In 1859, around 450 passengers on the Royal Charter, returning from the Australian goldmines to Liverpool, drowned when the steam clipper was shipwrecked off the north coast of Wales. What makes this tragic loss of life remarkable among countless other maritime disasters was that many of those on board were weighed down by the gold in their money belts that they just wouldn’t abandon so close to home. Humans have a particularly strong and, at times, irrational obsession with possessions. Every year, car owners are killed or seriously injured in their attempts to stop the theft of their vehicles – a choice that few would make in the cold light of day. It’s as if there is a demon in our minds that compels us to fret over the stuff we own, and make risky lifestyle choices in the pursuit of material wealth. I think we are possessed.
Of course, materialism and the acquisition of wealth is a powerful incentive. Most would agree with the line often attributed to the actress Mae West: ‘I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor – believe me, rich is better.’ But there comes a point when we have achieved a comfortable standard of living and yet we continue to strive for more stuff – why?
Aside from a few researchers, most mental-health professionals in Japan don’t use the term “modern-type depression.” It isn’t a clinical diagnosis, and despite its “modern” tag, characteristics of the condition likely have always existed alongside other forms of depression. The term first gained prominence in the 1990s, when Japanese media seized on it to portray young workers who took time off from work for mental-health reasons as immature and lazy.
While the term still carries stigma, Kato believes it’s useful to examine as an emerging cultural phenomenon. In the West, depression is often seen as a disease of sadness that is highly personal. But in Japan, it has long been considered a disease of fatigue caused by overwork. The traditional depressed patient has been a “yes man,” someone who always acquiesces to extra tasks at the expense of his social life and health. What makes modern-type depression different, according to Kato, is that patients have the desire to stand up for their personal rights, but instead of communicating clearly they become withdrawn and defiant.
In summer 2018, Jeff Sisson, a 31-year-old software engineer, was a new arrival to Queens, the largest borough in New York City by some 40 square miles. Sisson was getting to know his new environs by foot and bike, and one day while surfing Google Maps, he noticed something strange. He saw a designation on the map for something he had never heard of before, a place called Haberman.
“After having to route myself into some areas that are near that particular place in Queens, it just sort of stood out to me,” he says. “The size of it was large enough that implied something very real, present, and visible, but it was not totally clear what it referred to.”
Known both in Japan and abroad as bento boxes, they’re the famous, compartmentalised containers filled with rice, vegetables, meat and more, eaten by kids and grownups alike. In fact, over 70% of that five billion is for adults, as bento offer a cheaper and healthier option for many workers, as opposed to quick takeaway meals.
But it’s the expectation that falls on mothers to fashion stunning bento for their kids every day that builds stress and pressure – especially when those mums are working ones.
What happened next felt like a trance. My body dropped to the low hum of pure instinct — emotions switched off, mind emptied. I glided back to my desk, pulled up Airbnb on my computer, and, in a dreamlike state, began to type. After work, I left and got an oil change. Early the next morning, without telling a soul, I got into my car and drove to Florida.
Still, among this generally arrogant species, some, like Bryson, have always appreciated the glorious complexity and privilege of our unlikely existence.
Having described the physical nature of our world and beyond, from the atomic to the intergalactic, in “The Body” he now turns inward to explain — in his lucid, amusing style — what we’re made of. Along the way, as he has before, he weaves in stories of the astonishing characters who have been figuring humans out.
For Gioia the music that truly matters is the kind that upsets Mom and Dad — and it almost always emerges from the dispossessed. Slaves, outlaws, criminals, poor country folk, foreign emigrants and inner-city kids aren’t hampered by genteel aesthetic strictures. Besides, while heard melodies are sweet, those never heard before can be even sweeter, albeit sometimes a bit loud or strangely syncopated. Ultimately, Gioia points out, most of the important developments in American music spring from African American roots. Spirituals, gospel choruses, ragtime, the blues, jazz, rock, hip-hop — these define our nation’s ever-changing soundscape.
“Music: A Subversive History” covers the entire 4,000 years that humankind has been making rhythmic and harmonious noise. Did you know that there are more than 1,000 references to music in the Bible? Or that the United States “supports 130 military bands, spending three times as much on military music as on the National Endowment for the Arts”? Or that the oldest songwriter known by name is Enheduanna, a high priestess of Ur in Sumeria? From the beginning, music has always been linked with magic, medicine and mysticism.
Looking back at her career now, Andrews, who’s 84, told me in October—when she called from her home in Long Island to discuss Home Work—that what surprises her most is how arduous it all was. “What I learned from writing the book was how hard I was working on any given day, whether I was doing the movie or learning the choreography or perfecting something or doing a costume fitting,” she said. Andrews has lived in the U.S. now for longer than she lived in England, but her diction is still markedly precise and she occasionally blesses humble words with more syllables than they typically get to contain. (Hawaii is pronounced huh-why-YEE, while “mum” is thrillingly continuant, like mumm.) Andrews is a dame of the British Empire, an Academy Award winner, an author with what she describes as a “small, you know, imprint,” and No. 59 on the BBC’s polled list of the 100 Greatest Britons, 11 spots ahead of Jane Austen. At this point in life, she’s settled into her status as one of the most regal, gracious, and reassuring presences in entertainment, serenely embracing “dear Lady Gaga” onstage at the 2015 Oscars, and spoofing her own reputation by voicing the cruel matriarch Marlena Gru (“the worst lady I’ve ever played”) in the Despicable Me franchise. What she wants to make clear now isn’t that Mary and Maria were characters, but that they were work.
Choosing one’s favourite Elton John story – like choosing one’s favourite Elton song – can feel like limiting oneself to a mere single grape from the horn of plenty. Leaving aside the music for the moment, Elton’s public and maybe even private persona can be divided into two phases: first there was the raging drugs monster, as extravagantly talented as he was costumed. Now that he’s sober, there’s the more conservatively dressed, happily married elder statesman of British pop, a proper establishment figure, albeit one who’s still unafraid to pick fights with everyone from Keith Richards (“a monkey with arthritis”) to Madonna (“looks like a fairground stripper”). Both eras have yielded a steady crop of outstanding Elton anecdotes, often retold by Elton himself, who, possessing the kind of self-knowledge few of his fame and wealth retain, tells his stories better than anyone else. Probably the most infamous of all is the one about the time he’d been up for several days (this, clearly, was from the pre-sobriety era) when he decided something really needed to be sorted out. No, not his devastating drug addiction or his lack of sleep – the problem was the weather. So he called a chap in his office and told him to sort it out: “It’s far too windy here, can you do something about it?”