When journalist Moises Velasquez-Manoff wrote an article for the New York Times in August of last year positing that an immune disorder causes autism, reaction was mixed. On the one hand, his argument seemed so logical, so airtight: He linked the explosion in autism diagnoses to our hyper-clean world, so unlike the virus-and-bacteria-laden environment in which our ancestors lived (and ate). Moms with inflammatory diseases like celiac and rheumatoid arthritis have an increased risk of having autistic kids; so do those who are diagnosed with asthma or allergies in the second trimester and those who contract the flu or have infections. In Velasquez-Manoff’s view, the common culprit is the heightened inflammatory response in the moms, as their self-defense mechanisms, made dysfunctional by lack of practice in fighting microbes, kick into overdrive. (Incidentally, the incidence of asthma, also an inflammatory disease, has risen in parallel to that of autism.)
The story was so startling that I thought it had to be a parody — even though it was on the front page of the New York Times. Datelined AMSTERDAM, it detailed how some lucky alcoholics in that city start their day with a couple of beers provided by the government, pick up trash in the morning, get a few more government-provided beers with lunch, work some more, and then cap off the workday with more beers supplied by the government.
Can you imagine the outcry if someone tried to set that sort of program up in Philly? Read more »
Rock-climbing has always seemed hairy to me. But rock-climbing while cars and buses and 18-wheelers zoom by beneath your boots seems really hairy, which is why I’ve found the stretch of the eastbound Schuylkill Expressway just before the Conshohocken Curve highly disconcerting for the past few months. Not only is the shoulder blocked off with Jersey barriers; guys are rock-climbing on the stone above the highway.
It’s Friday, December 6th, and you know what that means?
SWEET HOLY BABY JESUS, ONLY 19 MORE SHOPPING DAYS TILL CHRISTMAS, except that the “shopping” qualifier is stupid now that every day is a shopping day.
In case your weekend plans involve schlepping all over God’s green earth to find the perfect thoughtful, deeply meaningful gift for Uncle Ebenezer, Cousin Dorothy, your mom, your dad, Grammy, Gramps and your sister’s new baby — stop! Don’t! Sit home on the couch and watch that Law & Order: SVU marathon instead!
You might as well, because research says there is no — we repeat, no — connection between the time and thought and energy you expend on choosing a gift and how much the recipient appreciates it. And don’t bother busting your budget, either, because research also shows that how much you spend on a gift doesn’t count for a hill of beans when it comes to how much the gift-getter likes it. Read more »
A new poll out last weekend delivered the bad news that Americans don’t trust one another anymore. Only a third of those surveyed by AP-GfK said that most people can be trusted, down from half of us in 1972. It’s a sad state of affairs.
And yet I find our nation to be, by and large, incredibly trusting. I live in a small town where the median income is just over $35,500 — not exactly a fortune by any estimate. And yet I think nothing of ordering items online and having them delivered via UPS or FedEx to my house — even though there’s nobody there all day long. The bags or boxes sit on my front porch, in full view not only of neighbors, but of scores of high-school and middle-school kids who traipse past on their way home. And I’ve never lost anything yet. It’s enough to make a citizen proud.
You may have heard about a pair of Penn students who’ve come up with a nifty new idea. They’ve created a virtual marketplace, Noteriety (motto: “Get A’s. Make Bank.”), where students can buy and sell notes from their classes. The idea is that if for some reason you should miss a class, or are just having trouble learning what you’re supposed to, you can buy notes taken by somebody else who did go or does understand what the hell’s going on. An article about the start-up in the Daily Pennsylvanian mentioned that it’s “backed by the PennApps Accelerator Program,” a “mentorship and sponsorship” effort aimed at encouraging student entrepreneurship.
Coincidentally, the same week the DP article on Noteriety appeared, the New York Times ran a story on a new study showing that increased class attendance in college leads to improved grades.
In the study, professors teaching a popular Intro to Psych course at the University of Texas instituted a new teaching method that replaced grading based on a final exam with grading based on a series of quizzes given during every class. The quizzes were short and tailored to a student’s previous performance; get a question wrong, and you’d soon find it staring up at you again.
Maybe it’s your stoutly Republican Uncle Joe, who you’re sure is gonna ruin Thanksgiving dinner by railing about how the Affordable Care Act is turning Amurrrica into a socialist paradise. Maybe it’s your wifty-liberal Cousin Tammy, who’s thrilled to death to be getting her birth-control pills for free. (Overshare!)
Over at the Washington Post’s Health Reform Watch blog, Sarah Kliff has “A Guide to Surviving Obamacare Debates at Thanksgiving,” which helpfully breaks down how to resolve arguments with, you know, actual information. Not that actual information ever resolves arguments in my family, though.
Millennials, you are killing me.
I know, I know; we celebrate you on the December cover of the magazine. We get to read inside about how you’re remaking the city on your way to taking over the world. But can we stop for a minute and talk about this past weekend at Princeton, please?
There was a bonfire at Princeton last night — the time-honored ritual bonfire celebrating the victories of the football team over archrivals Harvard and Yale. (Sorry, Penn.) How time-honored? Real time-honored. Way back in 1893, the New York Times reported that “the whole college turned out en masse” to construct this bonfire in “the grandest celebration Princeton has ever seen.” But the oh-so-traditional bonfire did not, this year, include the customary ignition of an effigy of John Harvard (though students found smaller ways to include him in the blaze). Why no Harvard effigy? Because, student government social chair Carla Javier told the Daily Princetonian last week, the effigy “represents a human,” and, as the paper went on to note, “various students expressed their distaste for the burning of a human-like figure.”
Oh, the humanity. Read more »
Over the summer, my 98-year-old Aunt Elizabeth passed away, after a long, full life.
In the wake (heh) of her memorial service, I got a letter from her daughter, my cousin Stephanie. It had a chart of our family’s two burial plots at Hillside Cemetery in Roslyn, showing who’s interred in which graves, and … well, let me just quote:
The original cemetery contract entitles one burial to be made in each grave without additional charge. … This is called the “first right.” But if someone decides to be buried in one of the seven graves that have never yet been opened, and wants to be sure that the burial will be deep enough to allow for a second later burial in the same grave, he/she must pay a fee (currently just under $2,500) to reserve the “second right” to that grave. If the second right is not paid for at the time of the first burial, there will not be room for a second burial in the grave. It follows that if everyone who eventually uses those graves pays up front for the “second right,” the two lots can accommodate 16 more burials. On the other hand, if no one who eventually uses those graves pays for the second right, the two lots will accommodate only nine more burials.
It went on from there.
Mine is a family that takes six months to decide who’ll host the annual Christmas Eve party. The prospect of the dozens of us cousins jockeying for eternal occupancy of those remaining grave sites (“There are also guidelines about burials of spouses of family members”) is dizzying. And frankly, the chances of any of us ponying up $2,500 at our time of death to altruistically save the space atop us are dim. When it comes to that, I love my relatives, but I’d have a hard time opting for the open slot above Aunt Phyllis, who was a wonderful woman but worried ceaselessly about my weight.
Luckily, I don’t envision any grand family smackdowns over the vacant graves. I plan to be cremated. So do my siblings and husband. Forty-three percent of Americans who died last year were burned instead of buried—up from 24 percent in 1998. That’s a staggering rise in the course of just 15 years. (The figure was under five percent as recently as 1972.) By 2017, the Cremation Association of North America predicts, half of us will be consumed by flames. In Britain, three-quarters of the dead already are.
Much of the impetus for this is economic: A traditional American funeral costs $8,300 (not counting plot), vs. $1,400 for cremation (with urn and no service). But what we do with ourselves when we die isn’t just a matter of money, and funerals aren’t just about disposal of the dead. They’re rituals we perform in order to adjust to the loss of a loved one, and to place that loss within a larger framework that gives meaning to the life that’s gone.
For Americans, religion once provided that framework. The rise in cremation dovetails neatly with the increase in those of us who have no religious affiliation—now one-fifth, the highest percentage ever, according to a recent Pew Research poll. We’re not nearly as concerned with the hereafter as we used to be. The number of Americans who don’t believe Christ rose from the dead jumped by 13 percent in a single year from 2012 to 2013.
A societal changeover from burial to cremation is momentous for our culture. It signals a cataclysmic shift in how we think about our bodies and ourselves. If we’re no longer preserving our remains for the glorious moment when the trumpet blares the Resurrection, does it matter what we do with them? What is the meaning of life, and death, once religion goes?
I bought three boxes of Christmas cards over the weekend. I don’t always get around to sending cards — they take such a long time to write and address, and then somebody has to go buy stamps, not to mention find a mailbox — but I like to.
I know it’s old-fashioned — a dying practice, really. I could just send one giant group e-card and have it done with. But I like the way the cards look, waiting for me in their neat little boxes. I like the way they look when they’re ready to be mailed, lined up like soldiers, bedizened with my best cursive writing that I never ever use anymore. And I like the excuse they offer to go through my well-worn address book and think about old friends.