Sunday, December 27, 2009

Living In A State of Fear

I have a theory that the safer we truly are, the less safe we actually feel?

My home county paved its last gravel road 2 decades ago. Our typography and grid work of roadways make for some of the flattest, straightest roads in the country. Add modern traffic engineering and you have some of the safest roads one could imagine.

Upon them we drive the safest generation of cars the automobile industry has ever made. Seatbelts, airbags, anti-lock breaks, halogen headlights, and interiors reengineered to reduce injury after crash impacts. We should feel pretty safe, right?

Then why are people still driving gargantuan, 4-wheel drive SUVs, their design inspired by off-road, and in some cases, military vehicles? I asked a couple SUV drivers why they continue to drive such uselessly huge gas-guzzlers. They both said it made them feel safer.

In his NBA Hall of Fame speech this year, Michael Jordan said, “Limits, like fears are often just an illusion.”

Fear of terrorism has become an illusion of staggering proportions for many Americans. Sure, I want the government worrying about it and taking proper precautions, but the fear most Americans harbor is ridiculously unjustified.

In their best selling book Super Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner provide stark data: “The probability that an average American will die in a given year from a terrorist attack is roughly 1 in 5 million; he is 575 times more likely to commit suicide.”

Why do we think the danger is so much greater than it is? Consider what happened Christmas night. A man lit an incendiary device on a Detroit-bound plane. For days to come cable news will bombard us with information about that 1 chance in 5 million as if it’s breathing down our necks. And the hundreds of suicides that took place around the Christmas holidays will go unmentioned.

A neighbor recently told me he was worried about crime. “It all just seems out of control,” he said. Watching a home security system commercial depicting criminals kicking in doors, you’d think we're all in constant danger. But according to FBI data our current rate of violent crime is about the same as it was in 1970.

In the various media accolades Hamilton County has gotten as a great place to live, our low crime is one measure. Yet, in the homes I show in my rounds as a Realtor, more and more have security systems.

We live in one of the safest places in one of the safest countries in the world – a kind of safety that the vast majority of people around the world can’t imagine. So why are we so scared?

And since the election of Barack Obama, guns sales have gone through the roof as fearful citizens, egged on by TV and radio demagogues believed Obama would dramatically tighten gun control. But the only action Obama has taken on guns is to broaden where they can be carried, making it legal to carry them in national parks.

What might those new gun owners worry about instead? The fact that nearly 60% of gun deaths are caused by suicide and accidents. And how about those women who are buying guns to protect themselves? The person most likely to kill a woman with a gun is her husband or boyfriend.

So these folks bought guns in record numbers and brought them home to the one place where they do the most damage.

A lot folks don’t understand what to fear.

How about child abductions, the worst fear of any parent? We fingerprint the kids, warn them about talking to strangers and have them report cars that drive by too slowly as they play. The schools are locked-down and the teacher and parental field trip background checks have been conducted and filed.

But the chances your child will be abducted are 1 in a million - literally. They’re twice as likely to be killed in an airplane crash. If your child is playing youth football or taking horseback riding lessons, you better pull them out because far more children are killed in those activities than are abducted. In fact, your child is 700 times more likely to attend Harvard than to be abducted.

My college freshman son, home for Christmas, lamented that if he wanted to visit one of his old high school teachers, he would have to call ahead to make arrangement with the school, then check in at the office upon arrival to get a ID tag, and then sign an arrival and departure sheet.

I suppose we can blame Columbine for this school lock-down insanity. But was Columbine the worst school massacre in history?


The worst happened in 1927 in Bath, Michigan in which 43 people were killed. In the aftermath, our grandparent’s generation did not lock-down every school in America. Instead they recognized the freakish rareness of the tragedy and went on living life in a hopeful, rather than fearful manner.

FDR was right. All we have to fear is fear itself.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Tiny Kitchen

Of the hundreds of columns I’ve written over the past 12 years for various local papers, this is one people still ask me about, so I’m sending it along again this Christmas. It was first published in the old Ledger in 1998.

The grandchildren mentioned in the story are nearly all adults now. One teaches school in inner-city Washington D.C., one is just graduating from Miami of Ohio, one is a college junior heading off for Christmas in Taiwan and Japan with his girlfriend, and the youngest, who was 4 when this was originally written has just been offered a modeling contract.

They and their parents will converge on our house this weekend, and our somewhat larger, more modern kitchen. We’ll try to make it just as nice . . . but the kitchen is probably too big.

And the grandparents? They can't take the cold anymore. They're already in Florida.

At Christmas each year 18 of us - 11 adults and 7 children, converge on a big old house in Bluffton with large rooms, tall ceilings and lots of bedrooms. The kitchen there is hopelessly small - perhaps eight by eight with a 12-foot ceiling, as if it were built for incredibly skinny, tall people. Along with the cabinets, stove, sink and refrigerator are three doorways and a little antique table that sits in the middle, leaving a square, narrow path for cooking and socializing.

We like to complain about that kitchen, but quiet enough so the grandparents don’t hear.

There are rooms in that house with comfortable chairs, places to sit and talk, yet, more times than not, complaints aside, we huddle in that tiny kitchen, drawn by nature like bugs to a back porch light. If you want a Coke or milk, either someone must move or you have to crack the refrigerator door just enough to stretch your arm in. If you want to open a cabinet, microwave, stove or rinse a glass in the sink, somebody . . . or somebodies, must move. Still we stay and gab.

It is most like this in late afternoon. There is a roast packed with spices sizzling in the oven, things steaming on the stove and 8 or 10 of us wedged in there elbow to elbow, nibbling on nuts and chips, each of us with a beer or martini. Children push their way through the legs, looking for a mother or father or cookie or cracker, or they push on to the back room where pies and Christmas cookies sit on the washer and dryer, waiting for desert.
There were years when our babies were breast-fed and burped and cradled to sleep in this crowded, hot, tiny kitchen filled with the smells of pine needles, coffee, leg of lamb and boiling potatoes, were middle-aged brothers and sisters catch up on another intervening year. We always hoped and prayed the babies would sleep through dinner. But I think our “baby” years are behinds us all and a couple of those babies who once fell asleep over their mother’s shoulder beside the warm stove are nearly as tall as the shortest of their aunts.

There is something about that cramped, cozy space, something completely at odds with the modern notion of what a kitchen must be like in a new house. There is little counter space, no dishwasher or trash compactor, no commercial-sized stove or water and ice in the frig door. It is a remarkably impractical kitchen. Thumb through an issue of Martha Stewart magazine or watch a few episodes of Hometime or This Old House - each make it clear that such a kitchen could be best helped with a stick of dynamite.

We like to complain about that tiny kitchen. My wife even rearranged the space a bit this past Thanksgiving, but there’s not a lot you can do with it without a sledgehammer. Still I wonder, would we be drawn there the same if it were a kitchen worthy of praise from Martha Stewart or Architectural Digest? I doubt it. More space, more burners, better lighting and comfy bar stools could not make us enjoy each other’s company more or make the food taste better. If it were large and spacious, if it were the “entertaining/performance space” that architects go on about on This Old House, would we be drawn there the same? I doubt it.

There’s something about close quarters that can free people’s tongues in the nicest way. You can’t design that into a modern kitchen without breaking all the rules.

Everyone here is successful. All are well-educated college graduates who have traveled abroad. One family has been living abroad for years while another comes from Washington where the father has tried cases before the Supreme Court. From Cleveland another shepherds ads we have all seen on TV and another couple helps keep 2 Indianapolis advertising firms successful. One has published a book. Everyone here has a finer kitchen in their own homes. But I would guess none of us have had as many loving, memorable moments in our own kitchens as have been had over the Christmases we’ve tolerated, or perhaps reveled in the cramped space and one another’s company in that tiny kitchen.

It makes me wonder about the things we think we need and work so hard to get, especially in this season so over-inflated with consuming and having. The pleasures of Christmas in that tiny kitchen contradict the rest of the year we spend working so hard to buy comfort for ourselves.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Peace on Earth?

Anthropologist, Wade Davis writes, “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you. They are unique manifestations of the human spirit.
If more people opened their hearts to that reality, “Peace on earth, good will toward men,” would be more than a Christmas season platitude.
That Biblical pronouncement from angels on the first Christmas has moved people throughout the ages. It’s served as a reminder at the celebration of the birth of Christ to let go of mistrust, grudges, and bigotry and seek kinship with people around the world.
Recently some Biblical scholars have argued that, “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men,” was a greeting from God meant only for the Christian faithful. A couple of popular online dissertations express condescension toward those who use the phrase to urge peace and understanding for all mankind. Their tone suggests: “Peace on earth and good will toward . . . only those men who worship as I do.”
It’s heartbreaking and a little terrifying to see such a fundamentally good ethic turned upside down and backwards, because it’s a prescription for not just political and social strife, and war.
A couple years back I went to hear the Dalai Lama, the world’s Buddhist leader speak at an event in Bloomington, Indiana. He said that we couldn’t have peace until we, “disarm ourselves from within.”
Isn’t that what, “peace on earth, goodwill toward men,” means - disarming ourselves of not just mistrust of those who are different, but also the arrogant belief in the exclusive superiority of our own personal experience?
This week my local newspaper chirped the question, “How’s your Christmas shopping coming?” And every other media outlet is keeping me posted on Tiger Woods’ personal shortcoming. But I’ve stopped listening. As Christmas gets closer I’m thinking about what the Angels, the Dalai Lama, and Wade Davis had to say. Obsessing over buying shit and ogling at other people’s transgressions feels like a journey in the wrong direction.
The world has 2.2 billion Christians, 1.3 billion Muslims, 350 million Buddhists, 25.8 million Sikhs, 870 million Hindus, and 13 million Jews, while 16% of the world’s population is agnostic or atheistic. The fastest growing religion in the world is Islam.
Some in each faith category no doubt believe those who lack their faith are doomed to damnation. Some Christians believe other Christians who don’t practice as they do are destined for hell, just as some of the Islamic faith – Shiites or Sunnis, believe adherents of the other sect are doomed.
Yet each faith also calls on their faithful to care for the wellbeing of others – all others. In ancient text and poetic language they each echo a mash-up of Wade Davis and the Dalai Lama: “Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you. They are unique manifestations of the human spirit. Disarm yourself of the arrogant opposition to that reality and love everyone.”
But it seems that everywhere we look this season, from Afghanistan to Iraq to the Internet, to TV news, too few care much about that.
And forget about foreign countries, people, and religion. It happens right here and it’s thinly sliced among variations of people.
Watching video of the health care protests, time and again I see a sign that reads something like, “Why should I have to buy healthcare for people too lazy to work.”
A little research reveals that the average American household living below the poverty line includes at least one adult working full time . . . for minimum wage. And you don’t have to look much further to realize that we all are already paying for those people because our system leaves them with no other option but to show up at emergency rooms for routine care. This leads to the highest hospital and insurance bills in the western world – bills that lead many other Americans into bankruptcy and reduced coverage.
It’s a complicated issue. But WWJD?
Most likely – not carry a hostile sign that brands all poor people without healthcare as lazy freeloaders. If anyone was disarmed from within, it was Christ.
Across our social and political landscape it seems people are armed to the hilt with misjudgments, unfair accusations, resentments, bigotry and rage.
Peace on earth, goodwill toward men. That is my wish at Christmas time. It’s more than a wish for me or those I love, but for this entire world and all the people in it. And they need not all think what I think or worship as I worship. I don’t care if they’re Muslim or Jewish, gay or straight, black or white, conservative or liberal, rich or poor. I wish it for them all the same.