PAGING DOCTOR SWEET TOOTH… Why is My Doctor Peddling Pop?

July 28, 2010

Whatever happened to "An Apple-A-Day"?

Would you be surprised if on your next visit to the doctor’s office, you received a recommendation to begin smoking?  Would you be taken aback if your doctor told you to forget conventional wisdom and skip exercise altogether?  Would you find it at all out of place if your doctor started encouraging you to begin recreational use of illegal drugs?

As champion of your personal health and well-being, you would never expect your doctor to do any of those things.  Doctors are supposed to lead us down the path of healthy choices, a path filled with plenty of exercise, a good nights’ sleep, some baby aspirin and the proverbial apple-a-day.  So why, oh why, upon my last visit to the doctor’s office, did I encounter not one, but two vending machines stuffed to capacity with a whole host of sugary surprises and greasy goodies?  These glass cases of indulgence sat right there in the waiting room patiently preying on every already-ill person to walk through the door.  This doctor’s office, this supposed bastion of health and wholesomeness, was openly peddling the absolute worst of the worst the culinary world has to offer.  I’m no MD, but isn’t there some kind of hippocratic oath that Doctors are supposed to take that would prevent them from committing such a transgression?

Unfortunately, my sugar-soliciting Doctor is not the only one who’s stirred my ire with their dietary trespasses.  My wife and mother and I recently made a visit to Mammoth Cave National Park. While waiting for our tour to begin, we had a few hours to burn and decided to embark on a bit of a hike.  It had been a while since breakfast, so we needed to recharge and refuel.  We were told about two dining options, there was a simple cafeteria and of course, for our eating pleasure, a vending machine.  So here we were, anxiously looking to ramble off into nature’s bounty, ready to tackle any and all obstacles, only to be offered nothing more than orange soda and doritos to power our expedition.  And the cafeteria wasn’t much better.  Sure it offered more than sweets and confections, but a menu full of ballpark rejects and nacho-cheese-drenched snacks is hardly the kind of high-energy fare which we required.

Clearly, neither Dr. Sweet Tooth nor Mammoth Snack National Park have a full understanding of what it is they are supposed to be promoting.  For the former, do they not understand that doctor’s offices should be places that exclusively encourage healthy choices?  And for the latter, what kind of message does it send to youngsters when you show them that nothing pairs better with nature’s splendor than an extra large dose of high-fructose corn syrup?  Now don’t get me wrong, when it comes to eating, I’m no saint.  The record will clearly show that when it comes to stats for candy bar consumption, I’ve always been among the league leaders.  But I’m not talking about the merits of soda pop or the rights of potato chip manufacturers, I’m talking about messages.  I’m talking about appropriateness.  I’m talking about the idea that when you live in a society that has the kind of health and eating problems we have in the United States, some institutions need to stand up and represent what’s right.

So who should take a stand as these beacons of health and nutrition?  Obviously, doctor’s offices and hospitals are no-brainers.  If we can’t get the medical professionals to embrace the principles of healthy eating then we should all look forward to the day when diabetes is simply a part of the American experience.  National Parks, State Parks, County Parks, City Parks and Township Parks should all comply too.  Any place that offers the public a chance to reconnect with nature shouldn’t offer food that contains no natural ingredients. Health clubs, gyms and YMCA’s should also join the junk-food-free club.  What’s the point of exercising if it’s immediately followed by an empty-calorie binge? And without question, all of this crap needs to be taken out of our schools.  Kids need to expand their minds, not their stomachs.

This is not a plea for the eradication of junk food from our national menu.  Cheetos and Snickers bars have their place.  We should be allowed to poison ourselves to our heart’s content.  This is a plea for there to remain in our world some places of refuge where the junk-food, fast-food and carbonated sugar-water industries are not allowed to intrude.  This is a plea for those places and institutions that have a role to play in our physical well-being to live up to their responsibilities.  The double standard needs to end.  A vending machine full of chips and candy bars in a doctors office should be just as appalling as a cigarette vending machine would be in its place.  Nachos and National Parks do not go hand-in-hand.  Americans are unhealthy enough already.  We don’t need mixed messages convincing consumers to make connections about food choices that couldn’t be further from the truth.  That vending machine in the doctor’s waiting room is sending an unwritten endorsement of junk-food as a healthy snack option.  We would never expect our doctor to give us a prescription for a drug that clogs our arteries, causes diabetes and makes us fatter, so why would it be okay to peddle food that does the same?

Have you witnessed any inappropriate junk-food promotion?  Is there someplace you know that should be offering raisins rather than Reeses Pieces?  Please share any experiences you’ve seen for yourself.  And special points for anyone who was bold enough to complain.


SHORELINE SORROW: Why we’ll never understand the Gulf Coast’s pain

July 14, 2010

Beautiful Lake Michigan. Here's hoping BP stays far, far away.

Sympathy and empathy are not the same.  They’re often used interchangeably as synonyms, but that is incorrect.  When we sympathize, we’re able to recognize someone’s pain or suffering and we feel a strong desire to alleviate it.  We see a person’s problems and we have an emotional and supportive reaction towards them.  But to empathize, we need to go one step further.  Empathy requires true understanding.  It requires us to have once gone through the same struggle ourselves.  It’s the difference between caring for a friend with cancer and commiserating with that same friend because you’ve gone through chemotherapy yourself and you know what it’s like.  Anyone with a heart can sympathize, empathy requires a higher level of connectivity.

It’s important to be conscious of this difference.  I think everyone should remember that just because you can recognize the pain and suffering of others, and just because you may have feelings of pity for them, it does not mean that you can really understand the depth of their despair or the magnitude of their struggle.  I was reminded of this idea when I was thinking about the tragedy of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  It’s certainly not hard to have incredible levels of sympathy when we see pictures of oil soaked wildlife,  when we contemplate the death of 11 workers or when we witness the devastation to a beautiful seaside environment.  But unless we’ve gone through a similar tragedy, or unless we’re former residents of this region, we can’t truly understand just how horrific of an event this actually has become.  This doesn’t mean that our sympathetic feelings aren’t sincere, it only means that the enormity of the effect that this will have on the lives of millions is not entirely within our grasp.

My own inability to truly comprehend the significance of this event dawned on me on a recent trip to Lake Michigan.  We all have our own places and destinations with which we have a special bond.  The pristine beaches and clear waters of Michigan’s Western Coast are sacred places for me.  The feelings of rejuvenation and fulfillment that I get every time I visit these shores are feelings that can’t be replicated anywhere else.  Lake Michigan provides for me a reminder of nostalgic memories, offers a destination for unlimited fun and relaxation and serves as a source for spiritual reflection and deliberation.  I’ve been many places in my 33 years on this planet, but none inspire the reverence I feel quite like the fresh waters of Lake Michigan.

It was during my last trip to the beach that I began pondering what it would be like if the oil spill disaster had happened here instead of in the Gulf.  My stomach sank as I imagined tar-balled beaches, dead fish and oil-drenched seagulls.  I pictured idyllic towns like Grand Haven swarmed with corporate lawyers, visiting politicians and hired goons in haz-mat suits.  My mind conjured up visions of roadblocks, toxic warning signs and a national press clamoring for their next story.  I was horrified as I began to visualize just what an irrevocable transformation it would represent.  It’s not a stretch to say that if it had happened here, this place that I consider sacred would be ruined for the remainder of my years.

This idea of total and complete destruction isn’t given nearly the attention it deserves.  The Gulf Coast is a sacred and special location for millions of Americans.  We’ve heard endless stories about the loss of livelihood for fishermen.  We know all about the looming collapse of tourism.  We’re totally familiar with the concept of a ravaged ecosystem.  But do we realize that when we talk about the oil spill the full breadth of the disaster is greater than merely just the sum of the parts?  A shrimp boat captain may be losing thousands as his ship sits idle in port, but what’s the value of the loss he feels when the beach where he proposed to his wife is now covered with tar?  A restaurant owner may be forced to close her doors, but is it not a greater tragedy that her children will never learn to swim in the same waters that she did so many years before?  Costs and losses of income can be measured and assigned a value, but the desecration of memories and the evisceration of an environment cannot.

When I imagined the oil spill corrupting my sacred place, the emotions inside of me ranged from deep sorrow to seething anger and encompassed every point in between.  And this was only my imagination.  What’s truly being felt by those who are there?  No news story, no magazine article, no presidential visit, no blog post could ever hope to capture the full range of emotion that must be boiling inside of everyone that was personally affected by this disaster.  If this happened here, any and every reaction I could conjure would seem to be completely rational.  My mind could justify violence as easily as it could justify depression.  The people of the Gulf Coast have had something precious taken away from them.  How can we possibly fathom what that loss might mean?  Anyone with a soul is moved by the plight of everyone affected, but the way the images of oil-soaked pelicans affect you and I can’t compare to the unrest and sorrow that is plaguing those who witness it first-hand.  We have to try to go beyond merely feeling sorry.  We need to picture ourselves in their place to begin to comprehend the gravity of the situation.  For them, it is not just an environmental disaster, it’s a complete corruption of their world and an utter destruction of what they possibly hold most dear.

Where is your sacred place?  Would you be moved to tears if that place was forever spoiled by the folly and hubris of others?  Could you put into words or convey to a stranger the entire span of emotions you would feel?  And most importantly, could you assign a monetary value to what has been taken away?  We’re supposed to be impressed that BP agreed to set aside $20 billion to cover their liabilities, but in my eyes, that amount doesn’t come close to fulfilling the emotional and spiritual debt they owe.  No amount of money can replace dreams.  Memories, wonder and inspiration can’t be bought.  A cool ocean breeze, a dazzling sunset and the scent of the salt air are priceless commodities.  All of those things have been taken away from every single man, woman and child who either grew up or currently lives near the Gulf Coast.

As I strolled on the beach that day, I found myself feeling ashamed that I hadn’t put the oil spill into this context before.  My sacred place remains unspoiled.  I am free to walk with white sand between my toes while the warm sun glows all around me.  The absence of this freedom, the theft and destruction of the place that serves as such a mental refuge for me, would be a life-altering experience.  Up to that point, I had certainly felt my fair share of sympathy for all the people who have been affected, but I never understood just how awful it could be.  I am not equipped with the experience and knowledge necessary to truly empathize with their situation.  My special corner of the world has yet to be significantly touched by those same hands of greed and consumption.  I have a new appreciation for the pain that’s been thrust upon them.  We should all be entitled to relish and enjoy the beauty of our natural surroundings.  That coastline and those waters do not belong to BP and they do not belong to the government.  They belong to the swimmers, fishermen and sunbathers that have occupied them for years.  Their destruction, is nothing short of a crime.

Somewhere in Louisiana or Mississippi, there’s a child who’s sitting inside on a beautiful summer day.  Under different circumstances, that child might be building sandcastles, playing in the surf or doing any number of activities that would serve as the starting point of a special bond between him and the shore.  He’s just one of thousands that are missing out on a new and exciting connection to the natural world.  The next time I’m at Lake Michigan, the next time I’m relishing in past memories and reaffirming my bond, I’ll pause to remember their struggle.  I’ll pray for the wisdom to understand their loss and pray that I never have to experience the same.


The Unquenchable Appetite for MORE

July 7, 2010

There’s an old adage that  implores us to “never hit a man when he’s down”.  The moneyed interests that run this country think that old adage is for fools.  From where you and I might stand, things are looking rather bleak economically.  The unemployment rate continues to hover near 10%, State and Local Governments face disastrous budget shortfalls and a solution to the foreclosure crisis has yet to be found.  In the adage, we, the working public are most certainly in the role of the man who is down.  And even though now might seem like a good time for a helping hand, brace yourselves, because the oligarchs are winding up for one swift kick to the teeth.

If you pay attention to the news, I’m sure you’ve heard at least one story about the importance of addressing the federal deficit. The time for financial stimulus, health-care reform and bailouts has come and gone, and now it’s time for a little bit of belt-tightening.  This sounds reasonable enough at first blush.  We like to think of our national and global economic situation in the same terms that most would think of their household economic situation.  Times are tough?  Then it’s time to cutback on dining out, it’s time to shut off the cable or it’s time to cancel that summer vacation.  Unfortunately, comparing the economic policies of nations with the economic policies of households is wrong.  The methods you use to balance your checkbook have nothing to do with the methods used for addressing our country’s financial situation. But this is not what the powers that be want you to believe.  They want you to believe that the only thing to do right now is to cutback…and you had better believe that they aren’t the ones who plan to be participating in any sort of sacrifice.  That will be up to you and me.  The proverbial ‘man who is down’.

The plan to convince us all of the need for belt-tightening has been charged to President Obama’s recently formed “National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform”. One of the Commission’s stated purposes’ is to “propose recommendations that meaningfully improve the long-run fiscal outlook, including changes to address the growth of entitlement spending.” For those not versed in the linguistic styling of Washington bureaucrats, that quite simply means “finding ways to CUT Social Security and Medicare.” That’s right, cut the most popular, successful, efficient and possibly two most important programs in our country.  Wall St. gets its bailout, there’s endless money for endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, insurance and pharmaceutical companies receive sweet deals during health reform and the Bush tax cuts for the ultra-rich that are set to expire, might just stick around. Apparently, there’s money for all of that, but everyone out there skating by on Social Security and Medicare are just going to have to ‘suck it up’.

There’s two problems with this theory;  first, millions of American’s already living on the edge of poverty and despair will be shoved a little closer to the precipice, and second, reforming or cutting entitlement programs is an ineffective and wrong-headed strategy for trimming the federal deficit.  An explanation of this second point can be found in the testimony of economist James K. Galbraith when he appeared before Obama’s Fiscal Commission on June 30, 2010:

http://www.newdeal20.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/deficitcommissionrv.pdf

Professor Galbraith’s testimony essentially explains that entitlement programs like Social Security are transfer programs that function on a ‘money-in-money-out’ basis and are consequently irrelevant to deficit economics.  He goes on to highlight the true cause of the deficit (the financial downturn) and to explain that the call for deficit reduction is a political one, not one being demanded by the markets.  His testimony should be read in full by anyone with even a passing interest in this topic.

What all this illustrates is just the latest chapter in the ongoing class war being waged upon millions of Americans by wealthy who have, as the title of this post describes, “An Unquenchable Appetite for MORE”.  Entitlement programs represent to them an unearned handout to those who have demonstrated neither the talent or the willingness to succeed in life.  In their eyes, Social Security isn’t a necessary safety net or a means by which we show that societies who thrive are the ones that support and take care of the least of those among them.  To them, Social Security is a wasteful enterprise that encourages slothful behavior and rewards inadequacy.  But on top of that callous sentiment, entitlement programs represent to them a huge untapped resource of money that they ache to get their hands on.  That’s what the failed ‘privatization’ scheme of George W. Bush tried to accomplish.  It was not a benevolent new way to restructure a popular program; it was a money grab.  The powers that be wanted our Social Security funds to be invested on Wall St.  All of the talk about deficits and insolvency are nothing more than lies created to move money that is currently in the hands of the public trust into the hands of bankers and financiers who want to start laying it out on the craps table in a new effort to further line their already fat pockets.

The whole situation reminds me of the scene in “It’s A Wonderful Life” where George Bailey gets the opportunity to give Mr. Potter an earful about his greedy ways. George says, “I know very well what you’re talking about…you’re talking about something you can’t get your fingers on…and it’s galling you!”  The fact that Social Security and Medicare still exist today is galling the financial elites.  It galls them that they don’t control it and it galls them that people in worse situations than they actually get to enjoy the spoils of it.  It doesn’t matter that there is a Democrat in the White House, either.  This ‘Fiscal Commission’ represents just the latest attempt by the oligarchs to put an end to something that’s been galling them for roughly eighty years.

You don’t have to look far to see the results of the economic recession.  Even if your life has found a way to carry on relatively unscathed, you undoubtedly know of someone else who hasn’t been so lucky.  All of us are merely scheming to find a way to persevere.  But while we’re fighting for our lives, the rich and powerful are scheming for new ways to squeeze out a few more drops.  So the next time you hear a politician or a banker on TV talking about the necessity of trimming the deficit, just remember that they don’t have the slightest pause when it comes to hitting a man when he’s down.