Tuesday, September 20, 2016

From Terrorism To Child Abductions, We Fear The Wrong Things

In the past several years, few books have amazed me as much as Daniel Gardner’s The Science of Fear. Using scientific studies Gardner examines in detail how fear works in the human psyche and then gets misapplied in our lives.

His first best example is fear of flying after 9/11. Americans avoided flying in the year after the terrorists attacks, driving rather than flying whenever they could. Yet, flying is far safer than driving. A study compared flying and driving statistics and found increased traffic deaths in 2002. It estimated that 1,595 people needlessly died on America’s roads because they drove rather than flew in the year after 9/11.

Why do we make such bad choices about danger?

When an airliner crashes, our gut reacts and the event is seared in our memory. But when traffic deaths mount in a slow dribble – 1 at the edge of town, 3 a hundred miles away, and so on, we hardly notice. Yet, at the end of the year, for every 10,000 people who flew vs. those who drove, more will die in their cars than in a plane crash.

How about silicon breast implants? They can leak and make women sick, right? We all know it's true. Yet, Gardner goes looking for proof and finds not one single medical study has been able to prove it. Never mind. There were endless emotional news stories of women, with tears in their eyes and agony in their faces relating how a ruptured implant led to connective tissue disorder. It must be true, right? Lawyers saw an opportunity and filed lawsuits. As newspaper, television and magazine stories of ruptured implants  mounted, public perception was universal; they’re dangerous! Manufacturers were forced to establish a $4.25 billion fund to settle suits ($1billion went to attorneys).

Gardner’s conclusion: “Humans are good with stories and bad with numbers.”

What numbers got lost in all the emotional stories of suffering women? The rate of connective tissue disorder in women who’ve never had implants is exactly the same as it is in those who did. That’s why the FDA has once again approved silicon implants.

Gardner explains how dramatic, emotional media stories create a recognizable narrative. When future stories create the impression of a trend, they’re reported no matter how meaningless the related story might be, giving us an impression of a trend much bigger than it is. After Timothy McVey blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the media dramatically increased their coverage of militia groups filled with angry white men with guns, no matter how unimportant the story or minimal the threat. It was part of the ongoing narrative. 9/11 broke that narrative and replaced angry white men with militant Muslims. Now actual terrorism committed by angry white men gets far less media attention than simple charges or suspicions of Muslim extremists.

According to a report in Newsweek Magazine in February of this year, American right wing militia groups have killed more people since 2002 than Muslim extremists. But it seems no one is aware. Donald Trump isn't insisting that white militia members be profiled for examination by authorities, he's calling for profiling Muslims.

It get's crazier. When I do searches of gun deaths caused by toddlers with guns (toddlers who found a loaded gun in their home and shot someone) I find that toddlers killed and maimed more Americans in the past year than terrorists did. Shall we start profiling toddlers?

Needless fear also gets stoked when danger is presented without context. Fears of both child abduction and West Nile virus are great examples of dangers presented without context.

In 1999 West Nile virus became an exotic new threat. Media outlets tallied daily death counts. Public fear spread. Yet, only 1 in 150 people who contract West Nile actually suffer serious symptoms, and far, far fewer die. Still, TV anchors breathlessly told us, “West Nile claimed it’s 18th victim today.”

And 18 was the grand total of deaths from the virus in all of 2002. They didn’t offer any context, such as 875 Americans die in a typical year choking on food – that’s over 48 times the threat of West Nile.

Where’s our daily choking report?

Still, a 2002 Pew survey found that 70% of American were closely following the West Nile story even though the chances of getting it were tiny, chances of suffering symptoms were rarer still, and the chances of dying from it were statistically miniscule. Only 7% more (77%) followed the build-up to war with Iraq.

Fear sells.

In 2012, we panicked all over again, but this time it was Ebola. That turned out to be yet another screaming headline without much of a story. Only time will tell if Zika will be a real threat, or another pointless panic.

Few things scare a parent more than the threat of child abduction. We have Amber alerts, Anderson Cooper specials about bizarre abductions, we fingerprint children and train them in self-defense. Yet, the odds of a child being abducted by a stranger and never returned are freakishly rare.

Gardner documents routine claims by law enforcement officials, child advocacy groups, and the media claiming “50,000- 75,000 children are stolen from their parent’s arms each year.” He goes looking for the original source of these numbers and can’t find it. The phantom numbers were caught in a feedback loop. One group used them, another group sited the first group’s use of the numbers, and on and on until newspapers and TV anchors are reporting, “Child advocacy groups claim that 50,000-75,000 . . .”

Gardner instead found a 1999 study that finally laid out the actual numbers. That year 797,500 people under the age of 18 were reported missing. If you take that number, subtract the runaways and the family abductions (one parent or other family member taking a child in a custody dispute), and then subtract the 18 year old boyfriends who drove their 16 year old girlfriends across state lines, and concentrate on just stereotypical kidnappings of children under the age of 14, you’re left with only 90 cases. Not 50,000 nor 75,000, but 90!

But then the personal stories of those 90 kidnappings get reported over and over along with the unfounded numbers, “50,000-70,000” thrown in for effect. Without the context we’re left thinking our children are in terrible, relentless danger. What are the real odds your child will be kidnapped? One in 608,696. But an American child is 2.5 times more likely to drown in a swimming pool and 26 times more likely to die in a car crash.

So why is there so much fear and why do we spend so much energy fearing the wrong things while ignoring real dangers? Gardner states it pretty well; “We are safer and healthier than ever and yet we are more worried about injury, disease, and death than ever. Why? In part, it’s because there are few opportunities to make money from convincing people they are, in fact, safer and healthier than ever – but there are huge profits to be made promoting fear.”

“A broken man, an abandoned house, and a lonely woman—all the makings for a beautiful, haunting tale of loss, forgiveness, and redemption. The Salvage Man is a lovely, bitter sweet story you won’t soon forget. I loved it!”
Sherri Wood Emmons, author of The Seventh Mother

“Meyer turns the pages of history with gentle care and a warm heart, creating a story I’ll remember forever. Thank you Kurt Meyer for opening a door to my beloved town’s past and allowing me to travel the streets and meet the people of Noblesville 1893.”
Susan Crandall, Author of Whistling Past the Graveyard

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Craft Beer, Vaccines, Trump And The Winds of Change in America

There’s a breeze blowing through our culture. A yearning to live a more authentic life. A search for something less contrived, less advertised. If it’s corporate or branded or the choice of the elite, well, it’s a little suspect, or maybe even an automatic joke. Not everybody sees it this way, but the breeze is blowing.
It's all craft beer in the Contrarian's beer fridge, leftovers from a recent din-
ner party. Not one single guest brought a corporate brew.
The craft beer world provides a thumbnail sketch of this movement. At some point in the ‘80s, restless American beer drinkers flocked to the broad varieties, quality and flavor of European beers. Once you’ve fallen in love with a full-bodied stout from the British Isles or a Belgian wheat, comic commercials filled with aging sports stars and girls in bikinis trying to convince you that Bud Lite is better than Miller Lite look embarrassingly lame. A small craft beer industry began brewing interesting, complex beers and grew until now virtually every corner of America has a taproom serving local brews. The folks drinking there are openly hostile to whatever bill of goods the corporate breweries are peddling. 

Go to one of the great Americana music festivals around the US and you’ll find these kinds of people drinking their IPAs and listening to music that doesn’t get played on the radio–wasn’t approved by somebody at the record company’s corporate headquarters. In recent years I’ve attended many, many big, sold out shows for acts that rarely or never get played on the radio. And much of what the radio plays, this crowd avoids.

The breeze is blowing through the food industry, too. We’re increasingly seeing small organic farms, small cheese and meat producers, people tending bees for honey in their backyards and planting gardens and canning their homegrown produce. There are people in my life who refuse to go to fast food restaurants and roll their eyes at the highway’s usual suspects – Applebee’s, Outback Steakhouse, and Chile’s - places derisively called, “McSitdown Restaurants.” Instead, they're looking for the oddball food truck or the little restaurant with local flavor owned by a mom & pop. Farm-to-table, vegetarianism, anti-GMOs, free range, organic, veganism; it goes on and on.
Home grown and canned peppers sit beside organic products in the 
Contrarian's frig.
Peek around any corner and you’ll find folks recoiling from the technologically filtered and yearning to be closer to the source. My three 20-something sons all have turntables and buy albums, not CDs or MP3s. They claim it has a warmer sound. In fact, last year more albums were sold than CDs in the US. 

I know young gals in their 20s who are knitting and others friends making their own musical instruments. If it can be made rather than bought, there's a growing movement to do just that.

I feel the breeze in my real estate business. A decade ago people were mortgaging themselves through the eyeballs to buy mega-square footage McMansions with vinyl siding and plastic baseboard, cheap cabinets and builder-grade carpet that was worn out in a couple years. Today, more buyers have saved a bigger down payment and they're buying smaller houses with higher quality finishes. It's less financially precarious and less superficial.

There hasn’t been a mass rejection of mainstream culture like this since that 1960s. And to a great degree I’m fine with that. It diversifies our economy and puts regular folks in greater control of their own world. But it’s not always a gentle, sweet breeze. Sometimes it’s an ill wind.

This breeze of doubt and suspicion also blew the anti-vaccine movement into our culture–the belief that those vaccines that have eradicated diseases worldwide and saved tens of millions of lives were more danger than cure. If fifty scientific studies can be ignored because just one said vaccines were dangerous, you’re supporting an outsider view to the point it could kill your children. And so, we’re seeing once eradicated diseases reappearing in the wealthiest nations on earth.

And this breeze blew Bernie Sanders to near the top of the Democrat ticket and Donald Trump to the top of the GOP, and thanks to Brexit it’s blowing England out of the EU. People are doubting old tried and true answers. It’s here in medicine and politics that I get nervous about this search behind the billboards and beneath the well-paved way of doing things. Just because you’re tired of the insider elite doesn’t mean the outsider is better. The outsider might be lying to you. The outsider might be more fake and corrupt than the well-paid corporate insider.

Because we were so fed up with "business as usual," the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are now almost completely void of statesmen. We've replaced pragmatic statesmen with angry, insurgent outsiders who don’t have the education, temperament, or the clue needed to strike a deal. Democracy is utterly dependent upon making a compromise–accepting that you won’t get everything you want and neither will your opponent.  

Deciding emotionally is the danger. Once you’ve done that, reason is out the door and you’re either ignoring one thing or pointing at another to justify your choice. Maybe the key is stepping away from the corporate and insider elite with an open heart rather and an angry resolve. Open hearts make for clear minds. Angry resolves lead to quick, cloudy judgments.

Now back to my local craft beer, organic chicken, and outsider music.

 “A broken man, an abandoned house, and a lonely woman—all the makings for a beautiful, haunting tale of loss, forgiveness, and redemption. The Salvage Man is a lovely, bitter sweet story you won’t soon forget. I loved it!”
Sherri Wood Emmons, author of The Seventh Mother

“Meyer turns the pages of history with gentle care and a warm heart, creating a story I’ll remember forever. Thank you Kurt Meyer for opening a door to my beloved town’s past and allowing me to travel the streets and meet the people of Noblesville 1893.”
Susan Crandall, Author of Whistling Past the Graveyard

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Hope & Redemption In The Midwest: The Salvage Man

It was 1994. I was restoring a Victorian era home in a growing community. Our family of five was pinching pennies on my meager teacher’s salary so I took to dumpster diving at old house construction sites and salvaging historic architectural elements at homes slated for demolition, reselling them to antique dealers. And leaving for school each morning I passed striking Firestone workers at the edge of my neighborhood.

That confluence of experiences laid the foundation for my novel; The Salvage Man. It’s the story of Dan Reynolds, a man who’s become invisible in a place where he thought he’d matter. In a startling moment of terror and wonder, he meets another soul as invisible as he is. Together, they seek redemption.

Though a long time ago, I recall the events that shaped this story.

In the early morning dark, driving to work, I found myself behind a slow moving truck pulling a magnet that hung an inch above the street, gathering nails dumped by union workers to harass scabs. My town’s biggest employer, Firestone, was trying to break the union. The union-busting, picket-line crossing, slow-motion destruction of those jobs happened a few blocks from my home. The plight of those workers weighed on my mind. Their jobs were being sent abroad. The world was passing them by.

When I moved to this town in the late ‘80s, the population was 18,000 and growing. Many of those Firestone workers were raised here. I met blue-collar folks my age who grew up in a town they thought would be 10-15,000 people, where they’d have jobs of a certain kind and fit in socially in the life of the town. But even in the late ‘80s it was changing rapidly, and by the mid ‘90s, that world was evaporating. Today, our population is 55,000.

That growth and those new suburban residents created an economic vitality that overshadowed the fading blue-collar colors of the town. For the writer in me, that became Dan Reynolds’ background.

During the same period my little family lived in an 1890s house I was restoring. I took to dumpster diving for old house parts at demolition sites and stripping old houses prior to demolition. It helped me restore my home and provided extra cash as I sold truckloads to antique salvage yards.

Once, my neighbor Russ and I salvage cut stone steps from a neglected farmstead west of town. It was being demolished to make way for a new subdivision. The 1870s Italianate home was partially collapsed, leaning like a Dr. Seuss cartoon house. Russ had been inside already looking for salvage. Digging out the four-foot long stones that hot sunny day, I asked if there was anything inside worth taking. Russ is not prone to mysticism, but he gravely said, “Something bad happened in there. You can feel it. Don’t go in.” The cold insistence in his eyes convinced me. We muscled the stone steps into my pickup and left.

The setting for The Salvage Man
And The Salvage Man story percolated and evolved in my mind.

A few years later I salvaged again at a picturesque farmstead at the north end of town, across from the last covered bridge in the county. In my new position as a Realtor and the president of the local preservation group, I’d convinced the developer to save the pre-Civil War home. But the barn, grain bin, milk house and carriage house were all being demolished to make way for yet another new subdivision. I felt a deep sadness as I gathered doors, porch posts and shutters that had been discarded in the barn loft. The next week when I went back for more salvage, I found a staggering mountain of dirt had been moved, making a twenty foot deep dry mote around the barn, which was now perched on an island. It was a bizarre scene. Eventually the barn would be demolished and the ground beneath it also moved to make the subdivision’s retention pond.

It was there on that farmstead that I set the story of the Salvage Man, there that I imagined Dan Reynolds doing the same work I was doing, but he did it to financially survive after the strike. And like the old farmhouse Russ had entered, this one gave off an ominous feeling inside; dense, stale air, and dark rooms that put a tingle at the back of your neck and filled your chest with an adrenaline-spiked urge to get the hell out.

It is there inside that house, in that barn, and on that land that Dan Reynold’s life changes.

I imagined Dan not only challenged by the end of his factory job, but divorced at age 50, his kids grown and gone. All the things that once defined this silent, emotionless man–job, marriage, parenthood–are all gone. And his hometown is increasingly unrecognizable. To make him feel even shittier, the lone way he finds to survive is to “undress,” as Dan puts it, the town’s historic identity, to be sold off at antique stores before the rest is sent to a landfill.

But there in that house, in that barn, and on that land, Dan Reynolds finds redemption.

 “A broken man, an abandoned house, and a lonely woman—all the makings for a beautiful, haunting tale of loss, forgiveness, and redemption. The Salvage Man is a lovely, bitter sweet story you won’t soon forget. I loved it!”
Sherri Wood Emmons, author of The Seventh Mother

“Meyer turns the pages of history with gentle care and a warm heart, creating a story I’ll remember forever. Thank you Kurt Meyer for opening a door to my beloved town’s past and allowing me to travel the streets and meet the people of Noblesville 1893.”
Susan Crandall, Author of Whistling Past the Graveyard