Tuesday, July 14, 2015
Monday, April 20, 2015
"Now researchers are studying whether the power of writing--and then rewriting--your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness."
She quotes Timothy D. Wilson, a University of Virginia psychology professor and lead author of a Duke study of the effects of personal story on struggling college freshmen. “These writing interventions can really nudge people from a self-defeating way of thinking into a more optimistic cycle that reinforces itself,” he said
Dr. Wilson, whose book “Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By,” was released in paperback in January 2015, believes that while writing doesn’t solve every problem, it can definitely help people cope. “Writing forces people to reconstrue whatever is troubling them and find new meaning in it,” he said.
Sunday, October 12, 2014
In city after city, young black men are routinely stopped by police for “walking while black,” sometimes on the street where they’ve lived for years. Some black men have even been stopped or arrested by police while trying to enter their own homes, most notably prominent Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2009.
Some years ago in Los Angeles, a friend was stopped on a street outside his apartment and held at gunpoint in a squad car for two hours. The police were looking for a suspect in his 30s; my friend was in his 70s, but he “fit the description!” Black men, from teenagers to adults, have heard this accusation all too often. But the only description they fit is that of being a black man, and too many white Americans think that in itself is associated with criminality. The “crime” is simply being born a black male.
America’s wretched racist legacy has conditioned many whites to fear non-white skin color – the “we” and “them” attitude gone pathological – and some in positions of authority respond by unpacking the national weapon and unloading on black men.
Young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts, says a new report from ProPublica, released October 10, 2014. In an analysis of 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012, ProPublica found that “blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.” Imagine the national outrage if a proportional number of young white men had been shot by police during that same time period. We need a surge of national outrage over the murders of young black male Americans.
August 2014 was a particularly deadly month: Michael Brown, age 18, killed August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri; Ezell Ford, 25, shot in Los Angeles, California, August 11, 2014; Dante Parker, 36, tased in Victorville, California, August 12, 2014. When he developed trouble breathing, Parker was taken to a hospital where he died. Not even black male children are safe from police shootings. On November 22, 2014, police in Cleveland shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice who was carrying a toy pellet gun.
Criminalization of black men has a long ugly history in America, as Khalil Muhammad, head of the New York Public Library’s Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture and author of Condemnation of Blackness, explained in an interview with Bill Moyers on June 29, 2012. “If we think about the moment immediately following the Civil War, there was the invention of something called ‘the Black Codes’ in every Southern state. And those codes were intended to use the criminal justice system to restrict the freedom and mobility of black people. And if you crossed any line that they prescribed, you could be sold back to your former slave owner, not as a slave, but as a prisoner to work off your fine after an auction where you were resold to the highest bidder. It tells you something about the invention of the criminal justice system as a repressive tool to keep black people in their place,” Muhammad told Moyers. “And it’s still with us. It’s still with us, because ultimately, as a social problem, crime has become like it was in the Jim Crow South, a mechanism to control black people’s movement in cities.”
Slavery ended long ago but the psychological dregs remain with us. President Obama has not been immune to the racism that still infests and sickens our society. Since he campaigned for the presidency, he has been the target of racist epithets and cartoons, vilification, unprecedented disrespect, and attempts to paint him as non-American. Although his election is one of the most triumphant moments in American history, it has not triggered a post-racial era. On the contrary, it unleashed a virulent Obama hatred and blatant resurgence of political racism. One entire political party – the Republican Party – has spent the past six years trying every tactic in its book of dirty tricks to destroy the Obama presidency. Any day, I expect to hear some Republican or Fox News wag blame Obama for bringing the Ebola virus into the U.S. Think it’s far-fetched? It’s not impossible from a party that rejects the findings of science, spurns evidence, celebrates ignorance and has done everything it could to block, obstruct or kill every social policy President Obama has tried to get through Congress. It’s as if Republicans are trying to exact revenge on the American people for electing Barack Obama president.
In campaigns throughout the country, Republican candidates have only one issue: anti-Obama. At the Congressional level, Republicans have supported only two issues: more tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires; and overturning the Affordable Care Act, which is, in fact, providing health insurance to millions of previously uninsured Americans, reducing medical costs and working much better than even its proponents expected. They have put nothing positive on the table. Because of their inaction and right-wing ideology, I have come to a conclusion I don’t like, namely, that the Republican Party, which once had real statespersons like Eisenhower, is now a party of rich, racist old white men who care nothing about the poor, the middle class or minorities. Indeed, a right-leaning Supreme Court majority gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Republican-governed states have gerrymandered districts to isolate minority voters most likely to vote Democratic and have set up obstacles to discourage minorities, the young and the old from voting. Racism run amuck at the highest levels of government.
You see, Barack Obama was never supposed to be president. He was never supposed to make it through the racist maze. He was never supposed to get out of the “place” that racism designed to confine all African-Americans but particularly African-American men. The fact that he did – that a majority of American voters elected him twice – sent a shockwave through the racists among us. And they are trying to ensure that it never happens again. Of course, they won’t win. America is too diverse, and that diverse population is only increasing. But in the meantime, we have to waste time and precious human resources putting up with those racists who occupy some powerful positions. More importantly, we have to recognize the ugly racist undercurrent of some local and national politics and exercise our votes to get racists out of office. There are more intelligent, more compassionate, more tolerant Americans out there. We know this because they turned out to elect the first African-American president in our nation’s history, and every day they make significant positive contributions at every level of community life, from operating free clinics to raising funds to provide fuel assistance to needy people. There is much unheralded goodness and generosity in this country, and we need to tap into it.
In 2008, President Obama said, "Yes, we can." And we did. Twice. Now we have to do everything we can to rid our culture of racism. Ultimately, our democracy and the social health of our nation depend on it.
Sunday, May 25, 2014
The first twist for me was an opportunity to write a book about scientific discoveries that were made by chance or error. I had to work really hard to write that book because I had no background in science. I was a literature major with a minor in creative writing. The year I worked on that book was grueling. I had a full-time job but spent weekends in the New York Public Library doing research for the book. I did get a book, Discovery By Chance, written, and after it was published, other science writing jobs on television documentaries came my way. To write one of those films, which was about tropical rainforests, I traveled to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s field station on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, to do research. Being in the rainforest and meeting a bunch of field biologists hooked me on science, especially evolutionary biology, the science that deals with life on Earth, who we are, and how we evolved.
I don’t know anything more fascinating than the fact that life evolved on this fortunate planet, and that of all the directions life could have taken, creatures like us evolved. Chance figured in our evolution as well. We wouldn’t be here had it not been for a cataclysmic accident that wiped out the dinosaurs. Some 65 million years ago, an enormous asteroid (6 miles across) hit the Earth, sending up dense dust clouds that blocked the sun’s rays and darkened the skies. Without sunlight, plants couldn’t carry out photosynthesis and manufacture food that is the base of all food chains. Without their plant food, the vegetarian dinosaurs and many other species died of starvation along with the carnivorous beasts like T. Rex that fed on them. Without the sun’s warmth, the Earth also experienced cold winter conditions. Scientists think the fallout from this asteroid killed up to 70 percent of all plants and animals on Earth at that time – a mass extinction.
It was a fortunate extinction for us, because living in the shadow of the gigantic beasts was a small shrew-like insect-eating mammal that may be the ancestor of modern placental mammals. A specimen 160 million years old has been found. Over time, following the extinction of the dinosaurs, numerous mammals evolved, including primates and the great apes that are our ancestors.
I find it exciting to learn what we share in common with our closest primate relatives – the chimpanzees – and how we differ. Our modern human species, Homo sapiens, first appeared in Africa about 200,000 years ago -- only a flicker of evolutionary time. DNA analysis shows that all of us who are alive today are descended from those early humans who lived in Africa. At the deepest level of our cells, our genetic blueprint, we are all African. What is more profound or exciting than that?
I write about nature and science because they form our knowledge base, provide evidence for what we know, and point toward solutions if our leaders are wise enough to embrace evidence. Sadly, today too many people in positions of power deny science and embrace superstition. I write science because I cherish life and hope in some small way to contribute to the education needed so desperately to protect our planet and save humanity from its self-destructive ways. Think of this: Dinosaurs ruled the Earth some 135 million years; our species hasn’t been around even a quarter of a million years. We are babies, and some of our grown-ups act like toddlers having tantrums. At the current rate of willful destruction of the planet’s resources, we won’t need an asteroid to wipe us out. We’re doing it to ourselves.
Is there hope? I like to think so. We’re a resilient, hardy species with huge brainpower. If we use our intelligence, creativity, compassion and ability to cooperate with each other and solve problems, we could protect our home planet and improve the quality of life for everyone. But it's a big IF.
Saturday, May 17, 2014
But there was no celebration. Instead Virginia politicians turned to fear-mongering against “mongrelization” and mounted a policy known as “massive resistance” to implementing the court’s decision. Using every political tactic at their disposal, including closing schools to prevent desegregation, Virginia’s politicians succeeded in delaying school integration until the late 1960s. One entire county, Prince Edward County, closed its public schools for five years rather than integrate. Here and in other areas of the state, private academies for white children sprang up but black children sometimes had no education at all. It was an ugly time in our history. Looking back now, I wonder how grown people could have acted so hatefully against children and against people they had known all their lives.
Even when I was a child, segregation never made sense to me. It went against everything my parents, my school, and my church taught me: love your neighbor as yourself, all men are created equal, respect everyone, liberty and justice for all. An old Sunday school song depicted a world quite different from the one in which I was living: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children in the world. Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight.” I felt I was getting mixed signals from these institutions and my community. When I asked why, nobody seemed to be able to give me an answer that made any sense. I felt I was getting simultaneous stop and go signals about how life should be lived.
Growing up on a farm, my brother and I played with the children of our black neighbors. We were friends. It was okay to play together in our yard, but we couldn’t express that friendship in public. We couldn’t go to school together; we couldn’t go to church together; we couldn’t go to the movies together.
The cultural mantra was “separate but equal,” but there was no equality in separation. I remember the “White Only” and “Colored Only” signs next to water fountains and on waiting room doors; the “White Only” and “Colored Only” sections of the local movie theater. Blacks weren’t allowed to sit at tables in the local drugstore/soda shop. Even the cemeteries were segregated. Did this mean heaven and hell were segregated? I felt that segregation made victims of both blacks and whites, that it limited freedom for all of us, though I knew I wasn’t humiliated and discriminated against as black people were. By the luck of the genetic draw, I was born white, but I would be no less me if I were black. Skin color was just another feature like eye or hair color. But segregation exploited skin color as an inborn badge of superiority or inferiority. Segregation said being black diminished a person's humanity, relegated a person to second-class status. But whites had done nothing to deserve their superior status. It didn't make any sense.
I didn’t understand how anybody calling themselves Christian could embrace segregation. Throughout my teenage years, I argued with my father, who was a devout Christian, on this point. Neither he nor my mother were racists. Like many other decent, well-meaning white southerners, they were born into the system of racial segregation, but they harbored no hatred of blacks. Indeed, there were some genuinely loving friendships between blacks and whites, especially between black and white women. But they were emotionally shackled by a system that required holding back feelings and avoiding openly embracing each other’s humanity. So there was intimacy and denial of intimacy – a system of wounded love. Always you had to be aware of how far you could go. The social taboo – the line that must never be crossed, on fear of death for black men – was interracial mixing – the great sexual bugaboo. Until 1967 when the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s law against interracial marriage as unconstitutional, mixed marriage was a felony in the state of Virginia and other southern states.
We’ve come a long way since 1954. Interracial marriage is no longer taboo, we have an interracial president who was raised by a single white mother and his white grandparents, and schools throughout the country are racially integrated though still segregated in many areas because of housing patterns. But we’re not in a post-racial society yet. Blacks still experience discrimination in job opportunities, housing, educational opportunity, access to medical treatment, and administration of justice. Black male children are especially at risk of racial hatred, such as the wanton murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, whose murderer was acquitted. Black male students in grades K-12 are nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended from school than white students. Young black men are stigmatized as criminals or potential criminals. According to the Center for American Progress, people of color are “ disproportionately incarcerated, policed, and sentenced to death at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts.”
So segregation is no longer legal but America still suffers from racism. Indeed, since President Obama’s election, racism seems to have surged particularly in the Republican Party. Legislation to hinder and limit the voting rights of African-Americans and other non-white minorities has been passed in various Republican-led states. Jim Crow has resurfaced under the guise of preventing so-called voter fraud. The journey to get beyond racial segregation that began 60 years ago with the Brown v. Board of Education decision hasn’t been completed yet. But I choose to believe we can overcome racism if enough people of good will speak out and remain vigilant. In some small pockets of the country, including many in the South, it has already happened quietly and peacefully.
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
If Freud had known more about the birds and bees, he might never have fantasized his theory of penis envy. In fact, a lot of theories about what sex is or ought to be might be vastly different if they were more firmly grounded in biology than in romance. The truth is: What passes for the story of the birds and the bees is a bedtime tale for innocents that leaves out more than it tells. In the reality of the wild, birds, bees, butterflies, snails—even orchids and avocados—“do it” in ways that would make the erotic Hindu sculptures at Konarak blush all the way down to their stone toenails. A tableau of nonhuman sexual strategies includes cannibals, transvestites, hermaphrodites, homosexual rapists, males with two penises, and plants that deceive, seduce, and kill. When it comes to mixing genes—and biologically, that’s what sex is all about—anything and everything goes.
There are almost as many ways and positions for “doing it” as they are creatures on the face of the Earth. Our human repertoire of seduction techniques seems unimaginative by comparison. Some animals and plants change sex as blithely as humans slip into evening clothes. Others resort to trickery—the biological equivalent of our sexual con games. A few animals even give up their lives for sex, but unlike us humans, they don’t have any choice in the matter. In the nonhuman world, sexual behavior is genetically programmed. Here, sex is straight and unadulterated. Nobody worries about who’s on top or who comes first or whether orgasms are clitoral or vaginal. There are no value judgments attached—no “crimes against nature,” sexual deviates, “unnatural” sex acts. Evolution favors whatever strategy best enables an animal or plant to pass along its genes and leave successful offspring.
It’s fun to be a voyeur in the world of nonhuman sex, but there’s a more serious reason for paying close attention to the birds and the bees. Training binoculars on nonhuman erotic windows can provide new biological perspectives on human sexual behavior—particularly taboos and discrimination, rape, wife-beating, and possibly other forms of sexual aggression. First, however, it’s necessary to give up some of our human chauvinist ideas. Excerpted from my book "How To Have Sex If You're Not Human"
Sunday, March 9, 2014
On Rape and Women's Bodies "From what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down," proclaimed Rep. Todd Akin (R-Missouri), the 2012 Republican Senate nominee from Missouri. Thankfully, the voters in Missouri shut down Akin's bid and reelected Senator Claire McCaskill.
On Wind Energy and Climate Change "Wind is God's way of balancing heat. Wind is the way you shift heat from areas where it's hotter to areas where it's cooler. That's what wind is. Wouldn't it be ironic if in the interest of global warming we mandated massive switches to energy, which is a finite resource, which slows the winds down, which causes the temperature to go up? Now, I'm not saying that's going to happen, Mr. Chairman, but that is definitely something on the massive scale. I mean, it does make some sense. You stop something, you can't transfer that heat, and the heat goes up. It's just something to think about." This came out of the mouth of Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas)
This same Congressman told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee: "I would point out that people like me who support hydrocarbon development don't deny that climate is changing. "I think you can have an honest difference of opinion of what's causing that change without automatically being either all in that's all because of mankind or it's all just natural. I think there's a divergence of evidence. . . I would point out that if you're a believer in the Bible, one would have to say the Great Flood is an example of climate change and that certainly wasn't because mankind had overdeveloped hydrocarbon energy."
Jim Sensenbrenner (R=WI) called research on climate change "an international conspiracy." Sensenbrenner is on House Science Committee.
Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) said: “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior.” In the same speech, Broun claimed “I don’t believe that the Earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.” This shining light of knowledge is also on the House Science Committee.
Just so I don't leave you in this muddle of negativity, here's a smart comment from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of Hayden Planetarium, Museum of Natural History, New York City.
“Recognize that the very molecules that make up your body, the atoms that construct the molecules, are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life. So that we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically. That’s kinda cool! That makes me smile and I actually feel quite large at the end of that. It’s not that we are better than the universe, we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.”