In the mid-19th century, American writers began (belatedly) asserting their own independence from Britain. Rather than writing in a British idiom that had little to do with the English spoken in the saloons and churches of the United States, they began writing in a uniquely American English. No writer did more for American English than Mark Twain, but the writer who codified the new language was the Baltimore journalist H. L. Mencken.
Along with Mark Twain, Mencken drew inspiration from a variety of sources, including (in his words) “the argot of the colored waiters” of Washington D.C. Mencken’s project began with a series of articles in The Evening Sun (the evening edition of The Baltimore Sun) and eventually wrote a column asking “Why doesn’t some painstaking pundit attempt a grammar of the American language… English, that is, as spoken by the great masses of the plain people of this fair land?” Nobody answered the call, so Mencken did it himself.
The first volume of The American Language was published in 1921, with many supplementary volumes to follow. Of course, Mencken was preceded in his work by Noah Webster, who published the first American dictionary a century earlier. That said, no writer had ever gone as far as Mencken in the project of celebrating the vocabulary and usage of American English.
Constant fatigue. Missed parties. Postponed exams. Precipitously falling grades. Feeling “out of the loop” with your friends. And isolation. These are a few of the ways that the scourge of high school and college students, known as “mono” or the “kissing disease,” can put a major damper on your (social) life.
Mono is called the kissing disease for two key reasons- it is transmitted through saliva and mucus and is most common in people 10 to 35 years old (with its peak incidence occurring in the 15 to 17 years old demographic). While only 50 people out of 100,000 of the general population contracts mono each year, the infection strikes as many as 2 out of 1,000 teens and twenty-somethings, especially those in high school, college, and the military. While mono is not usually considered a serious illness, it can take (what feels like) forever for an infected individual to fully recover from a bout with the infection.
Especially in adolescents and young adults, the disease is characterized by extreme and persistent fatigue, fever and sore throat along with several other possible signs and symptoms. It is primarily diagnosed by observation of symptoms, but suspicion can be confirmed by several diagnostic tests.
Caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), a member of the much-loved herpes virus family, mono has a long incubation period (30 to 50 days from the time you’re exposed to the virus) before an infected person begins to manifest symptoms. Of course, this increases the likelihood that an infected person will unwittingly spread the virus to others. I shudder to think about the collateral damage potential posed by one unknowingly infected teen and a basement game of spin the bottle.
Mono can be transmitted in other ways, such as sipping from the same straw or glass as an infected person — or even being close when the person coughs or sneezes. Most depressingly, some people remain infectious for up to a year after contracting the virus. This represents a literal kiss of death for the responsible and unattached young person, who must put a halt to all steamy make-out sessions until they get the green light from their doctor. For the teen and twenty-something set, that is easier said than done….
Today’s entry about Samuel Beckett’s 1952 play Waiting for Godot in the Modern Culture edition points out that “words and ideas take precedence over events” in the play. Though this is already the case in Beckett’s first major play (Godot was preceded by Eleutheria, which was written in 1947 but wasn’t published until 1995). It is even more true of later works like 1963′s Play (“three characters trapped in urns onstage”) and 1972′s Not I (“a lone actress delivers a lengthy, jumbled monologue in pitch blackness, with only her mouth visible to the audience”). But no play of Beckett’s is more stripped-down than Breath.
In 1969, the British theater critic Kenneth Tynan decided to celebrate the end of theater censorship in the UK with an all-nude review. Well, not quite. A few articles in clothing pop up throughout <>Oh! Calcutta!>, but not many. (The title is a pun on the French “O quel cul t’as!“, which means “Oh! What a great butt!”) The show was conceived as an avant-garde erotic revue, but turned into a gigantic hit: it’s 5th on the list of longest-running Broadway musicals.
Many writers were invited to submit skits for the revue, including Beckett. As a sardonic spoof of the whole enterprise, Beckett submitted Breath. The instructions for performance are extremely detailed, but the entire play lasts well under a minute: amidst a stage covered with rubbish, we hear a woman cry out as she gives birth (or “an instant of recorded vagitus”), inhale and exhale as the lights brighten and dim, and then another birth-cry. That’s it; the whole piece usually takes about 30 seconds to perform.
Recordings of Oh! Calcutta! are hard to come by, but the British artist Damien Hearst did a particularly elaborate version of Breath for the BBC’s 2002 Beckett on Film project:
Compared to many countries in the world, Japanese society is not actively hostile towards homosexuals. Japan has no sodomy laws, and provides some legal protections for gay individuals (there are even some legal protections for transgender people). While national civil rights laws do not protect homosexuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation, some local governments have recently enacted such laws. For example, the government of Tokyo has passed laws that ban discrimination in employment based on sexual identity. Some simple minded pundits cite this as ‘proof’ that there is no discrimination against gays in Japan. This conclusion is overly optimistic, to say the least. In truth, Japan remains uneasy about how to relate to gay people, so their solution is not to do so.
Group identity is highly prioritized in Japan, and the concomitant emphasis on social conformity requires gay people to stay in the closet- at least for the time being. The lack of any legal sanctions — or legal protections — is just another aspect of invisibility of gay people in Japan. In Japanese culture, public and social shaming exacts a much stronger influence over the behavior of its citizens than any law ever could.
Thus, while most homosexuals in Japan seldom have reason to fear outright persecution, violence or legal action (As many Americans still do), most are terrified that they would be ostracized by their families and co-workers if they came out of the closet. Unsurprisingly, there aren’t many people in Japanese public life- with a few notable exceptions- who have publicly announced that they are gay. Many gays are “selectively out” to a select group of sympathetic friends and family, but few gays are out of the closet all of the time.
Trapped in the closet and lacking cohesion, gays in Japan are a politically invisible group. Few gays in Japan have ever attended a gay rally, march or meeting, things are beginning to change (albeit at a glacial pace). A few intrepid activists are taking on the punitive age of consent laws that exist in some parts of the country, which dictate that the age of consent for same-sex sexual activity is higher than for opposite-sex sexual activity. On a whole, the major political parties express little public support for gay rights issues in Japan, and have little motivation to do so. It remains to be seen whether Japanese homosexuals will eventually feel compelled to reconcile the distinct divide between their public and private selves, or if they will continue to prefer the security of anonymity.
Choice-supported bias is the tendency to give positive qualities to an option we’ve chosen, simply because we’ve chosen it. It is an example of cognitive dissonance, a psychological theory that describes the uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. Cognitive dissonance theory holds that people have a motivational drive to reduce psychological dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, or by justifying or rationalizing them. “Dissonance” occurs when a person perceives a logical inconsistency in their beliefs, which compels them to minimize the discrepancy through a variety of ego defense mechanisms, such as choice-supported bias.
Choice-supported bias describes the human tendency to believe that one’s past decisions were better than they actually were. People adopt a smug attitude about their choices for a number of reasons, all of which defend the ego against the threat of regret. When we make a choice, it becomes a part of our identity and is incorporated into our self image. Upon recalling a past decision, people often distort their memories to make their choices appear superior to the alternatives that existed at the time. As a result, we can rest on our laurels and feel positive about ourselves and have less regret for bad decisions. This might explain why older people tend more towards this bias than younger individuals.
Choice-supported bias is facilitated by the following three factors:
1. We can only know the details of the choices we have made. Thus, potential alternative outcomes remain abstract or distant in our mind and therefore ripe for self-serving manipulation.
2. The “it’s too late anyway” line of reasoning. This occurs when an individual quells their thoughts about past alternatives by telling themselves “it’s too late anyway”.
3. It supports our belief that we learn and grow from the choices they have made. Thus, we can self-soothe our fragile psyches by telling ourselves that our past decisions made us wiser. However, this line of reasoning fails to account for the fact that we are only learning from the choices we have made and not from the choices we didn’t make. Just because a choice led to a good outcome doesn’t mean that the other one wouldn’t have led to an equal or better one.
However, it would be wrong to conclude that choice-supported bias is an entirely negative phenomenon. Like all ego defensive strategies, it can help people better focus on the here and now by staving off fruitless and crippling regret about the past.
Banned Books Week (BBW) is an annual event held by the American Library Association (ALA) in an effort to draw attention to the importance of the First Amendment. Held during the last week of September, Banned Books Week draws attention to the harms of censorship by listing all actual and attempted efforts to remove “controversial” books from the shelves of libraries, schools and universities. A perennial target is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which chronicles three days in the life of the protagonist and antihero Holden Caulfield, following his exodus of a boarding school he was attending. Originally published for adults, forward-thinking high school English teachers began assigning the book to their students because of its perceptive and sensitive treatment of teenage confusion, angst, sexuality, alienation, and rebellion.
The book immediately aroused strong objections within certain communities across the country when it began to be widely taught to high school students in the early 1960s. The grievances against the book are many and varied, and generally begin with objections about its vulgar language, citing the novel’s heavy use of words like “fuck” and “goddamn”. Other grievances include complaints about its sexual content, anti-religious overtones and undermining of family values. Many also complain that Holden is a bad role model, and that the book encourages rebellion, drinking, smoking, lying, and promiscuity. Damningly, many of the novel’s most vocal critics proudly bragged that they had never even read the book!
Of course all of the controversy couldn’t have been better publicity, and Holden Caulfield remains an enduring icon of teenage rebellion half a century after its publication.
Accutane (also known as Isotretinoin) is a potent medication used to treat moderate to severe acne, and has proven to be remarkably effective in improving even the worst breakouts (take my word for it- I have seen it perform miracles). However, because of its host of prohibitive side effects, dermatologists tend to only prescribe it as a drug of last resort.
On the milder end of the side effects spectrum, a person beginning a course of Accutane can expect to experience a nasty acne flare-up (coupled with EXTREME dryness of the skin, hair, lips and mucous membranes) in the first 1-3 months that they are taking the drug. Having witnessed this acne flare-up/dryness combo firsthand, I will put it bluntly: Accutane will (temporarily) make you look like you have a horrendous flesh-eating disease. However, once you have suffered this trial by fire, your skin will positively glow with radiance- it is truly astonishing to behold.
On the serious side, Accutane is a teratogen and is highly likely to cause birth defects if taken during pregnancy. A few of the more common birth defects that this drug has caused include: hearing and visual impairment; missing or malformed earlobes; facial dysmorphism; cleft palates; and mental retardation. In the U.S. more than 2,000 women have become pregnant while taking the drug between 1982 and 2003, with most pregnancies ending in abortion or miscarriage. However, about 160 babies with birth defects were born.
Consequently, the mandatory iPLEDGE program was enacted in 2005, the largest and arguably most complex risk-management program ever undertaken by the FDA in an attempt to ensure that female patients do not become pregnant while taking Accutane. As of March 2006, only prescribers registered and activated in iPLEDGE are able to prescribe it, and only patients registered and qualified in iPLEDGE will be able to have the drug dispensed to them. Inexplicably, men must also register for the iPLEDGE program. Well, at least they aren’t required to take a pregnancy test….
In addition, female patients cannot obtain or fill their first prescription unless they undergo an initial screening and two negative blood or urine pregnancy tests with documented results verified by the prescriber and entered into the iPLEDGE password-protected system. Female patients also must pledge to use two forms of contraception for one month before, during, and after completing Accutane therapy. Each month thereafter, the patient must have a negative pregnancy test result, and this result as well as verification of the two methods of contraception being used must entered by the prescriber into the iPLEDGE system.
Unsurprisingly, dermatologists are not iPLEDGE’s biggest fans. Most complain that it is inordinately onerous, structurally flawed and poorly organized. The net effect, say dermatologists, is a bottleneck in office operations, delays in patient care, and, ultimately, barriers to delivery of a drug that has proved the only effective therapy for many patients with severe, recalcitrant acne.
Only time will tell whether the iPLEDGE campaign will successfully deter pregnancy amongst Accutane users. However, the FDA cannot be accused of not giving it the old college try….