Elena Passarello | The Normal School | 2010 | 14 minutes (3,470 words)
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“Yee-aay-ee!” “Wah-Who-Eeee!” -Margaret Mitchell
“Wah-Who-Eeee!” -Chester Goolrick
-H. Allen Smith
“More! More! More!” -Billy Idol
For days on end, nothing happened down there, the dusty embodiment of a bureaucratic lock-up. Months accrued into motionless years, broken only by the occasional lazy afternoon when a bulldozer coughed itself awake, puffing the will to move some earth northward. The next day, revving up again, the dozer pushed the same soil southbound. Back and forth, across 16 inert acres, no change, except the illusion of change.
It was like that for a long time.
But then, without warning, the earth cracked, and the sky broke open. From the chasm below, the arcs of construction — cobalt sparks and copper flickers — lit up the night. Steely glass erupted from the ground, towers of freedom. And soon, the mirrors — oh, the mirrors! — the surface of each new building reflecting the best angles of its shiny peers.
We clearly needed a new name for this space. Instead, we returned to the old name: World Trade Center.
This is what it means to never forget.
— Rex Sorgatz, on Medium, in an essay about living in lower Manhattan after 9/11 and watching the neighborhood slowly rebuild itself.
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Our march from one level of gratification to the next has imposed huge costs—most recently in a credit binge that nearly sank the global economy. But the issue here isn’t only one of overindulgence or a wayward consumer culture. Even as the economy slowly recovers, many people still feel out of balance and unsteady. It’s as if the quest for constant, seamless self-expression has become so deeply embedded that, according to social scientists like Robert Putnam, it is undermining the essential structures of everyday life. In everything from relationships to politics to business, the emerging norms and expectations of our self-centered culture are making it steadily harder to behave in thoughtful, civic, social ways. We struggle to make lasting commitments. We’re uncomfortable with people or ideas that don’t relate directly and immediately to us. Empathy weakens, and with it, our confidence in the idea, essential to a working democracy, that we have anything in common.
— Paul Roberts, in The American Scholar, on how our constant pursuit for instant gratification will result in long-term negative social consequences. This essay is adapted from Roberts’s new book, The Impulse Society.
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Photo: Jenny Downing
We’re pleased to bring College Longreads back for the academic year. Even if you had a productive summer, you still didn’t do as much as the 2014 News21 team. The Carnegie-Knight News21 is an investigative multimedia reporting project based out of Arizona State but staffed by student journalists from some sixteen universities. This year’s project, Gun Wars, resulted in dozens of stories, videos, interactive graphics and more about gun rights and regulations in the United States. The slick presentation is supported by deep, solid reporting, the kind that’s time consuming (interviews) and sometimes just plain tedious (comparing suicide-by-gun data, state by state). News21 presents its findings with empathy but without judgment, a rarity in a media culture where reporting is often presented through the lens of a particular point of view. So read, watch, and explore this lush journalism experience.
Carnegie-Knight News21 Fellows | News21.com
A study by neurologists at University College London found that the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for spatial navigation, of a London cabby is significantly larger than those in the rest of the human population—a result of the intense memorization and route-finding undertaken while doing The Knowledge.
The study involved taking regular brain scans of Knowledge-seekers undergoing their training and comparing them with scans taken of a control group of people who had no interest in becoming cabdrivers.
At first, the hippocampi of all the study subjects were of similar size, and all subjects performed similarly on routine memory and route-finding tests. By the end of the study, though, those who’d passed The Knowledge had larger hippocampi, and the longer they worked as cabbies, the larger their hippocampi became.
“We don’t know what is changing in the hippocampi of taxi drivers,” says Eleanor Maguire, who led the study. “Whether it’s new neurons that are being produced, new connections between neurons, proliferation of other cell types, or all three.
—From “For London’s Cabbies, Job Entails World’s Hardest Geography Test,” a special feature for National Geographic by Roff Smith. Smith’s piece chronicles the intensive process necessary to obtain a London taxi license.
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Photo: Grepnold, Flickr
However shocking it is to the mainstream American sensibility, deliberate excarnation (or de-fleshing) is also a practice with a history—a spiritual practice sometimes referred to as “sky burial.” After death, the bodies of many Tibetan Buddhists are partially flayed and left exposed on a mountaintop for birds and animals to consume. The Parsis of India, a Zoroastrian population clustered around Mumbai, place their dead atop Towers of Silence to be picked clean by vultures. And certain Native American tribes once left their dead on elevated platforms to be excarnated. While the AP article revealed that many Americans are deeply unsettled by body-farm donation (no great surprise), its outing of the vulture study also exposed an unexpected, if rarefied, desire in this country: FACTS [the Forensic Anthropology Center] began receiving calls from potential donors requesting to be consumed by vultures. It made religion-specific sense when a little-known Zoroastrian group in Texas reached out, proposing that FACTS build a similar facility on their property. (The researchers politely declined.) But at this point, more than two years later, these inquiries make up about one in three of the calls FACTS receives about donation. “They usually say, flat-out, ‘I want to be eaten by vultures,’” says Sophia Mavroudas, who coordinates with donors. “Some are interested in Tibetan sky burial—but we’re here, in this country,” so the body farm is the next best thing.
— In the Oxford American, Alex Mar goes to San Marcos, Texas to visit the Forensic Anthropology Center, which contains the largest of America’s five “body farms.” Body farms are research facilities where families or individuals can donate their bodies for scientific studies, like how our bodies decay when left out in the sun and exposed to nature for weeks at a time.
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Photo: Robert Hensley
What is lawful is not always identical to what is right. Sometimes it falls to a judge to align the two. Ward’s judgment runs to more than eighty closely typed pages. It is beautifully written, delicate and humane, philosophically astute, ethically sensitive, and scholarly, with a wide range of historical and legal references.
The best of judgments, as I was to discover, are similarly endowed. They form a neglected sub-genre of our literature, read in their entirety by almost no one except law students—and fellow judges. And in the Family Division particularly, they present a hoard of personal drama and moral complexity. They are on fiction’s terrain, even though they are bound, unlike the fortunate novelist, to a world of real people and must deliver a verdict.
But as we all know, verdicts, indeed the whole system, can also be asinine—tough, even tragic, for its innocent victims, grimly fascinating for the novelist. For the obvious is true, the law is human and flawed. Just like newspapers or medicine or the internet, it embodies all that is brilliant and awful about humankind.
—Ian McEwan, writing in The New Republic about the court cases that inspired his new novel.
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Photo: Law Society of Upper Canada, Flickr