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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

This Week:

  1. Timeline: April 2003
  2. Places & Culture
  3. Scrapbook
  4. Weekly Digest


"The hounds of spring are on winter's traces," wrote Algernon Charles Swinburne, and this April, the season was indeed marked by dogged pursuit of rebirth. After nearly a month of combat, American troops completed their trek to Baghdad, where Iraqi civilians helped them fell a statue of their dictator, collapsing his regime and all but ending the war. Earlier, a Marine unit hounded the trail of seven U.S. POW's, and restored them to safety, including 19-year-old private Jessica Lynch.

Quests for transformation marked the month elsewhere in the world as well. You have to empty yourself to feel filled, and, in possibly his last encyclical letter of doctrine, Pope John Paul II reminded followers to go to confession before taking communion. Many doctors give patients a new lease on life, but few give any of them a kidney, as Dr. Susan Hou did in Chicago. "I can't bring about world peace," she said. "But I can get one person off dialysis." Across town, the perennially futile Cubs allowed hope to spring by ending the month in first place. Elizabeth Smart began to assume routines of a normal life after a nine-month abduction, leaving a lawyer to sort through offers to buy the movie rights to her story. But transformation was also resisted. The town of Hamburg, New York, rejected a suggestion from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to change its name to Veggieburg. And the prison system's cycle of frustration reached a milestone, as the country's prison population surpassed two million for the first time ever, despite a decade-long decline in violent crime.

Spring's spirit of rejuvenation owes itself to youth, metaphorically and etymologically (the Latin root of "rejuvenation" is juvenis for "youth"), which made a new study of youth literacy last month all the more encouraging, and why the Colorado governor was pleased to institute the country's first state school voucher program. In sports, we saw the return of a wee little golfer—or, more accurately: Wie, little golfer—as 13-year-old Michelle Wie returned to the women's pro golf tour. Such blossoming of youth made one scientific discovery more horrifying, as researchers documented a genetic condition that accelerates aging and causes children to die of old age.

Another pestilence, SARS, spread around the world. And yet, in a month in which a New York man validated the famous hypothetical headline "Man Bites Dog", media hysteria was such that you could watch a television news program cut from an alarming report about SARS, which at month's end had killed less than 350 people, to an advertisement for SUV's, which a new study last month said killed over 10,000 people in the U.S. last year, nearly 500 more than the year before.

April bore cheerier discoveries as well. The Genome Project was declared officially complete. Hawaiian astronomers spotted six more moons around Jupiter, while NASA picked out landing sites for twin rovers to comb Mars next year. Meanwhile, geologists in Madagascar found fossilized toothmarks they said was proof of dinosaur cannibalism.

Other echoes of history reverberated in April. Outside of Waco, Texas, a tenth-anniversary memorial service was held in a small chapel on the site of the destroyed Davidian compound. Georgia lawmakers approved a redesign of the state flag, shrinking the presence of the Confederate flag and striking a Dixie battle emblem. Other American icons were idled in April, as Philadelphia's Independence Hall was closed over security concerns and Michael Jordan played his last NBA game. Roy Williams, an assistant to Coach Dean Smith during Jordan's collegiate career at the University of North Carolina, became the winningest active NCAA coach never to win a championship; Jim Boeheim, after 27 years without a championship at Syracuse, coached his team past Williams and Kansas in this year's final.

The widow of John Steinbeck and one of the first female stage managers on Broadway, Elaine Steinbeck died in April at the age of 88. Robert Atkins, whose best-selling diet plan finally gained widespread credibility at the end of his life, died of a head injury at age 72. Mary Christian, 113, who survived the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, was the oldest living American. Hout Seng, who shuttled foreign journalists around Cambodia in the 1970s, had mourned his wife during their escape from the Khmer Rouge regime and became a Washington, D.C. cabdriver. A horse-drawn hearse bore the body of blues legend Earl King through the streets of New Orleans. Mike Larrabee had overcome an inflamed pancreas to win two gold medals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Charlie Tolar, a 5-foot-6 fullback, became an NFL fan favorite in the 1960s by barreling into gigantic opposing linemen. Anita Borg was a pioneer for women in computer science. Cecile de Brunhoff created Babar the Elephant. Charles Douglass invented the laugh track for The Jack Benny Show and I Love Lucy. Richard Feller, who died in April at age 84, once considered going into the priesthood, but instead devoted his life to another high calling—cathedral construction, including a career as supervising engineer at Washington National Cathedral.

Previous Timeline: March 2003


From the New York Times:

CAMP BORNEO, in the Arctic Ocean, April 27—Most things about the top of the world are as they have been for ages. It remains a frigid realm where milling floes of ice form a white cap atop an ocean that is two miles deep. Unlike the South Pole, where 29 countries have set up bases for research and hegemony on snow-cloaked terra firma, up here all is as fleeting as the sparkles from the fine ice crystals … But the North Pole is rapidly becoming busy. Humans … are crisscrossing, probing and camping out in increasing numbers on the ice veneer, particularly in the window from mid-March to early May, when winter's cold has ebbed but summer's thaw has not yet turned surfaces into knee-deep slush. The northward rush has been simplified by satellite phones and global-positioning devices that allow trekkers and scientists to know their position even where compasses spin uselessly, the sun rises in March and sets in September, and the icescape shifts moment to moment. Since 1992, almost everyone who ventures to the pole first stops at this seasonal, floating way station, run by entrepreneurs from Russia and France for tourists and scientists as both an Everest-style base camp and a hub for researchers studying shifting climate and ocean patterns.
Sadi, a second grader, still has asthma. He still lives in circumstances most Americans would consider abject. But thanks to an ambitious project by Harlem Hospital Center and Harlem Children's Zone, conditions in his home are much improved, his asthma is under control for the first time in years, and he has not seen an emergency room in eight months. … The goals of the asthma project are nothing short of extraordinary—to test every child in a 24-block area of central Harlem, more than 2,000 of them, identify those with asthma, and then mount a full-scale assault on the disease in each asthmatic child's home. Experts say there have been no more than one or two other attempts anywhere in the country at intervening so deeply into the lives of so many asthmatic children.


• From an NPR interview with Walon Green, an executive produce of the remake of Dragnet, and former writer and producer of Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, ER, and Law and Order.

Terry Gross: There was a time when people assumed that if you were a serious writer, the place to be was movies, and TV was a place to make money, but it was not the place to really practice your craft in the way that film was. Do you ever feel that it's sometimes the opposite, that the writer is more respected in television than in film?

Walon Green: Yes, the writer is much more respected in television than in film, and in fact if somebody told me they wanted to write dramatic material and really cared about what they wrote I would probably steer them [away] and say, 'I don't know anything about the theatre but maybe that's good.' Film is probably the most depressing place for a writer. You have about the same status as Kleenex. Don Simpson said, 'I don't consider I've done justice to a script unless at least 20 writers have worked on it.' So you're easily picked up, easily discarded, your views, whatever original views you had, are of no significance really. It's extremely rare, even if you're a respected writer. There's a honeymoon period and then there's a period where they decide what the movie should be, and you may not be a part of that. In television, because you stay with the project and directors come and go, you do have a way, if you can do it within the confines of what that project is, you do have a way of saying things. I think Norman Lear has put a real stamp on getting what he feels to the American public certainly more successfully than any writer I can think of in the motion picture business.

Listen to the NPR interview with Walon Green
Related: Emmy-winning writer Aaron Sorkin to leave The West Wing

Recent cartoons in The New Yorker:

Waiter to couple: "While the chef's dishes tonight are rather bland, his ideas are fresh and appealing."

Burglars examining an enormous SUV: "No radio, but there is an orchestra pit."

Two men stranded on a desert island observe a couple dozen bottles bobbing near the shore. Explains one to the other: "Junk mail."

Computer Logic: Recent message on my screen:

"Windows 2000 could not start because the following file is missing or corrupt: [file name]. You can attempt to repair this file by starting Windows 2000 … "

Previous Scrapbook: philosophical college application questions


For links with an * you can log in with member name and password of "bcread"

• Instead of SARS, we should be worried about "Severe Acute Media Syndrome," whereby remote threats to public safety and peace of mind are amplified by overwrought media hype and anxiety, says David Baltimore, president of Caltech and Nobel laureate in medicine in the Wall Street Journal. Although SARS is scary and China's coverup costly, Baltimore says, "99.9% of us [are] not conceivably at risk." How is it that anthrax and SARS, which killed four and a few hundred people, respectively, dominate news about public health while 20,000 Americans die each year from the flu, he asks, adding that "your chances of being killed by SARS are remote compared to the chance you'll be killed in your car on the way to a Chinese restaurant. But media viruses are immune to rational inoculation." Baltimore suggests that "new media technologies are accelerating public anxiety about viruses even faster than new health technologies have enhanced our ability to cope with them." In a week in which all four major newsweeklies ran needlessly alarmist SARS covers, this column was the most informed and useful coverage of the disease.
http://online.wsj.com/article_email …

- "These stories are like popcorn for the U.S. media," says University of Toronto media professor in the Buffalo News.
- Fear has a function when viruses spread, responds Six Degrees author in Slate.

• If you had a nickel for every time someone told you poetry is dead, you could make a $100 million donation to Poetry magazine, as Ruth Lilly did last fall. In the "My Turn" column of this week's Newsweek, Bruce Wexler says poetry indeed has lost its pulse; it is "the only art form where the number of people creating it is far greater than the number of people appreciating it." After another undetectable passing of National Poetry Month, Wexler writes, "people don't possess the patience to read a poem 20 times before the sound and sense of it takes hold. They aren't willing to let the words wash over them like a wave, demanding instead for the meaning to flow clearly and quickly. They want narrative-driven forms, stand-alone art that doesn't require an understanding of the larger context." But a couple of questions are left unaddressed by Wexler, who manages to link poetry's decline to the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan (along with a Neil Postman-like roundup of the usual suspects: the decline of the written word (which I question here), a fast-food cultural ethos, the Internet): How does one define "a good poem" without being elitist? How inappropriate is it to celebrate a golden age of poetry when such an era had miniscule literacy rates? And is the fact that more people can write and read poetry than ever before, due to mass literacy and the Internet, the least bit encouraging?

• Now that the U.S. is running Iraq, or trying to, it faces a number of challenges less dramatic but no less important than armed combat. One of them—the country's mountain of foreign debts—must simply be cancelled under a resurrected doctrine of odious debts, argues James Surowiecki in The New Yorker. Under this doctrine, "a country is not responsible for debts incurred by a 'despotic regime' and used for purposed 'contrary to the interests of the nation.'" Saddam Hussein's checkbook meets both criteria, Surowiecki says. "Even if the Iraqi people could afford to pay back Saddam's debts, it's hard to see why they should. Most of the money that Iraq borrowed in the last twenty years went either to Saddam's military misadventures in Iran and Kuwait or to his internal security apparatus. Asking the Iraqi people to assume Saddam's debts is rather like telling a man who has been shot in the head that he has to pay for the bullet." Reprinted at OdiousDebts.org:
http://www.odiousdebts.org/odiousdebts/index.cfm …

In another unheralded postwar task, a team of scientists travels to Iraq to see if the marshlands of Mesopotamia, drained by Hussein, can be restored. From the Washington Post.

• The latest attempt at a "road map" to peace in the Middle East, which the U.S. ambassador to Israel delivered to Ariel Sharon last Wednesday, is both optimistic and reasonable, argues Abraham Sofaer, former Middle East mediator for the State Department, in Commentary. But as with history's parade of failed solutions to reconcile Israel and the Palestinians, the biggest obstacle may not be achieving a change in policy, but a change in both sides' motivations and provocations. Sofaer, it should be noted, is more concerned with Palestinian aggression than that of the Israeli government, which weakens his lengthy analysis.

Related from B&C:
"The Land" by Gerald McDermott

• One politician unexpectedly hurt by the state of the economy is George Washington. Mount Vernon is reeling from its lowest visitation in more than half a century, and starting to solicit corporate benefactors for private evenings on the lawn, replete with elegant dinners and fireworks over the Potomac, says the Washington Post. This after Mount Vernon's plans last summer to liven the image of the nation's first president with a feature film casting Washington as an action hero from Steven Spielberg's production company. Monticello and Colonial Williamsburg have also suffered lagging attendance.

Crumbling Virginia capitol, designed by Thomas Jefferson and a former Confederate chamber, will be renovated, says the Post.

African apes are disappearing at an alarming rate in remote regions of the continent, the Washington Post reported last month. Protective measures have been unable to keep up with hunting along new logging roads permeating forests in Gabon and Congo, or with the Ebola virus. Those two threats have shrunk ape populations in those two countries by more than half in 20 years, according to a study printed by Nature. Conservationists and disease specialists will hold an emergency meeting in Washington this month to plot an emergency strategy.   http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A33512-2003Apr5.html

Browsing:The New York Times Magazine on our complacency amid a "second nuclear age," a rash of SARS covers, and more from Slate's "In Other Magazines."

Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture.

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