Monday, October 27, 2014

Selling Fear In The Time of Ebola

Panic and conspiracy theories can do dangerous things.

Mid-August, in Liberia, a mob stormed a clinic, attacking aid workers, freeing Ebola patients and stealing contaminated equipment. The mob’s trigger appeared to be mistrust of westerners and upside down conspiracy theory logic that noted wherever there were foreign aid workers, there was also Ebola, so the aid workers must be spreading it on purpose.
While all our news channels seem to be peddling panic, nobody sells it as cynically and willfully as Fox News.

Often humor says it best.
For a dose of fear mongering, misinformation and manipulation regarding Ebola, tune into Fox. It’s a prescription for intellectual poison: a 3-ring circus staring everybody willing to twist public safety to their own profit; politicians looking to demonize their opponents, pundits and anchors hoping to advance their careers, conspiracy theorists theorizing, and xenophobes selling fear of foreigners.

What’s the reality of the Ebola threat? The best data I’ve found says your chances of getting Ebola in America are 1 in 13.3 million. That means you have a 1,428 times greater chance of dying in a car accident, a 3.4 times greater chance of being killed by a shark and are more likely to be killed by lightening.

But like Jim Carrey’s character in Dumb & Dumber when told by his love interest that there was a 1 in a million chance she’d go out with him, America seems to be saying, “So you’re saying there’s a chance!”

How has our health care system handled the disease? Other than one stumble in one hospital, we’ve done remarkably well. After that initial stumble in Texas, we’ve managed to quickly find, isolate, and treat the tiny handful of people who have had the disease on our shores. And last Sunday’s 60 Minutes piece about the nurses and doctors at that Texas hospital painted a very different picture of that first Ebola death than the story of ineptitude we’d heard in the media thus far. Rather than ineptitude, it looked heroic. What’s more, it’s overwhelmingly our doctors, our professional medical folks, and our money on the front lines in Africa fighting the disease.

As prime international destinations go, when it comes to fighting Ebola, the U.S. is pretty much #1 in the world and Americans are safe.

But you’d never know that listening to 24 hour news channels, especially Fox, where fear-mongering was a fixture long before the first Ebola case in the U.S.

New York Magazine online documented this recently, posting videos of prime examples. The sorry highlights include Ashleigh Banfield breathlessly comparing Ebola with the terror/military group ISIS and asking a medical expert if both threats should be treated with the same strategy. The guest was stunned by the stupidity of the question. But Banfield pushed on, “All ISIS would need to do is send a few of its suicide killers into an Ebola affected zone and then get them onto mass transit [in America].” The doctor told her she was wrong.

I wish I could say that was an isolated case of bad reporting, but on Fox, it’s virtually the norm, a constant stoking of fear and mistrust, and of course there’s the relentless argument: the Ebola threat to Americans was caused by President Obama’s weak leadership and a bumbling federal government. GOP house and senate members line up to insist that our borders be closed (likely not doable), that direct flights from affected African countries be banned (no such flights currently exist) and to make dramatic conspiracy theory accusation that truly veer from misinformation into lala land.

There was one moment of wisdom and calm from Fox’s Shep Smith who put the Ebola issue in brilliant, level-headed perspective. But that was an anomaly.

On Fox News Radio’s John Gibson Show, psychiatrist Keith Ablow, a member of Fox News’ “Medical A-Team” claimed, and I’m paraphrasing here, that Obama affiliates himself with Africa, much more so than he thinks of himself as the American president and therefore he is allowing Ebola into our country to purposefully kill Americas.

Couple that with conservative radio nut-jobs who have claimed Obama is letting Ebola in to kill white American.

I blows the mind to stop and think about the times we live in. We’re so used to hearing loonies insist our president wasn’t born in America, that he’s a Muslim who doesn’t actually practice the Christian religion of the church denomination he’s attended his entire life, that he doesn’t really love America or want to protect our troops, that it’s actually not shocking to hear a supposed medical expert claim that, yes, now, our president actually wants to kill Americans.

For mainstream politicians, Rand Paul wins the award for making groundless, dumb accusations, suggesting on a number of shows that the government is purposefully misleading the public about the danger of the Ebola virus. When asked to present evidence or give examples, he offers none.

And this guy wants to be president.

At a time when our media and our leaders should be trying to calm the public and share the facts, why are Fox news and the likes of presidential wannabe Rand Paul urging panic and mistrust? In earlier generations when powerful figures in tense moments used their positions to sell fear it led us to deprive people of their civil rights – whether it was with Japanese interment camps or communist witch hunts or illegal wire taps on Vietnam War protesters.

In Africa, Ebola panic and conspiracy theories are born of poverty, superstition and poor education and when it plays out in the streets it’s dirty, and ugly and dangerous. In America, Ebola panic and conspiracy theories are born of greed, power lust and partisanship and when it plays out on the airwaves it is clean, and groomed and dangerous.

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

West by Midwest: they smoke weed out there!

Last week, sipping a gin and tonic at the Denver airport at the end of my 2nd visit in a year, I found myself pondering other recent trips out west, Seattle and Portland included and considering the cultural differences between here and the Midwest.

Denver's capital building from my son Jack's apartment building.
To start with, yes, it’s true, just about anywhere you go in Denver the earthy, sweet aroma of marijuana greets you. Standing in line at the Great American Beer Fest I smelled weed. Sitting in my son’s kitchen in Capital Hill the smell rolled in the window regularly. Standing outside my other son, Sean’s place a block away, weed fumes waft down the street and up the stairwell. It followed me everywhere I went.

I started to think Willie Nelson was stalking me.

But the unique in these northwestern places goes beyond being on the cutting edge of legalized pot. There’s an easy-going “chill” to these cities that make them comfy places. Crowds at concerts and festivals strike me as more gracious and tolerant. Folks on the street are relaxed and smiling. They’ve got a refreshing “can-do” and “live and let live” way about them.

We like to think that technology is collapsing the borders between us, and I think it clearly is.

On a recent episode of Bill Maher’s show, a guest made a joke about the south being backward and hostile to Bill’s aggressive liberal politics. Maher was quick to disagree, noting that every urban area he performs in across the America is as plugged in and worldly as any other, with universities, ethnic restaurants, food co-ops, a broad base of religious faiths and strong appreciation for the arts.

My son Sean during our hiking trip last week.
My own little corner of Indiana has its Thai restaurants, brewery tasting rooms, organic food producers, Trader Joe's, immigrants, vegans and hipsters. About any musical artist you want to see performs here. There's opera, orchestra and professional soccer. I’ve seen just as many hipsters in Indy’s Fountain Square as I found in any other vibrant inner city neighborhood in Portland, Seattle, or Denver. And Indy has been winning recognition lately as an increasingly bike friendly town.

But there are differences.

Mid-westerners in general, and Hoosiers in particular, have what I impatiently call a “can’t-do spirit.” Propose a new idea and somebody’s quick to list all the reasons why it won’t work.

It’s a suffocating cultural reflex.

It’s very Midwestern and so very Hoosier. Got a new idea? “Lemme tell you why it won’t work.” You’ll hear Garrison Keillor describe the characters in the fictitious Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon that way. Hoosier politicians specialize in it.

Former Indiana University economist Morton Marcus once said, “If the Garden of Eden had been placed on the banks of the Wabash, we’d still be waiting for original sin.” Hoosiers just don’t want to be first. We’ve got our rut matted down just the way we like it. I’m proud of being a Hoosier, but this nay-sayer tendency make me absolutely crazy

Folks in northwestern cities seem to have little fear of being first. Little fear of looking at the world with fresh eyes.

They like the outdoors, but instead of just saying so like most folks do here, they actually go out and use it. Hoosiers will say they long for the great outdoors of the west. I’ll ask, “Do you ever drive an hour to southern Indiana and hike in the state and national forests? Do they ever go caving down there? Ever throw a kayack in our beautiful local river?” I often get blank stares in response.

Northwesterners love live music, and instead of simply buying their annual tickets to Jimmy Buffet, Dave Matthews and Zack Brown Band, they actually go out to hear live music on a regular basis –small acts in small venues are just fine. That seeds a local musician culture. If you don't support live music at the grassroots, you don't get a thriving local musician culture. Northwesterners seem more interested in social justice, concerned to the point of taking action over whether those with less are cared for. They celebrate the odd, the weird, the unusual, rather than recoiling from it. These are the places that loved Hoosier writer Kurt Vonnegut while folks in Indiana scratched their heads at his unique, sometime controversial style. Mass transit makes perfect sense to those in the urban west. That’s why it’s so easy to move around their cities. Here, Indy has been wringing its hands for a couple decades about light rail. We just can’t make ourselves pull the trigger. While we grumble about why it won’t work, northwestern cities go ahead and build it.

The view hiking near Estes last week.
True, those cities have their own, over the top weirdness. There’s the Portland movements to sorta legalize homelessness, “Ya know, why can’t these folks sleep outside in public places if they want to? Isn’t it their right?” I’m thinking, “My God! Shouldn’t you at least start by trying to find them a home?” And the near flat-earth insistence that Portland’s water not be fluoridated. And my Seattle friends joke, "People out here get pissed if you're smoking a cigarette in public, but not if you're smoking week."

These northwestern places are prone to such first world luxuries. Folks in third world countries wouldn’t understand. You first have to be spoiled before you can start fearing your luxuries with “fresh eyes.”

But these western places are mostly different in admirable ways.

And along with their “can-do” spirit, they have a “live and let live spirit.” That’s why legalized marijuana is taking hold out west along with gay marriage and doctor assisted suicide.

So I sit in the Denver airport preparing to head home to the Hoosier state where politicians say the want to get government off our backs but at the same time are so damn eager to dictate the terms of our private lives. And progressive change? I won't be expecting that anytime soon. My local and state leaders are likely ready with a list of reasons why change won’t work.

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Friday, October 3, 2014

The Empty Nester

July 30, 2014

When I was first restoring this house it was full of small kids and life was a whirlwind.

I was a school teacher by day, sold real estate evenings and weekends, was president of a local not-for-profit, had a weekly column in the local paper, was assistant coach of one of the kid’s basketball teams, and was editing and trying to publish a book.

And, yeah, I was restoring this house and was father to small children. Children with soccer, basketball and baseball games, with Cub Scout  & Brownie meetings and science projects and papers they forgot to start writing until the night before they were due.

Each morning at 6:00 I was shot out of a cannon and I ran as fast as I could all day until I dove back into bed. In the morning, the alarm clock lit the cannon fuse again.

During this time, my father, who wasn’t very good at commiserating or sharing emotionally expressive thoughts said, “You remind me of myself when I was your age. I had every unpaid job in town.” Unfortunately I have inherited my father’s habit of offering solace that also sounds like an insult.

My older workaholic sister, Jama shared with me something our dad told her, “We make our own hell. Nobody does it to us.” Our dad told her that.

Once during those years my sister Cindy and her husband Jeff visited from Florida. We were up late – my ex-wife and Cindy on the patio talking while Jeff and I played endless games of H.O.R.S.E and drank beer in the driveway. A child came out in their sleeper suit, awoken by the relentless thump of the basketball. Jeff, who also wasn’t very good at sharing emotionally expressive thoughts, paused mid shot, looked past the ball toward the house and yard, wife and child and said, “You’re a lucky man. You’ve made a really good life.”

Yes I did. And I still do. I’m a very fortunate person.

Though I long-ago freed myself of that manic work schedule, this year I’ve found myself back at a workaholic work day at the very time the children are grown and gone. It should be easier. But even that complaint is a fortunate man’s observation: I’m making good money and publishing a book.

Never the less, I’m exhausted, it is Wednesday and I need a nap.

It is over three years now since I first packed my bags and left this house, 18 months since I kept the house in the divorce, a year since all the boys left in a single autumn and their sister went off to college and nine months since a single soul-numbing weekend in which my brother-in-law, Jeff took his own life on a Friday night and my father died on Sunday. This year has been the busiest of my twenty years of real estate. I have worked insane hours. The relaunch of a book I wrote will take place this coming weekend. In a couple days my house will fill with guests and I will be the center of attention and responsibility.

Lunch at the coffee shop with Peggy and Kelli is done and I desperately need that nap. I drive home and climb the stairs.

Though it’s the middle of the day, I make my rounds. I walk the L-shaped hall and look into each bedroom. I started this when my kids were babies, checking to make sure they were breathing. Then, as they grew I continued my rounds each night before bed to make sure they were asleep or just to watch them a-snooze and think about the age they were and what that meant at the moment. But now each bed is empty. I’ve grown used to this. I’ve cleaned them and prepared them for my weekend guests. The kids are all gone and I am here in the house alone.

Walking to my bedroom I have the faint sense of being left behind, as if everyone else went somewhere and I was the last one left in the world we all once shared together. They, and their mother, all gone. But there’s no real emotional content behind that thought. It’s just a thought. I chose this as my way forward and I’m at peace with it. The kids left because they grew up and started their own lives. All is as it should be.

The sun is pouring through the south-facing windows. I lay down and Gracie curls in behind my knees, purring. I quickly fall into a deep sleep.

An hour later I struggle to wake from a heavy, drug-like sleep. An unseasonably cool July breeze billows the shades out from the window sashes. I’m aware of the sound of a girl giggling and boyish hearty laughter coming over the porch roof and through my bedroom window. I know those voices! It’s the ghosts of my children playing in the side yard. They are running from the sidewalk to the garage, laughing as they go, the joyous sound recedes from my bedroom, echoes hard and bright through the stair landing window, and comes again, this time muffled, from Cal’s back bedroom window down the hall. I think I smell food. Pot pies in the oven downstairs? We’ll eat dinner around the kitchen table soon!

No. That’s wrong. It’s not the sound of my children’s ghosts. It’s their echoes ­– echoes from ten or fifteen years ago that got stuck in the eves of the roof and the foundation vents. The cool breeze has blown them free to be heard again.

But no. Wait! It’s not that at all. It’s the neighbor children playing in the side yard. That’s what it is. Playing in the same place where my children played. Playing the same sorts of games.

As I work my way through this from deep sleep to full waking, I am not sad. I have few regrets. Cal is in Japan. Jack and Sean are in Denver. Sally is visiting my sister, Jama in LA. Their mother lives across town with another man and I am here in our old place. I share this room with another woman. It is all as it should be. We are all in our own good places, places we chose, and on good terms with one other.

This summer, it seems we have all arrived where we should be.