Thursday, August 25, 2011

Re-Enacting the Last Days of Rome

"There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present times."—Chapter 31, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon

One of my family members has worked for a small, independent bookstore for several years. The owner recently decided she wanted to sell, then discovered that because she has full-time employees with benefits, her profit margin was not as good as it might be. If her full-timers were not there, tamping down her profits, she could sell the store for a larger sum. The solution? Harass the full-time employees by screaming at them and telling them that everything they do is crap so they will leave. One of the three full-time employees is so distraught she is counting her days. The other two, despite feeling stressed, intend to stay until they are fired so they will qualify for unemployment and COBRA. How could someone behave like this? Easy. Just look at our media role models—from Congress to reality television. Abuse has gone mainstream. 
The world can be a nasty place. People, in their self-absorbed pursuit of money and/or power, often feel justified in brutalizing anyone who gets in their way. Fortunately, there are still people who believe this is wrong. Two of them are men who stand at the opposite poles of ideology. In 2009, Mark DeMoss, a Republican and prominent evangelical Christian who runs a public relations firm in Atlanta, joined forces with a friend, Lanny J. Davis, a Jewish Democrat and lobbyist who worked for Bill Clinton, to establish the Civility Project. They formed their initiative in response to what they viewed as an increasingly vicious tone in American politics.

"I am concerned about the hate and animosity being aimed at men and women with whom we may disagree on one issue or another and have decided to do something about it."—Mark DeMoss

Those of you who are my age will remember civility—the ability to calmly discuss issues with people of opposing viewpoints without name calling or disrespect. We learned about it in our civics classes where we were taught an important principle of democracy—intellectual, fact-based debate.
The Civility Project founders created a pledge with the goal of having every member of Congress and every state governor sign it. Here’s their “Civility Pledge”:

I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior.
I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them.
I will stand against incivility when I see it.

Sounds like something we might have learned in kindergarten. Sadly, our legislators didn’t. Out 585 letters sent asking every sitting governor and member of Congress to sign the pledge, only three did so. They were Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut; Representative Frank Wolfe, Republican of Virginia; and Representative Sue Myrick, Republican of North Carolina. That’s right, my liberal friends, the Repubicans took the feeble lead on this one. Let us hang our heads in shame.
DeMoss folded the project after spending two years and about $30,000 in expenses on the endeavor.

My heroes, Mark DeMoss (left) and Lanny Davis. Courtesy of

In a letter written on January 3, 2011, to the three admirable legislators who signed the pledge, DeMoss said, “I must admit to scratching my head as to why only three members of Congress, and no governors, would agree to what I believe is a rather low bar.”

DeMoss, a former aide to Moral Majority founder Rev. Jerry Falwell and an unpaid adviser to Republican Gov. Mitt Romney in the 2008 presidential campaign, said that he was particularly surprised by the hostility to the civility pledge from conservatives.

"Incivility is the extreme of pride; it is built on the contempt of mankind."—Johann Georg Von Zimmerman, Swiss physician and philosopher (1728 - 1795)

“The worst e-mails I received about the civility project were from conservatives with just unbelievable language about communists, and some words I wouldn’t use in this phone call,” he said to an interviewer from The New York Times.  “This political divide has become so sharp that everything is black and white, and too many conservatives can see no redeeming value in any liberal or Democrat. That would probably be true about some liberals going the other direction, but I didn’t hear from them.”

He went on to say, “Whether or not there’s violence, whether or not incivility today is worse than it’s been in history, it’s all immaterial. It’s worse than it ought to be.” Well said. Thank you, Mr. DeMoss.

What it comes down to is this: When a society degenerates into reducing human beings to things to be destroyed or removed, we all lose a little bit of our humanity. And make no mistake. Once that happens, no one is safe.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Amityville Rental

If you've ever watched the Amityville Horror (featured in a book and two movies), you know the familiar story of the Lutz family, who finds this beautiful Dutch colonial house on Long Island for a great price, only to discover something evil lurks within. Such is real estate. You just never know what you’re going to get until you move in.

“There's nothing like it on the market. Not at this price.”—Mrs. Townsend, Amityville Horror, 1979

My younger daughter, Chelsea, recently signed a lease on a beautiful apartment in the attic of someone’s home in Dover. It was remodeled with a brand new kitchen and lovely tiled bathroom. The floors were hardwood and it is, quite frankly, a very attractive apartment. The rent was reasonable, considering how crazy rents in Northern New Jersey can be. And she is basically happy there.

Dover has a train station. [
Before she rented it, the landlord’s father took us on a tour of the place. The family she rents from is quite nice, the typical first-generation-American, working-class family that occupies these parts. I was pleased with the apartment and the people who lived in the main house. One thing that struck me as odd, but only in passing, was a clause in the lease. It read that if Chelsea took legal action against the landlord, she would be liable for his legal costs. Maybe that is standard in leases these days, but I had never seen it before.

I think the first inkling that there might be organ music playing in a minor key, was when she called me up in a panic at 12:30 one night to say that there was running and scratching noises in the ceiling. I tried to calm her down. It was probably mice or squirrels. That's fairly common in suburbia. Since the landlord lived beneath her, surely he would have some stake in taking care of the problem.

“Your house frightens me, Mrs. Lutz.”—Father Callaway, Amityville Horror, 2005

A day or two later, the next phone call I got, she found out that the thermostat didn’t work. That meant if she turned on the air conditioning, it would not stop at a particular temperature. Instead it would keep chugging out cold air until it was frigid enough to store a side of beef. The problem with this is that she has to pay for her own electric. If the thermostat never turns off, then it should be heart-stopping to see her first electric bill.

Shortly thereafter, she found out that there was not enough hot water to take a shower. Normally, a tenant would have her own hot water tank, so this seemed a bit strange. Finally, this past week, when she decided to do some baking, she found out that the oven doesn’t work. The burners heat up, but the oven does not. Mind you, she just moved in a few weeks ago, so there are 11 more months on her lease to discover whatever other horrors might await in her new residence.

The landlord has been to her apartment to look into the pests in the attic and the thermostat, but so far nothing has been fixed. Fortunately, Chelsea is patient and philosophical. She understands the landlord has a full-time job and this is something he does on the side. She understands that what is wrong with the apartment may not be an easy fix. She also knows, due to the clause in the lease, she cannot afford any legal action should these problems persist.

“[sobs] Why is it all going wrong? We have to do something.”—Kathy Lutz, Amityville Horror, 1979

Looking on the bright side: Unlike the residence of horror fame, no one has been murdered in her apartment, no ghosts are terrorizing her and the walls do not bleed. There is also no demonic pig creature named Jodie with red glowing eyes. Hopefully, the landlord will be as honest as he appears and will take care of the problems in the next few weeks. If not, she will endure the next year unwashed, braving extreme temperatures, bereft of oven, with the unwanted companionship of several unseen, noisy wall pets.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Following the Sherman Tank Generation

“The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Lately, I’ve noticed that I’m getting older. Not mentally, mind you. I'm still the same immature, Jersey girl I’ve always been. No. Mother Nature is tapping my shoulder on the physical plane.

I trimmed the hedges last week and my thumb is still swollen. I tripped on a phone cord, landed on my knee and it still hurts several weeks later. My ankles are permanently swollen; I have no idea why. When I was younger, any damage I did to myself cleared up in a day or two. Now it lingers and sometimes takes up permanent residence.

How did this happen? 

My mother is 29 years older than me and is built like a Sherman Tank. Nothing can stop her and she feels just fine. My generation seems a bit wimpier than hers. I had lunch with some old high school chums recently and the focus of much of our conversation revolved around our physical maladies and how we were coping with them. We sounded like my late grandmother did when she was in her eighties.

“There's one advantage to being 102. There's no peer pressure.” —Dennis Wolfberg

This is not just my imagination. According to a study by the University of California (UC), which oddly enough was carried in the UK Daily Mail, today's Baby Boomers are the first modern generation to be less healthy than their immediate predecessors. Despite improvements in medicine and standards of living, we are more likely to be blighted by health problems, from aching knees and hips to diabetes, asthma and strokes.

Technology: friend or foe?
This may be due to fast food, lack of exercise and a growing reliance on computers and other technology. It does not bode well that the U.S has the fattest population in the developed world. Apparently, two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and those extra pounds make joints wear out more quickly, boost cholesterol and blood pressure, and raise the risk of a host of other debilitating health problems. Even if they aren't overweight, Baby Boomers tend to be less physically active than their parents and grandparents. Their daily routines are often dominated by desk jobs and commuting, both of which involve a lot of sitting.

The UC study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, compared the health of thousands of men and women in their 60s, 70s and 80s with data on different people of the same age collected ten years earlier, and here’s what it found:
  • One in five people in their 60s need help with basic day-to-day activities—up more than 50 percent from a decade earlier
  • People over 60 years of age are 70 percent more likely to have difficulty walking from room to room, getting in and out of bed, and eating or dressing than the same age group 10 years ago 
  • Finally, the over-60 group was 50 percent more likely to have trouble walking a quarter of a mile or climbing ten steps without a rest. Stooping, crouching, kneeling and getting up from a chair proved 40 percent more troublesome (that's right, folks, no more Russian kick dancing for us!)
“The older I grow, the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.”—H.L. Mencken

The UC study draws some dark conclusions:
  • The growing number of individuals aged 60 and older will place ever-growing demands on the health care system
  • Increased levels of disability, particularly among the youngest of older adults, may also negatively affect economic productivity (ready those mobile scooters; MY generation can't afford to retire)
  • Younger people could also lose out if they have to compete with older people for scarce resources in an overburdened health care system (move over, kids, those are OUR respirators)
My mother: 85 years young and going strong.
Cary Cooper, professor of health psychology at Lancaster University in the UK, believes that our ever-growing reliance on technology is harming our health. (Spoil-sport!) He warns that the impact will be even greater in years to come, with the retirees of the future having spent many more years sitting in front of a computer than those of today. His advice is simple: Be active.

Ironically, some "advances" in health care could be contributing to this backward trend.

“We have been lulled into a false sense of security that pharmaceuticals are the answer to our health problems,” says Dr. Ian Campbell, a general practitioner and medical director of the charity, Weight Concern. “So we get statistics saying that the number of deaths from heart disease is falling but that is because we are keeping people alive with drugs. That is admirable but it would be far better if we could cut the amount of heart disease in the first place.” Keep people healthy rather than drugging them up over a prolonged period of time to cope with chronic symptoms? Lousy business model.

So let's get this straight. We are living longer, but we are doing so based, not on good health, but on life-extending pharmaceuticals. Rather than maintaining good health through lifestyle, we eat bad food and spurn exercise with the assumption that all problems can be solved by popping a pill. We may not feel all that great, but we are being kept alive, which improves the mortality statistics and gives us a false sense of progress.

While science may have provided us with longevity, past generations had a better quality of life. Why? Simple. They ate unprocessed foods (sans genetically modified organisms) and got up off their duffs and did something.