Old Well: UNC Chapel Hill Campus

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A country boy at heart

I have never really liked cities. Perhaps it goes back to childhood memories of growing-up in Philly:  stifling summer heat drenched in humidity, treeless streets, absence of playgrounds, intermittent rumble of the El,  violence drifting like smoke from any corner or up an alley.  My father and I watched a GI one day from our window being pounded by several youths; once, as a 10-year old on my way to school, I was way-laid by a gang, one of them excitingly waving a pistol.  There were other incidents.
They didn’t open-up the hydrants like they do now to give relief to city children.  Pa would give me a dime for the movie matinee, families would sit on marble stoops in row house streets into late evening, eager for incipient breezes enticing sleep.  Occasionally, Donald, my older brother, would drive Pa and me to Atlantic City for a Sunday outing and the Jersey shore.  This solace more frequently turned regret on our evening return, stuck in bridge traffic,  sweltering in the always faithful embrace of steamy asphalt. (No car ac back then.) Once a year, the first two weeks of August, we’d migrate back to New England, our family’s original homestead.  If there was ever an Eden, it was New England with its spatial greenery of mountains, apple orchards with trees in soldierly row, tranquil dairy farms tucked-in neatly by boulder walls.  At night, drowsiness descended easily amid the cadence of the nearby surf’s rhythmic thump upon the shore, Nature’s calm heart beat signaling all's well.
Cities have their attractions.  They provide an a la carte menu of things to do, sure to please any palate—a rock concert, a baseball game, infinite movie choices, museums, gargantuan shopping malls, even a zoo. You want it, it has it.
But cities are good at make-up.  They excel at covering blemishes with their efforts to shampoo the dandruff of long neglect, redressing the urban core in mirror high rises nearly silver in their skyward reach and newly created green respites with their ubiquitous fountains.  These are good, well-meaningful efforts.  Still, they point to a human longing for relief from urban sterility with its jack-hammer noise; treeless streets; traffic-jammed arteries akin to arterial plaque, threatening well-being; multitudes of the anonymous with their latent danger.  Around the corner, a clinging poverty of seedy neighborhoods of paint-peeling houses, boarded windows, good people trapped by race, unemployment, and few skills, reservations of the forgotten ransacked by thieves, addicts, and drug dealers, gangs providing substitute dignity.
In our down economy, the problems of the city have increasingly spread to suburbia,  like some insidious infection, threatening an epidemic.  New government stats startlingly reveal that poverty is now a growing fixture in metropolitan areas, once offering bucolic sanctuaries of   relief from adjacent urban jungles. Doubtless, this new poverty is by-product of government programs to provide social mobility, or access to where the jobs, better schools, and ample medical facilities often are.  The housing bust factors in, too, along with immigration. Consider that suburban poverty population has increased 74.4% in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metropolitan area;  121% in the Las Vegas-Paradise suburbs;  69%, Louisville-Jefferson County-IN; surprisingly, the Austin, TX suburbs at 150.5%.  Metropolitan Poverty  This scenario, alas, is nation-wide.
If our suburbs are proving to be a new semblance of beached hopes, where then do we turn?
For me, it’s never been about  the city or suburb since my outlook has been largely shaped by memory.   By disposition, I’m also pretty much a Romantic, maybe even defining the term.  I cherish space.  I like gardens, not malls.  I’m keen on Jane, Joe, Mary and Bob.  I’m afraid of people.  I don’t like what crowds can do when they shed anonymity.  My home represents safety.  It shuts out that urban dissonance that headlines our daily news.  Like all Romantics, I've always preferred distance to proximity.
Karen and I recently returned from San Francisco.  When you think of San Francisco it's likely to conjure up images of an idyllic setting on hills overlooking a foggy bay--cable cars, Fisherman’s Wharf, Telegraph Hill, China Town, the resplendent Golden Gate Bridge.  And it’s truly this and even more, so far as cities go.  Still, here as in all our cities, the toxic fumes assaulting lungs, its  overweening traffic taking us more than an hour to egress to I280, the paucity of parking, sometimes at $20 for every three minutes, or $48 a day.  Walking the streets was uncomfortable, even in daylight, accosted by panhandlers, beady stares, and sometimes vulgar comment.  We took flight back to our car, locking our doors immediately, hurriedly making our exit from this, one of America’s most storied cities.  Cities are inherent with danger. 
I’ve lived in several big cities:  Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago.  I’ve been in many more.  Put me down for an occasional cautious visit, but mind you this: what I like best about cities is not the getting into cities, but the getting out.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Death's reprieve: thoughts on human mortality

All of us, by being born, are immediately under a death sentence, how, when, or where unknown. As an English major and teacher, I came to realize early that the stuff of poetry nearly always comes down to mortality. I often think it’s this aesthetic appreciation of finiteness that propels all great Art, that only through the Imagination, or human creativity, do we get a chance to stave off ending in the creation of an artifice unassailable by time. And yet even here, we deceive ourselves as Keats reminds us in his poignant “Ode to a Nightingale.” Can there be solace in the grave with its suspension of awareness? When our endeavors are the stuff for other ears? In a world where even memory itself becomes cloyed with life’s pursuit? A world where even those who know us best age and succumb?

Sometimes death stalks us at elbow range, and we haven't the faintest idea how close we’ve come. I think of December, 1981 in Kerala, India, when I nearly lost my balance tottering along a narrow beam as I exited from a river vessel. I didn’t know how to swim.

In June, 1983, returning from my son’s West Point graduation with my wife and daughter, I was driving in the mountains of Western Maryland along a three lane highway, with my present lane about to merge. Unfortunately, a semi-truck was laboring up the sharp ascent in front of us. I foolishly gambled I could pass before the lane gave way, only to find that three lanes suddenly narrowed into two with a car in the other lane approaching at breakneck speed. Trapped in a spatial pincher, I accelerated, threading a narrow opening between the truck and oncoming car. As I swung past, maybe a foot to spare on either side, I heard the car's screeching brakes as I viewed in my mirror its desperate careening to right itself in its lane. I had teased Eternity's border

And then there have been those plane journeys: planes nearly colliding because of tower errors, violent storms, a propeller no longer working (this one in the military flying over the Sea of Japan, all of us in parachutes).

Sometimes death comes looking for us close to home. Last week, for instance, on just a late afternoon trip to the grocery store, a big bumper in your face pick-up came speeding round a curvy bend hogging the already narrow road, sending me off the road to avoid a head-on crash. I didn’t have time to think; I reacted instinctively.

Two weeks ago, I took my annual blood work-up. Several days later, I got the mailed results. Bilirubin levels were elevated. Concerned, my doctor scheduled me for a follow up hepatic test and abdominal scan to check liver function and for gall stones, tumors, and cancer of the gallbladder or pancreas. Now anxious, I didn’t find relief in reading in my Mayo guide that elevated bilirubin levels indicated cancer. A short 36-hours after the test the doctor’s office called: the tests had turned out normal.

I got away yet again; yet I don’t fool myself. It’s kind of a hide and seek game we play with death. Sooner or later, it finds you.

One thing I learned from this most recent episode: how many are caught in death’s net, every year, month, week, day, hour, minute, and second. I note their anguish, their physical suffering, their often painful, slow demise. I have found my passion for others renewed; my sense of life lived in the context of the meaningful quickened; a heightened sensitivity to the beauty of every new day to be relished; a sharpened awareness of temporality’s potential to enhance.

To live life rightly helps our not clutching it. In fact, it helps us let go.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Obama's assault on Social Security

Although vociferously claiming entitlement programs aren’t on the table in securing deficit reductions, the President’s recent actions prove his rhetoric to be little more than political chicanery in upholding the integrity of Social Security, for an example. In an effort to stimulate the economy by putting more money into our pocketbooks, President Obama has proposed continuing the payroll tax reduction (now 4.1%) for Social Security. In fact, he wants to cut the Social Security payroll tax still further, or to 3.1% of earnings below the traditional maximum of 6.2% on $106,800 income. This amounts to a $240 billion dollar funding hit on Social Security, a program already in trouble due to changing age demographics. In 25-years, it will only be able to pay out $75.00 on every $100.00 owed in benefits.

More specifically, his proposal represents a direct raid on the Social Security Trust Fund, short-changing our young people. As is, his proposal cuts $175 million from the employment payroll contributions and $65 billion in employment contributions. The President’s new, massive stimulus package before Congress, $440 billion, draws 55% of its funding from Social Security funding. You do the math. It’s simply untenable, an indulgence in political opportunism, betraying American workers and their future.

Compounding the demographic and political pressures on Social Security, today’s massive unemployment has ignited a rush in applications for disability income (SSDI). According to the government’s own figures, applications showed a 21% increase just between 2008 and 2009. While the rising number of aging baby boomers may account for some of this increase, it seems more likely this sudden swell has is origin in our down economy. Frankly, one has to suspect Social Security is being used as a ruse for welfare in many instances. Obtaining benefits also qualifies one for Medicare, no matter one’s age.

In its defense, the Social Security administration argues it has strict monitoring procedures in place to assure legitimacy in the application process, with only 30% of applications approved. This is true, however, only at the initial application stage. While denied applications going through the appeal process can take up to 2-years, persistence pays and ultimately most applicants, or 67%, get their benefits approved before an Administrative Law Judge. Meanwhile, legal representation for applicants has turned into a lucrative specialty.

What’s mind-numbing is that this deluge in disability applications is leading some trustees of the Social Security disability program recommending Congress reallocate money from the Social Security Retirement program to offset deficits in disability funding!

As is, the present and proposed cuts in Social Security payroll taxes don’t offer assistance to the many unemployed, retired, disabled or those, like teachers, who are ineligible for SS. More substantially, short-changing Social Security exacerbates its perilous future.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Combating the new global killers

The UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) has just announced that heart and lung disease, cancer, and diabetes are responsible for 63% of deaths globally. That surpasses the former number one killer, infectious diseases. WHO attributes the high mortality to largely preventable sources such as smoking, sedentary living, and faulty diet. In the West, Australia ranks first in heart and cancer mortality (35% heart; 20% cancer). 17 % of Australians smoke and a shocking 64% are obese. Unfortunately, Americans top the obesity scale, with some 71% of us overweight.  Global Burden Chart

One noticeable observation is that even third world countries are experiencing rising heart and cancer mortality, as their diets increasingly incorporate meat and daily products. Back in the 80s when noted Cornell nutritionist T. Colin Campbell made his blockbuster study of rural Chinese diets, heart disease and cancer were rare among those consuming an entirely plant based diet. The study’s empirical evidence has been confirmed in analyses differentiating Chinese immigrants and their offspring in the U. S. Americanized Chinese exhibit the same high incident rate for heart disease and cancer as the general population.

The real culprit here is animal protein, not fat per se. To avoid these chronic diseases the world needs to shift to a plant based diet. Studies give convincing evidence that doing so not only lessens the occurrence of heart disease, but often reverses it. Cancer incidence also decreases.

Ironically, our current health system contributes to our declining health with its continuing endorsement of a daily 30 gram fat content, low fat meat, fish, poultry, and dairy foods. Some doctors are downright defiant of plant diet research. Dr. Eduardo Azap, president of the Union For International Cancer Control, debunks the notion that “cancer is a problem of rich countries” as “a misconception" (Chronic Killers).  And yet when you look at WHO’s own listing, Ethiopia, for example, has a 4% cancer mortality rate; India, 6%. Contrast this with the U.S. 23% cancer mortality rate. It isn’t that we eat too much; it’s that we eat the wrong food.

Consider Harvard’s School of Public Health recently released alternative to the USDA’s MY Plate diet. Harvard’s plate seeks to offer more specific nutritional guidelines under the same USDA categories: fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins. Nonetheless, the Harvard plate still recommends poultry and fish as good food sources, albeit, Harvard does make some helpful suggestions, for example, recommending whole grains in place of refined grains found in foods such as white bread and while rice, which contribute to heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It also makes a bold breakthrough in recommending water over milk.

Concurrently, an independent panel of 22 health experts (nutritionists, dieticians, cardiologists among them) reviewed 20 popular diets, with the Dash and Ornish diets finishing 1 and 3 respectively under Best Heart-Healthy Diets. Dr. Ornish advocates a virtual vegan diet that strongly resembles those proposed by Drs. Campbell, Mcdougall, Esselstyn and Fuhrman, stalwart pioneers with convincing empirical data behind their advocacy of a plant based diet in combating heart disease and cancer.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Just more of the same

Within the past 3-weeks, illegal immigrants have killed 9 people in drunk-driving incidents or plain out murdered Americans:


Four year old Christopher “buddy” Rowe in California

Twenty-three year old Matthew Denice in Massachusetts

Four people in Texas in a single traffic incident


One each in Oregon, Texas, and Michigan

What are these people doing here?

Now comes word of another Obama relative, Kenyan illegal Onyungu Obama, the President's uncle, arrested for drunk-driving in Framingham, MA. Two years ago, a judge allegedly ordered him deported. Guess he didn’t get the message. He does, however, have a Mass driver's license and social security card. Imagine my surprise.

It’s reported that when offered a free phone call for assistance, he asked for the White House. Why not? After all, Obama’s Kenyan aunt, Zeituni Onyangu had also been slated for deportation, appealed, and won permanent residence. She’d been living in a South Boston project for years, drawing disability and welfare.

Obama has retained prominent counsel in Cleveland immigrant lawyer, Margaret Wong. Meanwhile, the White House has refused to comment.

A few weeks ago, the Obama administration announced it would now prioritize deportation of those with criminal records. Does that include drunk drivers like Uncle Onyangu?

I wouldn’t bet on it.