[narcissism, vanity, exhibitionism, ambition, vanity, vanity, vanity]


Some Good News

USA Book News selected Samuel Shem's THE SPIRIT OF THE PLACE (which I reviewed here) as the best book of 2008 in the general fiction category. Hooray! It's great to see a book get the attention it deserves. I'm also selfishly glad about this, because I loved the book, too, and it's nice to have one's passions confirmed. It is the sort of thing that makes crazy love seem not so crazy after all.

Sometimes I think publishing just is passion.


Another book on the list, First Snow in the Woods, which took first place in children's books, is on its way to my house as I type. At least from the marketing material, the book seems to fits with some (still vague and ill-formed) ideas I've had lately, about kids and nature, and overparenting as a form of neglect.

This has something to do with the development of a capacity to be "at home" while "away," to be at home in the world; and also, just as crucially, especially at mid-life, the capacity to feel like home can still be excitingly undiscovered territory. (This is harder than it sounds.)

The poet and animal trainer Vicki Hearne talks about the necessary and reciprocal and mutually enriching relationship that can obtain between "home" and "away," the quest and the hearth. It seems to me that one could make a good case for hothouse kids as one symptom of a larger, related poverty, a poverty of epic, in our ideas of the good life. More specifically, I mean a lack of resources that would help to make sense of perfectly ordinary but underappreciated qualities that one often finds in "unruly" or difficult-to-domesticate personalities, which is to say in people with affinities for epic, like sincere enthusiasm and largeness of heart and vulnerability to being impassioned.

Shem's novel has much to say about this as well, but in an more complicated way -- how sometimes leaving home can (alas) be pretty much the same as not leaving, and how sometimes coming back can precipitate a greater revolution of consciousness than going away.

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Multitasking Radiator

In my Brooklyn office (that sounds so official), I sat next to a radiator with a little shelf on top of it. Used to keep my coffee warm in the winter, very convenient. Would you know, someone's come up with a product that does the exact same thing? Yep, you set this ceramic plate on top of the radiator, plop your drink and snacks on it, and, presto, your radiator is a hot plate.

Assuming the heat's on.

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Brocade Home Miniatures

Now you can furnish even your dollhouse with overpriced faux-coco.

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You go looking for trouble, you find it. That's true enough, I guess. Last week, noodling around with some writing I did way back when on breastfeeding, I was startled to discover, or rediscover, some distressing reports about environmental toxins and breast milk. In Europe, where breastfeeding is widespread, and maternity leaves are more accommodating of breastfeeding mothers, testing of breastmilk for toxicity is, evidently, commonplace. Not so here, and the toxin load in American women's breast milk reflects this lack of monitoring. I've got more to say about this problem, but not now. As a result of this reading, I got interested in toxin loads and rates of cancer incidence, and this brought me to SEERwhich has statistics on incidence rates of different kinds of cancer around the US.

Can we take, as writ, that some kinds of cancer -- cancers of filtration organs, like the kidney and liver, and fatty tissue, like the brain and breast -- are directly related to toxin exposure? We know toxins accumulate in fatty tissue, like the breast and the brain, and in the filter organs, like the liver, the lungs, and the kidneys. We also know that childhood cancers are becoming more common, and that children -- due to their size -- are uniquely vulnerable to toxin exposures. They are, perhaps, sentinels. And so I notice, upon looking into SEER's database, that the incidence of bladder cancer in Rhode Island (29-30 cases per 100,000) is significantly higher than the national average (21 cases per 100,000).

Rates of bladder cancer are important because the bladder, as a kind of holding tank for ingested fluid, is continually exposed to the environment. If it's out there, it's in here, too. The chlorine in drinking water -- that's a carcinogen. By itself, it poses enough of a problem. But it can also interact with other organic contaminants already present in the water, producing organochlorines including known carcinogens like trihalomethanes (e.g., chloroform).

So the watershed feeding the Scituate Reservoir, which supplies most of Providence's tap water, better be pretty pure. But I don't think it is. First of all, roads run all through it. Those roads are reasonably well-traveled and they are liberally de-iced in the winter. The sodium and chloride run into the water. I don't know how this material reacts when undergoes routine chlorination, but it would be good to know.

Moreover, the reservoir's drainage basin includes parts of Cranston and Johnston, towns where there's a lot of industry, and a lot of toxic chemicals. Some of them have been reported. It's not hard to find these places on a map; some are close to bodies of water that (though I'm no expert on the state's hydrography) seem to be part of the reservoir's drainage basin. I don't know how many of these chemicals leach into the water system, and I don't know which, if any of them, turn into organochlorines when the water is chlorinated. I know the water from the reservoir is aerated, which would in theory reduce the amount of toxins in the water by allowing them to vaporize -- but only if the aeration happens after chlorination, not before. (Plus, aeration sends these compounds back into the atmosphere where we can inhale them instead of drinking them.)

I know I'm looking for trouble. And I know that I used to live not too far from the Gowanus Canal, which might as well have glowed, it was so polluted. That didn't bother me, but the reservoir does. The cancer rates do. Hmph.

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