Thursday, January 29, 2009

All That's On Offer

Once again, my mishugas makes life harder than it needs to be.

I was in Wally World early this week, not because I crave low, low prices, but because they and their ilk have managed to eliminate just about all the competition for miles around. I don't make a special trip there, it's on my route for other errands I routinely make and I pop in about once a month to pick up a few odds and ends. In a perfect world, I'd never darken the door of this evil empire, but I'm no hero and I try to avoid tokenism and martyrdom. Besides, places like this won't be around much longer, but that's a different story.

I was looking for some rubber sink mats, the kind that go on the bottom of a porcelain kitchen sink so it doesn't get all scratched up during pot scrubbing. A simple thing, right? In America, more often than not these days, when we go to buy a simple item, we are often overwhelmed with a blizzard of choices, but on this day I faced a different problem.

I found what a first glance looked like just what I was after: a plain, inexpensive, rubber sink mat. But, wait! What's this? The mats were treated with something called "Microban." I didn't spend a bunch of time studying the miraculous benefits of this marvel of modern chemistry. I didn't want it and the entire line of rubber and plastic kitchen accessories on sale in this store were from the same supplier and they were all treated with this anti-microbial chemical. No untreated product was on offer.

I'm proud to say my local doctor is enlightened and not easily swayed by the pleas of sniffling patients for drugs. I know many docs will blithely prescribe antibiotics at the first sign of a cold, and I'd venture a guess that the vast majority of Americans wouldn't think twice about taking antibiotics for a cold. But most colds are viral and antibiotics will do no good, and unnecessary drug-taking may well come back to bite us.

Likewise, antibiotics are fed to our food animals. Chickens and cattle are regularly fed all kinds of drugs, partly because they are so crowded together on factory farms that many would sicken and die as diseases swept through the vast poultry sheds and squalid feed lots. Also, animals fed a diet laced with chemicals grow faster and fatter and are more profitable. But what could all those drugs be doing to our world?

We seem to be facing wave after wave of childhood diseases and disorders today that were almost unheard-of when we were kids. ADD, ADHD, allergies, asthma, autism: you name it, and that's just the A's. What's going on? Perfect parents who have done all the right things for their precious darlings like to blame mercury in vaccines. I like to think that if we let kids be kids and didn't program and schedule all the fun out of life so they can all get into Harvard, kids would be a lot more relaxed and better behaved. But maybe we're doing something else, too. Maybe our kids are too clean and our germs are too strong.

We've been trained by modern science and commerce to believe that all germs are bad and should be exterminated. We've also been taught - at least for the past eight years - that evolution doesn't exist. Well, not all germs are bad, they can't all be killed anyway, and the ones that don't die will evolve and develop resistance to our weapons.

We try to raise our kids in sterile worlds where everything is scrubbed, sprayed and treated. Little bottles of hand sanitizer are everywhere. I think you can even buy entire kitchen countertops treated with some kind of germ-killing poison.

How many times do we hear a story about somebody who went into the hospital for some minor routine procedure only to be infected, consumed and killed by flesh-eating bacteria. Even multi-million-dollar NFL quarterbacks can go in for a little knee-scoping and wind up with a staph infection.

So, now we have the world's largest retailer selling only kitchen accessories that are biocide-enhanced. I'm not buying it. I'll keep my kitchen clean (If you can call it that.) the old-fashioned way with a little detergent and elbow grease. I embrace the friendly microflora that dwell happily in my sink, in my mouth and on my body. I want my gut to be an ecological wonderland. I want my soil to be a veritable Garden of Eden for worms, bacteria and fungi. I want us to keep our powder dry and save our miracles of modern medicine for fighting real diseases and not to make our Big Macs cheaper.

Crap. I did it again. Can't I even go to f-ing Walmart without getting all worked up. What time does the Super Bowl start?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Miracle of the Monarchs

I just watched the PBS Nova program on the amazing story of the monarch butterflies. Every fall, these tiny, fragile creatures fly from Canada and the northern United States as much as 2000 miles to a special mountainous region in Mexico. There they spend the winter and in the spring migrate back north to Texas where they finally mate and die. Three successive generations of butterflies continue to move north in stages through the summer until the fourth generation mysteriously and instinctively knows to head to Mexico. Just how they manage to do this is not yet fully understood. Naturally, people are finding all kinds of ways to mess things up, and this spectacular natural phenomenon may soon be lost.

The show makes no mention of Monarchs on the west coast. Places like Pacific Grove, California celebrate their Monarchs, but I don't know if they follow a similar migration pattern, or not.

It's shows like this that help me believe there is some value to television.

"The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies"

Monday, January 26, 2009

Climbing Out

Perusing the weather page in the Globe at lunch today, I was thrilled to see that, as of Saturday, we started climbing out of the depths of winter. Many celebrate the winter solstice as the moment that the days start getting longer. That's a wonderful thing, but it's when the temperature graph turns upward that I start getting truly hopeful for Spring.

The average daily minimum temperature bottomed-out for a few days at 21 degrees (F). On Saturday, January 24 the average minimum ticked up to 22 degrees. There is over a month's lag time between the time the days start getting longer and the time temperatures start to rise.

Obviously, there will be days when it is colder than the average minimum, but hope and anticipation are on the rise, and nothing can stop that.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Fattening of America

One of the main reasons I cling to the Boston Globe, is the op-ed section. I usually turn there first for interesting views and analyses of our world.

Today, there was a piece praising the work of a commission that came up with a long list of things our new president could do to combat our obesity epidemic. OK, the institute is based at a law school, so I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that the list of recommendations includes all kinds of programs, incentives, requirements, funding, regulations and taxes. It sounds more like a full-employment plan for lawyers than a health plan for America.

Here's a letter I sent to the Globe in response. Thanks to Michael Pollan and In Defense of Food for sharpening my thinking on this subject.

Dear Boston Globe:
Richard Daynard and Mark Gottlieb ("How to fight America's obesity epidemic," January 8.) summarize 47 recommendations from The Public Health Advocacy Institute on how to combat the shocking fattening of America. Not surprisingly, the recommendations are obese with more government programs and taxation.
One step, not mentioned by the authors, is to stop all Federal incentives and subsidies to large, corporate agribusinesses that pump us full of cheap fat, salt and sugar. Like so many things in American life today, if we had to pay the real costs of food like that, and healthy alternatives could compete on a level playing field, we would be free to make better choices.
The pervasive influence of corporate lobbying has rendered even the best intentions of government unreliable at best, downright destructive at worst. Let us keep our money and our freedom, and we'll do the right thing.

UPDATE: This letter was published in the January 18, 2009 Sunday Boston Globe on the back page of the "Ideas" (my favorite) section.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Amazing Shrinking Newspaper

When I walked down my driveway to get the Boston Globe this morning, I was taken aback. When I bent over and picked up the newspaper in its usual plastic bag, I was surprised at how physically small, thin and light the package was. Back inside, I checked to see that the main news section had only 10 pages. The metro/local/business section had only 16. The sports section, which - after a quick check for cycling news - is promptly sent to recycling, had eight pages, and that in a town with very active pro and college sports scenes. For the very first time, I think, the classified section was totally absent. I don't recall seeing ANY store flyers.

OK, I know the holiday shopping season is over, so one would expect advertising to be down. I also know online services like Craiglist have made classified ads more or less pointless. But, wow. Undoubtedly the local car dealers have have been a major source of ad revenue, but under the current economic conditions, the car business is in the toilet. I've long thought that one big retailer, Macy's, was single-handedly keeping the paper afloat with its multi-page ads. I'd never voluntarily set foot in the place, but I was grateful to it for propping up my paper.

But, I'm really starting to worry. Can't an area like Greater Boston support at least ONE decent newspaper anymore? I wonder if our current recession may be the last nail in the Globe coffin. I know things are tough all around in the news business, but I am worried and saddened about the prospect of living in a world without one serious newspaper.

The Globe has been shrinking for some time now, and I've been giving serious thought to dropping it in favor of the New York Times, but I really would miss some kind of local coverage. We have a little weekly paper in town, but it is next to worthless as a source of any real local coverage. The Globe rarely has anything to say about our town, but it's nice to read about the region in general.

Why do I worry? Well, let's face it. TV news is a joke. Even the local stations that pride themselves on hyper-local coverage are spending more and more time on any sensationalized national crap that has good video. Even the local coverage is driven by video. Crime scenes, car crashes, perps in cuffs, celebrities and political horse races. In a half-hour news show, a big percentage of the time is devoted to sports, weather, entertainment and consumer news. No longer is there a time and place for in-depth investigation, coverage and analysis of important issues.

I suppose if one is educated and has nothing else to do, one can spend all day searching the web for news and commentary, but I think most of us would benefit from one or two trusted news sources. There is still something to be said for journalism. We need paid, talented, skilled, honest professionals who can sort out the events in the world and make sense of it all for the rest of us. We need hungry reporters who can doggedly dig for a story. We need finely-crafted opinion pieces rather than sound bites. We need honest brokers who can differentiate truth from hype and spin.

Even the Romans gave the people bread and circuses. All we get is entertainment and advertising posing as news. As the title of Neil Postman's book says, we're amusing ourselves to death. We have a collapsing economy, incompetence and corruption at all levels of government and a world going up in flames and all we get are stories about John Travolta's son. Shouldn't somebody be keeping an eye on the serious things for us?