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Saturday, May 27, 2006

Walking across the U.S., baggage and all
‘Fat man’ may not have walked it all; demons, old and new, keep pace

By Michelle García

NEW YORK - He became America's hero, a flawed man with a massive belly and a headful of demons. Fat Man Walking, as Steve Vaught referred to himself, embarked on a cross-country journey to discover why he was unemployed and depressed, and weighed 400 pounds.

Americans cheered him on and some walked with him on desolate highways. Tens of thousands tracked his progress online ( The media showered him with attention. A documentary film is being produced about his journey.

Two weeks ago, Vaught crossed the George Washington Bridge into New York with reporters in tow and television helicopters overhead. "I had no goals," Vaught told reporters on the corner of 178th and Broadway. "That's something I learned to let go."

But what Vaught, 40, achieved is less clear. Interviews, online journals and a timeline of his progress provided by the documentary film crew have raised serious questions about whether Vaught in fact walked every inch of the way. Members of the film crew gave Vaught a camera (they didn't accompany him for the whole trek) and in one case, the film places him in Albuquerque one day and 117 miles to the east in Santa Rosa, N.M., the next.

The filmmakers and Vaught's wife, April, have questioned how he could have done that in a single day without catching a ride. But Vaught said that he walked every step of the way.

April, who has now filed for divorce, said Vaught rationalized skipping ahead without ever saying how he covered such distances so quickly.

"I know what he told me," said April, who spoke with her husband nearly every day of his cross-country journey. "He said, 'I walked all these miles around Albuquerque.' He skipped ahead to Santa Rosa and counted the miles in Albuquerque to getting to Santa Rosa."

Book deal is gone
The cross-country walk was supposed to take six months; it became a 13-month odyssey instead. In Ohio, he suspended the trip and flew back to Los Angeles for a two-week session with a personal trainer before, he said, he picked up where he left off. He had a dispute with his ghostwriter over "accuracy and tone." And his book deal has evaporated.

"We are no longer working with him," said Judith Regan, publisher of Regan Books. She would not address why.

Vaught said he fulfilled his promise to walk to New York. The walk through the heart of New Mexico appears shorter because he withheld his journal entries and coordinates for a few days for "security reasons," he said in a phone interview from the San Diego area, where his journey began.

If it seems he walked farther than he might have been capable of, Vaught said, it was because he was getting stronger and healthier along the way. He said he lost 100 pounds on the trip.

While he took every step between California and New York, he said, the journey was not about the weight lost or the physical distance covered, but about his own personal discovery.

"You can't cheat. There is no possible way to cheat. It was my journey," said Vaught. "I didn't care about where I was at and where I was going. I don't care if it was 2,800 or 1,500 miles. . . . It's about where your head is."

It was that internal journey that attracted Pierre Bagley, a Texan who is directing the documentary and who traveled with Vaught periodically. The filmmakers said they never saw Vaught hitch rides and they defend him as a troubled man who was ill-prepared for the monsoon of media and public attention.

"He tried to do this the best way he could," said Bagley, who nonetheless is now skeptical that the trip unfolded as Vaught said it did. "If he lost more than 40 pounds, I'm a rock."

Years earlier, Vaught, a former Marine, had served time for vehicular manslaughter after striking and killing an elderly couple. Vaught said that plunged him into a deep depression, and he gained hundreds of pounds. He began his walk in April 2005 with those emotional burdens and a marriage on the rocks with his wife ready to divorce him.

"The walk had to happen in order for the divorce not to happen," said April, 33, who devotes her days to home-schooling the couple's two children. "They're connected; they can't be separated. It didn't happen the way it needed to happen."

April, who is featured in the film, says the media attention engulfed her husband, swelling his ego.

Wife’s requirement and expectation unmet
"The only thing I had was a requirement and expectation of him to exert himself physically and to have time and introspection to come up with a value system of his own," said April. "Something that would bring us closer as a family."

Now, she says that didn't happen and wants the divorce to go forward.

Her husband acknowledges that his newfound fame "distracted" him from his mission. When he got to St. Louis, Vaught said he was ready to return home to his children. But, he said, "I couldn't go home because there was so much expectation for me to go to New York."

Vaught says he felt torn "between focusing on the walk and what became the business of the walking." Journalists lined up to interview him, agents wanted to represent him, and e-mails consumed precious time. The Washington Post featured him in a story on July 8, when he was in his 13th week on the road and trudging through the desert near Peach Springs, Ariz. He said, "It did disrupt my overall sight of what I was going to do."

Through it all, Americans kept cheering Vaught on. He arrived in New York late on May 9 and the next morning appeared on the "Today" show to talk with Katie Couric, telling her the trip was about "life overall and struggling through adversity."

But why all the attention lavished on Vaught? After all, many have walked the length of the country. A group of Christians makes an annual pilgrimage from California to Washington to protest abortion. A "peace grandmother" protesting the Iraq war completed her walk in just five months, compared with Vaught's 13 months. But none of them became a counterculture icon.

Anyone can be a hero, deservedly or not
Documentarian Bagley calls Vaught's journey an American story. "It's an amazing thing about America: We can make anybody a hero, whether they deserve it or not," he said. "Everything would have been better if he had not had all this pressure to live up to this Hollywood version of Forrest Gump."

Vaught has returned to the San Diego area and put his belongings in storage. He lives in a Super 8 motel with no job and no clear goal beyond promoting The Fat Man Walking as a business sponsoring walkathons and charity work to fight child obesity. Even so, Vaught said the journey worked out for him, leaving him stronger and healthier.

"I'm doing this for the betterment of Steve," he said. "I said I'm a flawed individual. I think that people were struck by it and the honesty of it."

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

An Inconvenient Woman
She witnessed the resurrection, then vanished, leaving popes and painters and now 'The Da Vinci Code' to tell her story. In search of the real Mary Magdalene.

By Jonathan Darman

Web Gallery of Art
'The Life of the Virgin,' a 15th century painting, depicts Mary Magdalene, right, weeping below Jesus' bound body

May 29, 2006 issue - She was with him to the end, and beyond. As Jesus hangs in agony on the cross, his life ebbing, Mary Magdalene is there, beside his mother, Mary, watching. The Passion has been tumultuous and frightening, and crucifixion is slow, but still she stays. Finally the hour comes. "It is finished," Jesus says, and bows his head. His body is bound in linen, carried to a garden, buried in a tomb.

Before dawn on the day after the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene rises to anoint Christ's body and makes her way to the grave. It is empty. The Lord is gone; she is confused, and terrified. She races back to tell the others, returning with them so they can see for themselves. The male disciples come and go again, unsure what to think; Mary, paralyzed, stays in the garden, in tears.

Then comes a voice, and a question. "Woman, why are you weeping?" she hears from behind her. "Whom do you seek?" She turns and, thinking she sees the gardener, answers, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Then, in a recognizable voice, Jesus says, "Mary." Crying "Rabboni," she leaps up in joy to embrace her teacher.

"Do not touch me," Jesus says, distancing himself from her, "for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God." Her words to the disciples are simple and few, yet transform the world: "I have seen the Lord."

I have seen the Lord: such is the story of the Resurrection, as told in the Gospel of John. With it begins the history of Christianity, and with it ends the New Testament history of Mary Magdalene. Peter and Paul form the new church, Stephen dies a martyr's death, John the Divine envisions the End Times. But Mary Magdalene—a critical figure in his earthly circle—is neither seen nor heard from again.

Yet the Magdalene—that part of her name derives from Magdala, her hometown—lives on in another tradition that can be found in an obscure second-century text. Dubbed "The Gospel of Mary," it depicts Mary as a leader of Jesus' followers in the days after his resurrection. Written by Christians some 90 years after Jesus' death, Mary's is a "Gnostic gospel"; the Gnostics, a significant force in the early years of Christianity, stressed salvation through study and self-knowledge rather than simply through faith. The text was lost for centuries until found in fragments by a collector in Cairo in 1896. In its telling, Jesus rises and vanishes after instructing his disciples to "preach the good news about the Realm." The exhortation makes them uneasy: Christ had died preaching that gospel. What was to save them from a similar fate?

Mary, however, is serene. "Do not weep and be depressed nor let your hearts be irresolute," she tells them. "For his grace will be with you and shelter you." Jesus, she says, has appeared to her in a vision where he gave her special knowledge of the soul's journey through mystical realms. She tells the men she will help them understand the true teachings of Christ: "What is hidden from you I shall reveal to you."

Her words seem to sting the others. Peter, "a wrathful man," takes particular offense. "Did he really speak with a woman in private, without our knowledge?" he asks. "Should we all turn and listen to her?" Mostly, he is jealous: "Did he prefer her to us?"

It is a question that is shaking Christianity after two millenniums. To many feminists and theological liberals, the Gospel of Mary suggests that the Magdalene, the first witness to the Resurrection, was the "apostle to the apostles," a figure with equal (or even favored) status to the men around Jesus—a woman so threatening that the apostles suppressed her role, and those of other women, in a bid to build a patriarchal hierarchy in the early church. To others, shaped by orthodoxy, Mary was an important player in the life and ministry of Jesus, but subordinate to the men who followed him. Now, thanks to Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," read by some 60 million people and open in 3,735 movie theaters nationwide, Mary Magdalene has a new role: wife of Jesus and mother of his child, whom Mary, who purportedly escaped the Holy Land, raised after Jesus' death. According to the "Code"—which opened to tepid mainstream reviews but strong box office—the baby grew up to marry into a royal line in France—and descendants of Jesus and Mary can be found in Europe to this day. In one particularly affecting but purely fanciful scene, one character argues that the figure at Jesus' right hand in Leonardo's "Last Supper" is not a male disciple but Mary Magdalene, and that if one recasts the painting by putting "Mary" on Jesus' left, they complete each other, male and female, a human whole—a married couple, joined together forever. It is cinematically intriguing, but like virtually all of Brown's novel and the movie, it is a fantasy, not fact, and, not for the first time, Mary Magdalene is a vehicle of fevered fiction.

From the beginning, the story of Mary Magdalene and Jesus has been the stuff of literature and legend, politics and theology, controversy and conflict. From age to age her changing image in the minds of believers and historians and artists has reflected the temper of the times—so much so that it is difficult to recover the historical Mary Magdalene from centuries of myth. Yet her history sheds light on essential questions, from the role of women in first-century Judaism to the nature of Jesus' ministry to the formation of early Christianity. Understanding her relationship with Jesus and with the religion that came to bear his name offers a window on the fluid nature of the faith, and of the tensions about sex and power that shape it still, in the third millennium since that morning at the empty tomb.

Web Gallery of Art
'Resurrection of Christ and Women at the Tomb,' a 15th century Angelico fresco

Mary was always an inconvenient woman. Although the Gospel authors can't avoid her—mentioning her 13 times in the New Testament—they offer few details of her life. This was perhaps no accident: women were considered untrustworthy in the Roman world, and the Gospels, eager to make new converts, probably did not wish to highlight the fact that a woman was a key witness to their story of the Resurrection—a story that was already difficult enough to explain. The New Testament Gospels "tell us a woman called Mary Magdalene was a follower of Jesus and played a role around the time of his betrayal and resurrection," says Elaine Pagels, a professor of early Christian history at Princeton. "But beyond that they tell us very little about what her role really was."

Scholars have picked apart the few hints the New Testament provides. Many have interpreted Luke's observation that Mary and other women around Jesus "ministered unto him of their substance" as evidence that they provided the financial support for Jesus' ministry. But where would this money have come from? A marriage contract? A divorce settlement? An inheritance? A job? The Gospels provide no direction, but a sign that women played an essential role in Jesus' life.

Another vexing detail: Mary's name. Most New Testament women are identified by their relation to men (Mary the wife of Clopas, for example, is different from Mary the mother of James.) Yet the Magdalene is distinguished by her hometown, the port city of Magdala. No husband ever appears—an explanation, perhaps, for how she was able to travel freely with Jesus. Was she never married at all? "A freewoman who never married probably would have been exceedingly rare," says Ross Kraemer, a Brown University professor of religious studies. All the New Testament really tells us about Mary is that she entered Jesus' ministry as he preached throughout Galilee, that she had been possessed by seven demons but was no longer, and, of course, that she announced the Resurrection. We never learn her occupation, the color of her hair, if she was old or young, homely or beautiful.

Yet from the earliest hours of Christianity, there were other voices, too, those determined to present a fuller picture of the Magdalene. In several Gnostic Gospels, texts whose dissemination in the past 50 years has turned the study of Christian origins on its head, she is not the wallflower of the New Testament but rather a favored, perhaps favorite, follower of Christ. In the Gospel of Thomas, she and another woman, Salome, are one of six (not 12) true disciples of Jesus. In the Gnostic Dialogue of the Savior, she is referred to "as the woman who understood all things." Most compelling is the Gospel of Mary, not just for its portrait of the Magdalene as a strong, willful woman but also for its radical ideas about gender. While Mary is called the disciple "the Savior loved ... more than all other women," she and Jesus see gender as irrelevant, something that will disappear in the path to the next life. "The text is arguing that the distinction between male and female is one of the body, which will dissolve," says Harvard historian Karen King. "The basis for leadership lies in spiritual development."

Why, then, did this woman, whom the New Testament tells us was Jesus' constant companion and whom the Gnostics claim was privileged above all others, disappear after the resurrection? If Mary were so important to Jesus, why is there no mention of her in Acts, or in the Epistles?

The noncanonical Gospels provide a troubling answer. In Gnostic texts, Mary is under constant attack, most often from Peter. "Tell Mary to leave us," he implores Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, "for women are not worthy of life." Mary understands his threat. "I am afraid of Peter," she tells Jesus in the Gnostic Dialogue Pistis Sophia. "He threatens me and hates our race."

In her frightened voice, we can hear the beginnings of a rift that would determine Mary's future in the church. "You have one tradition where Peter plays a role of tremendous significance and Mary is on the margins," says Pagels, "while in another tradition Mary is the significant figure and Peter is suspect." And Peter's version is the one that comes down to us, which means it was his story, not hers, that carried the day.

The tension is not just a Gnostic aberration. For centuries the Resurrection sequence of the Gospel of John has vexed scholars. In John's version, Mary realizes the figure addressing her is Jesus and she reaches for him, but he holds her off, saying, "Do not touch me." Later that same day, however, Jesus appears to his male disciples and they recognize him instantly. He shows the men his hands, his sides, even breathes on them. Eight days later he appears to the Apostle Thomas, a doubter, and specifically asks to be touched so that Thomas will believe. "Reach hither thy finger and behold my hands," he says.

Mary's description of the risen Christ—unrecognizable, untouchable—is of a piece with the portrait of resurrection in the Gnostic texts. But in the New Testament, the men describe Jesus as a physical being in front of them, a body that lives, walks and breathes. In Luke, as the Lord invites the apostles to touch him, he points out, in case they missed it, that his physical resurrection makes him different from a ghost or an apparition. "Handle me and see me," he says, "for a spirit hath not hands and flesh."

Web Gallery of Art
'Christ in the House of Martha and Mary,' a 16th century oil on canvas, by Tintoretto

The dispute—resurrection of flesh or of spirit?—would dominate the first three centuries of Christianity. Orthodox clerics worried that the Gnostic belief in resurrection as spiritual release would compromise their teaching that Christ physically suffered on the cross to atone for the sins of man. They called the Gnostics pagans and hedonists and spun wild tales to make them look profane. (The church writer Epiphanius, writing in the fourth century, claimed that Gnostics believed Jesus had forced Mary to watch him eat his own semen.) When the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the year 312, the orthodox won the power of the state, and the sword. Fearing that bishops enforcing the new orthodoxy would destroy the texts, monks tried to erase all evidence of the Gnostic tradition. They buried the Gospels, with their powerful portrait of Mary Magdalene, in the sand.

The role played by women in the early church was also being erased. Jesus clearly had a rare empathy for women. Luke tells us that in addition to Mary, Jesus' Galilean ministry included an array of other women in prominent roles, including Susanna and Joanna, wife of Cuza. Luke also offers as a model of faith the story of Mary (a different Mary) who put aside concerns of keeping a household to listen attentively at the feet of Christ. Jesus' "last shall be first" message of salvation in the next life would certainly have been appealing to women who felt oppressed in this one. "Jesus was not a social reformer; he was focused on the apocalypse," says Bart Ehrman, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina and the author of "Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene.""But his message would have been appealing to an egalitarian."

It wasn't long after Jesus' death, however, that male church leaders took steps to subordinate women. "As the church submits to Christ," Paul wrote to the Ephesians, "so wives should submit to their husbands." Yet Paul's letters also contain references to female missionaries throughout the empire. Among these wom-en was Junia, whom Paul calls "outstanding among the apostles," and admits was in Christ "before I was." Christians in the first and second centuries came to believe in a trinity that included a holy spirit, filled with a decidedly feminine grace.

Yet as church teachings evolved, women took on a more sinister role: carriers of earthly sin. In the immediate aftermath of Jesus' death, his followers explained the resurrection as evidence that the apocalypse was at hand. But as the years passed and the kingdom of God did not come, church teachers needed a new theory of the Resurrection. By the second century, they had come to think of Jesus' time on the cross as the fulfillment of a Biblical cycle in the works since Eden. Jesus had died, the clerics now said, to rid the world of Adam's sin. But women, with their tie to sexual reproduction, were a problem, a reminder that the good work would not be done until Christ's return. Bishops barred women from the ordained ministry and accused them of spreading sin. "On account of [you] ... " the prolific third-century author Tertullian wrote, addressing women, "even the son of God had to die."

It was only a matter of time before the Magdalene also came under attack. The moment arrived on an autumn Sunday in the year 591, in a sermon preached at the heart of the Catholic Church. Taking the pulpit at the Basilica San Clemente in Rome, Pope Gregory the Great offered a startling conclusion about the Magdalene: she had been a whore. Before she came to Christ, Gregory explained, Mary's sins were manifold: she had "coveted with Earthly eyes" and "displayed her hair to set off her face." Most scandalously, she had "used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts." Looking out at his audience, a somber mass of monks, Gregory gave Mary a new identity that would shape her image for fourteen hundred years. "It is clear, brothers," he declared: she was a prostitute.

But it was not clear at all. Gregory's remarkable assertion was based on the idea that Mary was the unnamed "sinful woman" who anoints Jesus' feet in the seventh chapter of Luke—a conflation many contemporary scholars dismiss. Even if she were the sinful woman, there is no evidence in any Gospels that her sins were those of the flesh—in the first century, a woman could be considered "sinful" for talking to men other than her husband or going to the marketplace alone. Gregory created the prostitute, as if from thin air.

The pope made his new Mary a reformed whore because he knew that the faithful needed a story of penance that was at once alluring and inspiring. The early Middle Ages were a time of tremendous social tumult—war and disease roiled nations and sent destitute women into the streets. Gregory's church needed a character from Jesus' circle who provided an answer to this misery, who proved that the path of Christ was an escape from the pressures of the sinful world. The mysterious Magdalene of the Resurrection story was peripheral enough to be reinvented. Finally, the church fathers were able to put the inconvenient woman to good use.

Christendom eagerly embraced its new saintly sinner. A Magdalene cult spread throughout Europe, from England where Mary was made the patron saint of lepers, to Florence where prostitutes and young men ran a race on her feast day. In Germany, the Penitent Sisters of the Blessed Magdalene took the lead in reforming wayward women; in Spain young men on stilts danced with Mary's icon in the streets.

The French were particularly enamored with the Magdalene—so enamored that, naturally, they made her French. In the 13th century, a Dominican monk published the Golden Legend, which claimed that after Jesus' death Mary had fled Jerusalem and ended up in southern Gaul. Her spirit, the story said, protected Frenchmen. There was no historical evidence to support this claim, only the imaginations of Provençal storytellers. Still, the legend persists. Dan Brown's claim that the Magdalene spent her final years in Provence has its roots in the tales of medieval France.

In the Renaissance, artists gloried in her versatility. The Virgin Mary was a difficult subject—how to make her compelling and controversial while still modest, graceful and chaste? The Magdalene knew no such restrictions, and the old masters used her to explore the full range of femininity. In Titian she was buxom and bountiful; in Donatello she was haggard and ascetic. She was not, as "The Da Vinci Code" claims, the figure "with delicate folded hands, and the hint of a bosom" at Jesus' right in Leonardo's "Last Supper." Scholars have identified the figure as John the Evangelist: tender intimacy between two men was a possibility understood by Leonardo, if not by Dan Brown.

Even as other saints lost their luster in the modern era, the Magdalene remained a powerful force. When the Industrial Revolution upset gender roles and cities were plagued with prostitution and disease, preachers once again spoke her name from the pulpit, hoping to rein in the wayward world. Nineteenth-century artists from Wagner and Rilke to Rodin drew inspiration from her—or rather from Gregory's imagining of her. They explored her sexuality in new depth, even imagining her as erotically connected to Jesus.

The 20th century brought yet another new identity for Mary: feminist icon. Women's liberation brought a new generation of historians who argued that the Gnostic Gospels, together with the New Testament portrait of Mary as faithful witness, provided a better picture than Gregory's of who the Magdalene really was. Their outcry even managed to penetrate the Vatican's walls. In 1969, the church declared that, for the first time since Gregory's day, Mary should not be thought of as the sinful woman of Luke. In 1988, Pope John Paul II called Mary Magdalene "apostle to the apostles" in an official church document and noted that in Christians' "most arduous test of faith and fidelity," the Crucifixion, "the women proved stronger than the Apostles."

Yet Mary has continued to be defined by sex. In 1971, the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" presented Mary as thoughtful, powerful and still a prostitute. The Magdalene of the era of free love and sexual liberty was so comfortable with her body she used it for power over men. "He's just a man," she sings in "Jesus Christ Superstar." "And I've had so many men before, in very many ways, he's just one more." Modern generations proved as adept as their forebears in adapting Mary to fit their needs. By the time "The Da Vinci Code" was published in 2003, the fires of feminism burned less brightly than they had in the "Superstar" days, and Mary was reinvented as the ideal working mother: protecting the mystery of faith by day, raising Jesus' child by night.

Indeed, for all its revolutionary claims, "The Da Vinci Code" is remarkably old-fashioned, making Mary important for her body more than her mind. In the movie, we see a stricken, shadowy Magdalene with swollen belly being spirited out of Jerusalem by a crowd of attendant men. But we never hear her voice. "The Da Vinci Code" seems to think that the secret tradition of Mary Magdalene speaks to the carnal. In reality, it tells of something far more subversive: the intellectual equality of the sexes. The current Magdalene cult still focuses on her sexuality even though no early Christian writings speak of her sexuality at all. "Why do we feel the need to resexualize Mary?" wonders Karen King, author of "The Gospel of Mary of Magdala.""We've gotten rid of the myth of the prostitute. Now there's this move to see her as wife and mother. Why isn't it adequate to see her as disciple and perhaps apostle?"

"The Da Vinci Code" especially misses the point about Mary when it makes its case that she was the bride of Christ. Both the novel and the film use as their evidence a gap-filled passage from the Gospel of Philip, a Gnostic Gospel of the second century. The passage reads as follows: "And the companion of the [gap] Mary Magdalene. [Gap] her more than [gap] the disciples [gap] kiss her [gap] on her [gap]." The gaps are maddening. Companion of whom? Loved her more than what? Kiss her where? But even if we fill in what seems to be the logical meaning—Jesus loved Mary more than the male apostles and kissed her on her mouth—the passage is less sensational than we might think. In the Gnostic tradition, kisses on the lips are not an erotic act but a chaste gesture meant to symbolize the passage of knowledge and spiritual truth. Elsewhere in the Gospel of Philip, Jesus also kisses his male disciples on the mouth. (If the makers of "The Da Vinci Code" wanted to interpret this act as erotic, they would no doubt be facing even more vehement protests from conventional Christians.) The passage is certainly significant, for it could imply that Jesus gave Mary special authority in his church. But "The Da Vinci Code" fails to make this point by mistaking the nature of Jesus' kiss.

Brown's mistake is understandable. Sex sells in our time, as it did in Gregory's, and probably Jesus', too. Mary remains a prisoner, a mistaken creature of sex. History may yet set her free. There are still undiscovered gospels sitting in unknown deserts or on unknown library shelves. Scholars say it is only a matter of time before some of them surface and upend our notions of Mary and Jesus once again.

Until then, she will remain a mystery. All we can really know about her is that she was always faithful to Jesus' message of love and hope, always willing to risk all for him, always open to the possibilities of grace—an example that transcends time and gender, a beacon in a modern-day fog of faction and fiction.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Can evolution make things less complicated?
Scientists suggest cell origins involved a forward-and-backward process

By Becky Ham

Lesley Joan Collins / Science
This illustration shows a single-celled predator (colored brown), swallowing up much smaller and less complex single-celled bacteria (yellow and green). Researchers say such a predatory eukaryote, nicknamed "Fred the Raptor," would have had "a major ecological impact" during the early stages of cellular evolution.

We’ve all seen the popular cartoon of evolution’s march from an ancient sea, beginning with a single floating cell that morphs into increasingly complicated creatures, on the way to the punch line of Weekend Man slumped in his armchair.

It’s just a joke, but the idea that life starts simple and gets more complex over time persists even in scientific circles. Yet one of the biggest events in evolutionary history — the origin of the cells that make up every tissue in our bodies — may be a case of life getting less complicated, according to recent research.

These types of cells are called eukaryotes, and they're found in organisms from fungi to humans. They look like the souped-up versions of simpler cells such as bacteria and their distant cousins called archaea. Many researchers think eukaryotes are the descendants of either bacteria or archaea, or some combination of the two. But genetic and protein evidence do not support this view, researchers report in Friday’s issue of the journal Science, published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society.

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Instead, the data suggest that eukaryote cells with all their bells and whistles are probably as ancient as bacteria and archaea, and may have even appeared first, with bacteria and archaea appearing later as stripped-down versions of eukaryotes, according to David Penny, a molecular biologist at Massey University in New Zealand.

Penny, who worked on the research with Chuck Kurland of Sweden's Lund University and Massey University's L.J. Collins, acknowledged that the results might come as a surprise.

“We do think there is a tendency to look at evolution as progressive,” he said. “We prefer to think of evolution as backwards, sideways, and occasionally forward.”

Failure of fusion
The landscape inside a bacteria cell is pretty sparse, consisting mostly of free-floating genetic material. By contrast, the inside of a eukaryote cell is a bustling metropolis, crowded with a variety of protein factories, control rooms, transportation routes and a central bundle called the nucleus that contains the cell’s genetic information. Eukaryote cells also have a unique set of genes and proteins.

If the first eukaryotes were a fusion of ancient bacteria and archaea, as some scientists suspect, there should be clues in the eukaryote genome and proteome that point back toward these putative ancestors. Penny and colleagues say those clues simply aren’t there. Instead, the say the fusion theory is “surprisingly uninformative” when it comes explaining the special genetic and cellular features of eukaryotes. Most of the proteins that eukaryotes and bacteria share, for instance, are only distantly related and probably came from the common ancestor of both bacteria and eukaryotes.

Some researchers think the fusion of simple bacterial cells may have created the compartments and tiny organlike structures that fill the insides of eukaryote cells. But Penny and colleagues say another phenomenon called “molecular crowding” could also explain the unique architecture of eukaryotes. When cells become crammed with proteins in a concentration so thick “it’s almost like jelly,” Penny says, it becomes hard for the proteins to move and work together. To avoid this problem, “working groups” of proteins sort themselves into separate compartments.

“Because protein diffusion is so restricted under such high concentrations, it is really essential, especially in large cells, to have proteins together that function together,” Penny says.

Fully loaded, or priced to move?
If eukaryotes didn’t originate with bacteria and archaea, is it possible that the simple cell organisms are just stripped-down versions of eukaryotes? Although the idea seems contrary to our cherished notion that evolution makes organisms more complex, Penny and colleagues say it’s possible.

Think of it as the new car dilemma: Do you spring for the fully loaded model, complete with sunroof, satellite radio and side airbags? Or do you opt for the basic model, with less features but a lower cost? Bacteria and archaea may be the “priced to move” models of eukaryotes, cells that opted out of the costly cellular gadgetry and large genomes of eukaryotes. Without these expensive extras, early bacteria could have turned their energies toward growing and reproducing faster using fewer resources — making it easier to advance into new ecological niches, Penny and colleagues say.

Bacterial ancestors may have been forced into simpler lives by the appearance of the first cell to feed on other cells, an ancestral predatory eukaryote that Penny and colleagues have dubbed “Fred the Raptor.” Fred’s debut “would have had a major ecological impact on the evolution of gentler descendants of the Common Ancestor,” the Science researchers suggest.

If early bacteria did take the road toward greater simplicity, they would be in good company. Scientists have identified several cases of genome reduction in organisms as diverse as the malaria parasite and bakers’ yeast, Penny says.

The numerous examples “illustrate the Darwinian view of evolution as a reversible process in the sense that ‘eyes can be acquired and eyes can be lost.’ Genome evolution is a two-way street,” Kurland says.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Drowsy teens dozing off at school, on the road
Report: Only 20 percent of adolescents get full night's sleep during week

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - America is raising a nation of sleep-deprived kids, with only 20 percent getting the recommended nine hours of shuteye on school nights and more than one in four reporting dozing off in class.

Many are arriving late to school because of oversleeping and others are driving drowsy, according to a poll released Tuesday by the National Sleep Foundation.

“In the competition between the natural tendency to stay up late and early school start times, a teen’s sleep is what loses out,” said Jodi A. Mindell of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
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“Sending students to school without enough sleep is like sending them to school without breakfast. Sleep serves not only a restorative function for adolescents’ bodies and brains, but it is also a key time when they process what they’ve learned during the day.” said Mindell, associate director of the Sleep Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Nine hours each night recommended
School-age children and teenagers should get at least nine hours of sleep a day, according to the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institutes of Health.

The poll found that sixth-graders were sleeping an average of 8.4 hours on school nights and 12th-graders just 6.9 hours.

Without enough sleep, a person has trouble focusing and responding quickly, according to NIH. The agency said there is growing evidence linking a chronic lack of sleep with an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and infections.

The poll, taken in November, interviewed 1,602 adult caregivers and their children age 11 to 17. It had a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points.

Among the findings:

• Some 28 percent of high-school students said they fell asleep in class at least once a week. In addition, 22 percent dozed off doing homework and 14 percent arrive late or miss school because they oversleep.
• Some 51 percent of adolescent drivers have been on the road while drowsy in the past year.
• Four-fifths of students who get the recommended amount of sleep are achieving As and Bs in school; those who get less sleep are more likely to get lower grades.
• Some 28 percent of adolescents say they are too tired to exercise.
• Just 20 percent of adolescents said they get nine hours of sleep on school nights and 45 percent reported sleeping less than eight hours.
“We call on parents, educators and teenagers themselves to take an active role in making sleep a priority,” said Richard L. Gelula, the foundation’s chief executive officer.

TVs, electronic gadgets to blame?
Nearly all youngsters — 97 percent — have at least one electronic item in their bedroom. These include television, computer, phone or music devices. Adolescents with four or more such items in their bedrooms are much more likely than their peers to get an insufficient amount of sleep at night and almost twice as likely to fall asleep in school and while doing homework, the foundation reported.

For example, newborns sleep 16 hours to 18 hours a day; children in preschool sleep between 10 hours and 12 hours a day; school-age children and teenagers should get at least nine hours of sleep a day. Adults should get seven hours to eight hours of sleep each day.

The foundation describes itself as an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public health and safety by studying sleep and sleep disorders. It is funded by memberships, sales of educational materials, advertising, investment income, individual donations, subscriptions, and educational grants from foundations, federal agencies and corporations, including pharmaceutical companies.

The Long Goodbye
How does it feel to be the object of so much love and attention, so much anxiety and aspiration? Suffocating, yes, but also safe. An essay on boomer parenting, from the kids' perspective.

By Ramin Setooodeh

Michael Elins for Newsweek
Not Letting Go: Boomer kids tend to feel suffocated, yet safe

May 22, 2006 issue - You've been busy this past decade. It started the summer before you entered high school in Fresno, Calif. You, like most of your friends, decided to give up your freedom—sleeping in, afternoon bike rides, late nights of Nintendo—for two months of classes. Summer school. It wasn't that you were failing; oh no, your guidance counselor encouraged you to enroll to stay ahead. That's been the goal (hasn't it?) since then. Advanced Placement classes, volunteering, SAT prep, late nights at the college newspaper, study abroad, five internships and now you have this, a great job in a big city, New York. But what's next? You're turning 24 this week, grown up and still a little amazed at all the hurdles you jumped to get here. But in the back of your mind, there's doubt—lingering, asking ... where did it go, the so-called carefree, exploratory days of your youth?

This new generation of twentysomethings, the offspring of the baby boomers, is the most talented, competitive (and compulsive) group this country has seen. A record 84 percent of adults now hold a high-school diploma, compared with 63 percent in 1975, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The average starting salary for college graduates in lucrative professions (like engineering and consulting) hovers in the $50,000 range. It's no surprise. You and your friends—and your friends' friends—have been balancing commitments like spinning plates in a circus act. "It's a Renaissance generation," says David Morrison, president of Twentysomething, a consulting firm. "They are, more than anything else, grabbing as many tools as possible, being as valuable as possible, constantly pursuing." Since grade school, your parents have overbooked your lives, wheeling you from basketball practice to roller-skating lessons to the library ("RIF: Reading Is Fundamental!"). They, the "Me" generation, wanted their children to be spoiled with every possible option. Like helicopters, they hovered in the background, ready to sweep down, solve crises and offer new destinations. But what, you wonder, is the outcome of all this coddling? And when will the pilots retire, letting you steer into your own future?

Independence no longer happens in college, where officials are acknowledging more interference from parents than ever before. "We get calls about students having roommate problems," says Bob Naples, dean of students at UCLA. "Or they say, 'My son is sick.' That's the kind of thing we might expect to hear at high school." Remember your move-in day at Stanford? Your parents spent the afternoon attending receptions, looking over course catalogs, meeting the kids down the hall and lofting your bed. Wait, folks—who was starting school today? Then again, it could've been worse. During the next four years, you witnessed other parents happily edit their kids' assignments, pick their majors, chat up professors, buy their textbooks, plan their careers and pay their credit-card bills. Some colleges are finally doing something about it. At Colgate University, parents attend an orientation session that encourages them to let students solve their own problems. "Part of preparing for college is learning to stand on your own two feet," says the university's president, Rebecca Chopp.

No one is saying too much involvement is always bad, especially not the kids who benefit from it. "I remember my parents gave me math workbooks for grades five and four, and I'd do them in grade one or two," says Alison Crocker, a senior at Dartmouth who was awarded a Rhodes scholarship this year. "They got me into doing a lot of things, both academically and athletically." By the second semester of her senior year at George Washington University, Jackie Donohue, 23, didn't have any job prospects, despite her "six to eight" internships. Her parents surprised her one weekend with a visit—for a brainstorm session, where they told her which careers they thought best suited her. It worked. Donohue started her first job, at a public-affairs group in Washington, D.C., the day after graduation. "I think it's funny, because my parents were so tuned in to who I was, they knew exactly what I needed—even though I didn't know I needed it myself," she says. "Yes, they've always been there. But it's not an annoyance. I view my parents as my best friends, really."

But you wonder: would this generation, raised to accomplish so much, be better equipped to handle adulthood if more independence was forced upon them? Most of your friends, who came from elite families and went to top schools, never worked regular jobs at ice-cream parlors or fast-food joints—they were too busy résumé-building. As a result, some 780,000 college graduates a year boomerang back home after graduation. They don't know who they want to be, and their parents, welcoming them back, are often happy to help them plan the next stage of their lives. (After all, the option is better than the alternative: letting them move to a strange city and wander around from place to place until they stumble into something temporary. No game plan! Who can imagine success coming from that?) When your friends finally enter the job market, they're often impatient, viewing work as a springboard to greater things. The average adult under 34 holds a job for only 20 months. "The illusion that they're going to get on this magical conveyor belt of a company and ride it out 40 years is completely shattered," says Eric Chester, author of "Getting Them to Give a Damn." There's also less patience for mindless tasks, says Jessica Ashooh, a senior at Brown, who spent a summer in high school as a retail-store clerk. "I hated it," she says. "It was not intellectual. I just wanted to die every day."
In relationships, your generation is finicky at best, and full of loners. They don't really date in college—they "hook up," as if sex is just another mechanical accomplishment, to be tallied and put on a résumé. The problem, friends say, is that you're all too busy. But maybe it goes deeper. Growing up, parents taught you to value perfection—to never settle, to strive only for the best. In love, how can you possibly find another person who meets all the high standards they've set for you? "It's been difficult," says Gustavo Mendez, 21, a junior at Harvard. "When I was younger, I'd start dating a girl and my mom was critical: 'She has to be very attractive, meet such-and-such criteria.' Even though my mom's not around here, I still imagine her telling me that stuff."

The shrink's question, in the end, is how do you view yourself? The academic—you've been taught to imitate one, after all—would answer this question through literature. To you, your generation has been ping-ponging between two lines from T. S. Eliot: "Indeed there will be time." (For fun, later.) And: "Hurry up please it's time." (For success, now.) But a simpler analogy also comes to mind. You and your friends have lived your lives, for better or worse, through a mirror—reflecting your parents' biggest hopes and, along the way, sacrificing some of your own desires. As a result, you've become smarter, faster, more accomplished. But still, there's something missing. Where's the "I" in your identity? You can't learn that from them.

12 Steps to Independence

May 22, 2006 issue - Your child's departure for college is a big step. But the journey from cradle to campus is filled with countless little steps—each an opportunity to prepare for letting go. Here, Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger, authors of "Letting Go: A Parents' Guide to Understanding the College Years," offer mantras for parents at every phase of the journey.

1 Take a deep breath. Give your child a chance to work things out. Even a crying infant eventually learns to fall asleep without being held.

2 Help your child learn to negotiate conflicts. Encouraging your toddler to use words rather than grab her shovel back from another child in the sandbox may be the first lesson in the art of conflict resolution.

3 Help your child learn to cope with disappointment. Empathize with your grade-school-age child when she isn't invited to a birthday party. Instead of trying to "fix it," help her to move on.

4 Support your child's interests and passions. You may have been hoping for a home filled with the sound of music, but your son is mad about metalsmithing. Praise your child for who he is becoming, not who you thought he would be.

5 Help your child learn to advocate for herself. The Little League dad who yells at the umpire for a bad call doesn't help the child learn to solve problems or gain confidence.

6 Encourage your child to dream big dreams and set achievable goals. Support your middle-schooler's dreams of running a marathon, but help her first achieve her 5K goal.

7 Loosen the reins a little at a time. Increase your child's freedom and responsibility a bit more each year.

8 Teach your child to manage money. During the early years piggy banks, allowances and household jobs are tools to teach about money management. When teenagers are allowed to make choices about the money they've saved, reality sets in.

9 Help your child learn to manage time. The college student who understands the consequences of too little sleep or being late has a big advantage.

10 Be a coach. Young people often need encouragement to seek the help they need. Support your child's emerging independence by helping him to take action on his own behalf.

11 Remain an anchor. Encourage your child to turn to you in good times and bad. Stay steady even when your child is shaky. And as the parent of a college student you can provide a familiar and safe haven, an anchor in a new and unfamiliar sea, a place for solace and encouragement and admiration.

12 Finally, when you drop your "emerging adult" at college, remember she is taking you with her. Though she may not admit it to you, she will quote things you've said—and recount things you've shown her. Resist your temptation to give one last lecture on all the things you fear you have forgotten to teach her during the past 18 years. She has been listening more than she will let you know.

Another Barrier Broken
For intellectually disabled kids, college has finally become an option.
Web Exclusive
By Peg Tyre

Students in the inclusion program at the University of Massachusetts
Photos courtesy of, Institute for Community Inclusion, University of Massachusetts
Students in the inclusion program at the University of Massachusetts

April 13, 2006 - In many ways, Katie Apostolides, an education major at Becker College in Worcester, Mass., is a typical undergraduate. As a freshman, she found it hard to leave her family behind in Pennsylvania and get used to dorm life. Like other new students, she worried that she’d never find close friends. One class—medical terminology—was unexpectedly difficult, and she had to withdraw in order to preserve her grade-point average. Her second year, she says, “has been going better.” She’s used to dorm life now. She’s made friends. The workload is still challenging, but these days, she says, “I take the initiative to go up to teacher and ask for help.”

Apostolides’s troubles may seem ordinary, but she is far from an average college sophomore. She has Down syndrome—a chromosomal abnormality characterized by mild to moderate mental retardation. Profiting from a 30-year movement to keep disabled kids in mainstream school settings, Apostolides, 22, earned a degree from a public high school in Pennsylvania and now, supported by her parents and her own unflagging enthusiasm, is working on a college degree. She’s not the only mentally disabled person attending college these days. In 2001, there were 15 postsecondary programs for intellectually disabled students. In 2006, the number has swelled to 115. Next fall, two colleges in New Jersey—a community college and a four-year university—are launching pilot programs to offer a version of the college experience to such students.

Thirty years ago, mentally challenged kids were relegated to institutions, training programs and group homes. Regarded as unteachable, they were trained to do basic menial tasks instead getting instruction in reading and math. That began to change in the 1970s when activist parents backed by new federal laws began pressing local school districts to “mainstream” intellectually disabled children and provide more community-based resources for them. At the same time, education specialists determined that many cognitively impaired children could learn more—provided they received early, intensive intervention. School districts began devising programs that mixed kids with disabilities into regular schools and sometimes, regular classrooms. “There was a massive shift in this country to supply more inclusion programs for intellectually disabled kids,” says Debra Hart, coordinator for education and transition for the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts.

Mainstreaming intellectually disabled kids paid off. Today, says Madeleine Will, vice president of public policy for National Down Syndrome Society, kids with intellectual impairments are “functioning better in the world of school, in the home and in the workplace.” Parents who have spent the last 20 years creating educational opportunities for their disabled children say college is the next frontier. Steve Riggio, the CEO of Barnes & Noble, who is underwriting the two new programs in New Jersey, says he hopes his own intellectually disabled daughter, Melissa, now a high-school junior, will benefit. Without well-constructed postsecondary programs, he says, after graduation, “she is facing a life without the opportunities that typical kids receive.”

The goal of many of the programs is to help the children develop the skills they need to live more independently—and that means getting and keeping a job. About 70 percent of intellectually disabled people are unemployed. Lindsey Foley, 20, an intellectually disabled woman from Worcester, Mass., hopes that auditing a computer course at Quinsigamond Community College near her home will help her keep her job at the local YMCA. “I need to learn about computers to get better,” she says. Because she can’t read or write independently, Foley attends class with a tutor. She uses special software that “reads” textbooks and the Internet. When it is time to take a test, she goes to the learning center where a “scribe” reads the test questions aloud and records her answers. So far, her mother, Robin, points out, Lindsey has not failed a test. “Ha!” Lindsey adds with pride. Next year, she says, she hopes to take classes in English and sign language.

Not every college program offers the same level of inclusion and classroom support. Some colleges run life-skills courses on campus but keep intellectually disabled kids away from their mainstream curriculum. Others offer a hybrid, allowing the students to audit regular classes and supplement their course load with skill-building seminars such as cooking and human relationships. Other colleges allow them to matriculate. When Mercer Community College in New Jersey opens its new program this fall, intellectually disabled students will take some regular classes—working toward a vocational certificate—but they'll also get a special program of motivational speakers and seminars in classroom etiquette and time management. What if intellectually disabled students can’t cut it? “There are plenty of students without special needs who have to take a class repeatedly before they master the material,” says Mercer administrator Sue Onaitis, who is coordinating the program for intellectually disabled students. “We believe that it’s OK for all of our students to try and fail. There’s a kind of dignity there.”

These programs aren’t cheap. Tuition for intellectually disabled kids is usually the same or more than the tuition for regular learners. In some states, local school districts will help defray the costs. If they don’t, parents have to dig deep since intellectually disabled students usually can’t obtain financial aid. Parents may be getting some help soon. Last month, an amendment to the Higher Education Bill was introduced in the House that would provide federal work-study funds for intellectually disabled students who attend college.

John Russo says he’d welcome all the help his son could get. John, 18, has a cognitive disorder that has kept him out of public schools. Though he reads at the fourth-grade level, he’s like other teenagers in many ways—he plays in a band, has shown a flair for design and is dreaming of the day when he can get a driver’s license. Russo believes that postsecondary education will help his son make the crucial leap to the working world. Given the right opportunity, he says, his son had the patience and determination to succeed. “It’s not like he’s never had an obstacle thrown at him,” he says. Overcoming obstacles, he says, is the story of his life.

Brains of very smart kids mature later
Study: Delayed development of cortex may promote higher intelligence
The Associated Press

NEW YORK - Very smart children may seem advanced in many ways, but a new study shows they actually lag behind other kids in development of the “thinking” part of the brain.

The brain’s outer mantle, or cortex, gets thicker and then thins during childhood and the teen years. The study found that in kids with superior intelligence, the cortex reaches its thickest stage a few years later than in other kids.

Nobody knows what causes that or how it relates to superior intelligence. But researchers said the finding does not rule out a role for environment — such as intellectual stimulation — in affecting a child’s level of intelligence.

In fact, the delay may promote higher intelligence because it means a child is older, and processing more complex experiences, while the cortex is building up, said study co-author Dr. Judith Rapoport.

Rapoport, with researcher Philip Shaw and others at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md., followed development of the cortex in 307 children. They used repeated magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans from childhood to the latter teens.

Results appear in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature.

The findings are especially strong for cortex development in the front part of the brain and in a strip over the top of the head, areas where complex mental tasks are done, Shaw said.

One analysis found the cortex in kids with the highest IQs — 121 to 149 — didn’t reach maximum thickness until age 11. Children who were just slightly less bright reached that point at age 9, and those with average intelligence at around 6. In all cases, the cortex later thinned as the children matured.

Nobody knows what’s happening within the cortex to make it get thicker or thinner, Shaw said, so it’s impossible to say why those changes would be related to intelligence. Brain development is influenced by intellectual stimulation, so that probably plays a role, he said.

The study findings are “certainly not a recipe for how to change intelligence,” he said. Nor do they suggest that MRI scans can reveal how intelligent an individual child is, he said.

Elizabeth Sowell of the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied cortex thickness in children, said she found the results convincing.

While the findings show that the pattern of cortex development is related to high intelligence, they can’t show which is causing the other, she said.

She also said that by tracing out patterns of normal development, such studies help scientists understand what goes wrong in children with brain disorders.

Is ADHD Getting Out of Control?
A record four million children -- some as young as 2 -- are being diagnosed with ADHD, and many are being put on powerful medications, perhaps for life. Now a growing number of experts are sounding alarm bells.
By Linda Marsa

It's a rare parent today who's not familiar with the term attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Indeed, this once-obscure abbreviation is now a household word, thanks in part to the fact that the number of kids diagnosed with the condition has skyrocketed -- from an estimated 150,000 in 1970, to a half million in 1985, to a whopping four million currently. (It is outranked only by asthma and allergies among childhood disorders.)

Predictably, prescriptions for ADHD treatments have ballooned proportionately, rising more than 47 percent over the past five years to a current total of 31 million. The ADHD therapeutic arsenal -- a $2.2-billion-a-year business -- now includes a dozen drugs, the use of which has steadily drifted downward to ever-younger children.

A landmark 2000 Journal of the American Medical Association study revealed that use among 2- to 4-year-olds of stimulants such as Ritalin (which, paradoxically, have a calming effect on hyperactive kids) nearly tripled from 1991 to 1995; Ritalin prescriptions for preschoolers rose 49 percent from 2000 to 2003. This is especially sobering in view of the fact that Ritalin is not even approved for use in children under 6; all these prescriptions are written off-label.

Is Medication Really Necessary?

Despite the galloping increase in the use of such drugs, there is still considerable confusion as to exactly what ADHD is and how it should be treated. Part of the problem is that there is no definitive test to certify that a child has it. And because symptoms run the gamut from constant frenzied activity and disruptive, impulsive behavior to fidgeting, making careless mistakes in schoolwork, and failing to finish tasks, it's not always easy to distinguish between normal kid behavior and ADHD. Diagnosis is still a judgment call, says Timothy E. Wilens, MD, author of Straight Talk About Psychiatric Medications for Kids (Guilford, 2004).

In addition, the spectrum of ADHD has broadened. There are now thought to be three distinct types. The most extreme -- and the one most associated with the label -- is the hyperactive, impulsive child who is disruptive, can't sit still, and may be a bully or a troublemaker. Children with the second type are those who are inattentive, unable to focus, and easily distracted. The third type, and the most common one, usually combines inattention and hyperactivity.

For children whose extreme impulsivity and aggressiveness cause them to fall hopelessly behind in school and to become social outcasts, a parent's decision to medicate can be painful but clear-cut. But what about the parents of the millions of other kids who also bear the ADHD label but whose behavior is more ambiguous? These parents face thorny questions: Is their child's energy, dreaminess, or inattentiveness merely normal youthful behavior, or does it cross the line into a neurological illness? And would putting the child on drugs be a help or the chemical equivalent of handcuffs?

Behavioral pediatrician Lawrence H. Diller, MD, author of Running on Ritalin (Bantam, 1999), believes the latter. "America uses 80 percent of the world's Ritalin," he says. "We medicate our kids more, and for more trivial reasons, than any other culture. We'd rather give them a pill than discipline them." His view is shared by many others, who chalk up the seemingly limitless numbers of antsy, disruptive kids to the failures of a permissive society that can't control its children and babysits them with MTV.

Others pointedly disagree. "ADHD has not increased, we're just identifying it better," says Steven Pliszka, MD, chief of child psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center, in San Antonio. "In the past, these kids were the ones who were always being sent to the principal's office." Moreover, research shows that there is a strong genetic component to the disorder. If a child has it, the odds are good that a parent may, too (though he or she may be unaware of it).

But even if the data strongly suggest a biological origin to ADHD, says William E. Pelham Jr., PhD, director of the Center for Children and Families at the State University of New York at Buffalo, there is little doubt that environmental factors can nudge a latent, largely benign tendency into a full-blown disorder requiring medication. Several trends in American life have converged to whip up this perfect storm.

Let's start with our schools. Faced with steadily dwindling resources and the need to find time for everything in state-mandated curricula, many have curtailed gym classes, even recess, where energetic kids can let off steam. Teachers, already pushed to the limit, are often unable to handle a "troublemaker" who creates chaos in their crowded classrooms -- in turn putting parents under pressure to make their child conform. (Three-quarters of initial referrals for an ADHD examination originate with teachers, not parents.)

"Teachers are good at spotting a child who's different," says Mina K. Dulcan, MD, head of child and adolescent psychiatry at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, in Chicago. And in doing so, they perform a valuable service. But it's valid to wonder whether, in the words of Barbara M. Korsch, MD, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, "we're giving youngsters Ritalin as a solution for poor classroom behavior."

Our healthcare system also helps make medication a likelier solution. Because HMOs and managed-care plans often either explicitly or implicitly encourage primary-care physicians to limit referrals to specialists, it is easier and cheaper for a doctor simply to prescribe a pill than to direct the child to costly therapists.

Others point the finger at the beleaguered institution of the modern family itself, with its (commonly) two working parents who may lack the stamina to create a highly structured home environment and who may not restrict television, video games, or Internet access. Indeed, a 2004 University of Washington study indicated a link between early exposure to television and attention problems in children.

Add to this mix the fact that, in the early 1990s, kids with ADHD who meet certain criteria became eligible for special services from their schools, which has meant that more kids were identified. And the debut of a new drug is usually accompanied by intensive sales campaigns aimed at doctors and TV viewers. "New drugs always mean more people get medication," explains Dr. Pelham.

"How Can I Be Sure It's ADHD?"

Even when a child's symptoms clearly point to something beyond the normal vicissitudes of childhood, ADHD can be tricky to pin down. Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, dyslexia, learning disabilities, even impaired hearing or vision, can be mistaken for ADHD because the symptoms (insomnia, impulsiveness, inattention) are similar.

Other factors that can spark ADHD-like behaviors include emotional disruptions (divorce, the death of a close relative, a parent's job loss), neglect or abuse, an unstructured home environment, and medical problems such as epilepsy or hyperthyroidism. Sleep apnea also triggers ADHD-like symptoms, according to recent research by Ronald Chervin, MD, a sleep researcher at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. "If kids don't get undisturbed sleep," he says, "they're naturally going to be inattentive and less able to learn."

The obvious first step in helping a child is to obtain an accurate diagnosis. Given the murkiness of ADHD, such accuracy requires several hours of careful evaluation, not a 15-minute office visit and a rush to medicate because a teacher complains that a child is disruptive. As tempting as it may be to give a child a pill to see whether he improves, this is poor medical practice. As Dr. Wilens notes, a positive response to a Ritalin-like stimulant does not mean a child has ADHD -- these drugs can have the effect of making anyone who takes them more focused (ask any college student who has used Ritalin to cram for finals).

If you suspect or have been told that your child has ADHD, first make an appointment with the child's pediatrician to rule out a medical problem. Next, have the youngster evaluated by a trained professional who specializes in the disorder: a child psychiatrist, psychologist, behavioral pediatrician, or behavioral neurologist. This expert should gather information from the child's teachers, parents, and other people who know him well and should have each person fill out a standardized form.

To help experts distinguish ADHD from other conditions, the American Academy of Pediatrics have devised guidelines, including the following:

* Symptoms must meet the criteria for the disorder established by the American Psychiatric Association. Make sure your evaluator uses these.
* Behaviors must create a genuine impairment in at least two areas of the child's life. If the only problem is in the classroom, it is more likely to be a learning disability than ADHD.
* Symptoms must have persisted for at least six months and have seriously interfered with the child's friendships, school activities, home life, and overall functioning.

Such evaluations typically cost anywhere from $600 to $2,000 and may be covered by health insurance. Federal law also requires your child's public school to provide both free evaluations and remedial classes for eligible kids with ADHD. If you're not satisfied with your evaluator's conclusions, insist on seeing another specialist for a second opinion.

"They Were Wrong!"

Patricia Mark's son Nicholas was diagnosed with ADHD at age 8, after his third-grade teacher noticed he didn't pay attention, had trouble reading, and wrote illegibly. "He'd have these momentary staring spells," recalls Mark, 45, a mother of three in New Milford, Connecticut. "And though he could spell any word in his head, the letters would be all jumbled when he put them on paper."

The school district referred her to a psychologist, who attributed Nicholas's symptoms to ADHD and suggested he take Ritalin. Convinced in her gut that this diagnosis was wrong, Mark refused to give her son drugs. She spent six years consulting one specialist after another. Finally, a neurologist ordered a brain scan, which revealed that Nicholas suffered from mild epilepsy. Earlier tests indicated he also had dyslexia.

Tutoring and special-education classes have helped Nicholas cope with his learning disability, but Mark feels that the boy, now a senior in high school, will never recover academically from the years he lost. Still, she remains grateful that she trusted her instincts. "Ritalin can trigger seizures," she says. "If I had done what the 'experts' advised, it might have killed him."

"Only Drugs Helped My Daughter"

From the moment her daughter, Juliet, was born, Leslie Pia knew she was different from other babies. She cried inconsolably, rarely slept, refused to stay in her stroller, and buzzed with nervous energy. By age 2, Juliet's fierce temper tantrums made her a social pariah among her peers. "None of the mothers wanted her around their children," recalls Pia, an event planner in Plainview, New York. As the terrible twos progressed into the even-worse threes, Pia realized that Juliet wasn't going to outgrow her erratic behavior, so she and her husband, Steven, had her evaluated by a private psychologist. The verdict: Juliet suffered from ADHD.

The psychologists broached the possibility of medication, but the Pias were adamantly opposed. "I was appalled at the idea of a child barely out of diapers popping these powerful pills," says Pia, who notes that even experts are unsure what long-term effects these medications may have, especially when they're given at such a key stage of neurological development (the brain undergoes the majority of its growth during the first five years of life).

Instead, Pia scaled back her work schedule to spend more time with her daughter, read everything she could find about ADHD, and learned behavior-modification techniques. She even tried occupational therapy to tame her unruly child, who wandered around during circle time at her nursery school, bullied her classmates on the playground, and had trouble transitioning calmly from one activity to another.

"These methods would work temporarily, but nothing had a lasting effect -- her brain and body were just moving too fast," Pia says. "Since I couldn't sit in the classroom with her all day long, nursery school was just a horror."

As Juliet prepared to enter kindergarten, the desperate couple made the "harrowing decision" to give their daughter the stimulant Concerta. As heart-wrenching as it was to "give my 5-year-old a pill in her applesauce," recalls Pia, the effects were immediate and dramatic. Suddenly, Juliet could sit calmly and do her work without making a fuss; she could play peacefully for short periods with other kids.

The girl, now 7, still attends behavioral therapy to improve her social skills, but "there is just no comparison to the way she was before," marvels her mom.

"I Refused to Medicate My Son"

Sheila Matthews's nightmare began when her son entered first grade. His teacher phoned regularly to complain about the boy's disruptive behavior -- he would blurt out answers and refuse to sit still. His teacher assigned him a special seat away from his classmates and used negative and positive reinforcements to try to curb his disruptions.

"All she was doing was stigmatizing and humiliating him," recalls Matthews, a mother of two in New Canaan, Connecticut. "This was a kid who had loved school and was always excited about learning. Suddenly he was telling me he hated school and hated himself. He was only 6!"

The school psychologist diagnosed the boy with ADHD and urged his parents to consider medication. "The psychologist told me, 'If you don't medicate him, research shows he'll self-medicate with drugs and alcohol,'" says Matthews. "I was frightened and horrified." Convinced the school district was trying to sedate her son to make him easier to manage, Matthews stood firm.

She believed her child was merely outgoing and energetic, and that drugs would dampen his natural high spirits. Instead, she paid $2,000 for an evaluation by a private psychologist, who determined the boy had trouble with sequencing, reasoning, and comprehension. This diagnosis qualified him for special speech and language services through the school district. She also enrolled him in an after-school program in third and fourth grades that helped build communication skills.

Her persistence paid off. Her son, now 12, is bringing home B's on his seventh-grade report card and learning to play guitar. "When he started doing better academically, his behavioral problems diminished," Matthews says.

The Anti-Drug Movement

In all but the most severe cases, ADHD can be treated as effectively with intensive behavioral coaching as with medicine, according to advocates such as Dr. Pelham. Most no-drug programs emphasize the use of goal setting, organizational skills, and time management. Children with ADHD need consistent rules, a high degree of daily structure, and stern consequences for misbehavior. Here, simple techniques parents can use:

Follow the same routine every day, from waking to bedtime.

Have a place for everything -- clothing, backpacks, school supplies -- and keep them in their places.

Use notebook organizers and stress the importance of writing down assignments and bringing home needed books.

Create a clean, quiet study area at home with no distractions.

Encourage exercise. Kids burn off pent-up energy through sports.

Play an active role in your school. Persuade teachers to make their classrooms more ADHD friendly.

Change your own thinking. Because ADHD kids tend to be exceptionally creative and intuitive, a growing movement urges parents to see ADHD as a "gift," not an illness.

This Is Your Child's Brain on Ritalin

ADHD medications work by changing the levels of brain chemicals such as dopamine and norepinephrine, which help modulate activity in the parts of the brain that regulate attention, impulse control, motor activity, and organization. But what do these drugs do to your child's body?

While medication is sometimes the only answer for kids with severe ADHD, it's important to realize that these drugs can carry serious side effects, including insomnia, appetite loss, upset stomachs, and tics -- and even, according to the most recent research, possible depression in adults who took Ritalin as kids. A small percentage of kids are also vulnerable to a "rebound effect" when the drugs wear off in the late afternoon and symptoms resurface.

Experts point out, however, that this problem has largely been eliminated in recent years. In rare instances, youngsters may experience seizures, or their growth may be affected when they continuously take medication. Most experts advise against the continuous use of these medications, especially for years on end. And many advocate that your child take a medically supervised "vacation" from medication at least once a year to see how he or she fares without it.

Did chimp and human ancestors interbreed?
DNA analysis indicates that species split was a messy affair, scientists say
By Bjorn Carey

An artist's conception shows what the hominid ancestor known as Toumai might have looked like 7 million years ago. A research team now speculates that Toumai arose before the final species split between the ancestors of humans and chimpanzees.

The earliest known ancestors of modern humans might have reproduced with early chimpanzees to create a hybrid species, a new genetic analysis suggests.

Based on the study of human and chimp genomes, the scientists believe the split between the human and chimpanzee lines occurred much more recently than previously thought — no more than 6.3 million years ago and perhaps as recently as 5.4 million years ago.

Human and chimpanzee ancestors began branching apart on the primate evolutionary tree about 9 million years ago, scientists say, but there are significant gaps in the fossil record. The new analysis suggests that a full split, which scientists call speciation, wasn't achieved for nearly 4 million years and might have occurred twice.
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The study was released by the journal Nature on Wednesday and will appear in a future print issue.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard matched sequences of the human genome to the same regions of the genetic code of chimpanzees and several other primate species. DNA is made up of sequences of chemical bases, labeled A, T, G, and C. They compared the codes, letter by letter, and noted where there was a divergence.

Based on an estimated relative mutation rate, they calculated how long it would take to accrue the mutations and determined that millions of years of genetic divergence led to an initial speciation around 6.3 million years ago. From start to finish, complete speciation spanned a much longer time range than in any other modern apes.

"The variation is huge," said study lead author Nick Patterson of the Broad Institute. "There are regions of the genome that don't appear to be much more than 5 million years old, and there are regions that appear to be 4 million years older than that. The ancestral time over which humans and chimpanzees speciated, where there's no more gene flow, covers 4 million years."

X marks the spot
The team also observed that humans and chimps are very similar on the X chromosome — sometimes referred to as the female sex chromosome, even though both sexes have at least one X chromosome. The average age of the X chromosome in humans is about 1.2 million years "younger" than the rest of the chromosomes, and the final change occurred around 5.4 million years ago.

This suggests that after the first speciation 6.3 million years ago, early human ancestors may have lived and reproduced with ancestral chimps to produce hybrid primates.

"This would help explain why divergence on X between humans and chimps is so low," Patterson told LiveScience.

Mixing and matching genetic information from two species doesn't always work out well, and hybrid species often have trouble reproducing. The problem generally arises from differences on the X chromosomes.

"In a situation where it's unfavorable to have one X from one species and one from the other, which happens as hybrids reproduce among themselves, you get powerful selection for the good combination," Patterson said. "The X chromosome will fix out and everyone will have the same X."

What happened
Patterson explains one possibility for how this could have happened: The initial split occurred around 6.3 million years ago. Sometime after, the descendants of the earliest known human ancestor mated with ancestral chimps and created a hybrid species.

In this scenario, the earliest known human ancestor, a biped known as "Toumai" that probably didn't look much different than chimpanzee ancestors, would have predated the hybridization. The Toumai fossil, which was unearthed in Chad, has been dated back to somewhere between 6.5 million and 7.5 million years ago.

Scientists can't say how long the hybridization carried on, but the final speciation occurred around 5.3 million years ago, possibly because the two species' genetic codes were too different to mix, or because the animals were simply physically unappealing to each other.

"If that occurred, they might have been compatible enough on X that it would fix out to one species or another," Patterson said. "As it happened, it fixed to chimps, but it could have gone the other way."

This is just one possible explanation for the gap in speciation time, Patterson said, and is not meant to be interpreted as the full answer. Researchers at the Broad Institute are currently working on sequencing gorilla and other primate genomes and searching for similar patterns of evolution to help better tell the whole story.

Town may evict unmarried couples with kids
Couple with 3 kids denied occupancy permit after moving to Missouri town
The Associated Press

BLACK JACK, Missouri - The city council has rejected a measure allowing unmarried couples with multiple children to live together, and the mayor said those who fall into that category could soon face eviction.

Olivia Shelltrack and Fondrey Loving were denied an occupancy permit after moving into a home in this St. Louis suburb because they have three children and are not married.

The town's planning and zoning commission proposed a change in the law, but the measure was rejected Tuesday by the city council in a 5-3 vote.

"I'm just shocked," Shelltrack said. "I really thought this would all be over, and we could go on with our lives."

The current ordinance prohibits more than three people from living together unless they are related by "blood, marriage or adoption." The defeated measure would have changed the definition of a family to include unmarried couples with two or more children.

Mayor Norman McCourt declined to be interviewed but said in a statement that those who do not meet the town's definition of family could soon face eviction.

Black Jack's special counsel, Sheldon Stock, declined to say whether the city will seek to remove Loving and Shelltrack from their home.

Ladies First? Gender Disparity in the Classroom and the Workplace
By Martha Brockenbrough

For better or for worse, gender roles play a very important role in how girls and boys fare in school and how they fare later, as men and women in the modern workplace.

As author Nan Mooney told me, "These cultural expectations are deeply entrenched, and they've been around for a long time." Mooney examined some of these expectations of women in her book, I Can't Believe She Did That! Why Women Betray Other Women at Work.

There can even be some benefit to them, as gender roles make people "feel more comfortable," Mooney said.

What's more, there may be some biological truth to them. Evolutionary biologists say male and female brains may have been shaped by their sex-based tasks, giving men and women different strengths.

In any case, these cultural expectations--perhaps as much as brain and learning differences--could be why girls today are doing better in school than boys.

Schools are, for the most part, set up so that obedient kids who follow instructions and get the right answers do better than the kids who want to do things their way, on their schedule.

Why girls thrive at school
This isn't the fault of the teachers; they're not only trying to manage dozens of students with different abilities, interests, and even language skills, but they're also saddled with regulations that say how well students must do on tests.

I've sat in plenty of school classrooms and been quite impressed with how teachers manage, despite the challenges they face. It's no wonder sugar-and-spice personalities do well in the classroom, especially now that schools have made steps to rectify the diminished female confidence that journalist Peggy Orenstein noted in her 1996 book, SchoolGirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap.

But this sugar-and-spice environment is not a very realistic training ground for success in the working world, where right answers are far more ambiguous, and where success, in the United States anyway, often relies on entrepreneurialism*--which requires rebellion and risk-taking.

This isn't an exclusively male arena. Plenty of women run businesses. But even female CEOs tend to earn less than their male counterparts, which suggests they might be paying for bucking the cultural expectation.

Class clowns vs. teachers' pets
We're still learning about how male and female brains differ (and of course, how individual brains, regardless of sex, differ).

But I think we could solve a lot of problems simply by understanding and respecting differences, and working hard not to offer disproportionate rewards, even if obedience helps schools run more calmly, and risk-taking helps businesses earn more money. Both types of personalities exist, and both are necessary.

It would be great, for example, if schools could find a way to reward the entrepreneurial spirit that I suspect is behind a lot of troublemaking at school.

I don't think it's a coincidence that two of the most influential businessmen of our age--Bill Gates and Steve Jobs--didn't finish college. Gates left to start a certain software company. But Jobs left partly because he couldn't see the point in spending all of that tuition money. (If you haven't read the speech he gave Stanford's class of 2005, you're missing out.) Jobs obviously did fine without school, as did Gates.

But how many people are underachieving today because they couldn't overcome their supposed failures at school?

If teachers found a way to hook up kids with their passions, and let them explore those fully--instead of spending all that time, money, and energy on maintaining classroom order or preparing kids for standardized tests--then those kids would be primed and ready for the working world.

It might require some huge structural changes for schools. But wouldn't that be better than alienating more spirited kids from school? And shouldn't the more obedient types of students get early exposure to managing the ambiguities of the working world?

Likewise, if workplaces put more value on the people who dutifully kept things running in support of the risk-takers, I suspect we'd see a lot more equity in male-female salaries.

To me, it doesn't matter if these dutiful, supportive people are men or women. But even when I was working as a manager in a big corporation, it bothered me that administrative assistants--who were profoundly necessary for all company operations--made less per year than some salespeople got in their annual bonuses. I couldn't help but notice that these "assistants" were most often women. It makes our tendency to view organizers like them as second-class even worse.

If we can remember to respect individuals for wherever they happen to fall on the spectrum, and recognize that there is a value to both types of behavior and reward them equally with grades, opportunity, and money, then I think we will have come a long way in helping people lead the best lives they can, no matter what their sex.

In the end, no matter how much we learn about the differences between the sexes, I think living equally full, rewarding, and valued lives is the big picture.

And that's what really deserves our focus.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

It Takes a Real Man to Be a Good Mother
Dad could mix a Gibson with one hand and whip up a mean spaghetti and meatballs with the other.

By Robert Wilder

Esha Chiocchio for Newsweek
Mr. Mom: All of us try to carry on some of Ben's maternal traditions, though I admit my dad can cook rings around me

May 15, 2006 issue - Like any son worth his salt, I have a note on my calendar in June to call my dad on Father's Day, but unlike other men, I also have that same reminder scrawled on Mother's Day the month before. I think the call on Mother's Day actually means more to Ben because it acknowledges the beyond-the-pale sacrifices he made raising four boys on his own. He wore a lot of hats in our household while we were growing up, and when I call him on both Father's and Mother's days, I let him know how much I appreciate all the ways he tried to be both the hand that rocked the cradle and the one that held a hammer.

Even before my mother, Joan, died of cancer in 1983, my father performed more home duties than the other dads he rode Metro-North with. He did most of the cooking even though he didn't step off the train at the Green's Farms station until 6:30. My mother's job was to defrost the ingredients for that night's meal, and my father would come home, put his briefcase down, change out of his Brooks Brothers suit and enter the kitchen with his sleeves rolled up. With one hand he mixed a Beefeater Gibson, and with the other he whipped up a diner-worthy spaghetti and meatballs or liver and onions.

Since my father had always shouldered a lot of the responsibility around our house, it's hard to pinpoint what he did differently after my mother died. Obviously, there was a huge gaping hole in our lives—still is—and although nothing could replace my mother's quiet kindness or artistic sensibility, my father tried. He showed deep interest in our friends, especially the girls, and attempted to create the "Dear Abby" refuge that my mom would have provided. He would often talk to my girlfriend when I wasn't even in the room, asking her sincere questions about her life, what she planned to do with it and how he could possibly help. He gave all my female friends affectionate nicknames, so they would feel welcome in a house where laundry was collected in plastic garbage cans and the Wilder boys had to be reminded not to eat dinner in their underwear. Even now, my father calls and asks me how "Pretty Polly" and her family are doing in Connecticut and dutifully sends cards (and checks) to his daughters-in-law on their birthdays, Mother's Day and Valentine's Day, and condolences on their wedding anniversaries. Strong enough for a man but detailed like a woman, we often say about my dad. My older brother Richard recently divorced, and shortly thereafter his ex-wife, Mimi, flew to Florida to stay with my father. They've developed a true friendship that doesn't necessarily need my brother or his children to flourish. I know she values his advice, and he deeply cares about her the way, well, a mother-in-law would.

The other thing I admire about my dad is how he never worried about his masculinity or whether he would be ridiculed for baking our town's best crustless cheesecake in a springform pan. He was always happy to play any role we needed to make our lives seem less damaged. My brother Tom was always the quiet one of the Wilder boys, and my mother's death didn't make him feel he had much more to say after that. He had many friends, though, and was asked by an older girl to attend a dinner at her house before a formal dance. A bunch of mothers were preparing an elaborate meal, and at the last minute one of the moms bailed. Tom asked my dad if he could step in and help prepare and serve with all the other moms. I understand my dad well enough to know that he would have canceled anything to help his son and his friends, and would have happily donned an apron and oversize oven mitts as if he had been part of the planning committee all along.

Today, I think all of us Wilder boys try to carry on some of Ben's maternal traditions, though I have to admit my dad can still cook rings around me, and aprons don't look that good on my fortysomething body. But I've learned from watching my dad (and myself in his light) that defined gender roles have been cultivated mostly out of fear and blindness, not out of the kind of love I know a man can have for his children. I hope someday to be immortalized in a high-school program the way my father was when my brother Eddie was a lead in "Godspell." If you look on the page listing the cast and crew in that photocopied playbill, under the heading "Cast Mom," it happily reads: "Ed's Dad!"

Wilder lives in Santa Fe, N.M.