Maybe We Know Too Much

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The world sure seems to be a scary place. In the news this week I’ve read about 13-year-olds shooting 10-year-olds, police officers being shot, an increase in sexual assaults reported in the military, a Chicago cathedral being robbed, another news luminary being accused of sexual harassment, and the fact that security at the local mall has been scanning my license plate when I park there. Last week a horrific accident on a Southwest Airlines flight caused the death of a woman and served to terrify the countless Americans who are already afraid of flying. Americans recently learned about a deranged man shooting up a Waffle House in Tennessee and a different killer driving his van into a crowd in Toronto, Canada.

Not only is the steady stream of bad news demoralizing, but it gives us a skewed impression of the risks we face in daily life. As much as I’m appalled by gun violence and want to see common sense gun legislation enacted, the vast majority of Americans are much more likely to die in a car accident or from heart disease than by being shot. The statistics are worse for children, however, in that gun violence is now the third leading cause of death in America. Nevertheless, children also are more likely to die in a motor vehicle accident, and yet how many people take pause before strapping their kids in and taking off in a car?

As scared as we all are of terrorism, the individual risk of being killed by a terrorist in America is statistically insignificant. The same is true of airplane fatalities. Yet we obsess about such fears while downing our Big Mac, fries, and large Coke, despite the fact that heart disease is the leading cause of death in America.

The internet and social media have only made this problem worse. In the past, a person would hear or read about news of national significance and possibly incidents in their own city or town. But nowadays we see articles about crimes and mishaps all across the country and even the world, despite the fact that those incidents are unlikely to have much impact upon our lives – except to scare us.

One of my favorite movies as a child was The Man Who Knew Too Much with Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart. It was a thriller about an ordinary family who unwittingly witness an assassination, which puts their lives in peril. Well, I feel like the woman who knows too much, and it’s stressing me out. No doubt the stress will kill me and not the horrifying events I’m unfortunately privy to on a daily basis.

 

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In Praise of Moderation

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America is a nation of extremes. Either we are subsisting on grass and twigs with the Paleo diet, or we are Supersizing our fast food hamburgers and fries. We can’t just use our phones to stay in touch with each other. We have to have them in our hands constantly to check email or go on social media. And watching a television show or two won’t do. We have to binge watch an entire series in one sitting.

Nowhere is our penchant for extremes more obvious – and potentially more dangerous – than in our politics. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have been skewing far to the left and right respectively in the past several years. The Tea Party movement on the right has pushed candidates with views that go way beyond traditional conservative beliefs about limited government. Tax cuts at all costs seems to be the new Republican mantra, regardless of how severely they will impact the national debt. And the election of Donald Trump shows a disturbing trend on the right to vilify immigrants and minorities, roll back environmental protections, and normalize the white nationalist movement.

On the Democratic side, we see the popularity of socialist-leaning Bernie Sanders and such idealistic but impractical agendas as providing free college for all Americans. And while I personally favor a single-payer health care system such as the ones found in most Western European nations, the hue and cry over the baby steps of Obamacare shows that the country is not ready for quite that massive of an overhaul. I believe that Sanders supporters’ refusal to get behind Hillary Clinton in the presidential election was in part responsible for the election of Trump.

The political polarization is being fed and magnified by social media algorithms and the various websites that have sprung up pushing extreme agendas and often fake news. There is no more talking or meeting of minds. We are simply shouting at each other, and our political leaders are, for the most part, perpetuating the great divide we have between the left and the right.

There needs to be a new movement: not the Tea Party nor the Coffee Party. Let’s call it the Milk Party. Milk is a little bland and unexciting, but it’s also wholesome and nutritious. It builds strong bones and teeth. Likewise, we need our leaders to come together and work with each other. Compromise is not a bad word. As Sheriff Hopper explains to Eleven in Stranger Things, it means “halfway happy.” I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be halfway happy than completely miserable.

After the recent tax bill passed, legislators admitted that they had not even read it. And already the U.S. Treasury Department is being deluged with complaints about ambiguous language and unintended consequences of the new law. We are paying our government leaders well. I think we deserve better than the dysfunction in Washington, which, contrary to the intentions of the Tea Party, has grown worse.

In short, we need the moderates to stop hiding or being co-opted by the extreme right and left. We need the leaders in the sensible shoes and serviceable haircuts to step forward and lay claim to being the voices of reason in the insanity that has grown up around politics in America.

As in most areas of life – including our diet, exercise, religious practices, child-rearing, and the like – moderation in politics may be the key to saving our democracy.

Guns and (Peanut) Butter

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My son has a life-threatening allergy to peanuts. Ingesting even a tiny amount of peanut protein can send him into anaphylaxis, shutting down his airways and potentially killing him. He and I have lived with this scary phenomenon for virtually his entire life. And even though he is now in his 20s, it still hurts every time I have dinner out with him and he has to inform the server about his allergy.

Early on I learned to read every label of every food item I purchased to make sure there were no peanut products or potential cross contamination that could harm my son. I provided him with safe treats to bring to school so that when there were birthday cupcakes for a classmate, he wouldn’t feel left out.

When my son was first diagnosed, I still kept peanut butter in the house for my older daughter, reasoning that since she did not have the allergy, she should not be deprived. But I learned through some incidents of accidental ingestion on my son’s part, along with scary rides to the ER, that having any peanut products in the house was unsafe for my son. So my kids grew up without peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and have been no worse for the wear.

Of course, if I had my ‘druthers, this scary potential killer legume would be banned from supermarkets, restaurants, and anywhere else food was sold or served. But I realize that is neither practical nor fair. The vast majority of people do not share my son’s allergy and should not be told they can never have peanuts under any circumstances.

Still, I appreciated our schools’ efforts to keep peanut-allergic children safe. In the lunch room, for instance, there was a peanut free table at which my son would sit to eat. When he went away to camp, I worked with the food service personnel to make sure he could eat safely in the mess hall. As awareness has spread about the life-threatening nature of peanut allergies, most airlines have discontinued serving them on flights. Ironically, my airline of choice, Southwest, still serves peanuts but will refrain from doing so if they know a peanut allergic person is on the flight.

I see the parallels in my son’s situation to the issue of guns in America. Although recent calls to repeal the Second Amendment have gun rights advocates on the defensive, I respect the right of law-abiding citizens to own a gun. Still, a household with children is no place for a gun, just as peanuts posed a threat in my family to my son’s safety. And while we can’t completely ban firearms in America, we can take common sense measures to keep people safe, in much the same way that society has taken steps to protect food allergic individuals.

So while the NRA and other gun rights extremists rant about how everyone is coming for their guns, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we take some logical steps to keep people safe from being shot.

Come to think of it, guns are not like peanuts. After all, peanuts are generally a safe and healthy food that can sustain life. In fact, some products made to help malnourished children in developing nations are made up primarily of peanuts. But guns are made for one purpose: to kill or injure a living thing.

So I don’t think passing common sense gun legislation is all that nuts; do you?

A New Hope

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IMG_1605Over the years, my piano teacher and I have become friends. B. has always been generous – bringing cards and treats at holidays, making cakes for various occasions. We celebrate each other’s birthdays. I have known B. for over ten years.

So when B. was diagnosed with cancer last August, I was upset and concerned. With no family of her own and no means of financial support when she isn’t teaching, it was going to be a struggle for B.

Over the past six months, B. has endured grueling rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. She has trouble eating and drinking, and she has been in hospital or nursing home care for the better part of these past six months.  Two weeks ago, as the hospital got ready to discharge B., I was extremely concerned. She had been so frail, and I was worried that she would not be able to care for herself all alone in her apartment.

About a year ago, B. gave me an orchid plant. A lover of these notoriously finicky flowers, B. instructed me to care for the plant by putting a few ice cubes in the soil, letting them slowly water the roots. The orchid bloomed for a time and then went dormant. For the rest of the year, the plant’s large green leaves stayed glossy and alive. But the stem remained bare. Then in February, I noticed the roots climbing over the side of the pot, so I replanted the orchid in a slightly larger pot. Sure enough, large buds began to form. And just last week, the first blossom opened up in all its purple glory.

At home in her apartment, B. is also starting to get better. She is eating and drinking on her own, her hair has come back, and the color has returned to her face. As she regains her strength, I see glimpses of the fiercely intelligent and independent musician and opera singer she once was. I showed her a photo of the blossoming orchid she had given me so long ago. We agreed it is a sign of hope.

As Easter approaches, we celebrate resurrection. And I feel hopeful for B. and the new life that seems to be slowly unfurling for her. And I pray for all those struggling that they find a new hope in this Easter season.

The Bystander Effect

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Recently a friend told me about an incident that happened at a gas station in our small town. She was at the gas pump finishing filling her tank when she saw an elderly man fall. There were several other customers also pumping gas, but no one made a move except my friend. She ran over, helped the man up, and made sure he got safely home – all this despite the fact that she was in a rush, needing to get her young son to school and husband to the station to catch a train.

My friend and I discussed the fact that she was the only person who sprang into action to help a stranger in distress. Her experience reminded me of the Bystander Effect, a well known psychological phenomenon wherein the likelihood that a person will act in an emergency goes down the more bystanders there are witnessing the event.

The Bystander Effect was studied and explained after the horrifying murder of Kitty Genovese on a street in New York in 1964. Genovese was repeatedly stabbed in a prolonged attack that was witnessed by numerous residents from the windows of their apartments. No one acted, and Genovese died.

Scientists explain that the reason people fail to act in such situations is two-fold:

First, individuals in a crowd reason that someone else will probably step forward to help. This was perhaps the reason my friend was the only one to help the elderly man at the gas station.

The second reason people stand by without assisting the victim is that human behavior is strongly influenced by what others around us do. In studies, for example, two people in a room hear a loud crash and cries of distress coming from another room. If one of the people suggests that it’s nothing, the test subject usually does nothing. If, however, the person says he is going to get help and tells the test subject to go see what happened in the other room, the subject usually complies. (Ervin Staub, “Our Power As Active Bystanders,” Psychology Today, Jan. 27, 2012)

I have to wonder whether it was the Bystander Effect that caused deputies at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to refrain from entering the building when they arrived at the scene of the latest horrific mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. Sheriff’s deputies are currently under investigation for failing to act in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. Perhaps these officers reasoned that other police officers or authorities would go in. Of course, the Bystander Effect does not explain the school deputy officer’s failure to act, as he was the only law enforcement official on the scene when the shooting began.

The Bystander Effect has contributed not just to isolated failures of people to act in emergencies. It also explains why acts of genocide have been allowed to take place throughout history. It’s a disturbing trait of group dynamics that whole societies, and even the international community, can look the other way while atrocities are being committed.

Psychologist Ervin Staub believes, however, that people can be trained to act during a crisis and lead others to overcome the Bystander Effect. If even one individual steps forward and starts directing people to help, that action tends to mobilize other individuals, shaking them from their shock, fear and inertia. (Psychology Today, Jan. 27, 2012)

Fighting the Bystander Effect could have a huge impact in our society. School bullying would become a thing of the past if schoolmates consistently came to the aid of their classmates being bullied. Violent actors, if met with determined resistance, might stop harming others with impunity. And the world would be a much more humane place if everyone stepped forward readily to provide aid to a person in need.

 

 

 

Hug It Out

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I’m thinking of setting up a “Free Hugs” booth somewhere in downtown Chicago – a busy train station, say, or Daley Plaza (once the weather gets nicer). I recently read the about the physical and emotional benefits of hugging.

Hugging stimulates the production of oxytocin, a hormone that promotes well-being and reduces feelings of anxiety and stress. Oxytocin is the hormone that helps mothers and infants bond, for instance. And studies have shown that hugging can help the heart and the immune system, making it not only a pleasurable activity but a potentially life-saving one.

I’ve noticed that as I get older, my opportunities for hugs have diminished. When you have little ones at home, you are constantly holding and hugging them, and being hugged in return. As they get older, kids often attempt to individuate by keeping their physical distance. And while I hug my husband on a fairly regular basis, I think I’d like to become more demonstrative with friends, even ones I see on a daily basis.

Amid the current divisiveness in America, I think it would behoove us to hug each other more. I’m reminded of a protestor approaching riot police in Charlottesville last year and offering hugs. There was also an instance of a black man hugging a white supremacist outside a Richard Spencer event. The black man kept asking the white man, “Why don’t you like me?” The white man had nothing to say until the black man hugged him and whispered the question again. The white man admitted, “I don’t know.”

Americans are much less physically demonstrative than many other cultures. Decades ago, psychologist Sidney Jourard studied how often friends from different countries touched each other. He found that Americans touched each other about twice an hour whereas the French touched each other an average of 110 times an hour. Puerto Ricans touched more than 180 times an hour. (“How Hugs Heal – Have You Had a Hug Today?,” articles.mercola.com, May 20, 2017)

In doing some web research, I found out that I’ve just missed #NationalHuggingDay, which was January 21. It’s interesting that this year the date happened to correspond to the Women’s March and followed on the heels of the March for Life, both events where like-minded people gathered in large groups for a common cause. No doubt there was plenty of hugging to go around.

What I’d like to see, however, are more healing hugs, where people take the risk to reach out and connect heart to heart with someone different from themselves, whether racially, politically, religiously, or ideologically. So maybe my Free Hugs booth is not such a bad idea. Or how about a social media phenomenon akin to the Ice Bucket Challenge from a few years ago. People could gather donations for every random hug they gave and posted.

Hugs are warm and life-giving acts, and I plan to start giving out more of them. How about you?

 

 

Re-Entry

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After a prolonged time in outer space, astronauts have major physiological adjustments to make upon re-entry to Earth. The effects of lessened gravity make simple actions such as speaking and walking difficult once the astronaut feels the effects of Earth’s gravitational pull. Astronauts returning from the International Space Station spend weeks being tested and monitored to be sure they recover their health and stamina.

While the post-holiday stress of re-entering regular life can’t quite compare, I couldn’t help being reminded of astronauts’ ordeal as I returned from the holidays and a wonderful vacation in Hawaii.

With a four-hour time change, I am still suffering a small degree of jet lag. I can’t go to bed at night but must arise at what feels like the crack of dawn to see my daughter off to school. And speaking of school, it is hard getting back in our day to day routines after two weeks of holiday feasting, family togetherness, and fun. When my kids are on vacation, I too feel a certain license and tend to let certain everyday tasks go by the wayside. Facing the piles of paperwork and general disarray in my house has been fatiguing.

Re-entry after the Christmas holidays is especially painful to me because there is nothing that depresses me more than taking down the decorations, especially the Christmas tree. Not only is it a tedious task that somehow falls to me alone every year, but it saddens me to let the merriment of the season go. The January to April winter slog is long and sometimes disheartening. I want my jolly back.

By next week, we will have settled back into a normal routine. My sleep patterns will stabilize, and I will be in a rhythm set by my daughter’s school and sports schedules. The holidays will be a distant but pleasant memory. To ease my adjustment, I have started a new program of yoga that I hope will calm me and help banish the blues of gloomy winter days.

Despite the pain of re-entry, my life is pretty wonderful. As soon as I get my sea legs back, I intend to enjoy it to the full.