Border Crossings: Myths and Memories of Tolerance

Leslie Harkema at Marginalia Review:

This past summer, migrants from throughout Africa and elsewhere continued to make the journey to Ceuta and Melilla, two autonomous Spanish cities nestled in Morocco’s northern coast. As small parcels of European land on the African continent, these cities defy the assumption that the Mediterranean Sea serves as a natural barrier between distinct civilizations. They are sites of border crossing, with all of the charge that this term carries in the contemporary geopolitical climate. Ceuta and Melilla are gateways to Europe, and for that reason they are surrounded by tall fences and kept under surveillance—not only by military guards, but also by the Spanish press.

When tensions rise at these borders, as they did in July 2018, news coverage stirs anxieties about Spain’s ability to accommodate the influx of displaced people. As in the United States, some outlets use the word “invasion” to describe the flow of migrants into Spain, bolstering their rhetoric, at times, with a reference to a specific historical event.

more here.

The Haunting of Western Pennsylvania

Rachel Wilkinson at Harper’s Magazine:

In the 1970s and ’80s, Pittsburgh’s haunted-house scene was booming. Simmons remembers perusing long lists of Halloween happenings printed in the local newspaper, then grabbing twenty dollars and spending the whole night hopping between attractions. There were no websites or phone numbers; the haunted houses would stay open until people stopped showing up. The era of big-budget haunted houses didn’t exist yet, and almost all of them were for charity, run by volunteer fire departments, Elks Clubs, Make-A-Wish, and the United States Junior Chamber, also known as the Jaycees. The Jaycees’ haunted-house fundraisers became so successful that they circulated how-to manuals to their chapters nationwide; many experts credit the Jaycees with putting a haunted house in every city in America.

more here.

Revealing Sylvia Plath

Hannah Sullivan at the TLS:

Many readers will be tempted to skip over the first 700 pages of this volume, to go straight for the final months. But that would be a big mistake. To begin with, the letters to Beuscher – Sylvia proposes rather poignantly at one point to pay her for her replies – need to be understood within a wider context of letter-writing patterns. The first volume of letters began at summer camp and ended with Sylvia and Ted’s honeymoon. The second begins in Cambridge in October 1956: Sylvia is studying for the second year of the English BA degree on a Fulbright scholarship; Ted, two years after graduating from Cambridge himself, is teaching at a boys’ school but “may have to take a labouring job” to cover the bills. They drink sherry, paint their shabby flat in cheerful colours, wait “breathlessly” for the post, heat milk for coffee (allowing the pan to boil over when it in fact arrives), recite Chaucer to the cows, and ask their omnipresent Ouija board when they will be published in the New Yorker. There is a huge amount about cooking and baking, including a request for Aurelia to send extra boxes of Flako pie crust mix across the Atlantic, a discussion of Ted’s love of casseroles, and the comment that “My Joy of Cooking is a blessing”. Really? A blessing? In her journal of the same year, Sylvia had rebuked herself wryly for reading The Joy of Cooking like a “rare novel”. “Whoa, I said to myself. You will escape into domesticity & stifle yourself by falling headfirst into a bowl of cookie batter.”

more here.

Blueprint – how DNA dictates who we are

Steven Mithen in The Guardian:

We will soon be able to identify the likelihood that a newborn baby – perhaps your baby – will be susceptible to depression, anxiety and schizophrenia throughout his or her life. We will know the probability that our newborns will have difficulty learning to read, become obese and be prone to Alzheimer’s disease in their later years. Good news? Robert Plomin thinks so. In Blueprint, he argues such insights should make us more tolerant of those who might be overweight or prone to depression; they will enable us to support our children better and plan for our own life’s course. He is equally pleased with the discovery that much of what we think of as nurture – the caring, supporting environments we build for our children – has, on average, no impact on our loved ones’ development. Plomin explains that nurture in the home is as irrelevant as the school environment for influencing whether we become kind or gritty, happy or sad, wealthy or poor, and that this leads to greater equality of opportunity than would have otherwise been the case. The only thing that matters for our personalities and much else is the DNA that we inherit and those chance events of our lives beyond anyone’s control.

This is good news certainly if it follows that knowledge is always better than ignorance and self-delusion. If parents are wasting their time reading bedtime stories when their children really don’t want to listen, or wasting their money paying for expensive private schools, then that is all good to know. I am not in a position to question the science, and Plomin has been studying the genetics of personality for 45 years. He is a pioneer in studying identical twins (with their identical DNA) growing up in different families and in comparing adopted and birth children within the same family (having no overlap in their DNA other than the 99% that we all share). By such studies, typically involving thousands of participants and extending over several decades, Plomin and his colleagues have examined the relative contributions of genes and environment, otherwise known as nature and nurture, to the formation of personalities. Genes win out every time.

More here.

Seeds of Parkinson’s disease may hide in the appendix

Kelly Servick in Science:

The appendix has a reputation of being useless at best. We tend to ignore this pinkie-size pouch dangling off our large intestine unless it gets inflamed and needs cutting out. But a new study suggests this enigmatic organ in the gut harbors a supply of a brain-damaging protein involved in Parkinson’s disease—even in healthy people. The study is the largest yet to find that an appendectomy early in life can decrease a person’s risk of Parkinson’s or delay its onset. “It plays into this whole booming field of whether Parkinson’s possibly starts in the gut,” says Per Borghammer, a neuroscientist at Aarhus University in Denmark who was not involved in the study. “And that would be a radical change in our understanding of the disease.” Look inside the brain of a person with Parkinson’s and you’ll find clumps of a misfolded form of a protein known as α-synuclein (αS). The protein’s normal function isn’t fully clear, but in this clumpy state, it may damage and kill neurons, including those near the base of the brain that help control movement. The results are the hallmark tremors and body rigidity of Parkinson’s.

But gastrointestinal symptoms—especially constipation—are also common in Parkinson’s patients, and can appear decades before other problems. Scientists have found that people are less likely to get Parkinson’s if they’ve had a vagotomy, a treatment for stomach ulcers that severs the vagal nerve, which branches down from the brain into various tissues of the gut. That finding feeds a still-controversial theory, proposed more than a decade ago by neuroscientist Heiko Braak, that the seeds of Parkinson’s disease somehow climb up out of the gut and into the brain. “It’s kind of like the telephone game,” explains John Woulfe, a neuropathologist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. Dysfunctional αS spreads up the fibers of the vagal nerve, the theory goes, by converting healthy forms of the protein to misfolded, clumpy ones.

In the new study, neuroscientist Viviane Labrie and her team at the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, decided to zero in on the appendix. Though it’s not necessary for life, it may not be completely useless; the organ holds immune cells that may help coordinate the gut’s response to pathogens, and bacteria that may help maintain a healthy balance of gut microbes. (Inflammation and microbiome disturbances are both proposed factors in Parkinson’s risk.) Four recently published studies looked for evidence that people who get appendectomies are less likely to get Parkinson’s; three couldn’t find it, but Labrie’s team did. “This study accomplishes what those studies lacked,” Woulfe says—a large group of people tracked over a sufficiently long time. It relies on a national registry that has logged medical records for 1.7 million Swedish citizens since 1964. There is roughly a 1% chance that a person will develop Parkinson’s after age 65, but for the Swedes who had an appendectomy, the risk of developing the disease was about 20% lower than for those who kept their appendix, the researchers report today in Science Translational Medicine.

More here.

Thursday Poem

Waiting for the Bus

All along the road from Bulawayo
to Gwanda or Matopos or Vic Falls;
at bus-stops, lay-bys, under shadeless trees,
the people wait beside their bundled things.
All day long they wait, and sometimes all night
too, and the next day – anxiously waiting.

Waiting for the public transport to stop
and let them in and take them home. Waiting
with babies to nurse, children to comfort
and feed, chickens, the occasional goat.
They have learned to come prepared, with blankets,
izinduku, pots for cooking sadza.

Waiting for ZUPCO or SHU-SHINE, AJAY,
to get them to their Uncle’s funeral,
their cousin’s wedding, their baby brother’s
baptism. Waiting with the new Camper Vans
cruising by. Anxious to be at work on
time. Anxious not to lose their jobs. Waiting.

They take their time now not by wrist-watches
but by the sun and the stars and the moon;
by the appearance of the mopani worms;
by the ripening of marula fruit;
by the coming of the rains. Not by bus
timetables but by birth, marriage and death.

And while they wait they count the jets that fly
to Harare and Johannesburg.
Liverish businessmen sucking whiskies
are in these jets. And Chefs with mistresses
wearing the latest digital watches,
Digital dolly-birds. All carry brief-
cases with combination locks, and next
to nothing inside: dark glasses perhaps;
and a newspaper to study the Stock
Exchange; something digital, perhaps, for
calculating profit . . . and more profit.
It’s something for people to do while

they wait – counting the jets high overhead.
Often the vapour trails are the only
clouds in the sky. No Forex for buses,
They tell us, but the five-star hotels go
up, and another Boeing is purchased.
All day they wait; all night; long suffering.

And when, at last, a bus does stop, its tyres
are likely to be bald, its brakes likely
to be held together with wire, its body
battered, belching clouds of brain-tightening,
lung-collapsing smoke. Who’s responsible?
“Not me,” says the Chef dipping his fingers

in his girl-friend’s cocktail, shifting his vast
belly, vast enough to accommodate
at least seven baby goats. “Don’t look at
me,” says the Managing Director, “my
bottom line is profit. I owe it to
the shareholders. Another whisky please.”

And I don’t think it is going to be any
different tomorrow or the next day
or the next. The time of sweet-becoming
is over. For those millions who depend
on buses, nothing has changed; only their
expectations have once again been dashed.

The time of bitter arrival is here:
not safe new buses, but the amassing
of personal wealth, the cultivation
of another crop of heroes. Street
names change, statues change; hotels go up, jets
go up, and the people go on waiting.

Editor’s Note: ZUPCO, SHUSHINE, AJAY – names of Zimbabwean bus companies. Chefs – from the Portuguese chefe: Powerful politicians.