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Let Us Now Praise
Famous Men

James Agee
Walker Evans

(Houghton Mifflin/Mariner)
The quotation is from Sirach --- also known as Ecclesiasticus --- one of the Apocrypha of the Old Testament. The irony of the words is obvious and biting, for Agee is describing, minutely, the least famous, the poorest of the poor, the men (and women, and children) who lived in and around central Alabama in the middle of the depression, in the summer of 1936.

If you have never read Agee you might consider the possibility of dropping this review and calling up the American Book Exchange or Powell's to get a copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men so that you don't have to waste your time in having me tell you what a fine piece of work it is. Barring that, let me say that it's the work of a young man (twenty-seven) who knows words and knows how to use them and wants us to see and hear and smell and feel what it is like to be intimately involved with three families who are certainly not famous but certainly are poor --- "dirt poor" as we used to say.

Agee has set out to bring us into this world, and he does it with a vengeance. It is apparent that he is trying to do with words what companion Walker Evans did with the sixty-four pages of photographs that appear in this volume.

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The Klondike Quest
A Photographic Essay:
1897 - 1899

Pierre Berton
(Boston Mills Press)
One historian called the Klondike March "one of the weirdest and most useless mass movements in history." Lemmings, weighed down with foodstuffs, bedding, clothing, and, of course, pans for the gold. As a true story of real men looking for a phantom, it's a tale that can't be beat. Boston Mills Press has included here more than 200 photographs, some of them breathtaking, some funny, some wistful, some horrifying ... and some downright sad: The faces at the bar in the Monte Carlo Saloon [above] do not look to be happy campers.

It was the end of many dreams. Friends of many years went unflaggingly over the "Golden Steps;" camped on the edge of Lake Bennett with its swarms of black flies, fleas, and mosquitoes; finally made it up river (and up the rapids) to Dawson.

It was then that the madness took them over. A madness that made them split with lifetime friends, relatives, fellow-travelers. In some cases, they cut the supplies in half, split sleighs down the middle, tore bags of flour in half, and, in one case, cut a frying-pan into two equal but useless pieces.

"100,000 left for the Klondike," they say, "40,000 made it to Dawson City, and 4,000 found gold." And, probably, 40 came away rich. If that many.

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Post Office Murals
In the Great Depression

Karal Ann Marling
Naked bodies, attacks on "local values," implied bi-racial tolerance, and antagonism towards what some saw as bizarre --- read "modern" --- art are the themes of this fine book, and on the whole, it is a delight. For instance, the folk in Aiken, South Carolina went bananas over Stefan Hirsch's Justice as Protector and Avenger, because the figure of justice appeared to be a "mulatto" (not to be idolized in the deep south) and because to the right of the lady was a representation of

    a burning house, a "shyster" lawyer freeing a prisoner from jail and a burglar pursuing his trade.

A local judge questioned whether the mural was "a work of art" or a "monstrosity." An official of the PBA went to Aiken, took a gander, and subsequently authorized

    the purchase of a tan velvet curtain on a be placed over the mural --- so that it can be covered through court sessions and opened to the public on request.

Ms. Marling opines that the wall offended the people of Aiken because they much preferred Hollywood reality, or perhaps Mickey Mouse. It was "a phantom mural for a phantom people who didn't live in Aiken, South Carolina," she concludes.

The most entertaining story of them all concerns a somewhat giddy modernist named Lloyd Ney who came up with a bizarre mural called New London Facets. The service rejected it out-of-hand because of the very strangeness of it, but Ney took himself off to New London, Ohio, where the work was to be mounted in the local P.O., and by sheer enthusiasm, got the citizens --- including the local Chamber of Commerce --- so worked up in favor of his mural that it came into being.

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The End of
The Imperial
Japanese Empire

Richard B. Frank
The bomb itself came out of the blue. Japanese experiments had proved to them that it was impossible to construct such a device. Frank's description not only of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but his careful limning of earlier fire-bombings (one that took place on the 10 March 1945 burned out fifteen square miles of Tokyo and cooked up 100,000 Japanese) tend to make one wonder about the degree of humanity that was supposed to reside with the Allies, and makes one wonder even more about that hoary Christian concept of "a just war."

Why were we so willing to burn up citizens: not only the military, but civilian men, women, young and old alike --- even children and babies? This came about, Frank contends, from our previous experiences in Europe:

    The reasons for this massive application of aerial firepower were multiple and cumulative. The whole train of events was initiated by the wanton bombing of civilians by Axis nations, which first defied the attempt between the wars to proscribe indiscriminate bombing.

There was not only Guernica and Rotterdam, but the cruel "buzz" bombs and V-2s that rained down on England in the closing years of the war. Most of all, we forgot how close we came to losing on both fronts:

    Allied leaders were seared by the knowledge of how near the Axis had come to triumph.

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Those Angry Days:
Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and
America's Fight over World War II,

Lynne Olson
(Random House)
It was a time of great anxiety and profound divisions. And perhaps the most profound divisions of all were played out in our national politics. This is the subject of Lynne Olson's compelling new book, Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight over World War II, 1939-1941.

The major struggle in the years before Pearl Harbor was between isolationists who felt that we had no business getting involved in yet another European conflict and interventionists who believed we would sooner or later have to come to the aid of both Britain and France.

Although there were many minor skirmishes, the principal clash was between conservative, right-wing Republicans and moderate to left leaning Democrats. It seemed to be nothing less than a struggle for the soul of the Republic, a struggle that came to a dramatic climax in the election of 1940. The American historian and intellectual gadfly, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once noted that this period was the "most savage political debate in my lifetime," even surpassing Vietnam in its intensity.

Depending on one's point of view, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was gearing up for an unprecedented third term as president, was either a treacherous villain or the savior of his party and the nation. By September 1939, Hitler had invaded Poland and it was clear to many it was only a matter of time before he invaded France and possibly even Great Britain. Yet this country remained awash in denial. Businessmen and industrialists such as Joseph P. Kennedy and Henry Ford were prominent and unapologetic appeasers. But perhaps the most prominent appeaser of all was Charles Lindbergh.

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Ms. Moffett's
First Year

Becoming a Teacher
In America

<Abby Goodnough
(Public Affairs/Perseus)
Ms. Moffett's First Year is a wonky report on a silly experiment to rescue the New York's public schools from the state legislature, the teacher's union, and the school bureaucracy. All agree that changes --- deep changes --- are necessary. Students may already be starting the process of burning down the school buildings (excellent sentiment), but, unfortunately, many of the old ones --- both buildings and administrators --- are still around.

The state and local authorities are busy dumping even more money --- your money, my money --- into that proven blowhole of a decaying institution instead of passing a few laws that would allow the teachers to beat the shit out of recalcitrant, noisy, and out-of-control students.

Perhaps the school system could invest in a few dozen new rulers: When I was a student in the Bronx, fifty years ago, a swift swat across the knuckles was all that was needed to keep us interested in the proceedings. Our Ms. Daugherty was not at all interested in back talk, and she certainly wasn't stupid enough to try to plead with us to behave. She also didn't have to put up with the likes of a prison-guard clone vice-principal looking over her shoulder because she didn't need one.

She could handle us just fine: A whack or two was all that was required to keep us on course. In the principal's office downstairs, the back up, a wooden paddle called a "fanny-warmer" was always available in times of dire emergency .

Too bad that Goodnough isn't a enough of a visionary to suggest this most appropriate solution. It's so simple, and being simple, everyone overlooks it. My advice: stop bringing in martyrs like Ms. Moffett to plug the failings of the Teacher's Union and the dead weight of bureaucracy. Get the state legislature to establish ten schools, ten model schools based on the standards that were in use fifty years ago. Give several hundred worthy teachers the power to kick ass and run the classrooms as they should be run. Accept students only if the parents sign agreements to allow the teachers to be in charge. Do not permit anyone from the teacher's union or any school board members or bureaucrats to get in the front door. Ditto reporters from the tendentious Times.

Just let the teachers teach, and at the end of the year, compare the accomplishments of the students in our Retrograde Model School with those of the remainder of the school system --- private and public. Let the best one win.

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The American

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers
(Oxford University Press)
  • When the president of Rutgers University blamed a wave of student suicides on "too much Mencken," Mencken's proposal that there be a wave of suicide among college presidents was greeted "with a roar of student approval."
  • On being asked his opinion of the candidate of the Progressive Party, Henry L. Mencken said "Everybody named Henry should be put to death ... If somebody will do it for Henry Wallace, I promise to commit suicide."
  • On American culture: "It is obvious that the man of vigorous mind and stout convictions is gradually shouldered out of public life ... This leaves the field to the intellectual jellyfish and inner tubes."

§     §     §

Ms. Rodgers' book, long as it is --- 550 pages of text, almost 100 pages of notes --- is a treasure. It presents us, in language worthy of its subject, a fair and full picture of That Man from Baltimore who for almost half a century held a country in his spell by denouncing, equally, tinpot politicians, quack professors, poltroonish businessmen, Southern Baptists, and other dolts. As a special prize, Mencken offers, sweet raisins in the pie, hundreds of salty quotes, gleaned from letters, writings, notes, unpublished manuscripts, books and magazine articles and personal conversation. Many are pronouncements to warm the soul, especially for those of us who have often felt, still do, the heavy hand of those who kill our freedoms in the name of protecting them.

At the same time, Mencken gives us the picture of an age --- the 1920s --- that was as fully foolish as our own.

  • On World War I: "Once the world is made safe for democracy, all that will remain will be to make democracy safe for the world."
  • On beer: "It has transformed me from a puny youth into the magnificent specimen of Angle-Saxon manhood that I am today."
  • On President Harding: "He is of the intellectual grade of an aging cockroach."
  • On Harding's Speeches: "It is the worst English I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through the endless nights."
  • On hay fever which made him miserable most of its life: "It is worse than leprosy. It is unaccompanied by the salve of sympathy. It hasn't even the kindness to kill."
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Hindu Mysticism
S. N. Dasgupta
(Open Court)
Here is a little book by the professor of Presidency College, Calcutta, which offers salubrious reading to those persons who still labor under the delusion that the Hindus are privy to a store of wisdom hidden from Western eyes, and that their religion is, in some vague way, more refined and civilized than Christianity.

Professor Dasgupta, it appears, shares that notion himself, but he is too honest a man to conceal the facts that blow it up. Those facts he arranges neatly in six chapters. They show conclusively that the theology of even the most enlightened Hindus is almost as barbaric and nonsensical as the theology of the Swedenborgians or Seventh Day Adventists, firmly anchored upon a bibliolatry precisely similar to the Christian bibliolatry --- nay, upon one that is far worse.

The Christian Fundamentalist at least tries to make himself believe that the Bible is a record of actual human experiences, and that its mandates do no violence to that wisdom which has come out of human trial and error. But the Hindu accepts the Vedas as completely transcendental --- and yet completely binding.

    They are not a body of facts, but a body of commands and prohibitions ... They do not represent commands of the inner conscience or of the spirit within us; they do not give us any food for the spirit. They represent an objective and unalterable law...
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A Very Short Introduction
<Anthony Storr
Neville Jason, Reader

(Naxos AudioBooks)
Storr was a practicing psychoanalyst, which would mean that he should also be patient, observant, non-judgmental. In writing about Freud, he is patient and observant but very judgmental. He wants to make sure that we know that when Freud defined the obsessional character ("order, cleanliness, control") the master was talking about himself: a man of detail, one who was detached, one who did not brook rebellion in the ranks.

Storr suggests that although Freud repeatedly called his handiwork a science --- not a philosophy, not a religion --- those who deviated from the dogma (Fleiss, Jung, Rank) were cut off, even labeled by the other followers as "Neurotic" or "Psychotic."

There are some surprises here. Freud was called "my golden Ziggy" by his mother. He took a dim view of humanity, called it "trash." He was generous. One of his long-term patients he christened The Wolf Man because of a dream he related to Freud --- a dream, perhaps, next to the dreams of Emanuel Swedenborg, one of the most famous in existence:

    I dreamed that it was night and I was lying in my bed. Suddenly the window opened of its own accord, and I was terrified to see that some white wolves were sitting on the big walnut tree in front of the window. There were six or seven of them. The wolves were quite white, and looked more like foxes or sheep-dogs, for they had big tails like foxes and they had their ears pricked like dogs when they pay attention to something. In great terror, evidently of being eaten up by the wolves, I screamed and woke up.

Wolf Man lived into the 1970s, was often interviewed on the master's technique. He tells us that Freud chatted with him about his own life, talking of his children, daily events; he even loaned him money, arranged for loans from others when he was broke. The only thing Freud did not do, Storr tells us, was to cure him. Even in later life Wolf Man suffered from depression, from the frightening thoughts that first brought him to treatment when he was a young man.

Freud's books, and monographs as published constitute some twenty-four volumes, but Storr informs us that he did not even begin writing until he was thirty-nine years old. Storr doesn't think much of most of Freud's writings outside of his theories (although he does make an exception for his paper on Michelangelo's Moses). Moreover, he suggests that Freud was not all that great an analyst. He offers up the idea that he saw patients mainly to create or shore up his own theories of the mind.

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Malaria, and the
Panama Canal
David McCullough
Time was the pressing concern. For although there were but one or two yellow-fever cases, and none serious, at the moment, that condition would change rapidly as soon as new human material became available for the Stegomyia fasciata --- and thus the disease --- to feed on. Gorgas' analogy to explain the violent wave effect of yellow fever --- the apparent absence of the disease followed by a sudden, vicious outbreak --- was the exhausted fire wherein concealed embers lay in wait for fresh supplies of fuel. The arrival of several thousand nonimmunes would be equivalent to heaping on dry kindling: nothing much would happen at first; then the disease would catch; the carrier mosquitoes would infect ever more victims with the deadly parasite, thereby creating more diseased blood for still more mosquitoes to feed upon. Unchecked, the disease would flare into a monstrous geometrical progression of death, taking hundreds, possibly thousands, of lives.

Were conditions on the Isthmus to remain as they were, and were upwards of twenty to thirty thousand men to be brought to Panama, as planned, then, Gorgas calculated, the annual death toll from yellow fever alone could run to three or four thousand.

The build-up of men and equipment was beginning. Every arriving steamer had its contingent of prospective carpenters, mechanics, file clerks, assistant engineers, all eager to be "in at the start at Panama." General Davis, who had been named the first Governor of the Canal Zone, and Chief Engineer Wallace had arrived and had taken up residence in Panama City. Gorgas, still working with the same small staff, tried to explain the situation, the need for immediate decisions, for men and supplies, and he got nowhere.

In August Admiral Walker and several of the commission came for an inspection tour and Gorgas again made his case as explicit as he knew how. The admiral and his party departed, weeks passed, nothing happened. Gorgas' cabled requests were answered evasively, if at all. Presently he was reminded by return cable that cables were costly and henceforth to use the mails.

The problem in essence was that Admiral Walker, Governor Davis, and several others on the Isthmian Canal Commission, as well as a very large part of the populace and its political leadership, did not seriously entertain the notion that mosquitoes could be the cause of yellow fever or malaria. To spend time and money chasing after mosquitoes in Panama would be to squander time and money in a most irresponsible fashion.

That the minds of men in such positions could be so closed in the face of all that had been learned and demonstrated in Cuba, not to mention the insistent warnings from Roosevelt and Welch, may seem inconceivable. In the conventional understanding of history, human advancement is marked by specific momentous steps: on December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, the Wright brothers fly in a heavier-than-air machine and at once a new age dawns; in a hospital ward outside Havana Dr. Jesse Lazear dies a martyr's death and the baffling horror of yellow jack is at last resolved. But seldom does it happen that way. Ideas too have their period of extrinsic incubation, and particularly if they run contrary to what has always seemed common sense. In the case of the Wright brothers, it was five years after Kitty Hawk before the world accepted the idea that their machine could fly.  

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Rum, Romanism, & Rebellion
The Making of a President, 1884
< Mark Wahlgren Summers
(University of North Carolina)
For those of us somewhat vague on late 19th Century American history, we know that the phrase "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion" meant something important to somebody somewhere. But it wasn't until we read Summers exhaustive discussion of the campaign of 1884 that we learn that one Dr. Samuel D. Burchard, addressing a gathering of the Religious Bureau of the Republican National Committee, a week before the general election, stated,

    We are Republicans, and don't propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion. We are loyal to our flag.

What Burchard did, by reciting this triplet, was to saddle the Democrats with being on the wrong side of three of the most sensitive issues of the times:

  • Prohibition --- a controversy which the Women's Christian Temperance Union and others had brought to fever pitch;
  • Catholicism --- a feared minority of the time (all actions were considered as coming from Rome), and
  • The Civil War --- which had but twenty years before, been brought to its bloody end, leaving in its wake no end of bitterness on both sides.

Summers points out that Doctor Burchard was

    a lifelong enemy of the saloons, a steadfast Union man who had assembled a regiment of volunteers in the church basement, but [he was] not noticeably anti-Catholic. Perhaps his own explanation later is the best, that like many preachers he could hardly resist a good alliteration, "a mere rhetorical flourish," and improvised on the spur of the moment.

The candidate James G. Blaine was there, in the audience, but there was some question as to whether he even heard. Some thought the minister had said, "Rum, Mormonism, and Rebellion." The newspapers mostly ignored the remark. If Blaine sensed trouble, he didn't do anything until a full three days had passed, when the public actually caught on to the ugliness of the phrase that had come out of the mouth of a man of god, at a Republican rally. By then, it was too late.

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My Black Cat
My black cat gave birth last night
Four and five make nine-o ...
One of them had deep blue eyes
Eyes as pretty as mine-o.

Mother said that they must go
Drown them in the well-o ...
So I hid the little one in my shoe
The one with eyes like mine-o.

--- Clare Marx Arce


Poems about Parenting
Grown Children

<Sondra Zeidenstein,

(Chicory Blue)
If you are planning to have any children in the next twenty-five years ... don't. Unless you are looking forward to fifty years (or more) in which you get to deal with alcoholism, anorexia, sullenness, blame (you!), sickness, lack of appreciation, inability to communicate, self-destructive behavior, late-night telephone calls, crying jags, grandchildren with life-threatening illnesses, and endless money-begs.

    She wants to hang herself from the rafters, she says
    to me at the top of the stairs...

Those are the opening lines of Joan Swift's poem "Ties," while Cortney Davis tells us about being in the airport café:

    How's work? I'll ask my son, trying to catch up.
    He'll concentrate on his plate. I'll pick up the bill.

Raymond Carver reports, "Oh, son, in those days I wanted you dead/a hundred --- no a thousand --- different times." And his daughter?

    You're a beautiful drunk, daughter.
    But you're a drunk. I can't say you're breaking
    my heart. I don't have a heart when it comes
    to this booze thing.

Pearl Garrett Crayton tells us to be very careful, "Please, please, please, please, please/don't step on my daughter's toes!" Why? She'll

    cut you down to size,
    scratch your eyes out,
    pull out your hair,
    go for your jugular vein,
    flay you skinless,
    trample you in the dust.

By comparison: "I've seen cancers cause less misery."

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Comme Les Autres
My 38-year-old son Aaron, who has an extra chromosome 21 (Down Syndrome), lived in our family home until the age of twenty-one. He then moved to a group home where he lives during the week, but he continues to spend most weekends with me. We normally take in movies, or visit favorite haunts like video game parlors, the aquarium, or the zoo. At the zoo, Aaron can always be relied upon to read the information placards aloud to me, often adding other tidbits of animal information that he has picked up elsewhere.

Aaron was taught to read between ages three and five, earlier than most normal children. This training was part of an experimental early childhood stimulation/education program for Down Syndrome children at the Experimental Education Unit of the University of Washington. Aaron's mother brought him to the program for a couple of hours every weekday, from before age one until he began kindergarten. One of the EEU's pioneering departures, during the early 1970s, was teaching the children to read and write, and starting them early.

The program's success with its first class became rather celebrated in the little world of special education, and in a way so did all the members of that class. All of its members --- Aaron, Denny, Kari, Martha, Lupita, Jeff, Glenn, Christy, Patrick, Scott, Lori, and BJ --- learned to read and write, most at an early age. Their facility varied. Martha and Lupita, from Latino families, became literate to some degree in both English and Spanish. The most fluent readers in the class were Denny (who died last Spring, at age 38) and Aaron.

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The Blue Tattoo
The Life of Olive Oatman
<Margot Mifflin
(University of Nebraska)
In The Blue Tattoo, the Mohaves come off as being the good guys ... the original Noble Savages. They are tall, stately, and humorous. One contemporary wrote that they moved "with the dignity of princes."

    They appear to be intelligent, and to have naturally pleasant dispositions. The men are tall, erect, and finely proportioned ... their eyes are large, shaded by long lashes ... Their bodies and limbs were tinted and oiled so as to appear like well-polished mahogany.

One observer wondered "How long will it now be before a reason is found or invented for beginning a war of extermination against the hitherto peaceful Indians of the valley of the Colorado?" The author provides the answer: Within five years the tribe was but "footprints in the sand."

It seems the author --- and now, your reviewer --- are in love with the Mohaves. Olive Oatman might have succumbed to their charms as well. After all, they saved her from the Apache Yavapais who, it was rumored, were fond of "roasting girls." One Mohave not only cared for Olive during a famine, but, in secret, fed her, kept her alive while others around her were half-starved.

The Indians named her "Spantsa" --- a rather salacious Mohave word having to do with unquenchable lust. The name, among other things, makes Mifflin suspect that the young woman might have fallen in love if not in bed with one or more of the Indians she lived with for more than five years.

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Slavery and the
Welfare State
It is clear why the availability and generosity of such things as unemployment and disability insurance, cash relief, food stamps, old-age pensions, and health care have commanded our attention. They have clear palliative functions, and their generosity correlates directly with individual power to refuse work. But it is less clear why we have excluded other institutions.

Most scholarship has proceeded from the assumption that welfare state institutions are benevolent, that at their core they are efforts to help those in need. But, as the history of AFDC [Aid for Dependent Children] and TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] clearly shows, American relief has also functioned to regulate the sexual, reproductive, and labor market behavior of vulnerable populations. (In fact, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward have long argued that the principal functions of relief are to regulate the low-wage labor supply and to placate disruptive poor and unemployed people.)

Given this, we should consider programs that serve to commodify labor (those that reduce choice), and not just those that decommodify it (those that increase choice), when evaluating the reach of the welfare state. Slavery, its successors (sharecropping, tenancy, convict labor), and the prison have been as important throughout American history in the lives of (poor) African Americans as have, say, Social Security, homeless shelters, or Medicaid. By excluding them because they are malign in intent, we make all but inevitable a distorted view of the history of the American welfare state.

And given that these more repressive institutions have disproportionately impacted black Americans, there may be cause to distinguish between a white welfare state --- the benevolent if incomplete one that has predominated in our analyses --- and an African American welfare state, one that has been dominated by institutions of repression and control.

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Twitch and Shout
A Touretter's Tale
Lowell Handler
Handler ran across Jean-Claude Labbé, another Touretter, a French photographer who had spent some time in Vietnam. During an awards ceremony at Rockefeller Center, Jean-Claude and Handler sat together.

    As the room became quiet and Howard began to speak, the loud noises Jean-Claude and I made became increasingly noticeable. What was worst was that the more Jean Claude was Touretting, the more I made noises and twitched. This "copy-cat" Touretting is typical when groups of people with Tourette get together. We tend to set each other off on a relay of symptoms. The public relations man from Nikon said to Robert, "Your friends are making too much noise. They must be drunk or something. If they do not stop, we are going to have them removed."

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