Friday, January 27, 2012

Crazy Is As Crazy Does

Spuds has a long wait for a Pasadena bus that takes him to the Goldline station where he boards the first of two trains he takes to arrive at my office. We have a quick lunch and then I drive him to his tutoring job. His evenings consists of dinner and homework ,which is interrupted when I need him to help me operate the remote for the television. He calls, a few blocks away from the office, and asks if I can pick him up. There's a guy following him and swearing at him. He reports that he was already creeped out because there had been a man leering and muttering at him on the train. Spuds will be eligible to get his driver's license in April which will spare him a bit from life on the street but open a new floodgate of maternal worries including encounters with mentally ill folks driving automobiles. I also have nightmares about being unable to operate the television when he goes off to college next year.

Himself, on route to a lunch meeting with his boss, manages to drop his tie in the driveway. It is raining hard when he pulls into the school parking lot. A car backing out of a space hits Himself's car on the driver's side and completely thrashes the door. The driver is threatening and belligerent, and accuses Himself, who even sans tie appears professorial to a nearly cliché extent, of being drunk. The insurance company immediately establishes that the other driver is at fault but the confrontation is so icky that being deemed inculpable is inadequate recompense. Plus the tie is a sodden goner.

I wage a long battle with a homeless man who sleeps and relieves himself on the porch of my office and after failing to get a social service agency to help the guy, I finally capitulate and install a locked chain linked fence to keep him out. It used to be much easier to take the mentally ill off the streets. The laws, in the spirit of humanitarianism, changed in the 1970s but it hasn't really panned out and there is an ocean of lost souls who'd be better off if they were collected and sent for care. I'm not talking about the old school insane asylums of horror movies, just clean safe places where physical and mental health needs are met and folks can be evaluated and indoctrinated about remembering to take their meds. Now the only legal recourse for dealing with the mentally incapacitated is a 72 hour hold. This means usually that a paramedic or police officer has to lay hands on and transport the afflicted which is often so repugnant that most authorities look the other way when confronted with the mentally disturbed. Even if someone is placed in an inpatient mental health facility for three days the resources to implement any sort of meaningful long term treatment plan just don't exist. The more common outcome is a stint in jail where there are scant treatment resources and a great likelihood that mental problems will be exacerbated.

Rosalynn Carter has always been a proponent of destigmatizing mental illness and there were provisions made for expanded mental health treatment during Jimmy's administration. However, most of Carter's mental health legislation was decimated under Reagan. In addition to the dearth of services available for the mentally ill, current brain research challenges much of the current methodology and raises myriad ethical questions. Studies seems to substantiate more and more that the physiognomy of the brain is as important as environmental factors in influencing mental health outcomes.

Adrian Raine, a professor of criminology at Penn State led a study on the island of Mauritius with 1795 three-year-olds. The children were tested for skin responses to two different auditory tones. One tone was deep in pitch and not unpleasant and the other was shrill and loud. Skin conductance was measured and for most children the unpleasant tone resulted in sweat secretion which is the body's normal reaction to fear. A small percentage of children had no reaction to the unpleasant tones, indicating a lack of fear response. Records reveal that twenty years later a high percentage of the subjects in the study, who at age 3 exhibited little fear response, had been convicted of serious crimes.

Brain scans of people diagnosed with antisocial disorders are compared to those of a control group of people with no history of mental illness and reveal that the volume of the middle frontal gyrus and orbital frontal gyrus in the frontal lobe of the brain is smaller in those who suffer mental illness. A study published in 2009 compares 27 psychopaths to 32 non-psychopaths. Brain scans of psychopaths reveal that the outer layer of the amygdala, considered the brain's seat of emotion, shows an 18% reduction in volume. Current brain research tied to criminology and mental illness may provoke a panic about eugenics or fears that criminals will no longer be held responsible for their actions. Fortunately, research also reveals that if children who seem lacking in fear response--a sign that they will act out later in life--are nurtured and have their physical health and nutritional needs attended to they are much less likely to become involved in criminal or antisocial behaviors. Just like obesity or heart failure, with monitoring and coaching to prevent a predisposed illness, diagnoses based on brain composition can be used preemptively.

It would be nice to think about Spuds traveling by public transportation or on the freeways and feeling less vulnerable to scary unbalanced folks. But it's not just certifiably mentally disordered people who make navigating the universe seem more threatening than it did when I was a kid. I have only vague memories of the genteel fifties, but it seems that since then more and more people you couldn't plug into a specific Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders category feel are disposed to behave like lunatics. Perhaps for the guy who smashed Himself's car going off was an aberration or maybe his typical response to any unpleasant situation is to spew venom. Nevertheless, folks becoming unglued is commonplace. I've even heard a number of one sided profane battles waged in public locations by people on cellphones.

I watch a lot of reality shows and while I realize that contestants are goaded for the sake of good TV drama, there is certainly a lot of shrieking into people's faces compared with the uber polite Ozzie and Harriet that I grew up with. Indulgent parenting and the decay of educational standards may be culpable for the decline of civility but I think it's something more pernicious, as even people who ostensibly hold themselves to the highest standards are prone to violent outburst. There have been a number of politicians I've vehemently disliked but to witness Jan Brewer, the Governor of Arizona, scream and shake her finger at the President of the United States, while on camera, makes me wistful for the uptight 50s.

I really wouldn't want to turn back the clock. Scientific and technological research and the Civil Rights movement lead a long list of things that have generally improved our quality of life. Perhaps people's manners were better but as a film archivist when I'm asked for images for a montage that will quickly read “1950s” polio wards and the McCarthy hearings are the first things that come to mind. I have to remind myself that for all the screaming and squawking, more Americans are opposed to the death penalty than ever before. 53% of Americans are in favor of legalizing gay marriage. Polio, for all intents and purposes, doesn't exist and after the plague of the 1980s, the AIDS virus is now medically manageable. There is a selfishness and lack of compassion that saddens me but when I think of how the world has changed so much for the better in my lifetime, it bolsters my optimism that mental illness will gain parity with physical illness and treatment for all will be available and that civility will eventually come back into fashion. In the meantime maybe I should cool it with the reality shows and chill with reruns of 50s sitcoms.

Friday, January 20, 2012

In Lak'Ech

It seems like I've stepped out of the time machine into another century. Slate links to a bunch of actual Facebook postings dated Martin Luther King Jr's birthday that proclaim “Happy Nigger Day.” The state school board of Arizona has pulled the plug on all Chicano Studies coursework. Tucson schools, despite a student population that is around 60% Hispanic, are forced to convert their Chicano History courses to “American” History classes. Books like Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, Critical Race Theory by Richard Delgado, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos by Rodolfo Acuna and many others are removed from classrooms. Arizona State School Superintendent Tom Horne rationalizes the ban on ethnic studies courses stating that “they promote divisiveness, they separate kids of color and they teach kids that they are oppressed.” Newt Gingrich states, “We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country and they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto."

Mitt Romney, the least odious of the possible candidates won't release his income tax records but states that most of his income is generated by dividends that are taxed at only 15%. He added that he has also earned a very small sum from speaking engagements. $347,000 in honorariums, which alone catapults him into the top 1% of American earners, is just chump change to Mr. Romney. (Obama, who's been a real let down in many ways, at least has consistently favored revamping the tax structure so that dividends are taxed comparably to wages.) So, while it looks like the most moderate Republican in the running will be chosen, the presumptive nominee is staggeringly out of touch with our nation's economic inequities. While his position on social issues is slightly more progressive than the competition's, Romney's probable two steps backwards, instead of his opponents' colossal flying leap into the dark ages, is still frighteningly retrogressive.

The Republican primary has become a “Who's a better Christian?” competition. November 2012 heralds the 10th time I've voted in a presidential election and I don't ever remember so much discourse and decisiveness pertinent to religion. When asked point blank about his position on America's financial inequality Romney responds “When you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on the 99 percent versus 1 percent you have opened up a whole new wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of one nation under God.”

There is actually a precedent for the happy marriage of capitalism to Christianity that was established well before I was born. The American Liberty League was formed as corporate America's effort to deflect its culpability for the Great Depression and to discredit Franklin D. Roosevelt and combat the threat of socialism. The organization's motives were too transparent to merit any credibility until a light bulb went off and the businessmen started lining the pockets of Christian clergymen like Reverend James W. Fifield, the pastor of First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. Fifield, once beholden to the Liberty League, began to preach that “the blessings of capitalism come from God” and imply that the New Deal social programs were anti-Christian.

How awful these times can seem, as xenophobia is rampant and the greedy and the power gropers have co-opted faith to rationalize inequity. My dark cloud lightens though after a talk at the downtown library by writer Luis Rodriquez and Jesuit Father Gregory Boyle. Rodriquez, has won a Sandberg Prize and numerous other writing awards. He is also, coincidentally, the author of the memoir Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A, one of the books that is now banned in Arizona schools. Greg Boyle is an old school liberation theologist and is known for helping gang members extricate themselves from La Vida Loca. Boyle is the founder of the successful Homeboy Industries, whose motto is “Jobs, Not Jail” which is the umbrella agency for a bakery, snack food manufacterer, restaurant and silkscreen shop.

Father Boyle performs his good works under the aegis of the Catholic Church and Rodriguez has adapted a more free form faith, incorporating ancient Mayan traditions and admitting to atheistic instincts. Despite his apparently lapsed Catholocism, Rodriquez is in agreement with Father Boyle that it is unrealistic to expect a life that's free of struggle. Rodriquez speaks of his hard existance as a gang member and enduring an addiction to heroin and he adds that while all of that is behind him, he is still not free of burden. Instead of struggling to best a rival gang in a turf war, Rodgriquez and Boyle encourage gang bangers to take on more daunting challenges, like being a good parent or kicking drugs. The difference is making certain that our inevitable suffering is for the sake of something beautiful and substantial. The devisive Blue State/Red State, Christian nation, class warfare jabber quiets in my head. All of the labels we assign to ourselves, or that others apply, diminish and hobble us. Father Boyle beams when Rodriquez translates the ancient Mayan concept “In Lak'Ech.” “You are the other me. I am the other you.”

Friday, January 13, 2012


My dad used to hang out with guys who subsisted by selling items out of the trunks of old Buicks. One of these creepolas, who disappeared from the scene, probably due to money owed, calls the office. He rail thin and ashen with dyed auburn hair. The employees used to call him “Dracula” and he'd have lunch with Dad and instruct me that if his girlfriend called I shouldn't say where he was. The paramour rang frequently and would grill me harshly and even though my lips were sealed, she'd, either by dint of intuition or process of elimination, show up at the restaurant and make a scene. Apparently Dracula was more of a man than his appearance belied because he was involved with another dame as well. Lady Number Two was in the business of manufacturing industrial sized batches of what my parents called “goyishe” bagels and Dracula would bring us giant 10 dozen bags of the Wonder Bread-like things. He is more surprised to hear that I am running the business than he is of my dad's death. I converse as patiently as I can manage until the doorbell rings and I end the conversation a bit abruptly.

I rush from my back office to the door to find a homeless man I don't recall seeing before. Snot glistens from his nostrils. He assumes a familiarity and confides, “I have a problem. I drank too much last night,” he continues, “and now I need some money for the bus.” “I don't have any money,” I respond, which isn't exactly true although I do have less than usual. Plus this would mean walking to and from my office in the back. “I just need a couple of dollars,” he importunes and I tell him I'm sorry and close the door in his face. While I don't want my dad's old acquaintance to call again or particularly stop by, as he's threatened nor to have the confessed drunk come knocking for more coin, having blown them both off stirs up a dissonance I find difficult to shake.

Joe College, after much socializing, is returning to school. Our washer breaks and I buy a replacement hastily from a local used appliance purveyor, who I strong arm into immediate delivery, so I can send the boy back with clean clothes. He loads up our former records and stereo equipment and crispy folded laundry and says goodbye. The first semester he finds excuses to come home just about every weekend but now he seems to have made the adjustment and some social connections so I suspect his visits will be less frequent. I hug him goodbye and even through we talk or text just about every day and he's only an hour from home I start to weep. Spuds slumps on the couch and mutters under his breath, “Oh Jesus. She's crying.”

I've sworn off the Food Network for New Years and find that Hoarders and Intervention are safer viewing if I am to remain on my diet. A younger brother notes tearfully, during an intervention, that his alcoholic brother and the attenuate drama always suck up all of his parents' attention. “I relate to that,” I say, remembering my parents in full throttle agitation over one of my sister's myriad crises. “Me too,” adds Spuds and I practically pounce on him. “Just kidding,” he winks, but there is a tiny grain of truth. My older son likes to stir things up, a trait Himself frequently notes is inherited from my side of the family. Our kids are not us but inevitably we see a number of our own traits in them, some biological and some acquired by osmosis. Spuds is more self contained than his brother and often opts for the role of wry observer as opposed to direct participant. I see a little more of myself in the older boy and more of Himself in the newer model and like their parents, they've used their contrasts to forge a deep connection. My boys squabble and have their jealousies but I know that their bond to each other will endure years longer than I will.

The older boy has come and gone with such frequency that we still haven't adapted to the rhythm. He returns to school after Winter Break and Himself too goes back to school after a two month sabbatical and I am on edge all week. There are irritations at the office with the bank and a transfer facility. My dad's old crony calls and I turn away I beggar. I plan to write about three abusers of power I've reported on before. There is meaty news about Clarence Thomas, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Sheldon Adelson this week.

I take notes on a recent Supreme Court decision on which Thomas is the only dissenter. Oddly, this is the second case where Thomas has sided with New Orleans prosecutor Harry Connick Sr. (yes...the dad) who it seems, at least twice, has played fast and loose in the courtroom. In the recent case all the other justices agree that the only witness to identify a murderer gave inconsistent statements but Thomas writes a long winded dissent to the effect that this is irrelevant to the conviction. The infamous Sheriff Arpaio, is going at it with the Feds and it seems perhaps is on the verge of comeuppance. The lesser known, but no less scandalous, Sheldon Adelson, who introduces himself as the richest Jew in the world, has given five million dollars of his ill gotten lucre to Newt Gingrich, apparently for calling Palestinians an invented people.

But even people I love to hate can't get me on track for any writing of gravitas this week. It all comes out pretentious blather. When I realize I can't make a piece out of the hate update I am at sea, frustrated and ineffectual. Little things have gotten to me and instead I end up filling yet another page with my feelings and what my eldest refers to as my “white lady” problems. Maybe someday I'll write something of earth shattering substance and not be distracted by my greedy bank, flaky callers and assertive beggars. It turns out Joe College is actually coming home for the weekend because his closest friends are still in L.A. for a few days before they return to more far flung schools. I'll make a special shabbat meal because college food has made him better appreciate my cooking. I know we'll have fewer Friday nights with him and soon we'll be shipping off his little brother too.

R Kelly's insipid “I Believe I Can Fly” wafts into my head. When they were very tiny the boys sang it together, arm in arm, and the cloying song melted my heart. They slept in our bed, far longer than they should have, the two of the curled together between us. The kids are more sparing these days with blatant reminders of how dear they are. I am not at my best this week but I will sign off here and tonight we will light the candles as we've done every week of our boys' lives. My sweet babies are nearly men. They will rush through the prayers and tear brutally into the Shabbat challah. During this ritual, for these few minutes, even after a lousy week, I am again reminded of what I truly treasure.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Land of the Fat

The link to a recent (and excellent) article “The Fat Trap” by Tara Parker-Pope in the New York Times was posted on Facebook with a snarky comment implying that the author, who admitted that she herself is some 60 pounds overweight, lacks credibility. Ironically, the gist of the essay is that most obese people have a different genetic configuration than those who are naturally thin. My own biased opinion is that a fat author is way more trustworthy than a thin person who would probably maintain that despite all the current scientific research that concludes otherwise, fatness is due primarily to a lack of self control and will power. The article points out that any sort of food deprivation, causes a brain chemistry change that, to put it very simply, makes the brain send out a message to eat as much as possible henceforward. There are stories about orphans who've endured famine who are adopted into homes where food is plentiful that hoard and hide food. This apparently is the natural response to deprivation and unfortunately, a single episode of food restriction triggers a chemical change which is permanent. Diets make people fatter because of how we're wired and not because, as I grew up believing and still often have to fight myself not to believe, we're weak willed or lacking in character.

There is a big campaign against childhood obesity in the state of Georgia. At the website there are stark black and white videos of fat kids. One fat boy sits on a stool facing his fat mother. He asks her, “why am I fat?” and her only response is to drop her head in shame. Other kids stare at the camera and say they hate going to school because they are teased. WTF? Fat kids already know that other kids treat them like shit. Overweight people have plenty of shame without a huge media campaign to ratchet it up. What kind of positive change could this possible affect? I presume that there were medical consultants involved with the Georgia project yet the tone seems to completely fly in the face of current medical wisdom. Obesity, like diabetes or epilepsy, is an incurable disease. It would be outrageous try to induce guilt in an epileptic for being weak willed or lazy or to ascribe parental blame. The state of Georgia's war on obesity may be laudable for intent but the end product is pathetically counterproductive.

It is also agreed that it is more healthful to maintain a high weight and eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly than to do the lose/gain yo-yo thing. Tara Parker-Pope's piece notes the extreme unlikelihood of an obese person maintaining a substantial weight loss. The article chronicles a retired couple, both of whom have kept off over a one hundred pounds for more than six years. Both exercise for over two hours a day 6 to 7 days a week and stick to a highly restricted eating regime. They weigh themselves daily and scrupulously keep a diary of every bite they eat. This is what is required for them to treat a disease for which there is no cure and both indicate how nearly impossible it would be to devote the time required to maintaining their weight loss if they weren't retired.

I have struggled with this disease for as long as I can remember and will always bear the emotional scars of being fat in a world that ostracizes fat people and the map on my torso of jagged scars, from bariatric surgery and a number of subsequent operations required to treat resultant complications and remove loose flesh. Ultimately I lost over 150 lbs but found myself unable to discontinue strong pain medications in the ginormous doses necessitated by the malsorption that is consequence of my Roux-en-Y procedure. For about a year after my last surgery I purchased Norco-an opiate that is preferred by addicts because it doesn't contain Tylenol, which causes kidney damage-from scurrilous online purveyors. I weaned myself from opiates about five years ago but I still get calls from drug peddlers a couple times a month, another reminder of the pain and degradation I've endured in my quest to be thin.

And, I am still not cured. People are amazed that I still struggle with my weight after “taking the easy way out” and “having my stomach stapled.” But ten years after bariatric surgery, the salubrious effects have substantially diminished and at the beginning of the summer my clothes were getting snug. I realized I'd gained 20 pounds in addition to the other 30 I'd never managed to shed post-surgically. I knew I needed more than good intentions and I corralled two girlfriends to join Weight Watchers with me. I like the meetings and the plan is realistic. Foods are ascribed a point value and it's a good way to get a handle on portion control. I do better when I write down everything I eat. I started walking for an hour in the hills five days a week and now I walk 3 ½ miles every week day and five on Saturday and Sunday. I feel good physically and sleep well but lose weight excruciatingly slowly. The realization of the extent to which I will need to restrict my eating and the level of exercise I will have to maintain for the rest of my life is a bitter pill. But it is proven that formerly fat people have to consume less and exercise more, than do people who have never been fat, to maintain a normal weight.

My two Weight Watchers friends are both self-assured professional women with successful lives yet we all agonize over getting the scale to drop a pound or two. Even if it's freezing we wear the lightest clothing we own to the meetings where we're weighed. We e-mail each other lists and photos of everything we eat and give each other pep talks all through the week. It is extraordinary how much planning and emotional energy this weight loss thing requires when we are so competent and self confident in just about every other facet of our lives.

So, having been a fat kid and a fat adult I think I am qualified to judge that much of the public health approach to combat the scourge of childhood obesity as mean-spirited and dangerous. This is not to say that the government should bow out on health and nutrition issues. Based on irrefutable scientific findings Congress went after the tobacco industry and via a public awareness campaign and a heavy tax on cigarettes the smoking rate in the U.S. has declined from about 43% in the 1940s to about 19% now. Even thin people have negative health outcomes exacerbated by the consumption of crappy food but whenever there is mention of a public information campaign or taxing sugary or high fat foods there is squawking about government interference and personal choice, fomented I'm sure by food and beverage industry lobbyists. Naturally slender people also suffer health consequences from a sedentary lifestyle so instead of singling out the fat, a more apt message would be to encourage people of shapes and sizes to strive for lifestyle that incorporates a sensible diet and exercise.

The Georgia campaign implies that fat kids and their parents are themselves to blame for the ridicule and cruelty they endure. Too bad we can't just encourage people of all ages to enhance body and spirit by getting off their butts, eating less crap and treating others with respect and compassion. Fat chance.