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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Benediction (short post)

Okay, so it's the closing hours of... well everything.  The Mayans, who couldn't predict their end at the hands of the Conquistadors, foretold that the world will end sometime in the next 24 hours.  Of course, this is nonsense, but let's assume for a second that they're right, and all my efforts to save the world (basically drinking and partying) fail.  I'm not worried about how it'll happen, or what it'll be like.  I'm worried about dying and not getting to say what I have to say.  The most important thing I'll ever say, ever again.

I love you.

And you.  You too, over there in the back.  All of you.  Even you, right there.  All the family, the friends I've had, the loves, the haters, the critics and the supporters.  I love each and every last one of you.  More than any of you can possibly realize.  The experience of knowing you, of being in the presence of your words and emotions, good and bad, has shaped me into who I am and who I've tried to be.  Even if I haven't spoken to you in years, or we just talked yesterday.

I'm going to do everything I can to save us (read: party and drink).  In the event I'm not successful, you should know this.  And if I am successful...

Th world as we know it should end.  The hatred should be replaced with love.  The apathy should be exchanged for compassion.  Division should be countered by unity.  There's more that we have in common than we have different.  Remember that.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a world to save.

Commercialized Christmas Values

The other night while I was getting a patient ready for bed, she flipped the channel on the TV to one of those Hallmark Movie Channel Christmas flicks.  You know the ones, the overly sappy love story with the slightly religious feel-good message about change, growth and the meaning of the holiday and life in general.  Secretly, I kinda like 'em.  Laugh if you want, just keep in mind that I'm likely bigger than you.

Anyway, in this movie there's this horrible shrew of a woman who rails against the commercialization of Christmas, saying how much better she is and her family is than that, how they spend Christmas on missions in Mexico or Botswana, or some other poor nation doing good deeds, and how dare this school have her daughter join a choir and sing songs.  Christmas is about the love of Christ, she said.  It was a particularly annoying diatribe that did what it was probably supposed to do.

While watching this, the brain/mouth filter switches off and I launch into my own speech about the commercialization of Christmas.  The fact is, people like stuff. Especially in wrapping paper.  There's the act of unwrapping stuff which makes people feel good and makes people feel like the person that went through all the trouble of putting it together really cared.  Christmas is supposed to be about love, about togetherness, about letting the people around you know how invaluable they are to you, regardless of your religious affiliation.  That is why we give the gifts, why we sing the songs and roast the chestnuts and drink the eggnog.  Well, that and because eggnog is awesome.

I know that the original intent is to celebrate the birth of Christ, but when did they have pine trees in the desert?  I think we should embrace the spirit of what Christmas has become, where we open stuff in pretty paper from people who took the time and care and effort to wrap it.  Where we eat terrible fruitcake, and gingerbread cookies because they make us feel good and connected to the people around us.  Where we stuff our faces and tell good stories with family and friends that we may or may not see for another year  Where for one day, and by extension the six week stretch that precedes it, we're not so focused on our differences, but our commonalities.

And then, as I finished the set-up on my patient, I realized I said this out loud.  She looks at me and smiles, and says "You should write that down."

Embrace your family.  Your friends.  Have a drink.  Smile, laugh and sing songs.  Enjoy shredding that wrapping paper.  It is one of the few pure joys we have.  Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Happy Festivus to us all!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Little Lights

This is going to be a long one.

This past Friday, a terrible thing happened, and 20 little lights were extinguished, along with 6 who would guide them.  A school got shot up.  As I write those words, those words that I've been avoiding writing for several  days, I still get a little choked up.  I struggle with the notion that it happened, and I can't help but think of how this horror could have been prevented.  I still am rather disgusted.  I still am angry.  This should not have happened.    And yet...

This event, this horrible happenstance, opens the door for certain conversations that we have long avoided about the realities of our own culture.  The absence  of those 20 little lights shine a beacon on what's tragically wrong with us in oh so many ways.  If there's any good at all to be taken from this, it's that certain accepted paradigms about us as a people are going to be taken to task, for better or for worse.  Our gun culture, unique in the world for it's stubborn persistence and its effectiveness in killing innocent people, will be looked at.  Our media ideals, where we have more and more eschewed news for entertainment, will be looked at.  Our views on mental illness will be looked at.

The debate going on immediately, and rightfully so, is about gun control.  The 2nd Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms for all US citizens. As an interesting sidebar, the 3rd Amendment gives us the right to not have soldiers quartered in our homes.  That part is important because at the time it was written, British troops had the unfortunate tendency to camp out in the homes of random citizens under orders from the crown, with the citizens of the country unable to do anything about it.  In order to prevent that from happening again, the founding fathers put into legislation this right for all Americans to be able to refuse quartering by force if necessary, and of course, allowing for armed revolt if necessary.  No invading soldiers in the home.  This little bit of history is constantly glossed over in gun control conversations that involve the 2nd Amendment because times have changed.  For starters, the US military is the elite of the world, largest in numbers and most effective in killing power, a development the founding fathers surely could not have envisioned.  We're not shooting soldiers, not without swift, immediate, and likely final reprisal.  Secondly, the founding fathers could never dream of the destructive killing power of the guns we have today.  Single shot smoothbore weapons were the order of the day, musket balls and the like.  Chambered weapons were still a good eighty years away, as were guns that you could wield with one hand. I believe that if those great minds who wrote the Constitution were alive today, they would make a case to clarify and adjust the amendment for today's time.  After all, who really needs a scoped, automatic, military-grade rifle to hunt?

The bespectacled gentleman to the left is Joe Scarborough, MSNBC host and former four term Republican Senator.  He was an ardent defender of the right to bear arms.  After last Friday's massacre, he changed his mind.  (Watch the video. the speech is actually quite moving.)  Our culture regarding guns employs the fantasy of one man, alone, defending his land and his family.  Our firearm based entertainment employs this belief.  What they fail to realize is the reality: that putting a gun in the hand of an average, untrained, and scared civilian is going to get him/her and others killed.  Movies purport the notion that all shots fired find their target, and when they do, death (and usually justice) is quick, clean and swift.  Reality check: it doesn't work that way.  Famously in the early 2000's, 6 trained NYPD officers fired 41 shots at a suspect and only managed to hit him 8 times.  Untrained, frightened people with guns would muster a far inferior hit rate.  The other part of our gun culture that needs to be addressed is ease of access.  In many states, firearms are easier to obtain than a Driver's License.  For  Driver's License, you have to demonstrate physical ability and proficiency in operating a vehicle, and in some cases you can only attempt to show that proficiency after logging extensive hours from approved trainers.  You also have to show proficiency in each vehicle you intend to drive-- separate licenses for trucks, boats, motorcycles, and cars.  To obtain a gun in most states, all you need is a Driver's License and no criminal record.  In some states, the criminal record thing is negotiable.  Like with cars, just being here shouldn't automatically allow you access to a projectile weapon.

There is a thought process of late that says that teachers, principals and school personnel should be armed. Really?  Is that the kind of world you want to raise your kids in, that the teacher is strapped in a school?

Shortly after the shooting, a response attributed to Morgan Freeman was circulated via social media:

You want to know why. This may sound cynical, but here's why.
It's because of the way the media reports it. Flip on the news and watch how we treat the Batman theater shooter and the Oregon mall shooter like celebrities. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are household names, but do you know the name of a single *victim* of Columbine? Disturbed people who would otherwise just off themselves in their basements see the news and want to top it by doing something worse, and going out in a memorable way. Why a grade school? Why children? Because he'll be remembered as a horrible monster, instead of a sad nobody.
CNN's article says that if the body count "holds up", this will rank as the second deadliest shooting behind Virginia Tech, as if statistics somehow make one shooting worse than another. Then they post a video interview of third-graders for all the details of what they saw and heard while the shootings were happening. Fox News has plastered the killer's face on all their reports for hours. Any articles or news stories yet that focus on the victims and ignore the killer's identity? None that I've seen yet. Because they don't sell. So congratulations, sensationalist media, you've just lit the fire for someone to top this and knock off a day care center or a maternity ward next.
You can help by forgetting you ever read this man's name, and remembering the name of at least one victim. You can help by donating to mental health research instead of pointing to gun control as the problem. You can help by turning off the news.

It, of course, came out after the fact that he didn't say it, but whoever did has a point.  We glorify the shooters, the Dylan Klebolds and Jared Loughners, the Adam Lanzas and the Trench Coat Mafias.  We may not glorify their actions, but we make celebrities of them, independent of the victims.  Their suicides are massively played up, and if they're brought to justice, their trials are far from subdued.  In the effort to make their deeds infamous, we make these people-- ultimately, these criminals -- famous.  So why wouldn't a troubled person-- whose personal troubles make right and wrong muddy in favor of being noticed-- shoot up a school?  Or a movie theatre?  Or a hospital?  Or a Congresswoman's campaign stop?  The media coverage will get them noticed.  Over the last 30 years, news has gone from informative to sensationalist.  We went from informing on the events of the day, to an invasively voyeuristic entertainment system that focuses on the trivialities of life for famous people.  This is the news.  It's not supposed to be entertaining, it's not supposed to be sold.  Its purpose is to inform the public conversation.  No bias, no context, just information.

Much is being made of Adam Lanza's mental problems as the story develops, specifically his Asperger's syndrome.  And once that tidbit of information came out, there was almost a public sigh of relief, like "Oh, whew, okay.  He's crazy, he had Asperger's, so that's why it happened."  What this shows is a tragic ignorance about mental illness, and that ignorance comes from avoiding what it means to be mentally ill.  Asperger's does not necessarily make people prone to violence.  It's a social disorder, meaning the way one interacts with other people is somewhat skewed by normal standards.  Conversely, people with Asperger's tend to show extreme interest and proficiency in specific tasks and subjects.  We usually observe high levels of intelligence in people with these types of social disorder.

So what now?  Obviously there was something wrong with the kid.  The answer to that is that we may never know what exactly was going through his head in the days leading up to last Friday.  Maybe that's the point.  Working in healthcare, I've noticed that mental illness is used as a catch-all for a lot of things that aren't so bad.  I'm not saying that Clinical Depression or Bi-Polar Disorder don't exist.  I'm saying that the large majority of people who claim it don't have it.  Mental illnesses have been for a very long time over-diagnosed, over-medicated, and under-treated.  The response to depression is to give brain altering chemicals.  Bi-Polar disorder treatment involves mood-stabilizing medication.  ADHD sufferers get Speed.  But how many of these people actually have these disorders?  There's nothing you can see in a CAT scan that shows depression, or bi-polar, or whatever.  Again, this is not to discount the people who suffer from these illnesses.  I've seen the people who do, and these meds are life-saving.

Tell me if this sounds familiar: You're watching TV when a pharmaceutical ad comes on. "Do you feel down?  Less energetic?  Like you don't want to get out of bed?" 

You think,  "yeah, sometimes."  

"Then ask your doctor about Pill X!"

For most of us it ends there, but then there are the people who do have a talk with their doctor and do get a sample of Pill X, which after using they feel amazing, creating a false set of symptoms they must continually treat.  Think about that for a moment.

These are a sample of the conversations that we will be having as a people over the next few weeks and months as we figure out what happened and and how it could have been averted.  Not all of it is useful, or pointed in the right direction, but all of them are conversations we need to discuss.