about any special dietary needs. Because today, it seems that nearly everyone has drawn a line around foods that cannot pass their lips.

This could be because of allergies, moral qualms, lifestyle choices, health issues, or simple preference. The person might be a vegetarian who eats fish, a carnivore who hates carbs, a glutton who avoids gluten, or a time bomb waiting to be set off by a nut. (Asking ahead makes for a more pleasant evening than calling an ambulance.)

Hospitalization aside, one reason for this shift has been the moralization of food. Our dining choices have become identity choices, a way of saying, “This is the kind of person I am,” or “This is the kind of world I want to live in.”

This is a luxury of our age. The hunters, villagers, and small bands of Homo sapiens in times past would have thought it extremely strange, and possibly hostile, to assert one’s preferences in this manner.

Read the rest here.

The Lobster Coffin of Ghana

Posted in Africa, America, Art, Arts in Africa, Travel on July 25, 2016 by frankbures

MIA LobsterRecently I was asked to write a short piece about something in the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Africa collection. Most of the pieces are old, carved wood artifacts that border on archeological. Then there is the lobster coffin:

The first dead person I ever saw in daylight was a young boy lying next to a road in Tanzania. It was early morning and we were driving south on the country’s main highway when I saw the crows fly up out of a ditch. I craned my neck to see what they’d been eating. He was lying face down, arm stretched over his head, shirt pulled up under his armpits. The driver saw it and hit the brakes.

“Was it a dog?” someone asked.

“It was a person!” the driver said. He turned to me. “Did you see it?”

I nodded.

Stopped in the middle of the road, we decided to tell the next policeman we saw and drove on. But by the time we saw a policeman we were hundreds of miles away from the boy and there was no point. We passed him by and never spoke of it again.

Read the rest here.

On Rimbaud’s Trail

Posted in Africa, Books, Geography of Madness, Travel, Uncategorized, Writers on July 19, 2016 by frankbures

From Longitude Books:

One of the places I remember most clearly (and fondly) is Obock, Djibouti, a town on the edge of the Red Sea where I traveled several years ago for a story for Nowhere Magazine. Obock is hot and miserable and there is nothing to do. At night thousands of migrants stream through the area on their way from Ethiopia and Somalia to the Middle East where they hope to find work. When I got there I found that the hotel the tourism office in the capital recommended had closed long ago. On my first day I was harassed by the local police for being there.

What I remember best, though, was how refreshing it was to be so uncatered to, so far from everything. It didn’t matter to anyone (except a few curious folks) whether I was there or not. This must have been something like was the French poet Arthur Rimbaud felt when he first arrived there in the mid-1880s to escape his former life and become an arms dealer: It was like the whole world could slip away.

Read the rest hereIMGP3480.JPG.

Travel and Insanity

Posted in Culture, Geography of Madness, Science, Travel on July 14, 2016 by frankbures

the-rotarian-column-travelFrom the of The Rotarian

In the 1970s and ’80s, an Italian psychiatrist named Graziella Magherini began to make note of tourists who came to Florence and, while viewing great works of art, experienced a mental breakdown. Often, they had to be put on a stretcher and taken to a psychiatric hospital. Magherini looked at 106 such cases and labeled the condition “Stendhal syndrome,” after the French novelist who described having such an experience in a Florence basilica. Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky may have had a similar affliction.

According to Magherini, such a breakdown is caused by the power of art over people who are psychologically vulnerable or by “coming into contact with great works of art without the mediation of a professional guide,” as one paper on the syndrome described it. That may be the case. But such experiences are not unique to Italy, regardless of the power of its art. Rather, I suspect there was a greater power at work, one the victims brought with them: the power of their own expectations.

A similar condition has affected some Japanese tourists in Paris. Researchers observed that in Japan, “Paris has, and holds, a quasi-magical power of attraction because the city is considered a symbol of European culture.” Besides the normal stresses of travel and the vast cultural differences, the authors noted that “disappointment linked to contact with the everyday reality [of Paris] is a factor of incomprehension and anxiety, but also of disenchantment and depression.” This was dubbed “Paris syndrome” by the media.

Read the rest here.

Empty Tombs: A Q&A with Tom Bissell

Posted in Books, Clips, Travel, Travel Writers, Writers on March 29, 2016 by frankbures

apostle-cover_250From MinnPost:

For five years, writer Tom Bissell worked on a novel about the Apostle John, before he resigned himself to the fact that his “half historical, half contemporary” account was not going to work.

He set it aside, but one fact stuck in his mind: John’s tomb was located in Turkey and was supposedly empty — the only remains of the Twelve Apostles unaccounted for. Later while he was serving in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan he heard rumors that Matthew’s remains were in nearby Kyrgyzstan. Where were the others?

From this question grew the idea for a travel book on the Apostolic tombs, and for the next few years Bissell traveled through Jerusalem, Greece, Italy, Turkey, France, Spain India, Turkey and Kyrgyzstan as a sort of doubting pilgrim who wanted to “explore the legendary encrustation upon twelve lives about which little else is known and even less can be historically verified.”

Read the rest here.

Shortcut to Mushrooms

Posted in America, Clips on March 17, 2016 by frankbures

img_2016-03_Foraging_grid_X(1)In the new issue of Minnesota Monthly is a story I did about wild mushroom foraging, which is booming, and a class I took:

First are the “Common, Delicious, Super-Safe Edibles,” which include golden chanterelles, chicken of the woods, pheasant’s back, and bluing boletes, a beautiful mushroom that turns blue when it’s cut or bruised.

Next to these are the “More Challenging Edibles,” ones that require a deeper knowledge of mushroom anatomy: crown-tipped coral, the indigo milky, and corn smut.

Then come the “Inedible Mushrooms,” which might upset your stomach, or taste terrible, but they won’t kill you: the hygrometer earthstar, the violet tooth, the birds-nest.

And then there’s the last group, the really scary ones: “Poisonous Mushrooms: Including Some Deadly.” Among these are witch’s hat, jack-o-lanterns (which glow in the dark), and the fly agaric featured in Alice in Wonderland. But the loveliest—and deadliest—is an Amanita known as the “destroying angel.” It is pure white, with a long delicate stem. A small bite is enough to kill you, though you might not know it for a few days. A few hours after consumption, you come down with nausea and fever. But these symptoms pass, and for a few days you feel better while your liver and kidney are slowly being destroyed, along with your intestines, heart, and brain. Three to six days later your organs stop functioning. There is no known antidote.

Read the rest here.