Geography of Madness: Book Club Edition

Posted in Books, Culture, Geography of Madness on April 24, 2017 by frankbures

GoMmech.inddIf you’re considering The Geography of Madness for your book club, please feel free to contact me, and to use the questions below for your discussion.

Book Club Discussion Questions:

1) One main themes of The Geography of Madness is that stories (about the world, about our lives, about our bodies) are contagious. Can you think of a story, or an experience, that changed what you believed was possible?

2) Do you believe the brain and the mind are the same thing? If not, what is the difference?

3) The stories in The Geography of Madness raise the question of free will: How much do you choose the life you live? How much do you learn (or catch) you life choices from those around you?

4) Have you ever found yourself immersed in a situation where you did not know the rules? What was that like?

5) In The Geography of Madness, the author argues that our mindset and our expectations have biological consequences. Does that resemble your experience? If so, how?
[Further reading: On the Body as Machine.]

6) Try to imagine living in a world where it was possible to have your genitals stolen, either by magic or by ghosts. How would you protect yourself?

7) In The Geography of Madness, the author argues that a strong sense of self—of your story— can help to activate your endogenous (internal) healing systems and vice versa. Do you remember a time when a stressful or difficult period seemed to be followed by a health problem or sickness?
[Further reading: Writing the Self]

8) In The Geography of Madness, did anyone’s genital actually disappear? If not, what happened? Does it matter?

9) Is there a belief that everyone around you holds, but that you don’t share? How did you come to doubt this?

10) The Handbook of Depression points to a genetic marker associated with greater vulnerability to depression. Yet this link only holds true in Western cultures. Why would that be?

11) Have you ever had a health problem you were afraid to talk about, or that others didn’t believe in?

12) In The Geography of Madness, the author argues that cultural syndromes are “real” syndromes, but that their causes might not lie where we think they do. Do you think they are “real” or “imaginary”?

13) Over the last few years, gluten intolerance has been rising. This rise occurs at a time of increasing anxiety about the relationship between food, health and identity. What’s changed: our bodies or our culture?

14) After reading The Geography of Madness, how would you describe what culture is?

15) How much does a your culture create you? How much do you create your culture?

16) Have you ever had a cultural syndrome?

Q&A with David Grann

Posted in America, Books, Clips, Writers, Writing on April 21, 2017 by frankbures

grann-bookFrom Nieman Storyboard:

David Grann had never heard of the “Osage Murders” until a historian he was talking to mentioned the series of mysterious deaths among members of the wealthy Osage tribe in early 20th century Oklahoma.

When I learned about these crimes several years ago, I was shocked that, like so many Americans, I had never learned about them in school or read about them in books.
Grann, a staff writer at The New Yorker and something of a history writer himself, couldn’t believe that the sinister campaign targeting the oil beneath the Osage reservation land was so little known.  So he started looking into the killings.

There wasn’t much online. No one seemed to have told the victims’ story in a comprehensive way, even though, as Grann puts it, the campaign was “one of the most monstrous crimes in American history.

Read the rest here.

Brand You: Questioning Self-Promotion

Posted in America, Art, Books, Clips, Culture, Writers, Writing on April 4, 2017 by frankbures

jf16_coverFrom last year in Poets & Writers, now online:

It should be said that writers have always been keen self-promoters, as Tony Perrottet pointed out in a New York Times article: In 440 BCE, Herodotus shilled his Histories to wealthy patrons at the Olympics. In 1887, Guy de Maupassant flew a hot-air balloon featuring the name of his latest short story. Walt Whitman wrote anonymous reviews of his work, declaring, “An American bard at last!”

But at the end of the twentieth century something changed, something deep. In an influential article titled “The Brand Called You,” published by Fast Company in 1997, Tom Peters admonished not just corporations, not just celebrities, but everyone to think of themselves as a brand, to promote themselves as a brand, and to see life and work as an endless branding opportunity.

This has come to pass. Today, it’s accepted that anyone with a pulse and a keyboard can and should promote anything that comes to mind. As a result, most of us are drowning in a promotional tsunami. It can feel like a crushing weight, like social media has become a giant pyramid scheme in which we are all selling some idea of ourselves, even as we struggle to believe our own marketing.

Read the rest here.

At Arm’s Length

Posted in America, Clips, Culture, Science on March 22, 2017 by frankbures

Cutler2016123 copyFrom The Rotarian:

Some years ago, my wife and I went to the south of Thailand to teach English at an elementary school. It was a poor school in a small town. The principal did his best to accommodate us, building a room for us to live in at the school. It had a bathroom and a shower and many, many photos of the school’s owner. By local standards it was luxurious.

By our standards, however, it was missing one main thing: privacy. A buffer zone between ourselves and everyone else. The room was situated right next to the principal’s office, and our shared wall stopped about a foot short of the ceiling. Our bed sat against one side of this wall. On the other side was the principal’s desk. It felt, in a way, as though we were in bed with him.

This was not the first time I had noticed cultural differences regarding personal space. mar17-coverWhen I lived in East Africa, I saw how my need for space seemed strange and possibly hostile in a very people-oriented culture. But Americans have long been notorious for the vast expanses of personal space we need. An article titled “Understanding American Culture” on the International Student Guide to the USA website advises: “Americans tend to require more personal space than in other cultures. If you try to get too close to an American during your conversation, he or she will feel that you are ‘in their face’ and will try to back away. Try to avoid physical contact while you are speaking, since this may lead to discomfort.”

Read the rest here.

After Chibok

Posted in Africa, Clips on February 3, 2017 by frankbures

feb-coverThis month in The Rotarian, I have a story about Margee Ensign, who went to northeastern Nigeria to run the American University of Nigeria, but who became deeply involved in local efforts to deal with a refugee crisis bigger than Europe’s. The Adamawa Peace Initiative desperately needs funds, which can be  donated here: AUNF.  The story, Education on the Front Lines, can be found here:

In her office at the American University of Nigeria, in the dusty northeastern town of Yola, Margee Ensign heard the news: Some 170 miles to the north, nearly 300 girls at a boarding school had been roused from sleep and kidnapped at gunpoint by the terrorist group Boko Haram.

Ensign, the president of the fledgling university, was already struggling with the fallout from Boko Haram’s attacks in Nigeria’s north, which had sent a flood of refugees into Yola. Together with community leaders, including her fellow Rotarians, she had worked to run feeding programs to keep the refugees – whose number eventually swelled to 400,000 – alive.

bokointroRotarians working with the Adamawa Peace Initiative help run the Feed and Read program, which provides a hot meal along with lessons in English and math, and the Peace through Sports program.

After the news of the kidnapping broke in April 2014, a woman who worked for the university asked to see Ensign. She sat down in the president’s office and told Ensign that her sister had been one of 58 girls who had escaped that night by jumping out of Boko Haram’s trucks and running into the bush.

Ensign quickly began contacting those girls’ families to offer them a place at the university, which also houses a high school. In the end, 27 girls decided to come, and on 30 August – four months after the raid – Ensign prepared to head into the heart of the conflict to pick up the girls.

“We were going into dangerous territory,” says Lionel Rawlins, the university’s security chief. “We were going into Boko Haram’s backyard to snatch the girls. The morning before we left, we went to the police and said, ‘Are we ready?’ And they said, ‘We’re not going. It’s too dangerous up there.’ So I went back and told Margee we were on our own. We looked at each other, and I knew exactly what she was thinking. She said, ‘If you’re up to it, I’m up to it. Let’s go get the girls.’”

Read the rest here.

boko-yola

Photographs by Andrew Esiebo

Is Our Depression Culture-Bound?

Posted in America, Clips, Culture, Science on January 22, 2017 by frankbures

cover_2From Poets & Writers Magazine:

Growing up, I only knew that my grandma had been “sick.” Later I heard more, and learned that she had taken her own life. But it wasn’t until I started researching a book about culture-bound syndromes that I uncovered the fuller version: Late one night, in 1968, my grandma woke up, opened a bottle of barbiturates, swallowed them all, then climbed back into bed. The next morning my grandfather found her body next to his. She was fifty-six years old. They had been married since she was sixteen and he was nineteen.

At the time the doctors said she had a nervous breakdown, or sometimes that she was depressed. But that meant something different to the doctors than it meant to her family. And as I researched my book, it started to become clear that even today it probably means something different to everyone around the world.

Rates of depression vary widely. In Korea or Japan you have a one in fifty chance of having experienced major depression over the past twelve months, while in Brazil your chance is one in ten. Symptoms vary too. According to Handbook of Depression, a textbook on mood disorders, Koreans and Korean Americans experience manifestations that others would never consider related to depression: constipation, abdominal cramps, heartburn, stiff joints, sore muscles, and increased heart rate. In cultures where excitement and happiness are considered normal, people with major depression show low energy and blunted emotional response. In cultures where emotional control is considered the norm, the opposite is true: Intensified emotional responses are a common symptom of depression. The British psychiatrist Christopher Dowrick, author of Beyond Depression: A New Approach to Understanding and Management, has suggested that depression itself should be considered a culture-bound syndrome.

Read the rest here.

Read more about Culture-Bound Syndromes in The Geography of Madness

Norway’s Prodigal Son

Posted in America, Clips, Culture on January 16, 2017 by frankbures

img_2017-01_jeff-johnson_reindeer_03_gLast year one of our neighbors, Jeff Johnson, announced that he was traveling to Norway to compete in a reality TV show called Alt for Norge . The concept was intriguing: Members of the diaspora return home to experience (and compete in) the culture they had mostly lost. The show has been a massive hit in Norway, and I undertand other countries are expanding the franchise. Keep an eye out for casting calls in an ethnic enclave near you! Jeff talked to me about the experience for Minnesota Monthly:

“I’d never seen any reality TV show of any kind, so I didn’t really know what it was about. I was told that it can be very competitive, but for us that was not the case. None of the people on the show wanted to do any backstabbing, and whenever someone had to leave we cried like a bunch of grandmothers at a funeral. I was not prepared for the depth of emotion that show pulled out of me.”

“I grew up in a rural North Dakota farming community. My uncle went to first grade not knowing a word of English. My father spoke fluent Norwegian every day of his life. Have you heard of the Laws of Jante? They’re a series of laws written by a Danish author about Norway in the 1930s: Don’t think you can teach us anything. Don’t think you have anything valuable to say, and Don’t think anyone loves you. It pervades Norwegian culture. On the show we had a ceremonial burial of the Laws of Jante. I was bawling my eyes out, because that was basically my childhood.”

Read the rest here.  (Photo by Joe Trelevnen)