Growing Up in The Big Easy

Valerie Martin: I’m from New Orleans, and I think it’s shaped me rather radically, especially of late. I grew up there. I actually was not born there. I was born in Missouri. But my family is from there, and I only lived outside of New Orleans for three years. So it’s really my hometown – my grandparents, my mother’s family, all my cousins. My sister was born there. My daughter was born there. So it’s really my hometown, although I have not lived there for the last 20 years or so. I visit a lot.

I think being from New Orleans is not like being from any other city in the country, possibly in the world. It’s a place all unto itself. It’s a very difficult, frustrating, wonderful place, and full of really gothic and romantic stories about its own past, and very gothic feelings about itself. It’s very multiethnic – one of the most multiethnic places – especially in the period when I was growing up – in the country.

And it has just a fabulous history. And I think as far as my writing is concerned, before I left New Orleans it was a lot more gothic than it is now. But people would say that and I had no idea what they were talking about.

Flannery O’Connor makes a remark in one of her stories . . . No I’m sorry, it’s __________. Everybody in New Orleans believes everything spooky. And I think that’s a pretty good summation of the basic ethos of that city.


Question: How has the city changed since you lived there?


Valerie Martin: Well it’s changed in a number of ways, and it’s changed radically recently of course. You know I . . . When I grew up, they still had those signs – you won’t know those signs – but they had signs on the streetcar that . . . They were like wooden signs, and there were like holes at the top of each seat. And these signs could be moved back and forth in the streetcar and the bus. And these signs said, “For Our Colored Patrons Only”. And people of color, when they got on the bus, had to sit behind the sign. But it was a moveable sign, and so sometimes they’d move it all the way up, and you’d wind up sitting actually across from a person of color.

But white people were not allowed to sit behind the sign. So it was absurd. It was just bizarre, but it was a given of daily life.

Another one was faucets that had; it was the same thing – “colored” over one of them, nothing over the other one obviously. No need to describe us.

And I remember as a girl running over to one of the faucets that said “colored” because I thought it would be colored water and getting my arm yanked out of my socket.

So that was a very different world from the world that is that city now, and that all started to change, I guess, as I was growing up; and even up until I was in high school in the ‘60s. That’s when those signs disappeared. I had a friend who was so aggravated by one as a boy that he threw it out the window.

It was a long time coming, but it was all coming throughout my life – the sort of break down into this overt racism.

And then of course the big change has been in the last few years – the drowning of New Orleans; the destruction of the city, which was just devastating. It’s not recovering very well in my view.


Topic: Racism.


Valerie Martin: Racism when it’s in the saddle is overt. It’s just nobody questions it on either side. It’s understood that this is the way things are done. I saw really more unpleasant and overt racism when I went to visit my grandparents in Missouri, because in that city; actually it was a little town; Black people really lived on one side of a track, and White people on the other.

New Orleans has always had a real mix of neighborhoods so that very wealthy people lived a block away from very poor people, and that’s made it a very different; that’s a little harder to; well I guess it’s not harder for some people, but it’s a little harder to pretend that your neighbors are not real people.

And it’s always had such a large percentage of people of color. And it’s had from a very early point a good population of free people of color; people who were never slaves who came to New Orleans from Haiti and owned property, and could even vote, and could sue, which was something that was not available to people of color anywhere else in the country at that time.

It’s a very peculiar city in its race relations. I’ve described it as being the most racist and the least racist place I’ve ever been; and I think that is true in my experience. I’ve certainly found a kind of deeper and crueler racism in other parts of the country just because people don’t; they never see a person of color. And when they do, it’s something special. It’s not another person; it’s exotic, in some ways which is a kind of racism in itself.


 February 11, 2008

The influences are vast and range from race relations to hurricane Katrina to the "spooky" ethos of the city.

Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
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Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla

Credit: Gerald Schömbs / Unsplash
Surprising Science
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A study finds that baby mammals dream about the world they are about to experience to prepare their senses.

Michael C. Crair et al, Science, 2021.
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