Friday, December 12, 2014

Getting Ready for the Big Change-Out

© Charles D. Hayes

If you were to die in the next ten minutes, are there  things your surviving family members would need to know but would have no way of figuring out? Are there things that you would really want them to know? If your answer is yes, please read on.

For nearly four decades I worked in the Alaska oil industry. Most of my time was spent on the North Slope, although I worked in several other remote locations as well. All of those positions involved sharing a job on a shift rotation schedule with equal time off. Sharing a job in a high-stress work environment required extraordinary cooperation in learning how to assume responsibility for the actions of others and to communicate effectively.

As long as both parties were competent and sincere in their efforts to share accountability, the emphasis focused on communication skills. The end of one shift and the beginning of another, when alternates met to change places, was referred to as change-out day. Invariably, even with the best of intentions, change-out would occur with the employee who left the job having forgotten to share something important, something the person coming on shift would really need to know. This oversight was so common it was to be expected, in spite of two weeks of intensive note-taking and a concerted effort to cover everything that you thought the alternate would need to know. The forgetfulness often resulted in follow-up phone calls to the employee at home. 

Keep this in mind and just try to imagine how many things could be overlooked when a person dies unexpectedly without having left any change-out notes. Every day thousands of people die from cardiac arrest, traffic collisions, and myriad accidents and ailments that leave no time for putting one’s affairs in order. The absence of effective communication leaves a gaping void that others must struggle to fill without any knowledge of the deceased’s intentions. The survivors will have infinite questions they wish they had asked, but the opportunity is forever lost.

In preparing for my final change-out, I’ve had a good example to follow in my grandfather, who was born in 1889 and died in 1982. He was sixteen years older than my grandmother, and when he reached his seventies, he began preparing my grandmother for his demise by frequently going over and over the things she needed to know and the things she would need to do when he passed away. Even so, there is still a great deal I would like to know about my grandparents, but it’s too late to ask. The opportunity is also lost for their great-great grandchildren to know as much as they could about their distant ancestors.    

Death is a subject that most of us avoid for understandable reasons, but if you’ve ever been with someone who had to put the necessary pieces together after a family member has died unexpectedly, or if you’ve had this experience yourself, you know how hard it is to answer questions when there is no one left alive who can answer them.

All of us know we should keep records, lists, and personal notes to keep our affairs in order, especially as we age and our memory becomes less reliable, but does anyone else have that information or know where to find it? Let me suggest a simple way to keep your data for yourself and your family, just in case this information is needed someday. Create a written file—it can be hand-written, on a computer, or even on a cell phone as long as those who should have the information know the file’s name and location and can attain access.

For many of us an easy way to do this might be to work on the data a few minutes every day, week, or month until the file is in good shape. It’s likely that you will always be a little behind and there will always be more things to add or details to update, but just imagine what a difference your change-out notes can make if they are needed someday.

Needless to say, security is of paramount importance with this kind of information and every effort should be made to make sure it cannot be hacked via malware or be subject to being read by anyone unauthorized to do so. One method you can use is to print a hard copy of the basic file, fill in the sensitive material by hand, and keep the copy under lock and key or simply save the file only on a thumb drive.

I’m offering my initial template list here to serve as a guide for your planning. As with any change-out, I’m sure I’ve forgotten some things, so I would very much appreciate your thoughts and suggestions based on your own experience. As the list improves over time, I will post updates.    

Practical matters — location and pertinent details for the following:

  • your will
  • life insurance
  • burial or cremation preferences and wishes
  • Social Security number
  • auto insurance
  • driver’s license number
  • health insurance
  • hereditary medical history
  • tax documents
  • computer passwords
  • A narrative about your computer files
  • deeds, titles
  • debts and payees
  • bank accounts and investments
  • preferred charities
  • addresses and telephone numbers of people to notify
  • personal property disposition
  • photos and keepsakes
  • an obituary draft or notes to include:
    • education
    • military service
    • work history
    • parents’ names
    • career achievements
    • proudest moments 
      How you wish to be remembered
  • your aspirations for others
  • special things you would like to share
  • favorite foods
  • favorite colors
  • favorite subjects
  • hobbies
  • fondest memories
  • favorite movies
  • favorite books, quotes, literary passages
  • favorite music
  • reading suggestions
  • regrets
  • life lessons
  • things you wish you had done
  • apologies  
    Final wishes
    If you have a choice, where do you want to spend your last days—in a hospital or at home? With others around you or alone? What music would you like to hear? Would you want a visit from the clergy?  
    Advance Directives

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Aging, Aspiration, and Activism

© Charles D. Hayes

If you are getting on in years and facing the reality that time is running out, you may experience an existential alarm that rings erratically and gets increasingly louder. You breeze by the aging markers of 40, 50, 60, and then, all of a sudden, it seems you are elderly. More and more, I find instances of people being described as elderly who are years younger than I am.
For some people like me, being elderly comes with an urgent call for perspective, a pressing need to be realistic about time. When we’re finally able to put aside all illusions about our mortality and fully realize that we are experiencing the final chapters of life, everything begins to look different. Many of the myths we have grown up believing are shattered by the clarity of oblivion.
A large body of evidence in existential psychology shows clearly that the prospect of death affects us deeply at both a conscious and unconscious level. Although the most common strategy in the past seems to have been to deny one’s approaching demise, recent research suggests that a straight-up acknowledgement and overt conscious awareness of one’s forthcoming death can add greatly to the quality of day-to-day experience by forcing us to see more clearly and allowing the things we really value to stand out.
The realization that time is short can seem like a meaningful civil comeuppance in that it tends to cut through all of the platitudes and clichés we’ve heard about the ideological nature of freedom that comes with being an American citizen and with having grown up in a country where people are accustomed to thinking of themselves as being free in the greatest nation on the earth.
The prospect of an abbreviated future exposes the idea that genuine freedom is different from popular opinion. To be truly free one has to have the ability to see through illusions, to defy the herd’s desperate need to conform, and to enjoy the privilege of using one’s time as one chooses. It means being able to pursue one’s interests and treat the important things in our lives as if they really matter, regardless of what others think, say, or do.  
Once you begin to think like this, you may find it hard to believe that you ever bought into the notion that time is money, because you can’t buy more time. If you have enough money, you can spend what time you have as you please, but such thinking reveals our culture to be a social arrangement that indentures millions of its citizens to a life of poverty. This situation has grown out of an arbitrary use and abuse of power based on counterfeit assumptions, lip service about values, and an imagined sense of tribalistic superiority that thrives on advantage and strives to maintain advantage with arrogance, contempt, and a willingness to go to any extreme necessary to prevail. 
As Americans we grow up being taught a history so whitewashed, so egregiously out of sync with the realities of the past, that it’s little wonder the stories we wind up believing about our past are mythic fantasies. History shows that we are easily distracted, routinely duped, and so effectively manipulated politically that we spend little time paying attention to the things we should. Politicians in both parties routinely practice bait and switch.
Our future depends on high-order technology, while the real political power lies in the psychological manipulation of poorly educated citizens by shifting the blame for inequality to the least powerful among us, those who are without echelons of paid lobbyists to rig an advantage—those who are unable to effectively represent their own interests. Scapegoats offer antagonists a reliable distraction that works nearly every time.
By any objective criteria, moneyed interests have hijacked the original aspirations of America as a democracy driven by the attributes of meritocracy and the idea that citizens require some measure of leisure in order to become active participants in their own governance. That America has become a plutocracy is undeniable, and claims to the contrary are disingenuous by any standard. It’s surprising how clear this reality becomes when one’s future is small.
The angst that comes with age is both a curse and an opportunity, a dreaded feeling and also a clue that there is something to get beyond, something that can be improved. As we age, nostalgia—if it doesn’t itself become a habit of excessive distraction—often presents itself as a method of fixing something wrong in the present by comparison with something worthy in the past, although care has to be taken not to judge the past with selective memory.
For millions of our citizens, real freedom is little more than a cliché. There are myriad ideological excuses for America’s growing inequality, some of which are very sophisticated and sound convincing, but none of them are good enough to justify it. None, zip, zero.
That a significant number of our population can spend a lifetime of hard work at wages that guarantee poverty while a few individuals loot America’s corporations under the phony guise of excellence is ludicrous. What’s even more preposterous is that so many people can be persuaded to accept such contrived inequality as adequate living conditions and be so confused about the real essence of freedom.
The tactic of using the virtue of hard work as a divisive cultural weapon is rendered sterile and infantile by the reality that much of what is done that we called work has an enormous negative economic effect on our citizens and the planet. To claim that a significant percentage of our population is devoid of the virtue necessary to earn above-poverty wages is patently absurd, and to indenture generations to financial institutions to pay for college to qualify for jobs that won’t pay enough to retire the debt is a national disgrace. 
When the decades have stacked up behind us like cordwood, it doesn’t take a lot of reflection to acknowledge that many of the things we were taught to accept as truths were really distractions manufactured to keep order by those with enough power to make people believe that freedom is the ability to switch from one low-paying job to another instead of having enough economic equity to have the time and leisure to learn to become fully vested citizens.
But then, how else could you create a society in which executives could run companies into bankruptcy and yet walk away with enough largesse to live freely and never work again without citizens taking to the streets in protest? Speaking for myself, a lifetime of study reveals that history is one longsuffering attempt to justify the power of those with the authority to write it. 
Unfortunately, the majority of magazines and websites for seniors these days are so superficial and so shallow in their content that, if anything, they add to the angst of aging. So the bottom line here is that the last chapters of life are where the whole book of one’s life needs to end with a perspective which allows for the possibility that one’s existence will have made enough sense that something of value might be shared with those who will survive us.
Imagining what life could be like if we tamped down the contempt that results from tribalistic pretention is much easier to do when we remove ourselves from the equation and consider the possibility of achieving the kind of civilization where it would be commonly accepted that everyone’s life really matters, not just those who have mastered the ethos of greed.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, argues that many of the economic problems we face occur because the people making the decisions have no skin in the game, so to speak. In other words, they have nothing to lose. Then contrast John Rawls’ Theory of Justice advocating creation of a society in which the people cutting the economic pie do so under conditions that bar them from knowing which piece they themselves will get.
Now keep both of these notions in mind as you consider how objective we might be in offering feasible advice for a society that we won’t be alive to see. In other words, imagine you have no life in the game except through your kin and progeny who will live on after you. If this kind of objectivity can’t be trusted, what can?  

My Books and Essays on Amazon
New Fiction: The Call of Mortality
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Sunday, January 12, 2014

We’re All Born to Deny Reality

© Charles D. Hayes

If you doubt that we’re born to deny reality, you’re actually proving the point. The evidence is indisputable that we human beings have built-in reality buffers. We smoke, drink, overeat, waste resources, and engage in every possible kind of risk-taking activity, oblivious to or disregarding the likely results of our actions.
At the core of our tendency to deny reality is the barefaced inevitability of our own death. Unless we are threatened with imminent annihilation or given a short time to live, we are predisposed to perceive of the future as something open-ended and unlimited, regardless of our age. We are loath to admit our existence is finite.
 Some of us are so sensitive about the subject of death that people or practices that appear to be different from the familiar give us pause. We reject otherness, change, and uncertainty because they represent the possibility of our demise. Thousands of religious belief systems exist throughout the world, and yet the adherents within each of them resolutely believe that theirs is the only correct worldview. Similarly, conspiracy theorists prefer to believe in string-pulling manipulation by powerful forces rather than accept the frightening prospect that no one is in control.    
A recent entry in examining our pronounced ability for deceiving ourselves is Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower. These authors contend that the ability to deny reality is the very psychological mechanism that has made our survival possible and that optimism is indeed a strategy for denial. Physician and writer Abraham Verghese has called this "the most exciting idea in evolution since Darwin." Yes, it’s exciting, but it’s certainly not new.
Back in 1974, Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for The Denial of Death, an examination of our propensity for self-deception about our own mortality. And before the ideas of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett gained prominence, we had the work of John F. Schumaker. His Wings of Illusion and The Corruption of Reality took the subject of belief and self-deception to points that other theorists are just now beginning to discover.
Looking deeply into our existential predicament is a sobering experience. Our sun is a second-rate star in a modest galaxy, where no one thing or location can be deemed more important than any other—with the exception of those upon whose light and gravity we depend. The earth is hurtling through space at thousands of miles per hour and appears to be headed nowhere in particular.
The same analogy applies to our lives as individuals. We represent an amalgamation of biology, culture, time, and place, with no particular significance attributable to any of these components. The only thing that is special about any of us is our uniqueness with regard to others, which is only a matter of degree.
 We come into the world with biological predispositions, and we absorb cultural biases and beliefs as readily as plants photosynthesize sunlight. These factors make it impossible for any single individual or group to claim title to precisely the right place to be, the right things to believe, or the right things to do—although you would never know it by the proliferation of pretense all around us.
Dig deep enough into our ontological dilemma and the evidence of cosmic chaos is overwhelming. In the face of it, people find comfort in an illusion of permanency, which seems highly preferable to any objective recognition of how much our lives are influenced by chance. In a universe where disorder rules, our lives amount to nothing more than a posture we assume, and yet, as individuals we feel that our lives represent the ground zero of meaningful experience. In one sense, what we do means nothing, but in another sense, it can mean everything.
In his book An Appetite for Wonder, scientist Richard Dawkins writes about how, because of timing, something as simple as a sneeze can have a domino effect on the future. A personal example brought this home to me recently. I intended to call a friend one day, but I didn’t. Some hours later, that friend was killed in a traffic accident. Now, I’m reasonably sure that if I had phoned him as I’d intended, he would still be alive because he would not have been at the intersection at the moment the accident happened. A matter of a few seconds would have changed the outcome.
Imagine how different life might be for us now if, in November of 1963, President Kennedy’s motorcade had not driven by Dealey Plaza in Dallas. We can speculate ad nauseam, but trying to mentally reverse past events is both futile and counterproductive. If I had called my friend as planned, it may indeed have changed the course of his behavior and avoided the accident. When we begin to reason like this, however, questions persist. For instance, was it the last time I did talk to him that somehow set him up for his misfortune? Such lines of thinking are seductive, but they always reach a dead-end and encourage magical thinking.
 I’m not in any way suggesting that we are responsible for unknowable future events. Only in hindsight can events appear inevitable. The present is rife with chaotic possibilities. To the contrary, thinking through hypothetical situations can help us inoculate ourselves against comforting illusions that shelter us from seeing just how precariously our lives depend upon luck.
 My sense is that everything does happen for any number of reasons, but nothing can happen in the lives of human beings that cannot be altered by chance. We are bound together in a chain of chaotic events so seamlessly connected that they appear tranquil right up to the moment when reality crashes the party. By design, our brains impose a sense of order on a world driven by mayhem.
Subjectivity is the substance we are made of. Our worldviews represent our social bonds steeped in emotional experience. Our mortal fears surface when our beliefs are seriously questioned, because the process threatens to raise a window on reality that most of us would prefer stayed closed. Yet, in a cosmic wink, we will all be gone, centuries will pass, and what is commonly believed today will someday be thought quaint if not absurd.
 Ecologists tell us that a sustainable population of humans on our planet is somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.5 billion people, but by the end of this century, the world’s population is estimated to be almost fifteen times that amount. This statement alone should remove any doubt about our being deniers of reality.
John F. Schumaker says we need to determine an optimal level of reality distortion that won’t exact the price of civilization. In his words, "The impossible challenge is to face the truth without panic, to derive all meaning from where we are and what we are." Illusions aside, this is all we’ve got.
It’s easy to appreciate how illusions have helped us survive. Evolution equipped us for self-deception in part so that we would readily take risks without calculating our chances of success. Obviously this approach has worked.
In centuries past, illusions have aided our survival, but now we’re speeding forward without questioning our assumptions.  Because of our burgeoning numbers, the future, if we are to have one, demands that we trade our illusions for objectivity. What helped us thrive as a species in the distant past now threatens our very existence.

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New Fiction: The Call of Mortality
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Friday, August 16, 2013

To Tweet or Not To Tweet

© Charles D. Hayes

Educational philosopher Robert Hutchins championed the life of the mind, which he encouraged through the study of literature and ongoing dialog with learned peers. He called this "The Great Conversation" and published a book by that name in 1952. I credit Hutchins’ work, and particularly the Great Books series that he fostered, with motivating me to embark upon my pursuit of self-education and to continue the course of lifelong learning that I follow to this day.

 Key to developing a life of the mind and learning to think for oneself is the notion of ongoing dialog. Hutchins placed great value on exposing oneself to multiple points of view in order to formulate an opinion of one’s own. Real learning happens not when we swallow whole what someone else believes, but rather when we work through an issue in our own minds.

What has disturbed me about public discourse today, especially in social media, is my sense that it mostly serves as an echo chamber. No one seems to talk reasonably with anyone who has divergent ideas. Instead, disagreements become shouting matches with voices expressed in text, in all caps, and with character bursts too short for satisfactory explanation. Lately, though, I’ve had to admit that beneath the media hype about polarized camps, many people are engaged in meaningful dialog and minds are changing. The growing support for gay marriage proves the point.

For months my email signature contained the assertion that "life is too short to text and too important to tweet." My nephew, however, has convinced me to think of Twitter as a news source, a library index card, or a subject header that opens an opportunity for conversation and further learning. It gives me the ability to delve deeper into a subject when it points me to material that I otherwise would not know about. So, much to my own surprise, I’ve now removed that statement from my signature and have activated a Twitter account.

From the beginning, my skepticism about Twitter stemmed from the current mania for the brevity of bulleted lists and the admonition that everything worth reading must be up front. Introductions and first chapters in books often turn out to be the only text worthy of one’s time. In far too many cases, the "keep it short, keep it simple, put it up front" practice, combined with texting and tweeting, has appeared to result in a lack of the depth necessary for basic comprehension. To my mind, it’s essential to know why and how a person has reached whatever conclusion is put forth.

The Great Books program advanced by Robert Hutchins offered an approach to the humanities through the exploration of our finest literature, a method that today is largely marginalized. These days, advocates for the humanities and a liberal education increasingly attempt to make their case by beating around the bush. Too often they fail to explain why we should value the humanities. And yet, the argument desperately needs to be made because the humanities contain seeds of goodwill that are capable of turning red and blue states purple.

The human condition is the conundrum at the crux of civilization. Our respective cultures provide a barrage of edicts about what we are to do in life with too little regard for how we are to cope with the inescapable anxiety that comes with our fragile existence. This makes us egregiously vulnerable to political manipulation.

Too many of us are ill-equipped to manage the conditions we find ourselves in, unless we have learned enough about our species to deal with our conscious and subconscious angst about our own inevitable demise. We come pre-programmed with a clash-driven political nature that is due, in part, to our split-brain architecture, which enables us to compartmentalize conflicting information. As a result, we tend to readily hate those whom we view as different based upon the flimsiest of criteria.

The promise of faith helps some people by offering the assurance that if you believe this, there is nothing to worry about. For others, though, the fact that their belief system is not universal, in and of itself, is cause for the kind of contempt that routinely ferments into a hatred of nonbelievers.

If one is born into a poorly educated culture, the future portends a life of poverty and a worldview filled with scorn and social paranoia. Taken further, if one's culture is ignorant and socially oppressive, a life of political zealotry may prove to be irresistible and scapegoats will be enthusiastically provided for persecution.

We can't put our own lives in perspective without developing the ability to envision ourselves in a global context. We must also realize that our propensity to view our own respective cultures as naturally superior to all others is a primeval short circuit that fosters ridicule and disdain. Ultimately it can lead to self-destruction.

Life is an existential dilemma, and it is subjective to the nth degree. For each of us, life is an unsolvable mystery, and yet the pursuit of the puzzle can provide enough existential relief to make living pleasurable. Learning continuously along the way leaves plenty of room for those who view the world differently.

We human beings need to know all we can about being human, especially about other cultures with differing customs, traditions, and worldviews. Knowledge of many subjects we consider electives, such as psychology, anthropology, and sociology is desperately needed by all citizens. Promoting that greater level of understanding could dispel the needless social anxiety that’s born of ignorance and perpetuated by our tribal nature for exclusiveness.

Today the amount of time that people waste hating others because of absurd misunderstandings is astounding. The more we learn about the outer world, the larger our inner world becomes. We are less threatened by things we don't understand because we know that the process of trying to understand can relieve us of needless anxiety.       

I have joined Twitter with the goal of following not only those with whom I agree but also those with whom I don’t agree—especially those whose messages I think are destructive. The point of entering into a public conversation, in my view, is not to enhance one's career, social standing, and earning potential, or to live a life of ease made possible by magical software. It is, instead, an aspiration to experience the kind of life that transcends our respective cultures, a life with the independence of mind to determine value without coercion and to develop our sense of humanity, regardless of which culture we were born into.

No doubt this is a tall order, and it may indeed be overly idealistic. Still, I think it’s clear that only in hindsight can we judge the effectiveness of something we would characterize as a great conversation. Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature offers a compelling argument that over the long term, we are making moral progress. All we have to do now is speed it up. Twitter has crossover potential. Maybe it can help. Follow me on Twitter: @CDHWasilla

My Books and Essays on Amazon
New Fiction: The Call of Mortality
My Other Blog

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Movies and Memories of Our Racist Past

© Charles D. Hayes

In 2011, Stephanie Coontz published A Strange Stirring, a book about the status of women at the dawn of the 1960s. Even though I lived through those times as an adult, the memories Coontz brought to mind were shocking. Fifty years since that era, gender inequality still exists, especially when it comes to employment compensation, but the fact that today many of the cultural assumptions of the ’60s seem far afield is a sign of genuine progress.

          Now comes the movie 42 about the life of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American baseball player to break into the major leagues. When I try to make sense of my reaction to the film, the feelings it evokes are much deeper and much more appalling than those I felt reading Coontz. Although I was very young in the 1940s, I lived through those times, too, and I have vivid memories of the racism that reigned uncensored in our society.

          I grew up in a racist region of the country, in a racist community and, I'm ashamed to say, in a racist family. Racism in those days might as well have been in our drinking water. Assumptions of white superiority were simply taken as gospel truth. Children parroted the same bigoted notions in public as those spouted from the mouths of their ill-educated parents. In hindsight, I can see that our mind-set amounted to a common form of malignant arrogance that grows by feeding on itself as it binds one group together against another.

          The dialog in 42 brought to memory old conversations that, if heard today, would be considered astounding, even, I suspect, in the Deep South. Watching actor Chadwick Boseman portraying Jackie Robinson at bat, trying to concentrate while a white baseball manager shouts racial epithets, makes you want to crawl under your seat, only because you can't get your hands on the offender.

          The one thing that troubles me about the film, which I thought was very well acted, is my suspicion that young people accustomed to speedy media solutions will come away with the impression that acceptance of Robinson into the white world of sports was something that occurred rather quickly, perhaps after just a few winning games. The truth, however, was far different. Another couple of decades of overt racial hostility would follow before the Civil Rights era even began to take hold.

          What 42 makes crystal clear is how shallow and superficial the strain of contempt is that enables and sustains racism as prejudice is handed down from one generation to the next. The process is born of fear, misunderstanding, hearsay, innuendo, inarticulate chit-chat, frustrated exasperation, and just plain old stupidity. Unsupported nonsense derived from stereotypes passes from one person to another, while the veracity of what is said is waived by the power of the relationship. In other words, if one's friend or family member said it, then it must be true, and it will be defended by virtue of group loyalty, even if it has no validity.

          As I watched 42, it occurred to me that the whole ethos of identity politics depends upon half-truths spoken under stress and because of the existential angst that comes with the human condition. It's really that simple. When identity is the most important theme at hand, nothing holds it together quite as well as old-fashioned belligerence expressed through inarticulate gestures of discrimination aimed at gaining support for one group at the expense of another.

          Stupidity is a bonding element, and outright hatred is the greatest unifier of all. Thus, whatever we bring together in communal disinformation must be defended with much larger doses of deceit because nothing short of outright lies will make sense. Watch 42, listen to the white baseball manager's racial rant, and you will see what I mean.

          The lesson to be learned from collective stupidity is how to spot it, how to arrest its propagation by taking a time-out as in sports, and how to maintain an intellectual default toward demanding more information. Classic examples of popular ignorance as a bonding substance are the millions of emails sent daily with the intent of binding one's group by alienating another. The remedy here is simple. When you receive one of these malicious messages, ask the sender to stop.

          The identity of the other changes over time, but the methods remain the same. The only variable is the degree of vitriol. The same strain of identity culture that in one era is focused on racial hatred is a versatile social conduit that can be utilized for homophobia, anti-immigration, gun rights, the facile notion of imaginary superiority purported by Ayn Rand's John Galt wannabes, or any sort of distinctiveness revered by one's identity group.

          The point is simple and yet profound: As long as large groups of Americans rely on their sense of identity to further their political interests, no one need bother with factual matters because they simply aren't counted.

          In Moneyball, another baseball movie, Brad Pitt, playing team manager Billy Beane, describes the game to his players saying, "It's a process, it's a process." Indeed it is, and so is the furtherance of popular culture: it's a process, especially the way we pass it on. If we can shut down the anti-intellectual aspect of the process that’s based solely on who we think we are and choose to stop demonizing others, we can begin to live as if reality matters more than identity. Once that happens, then there is a possibility for achieving a livable democracy. If not, I fear the chance is lost.

          Unless people can recognize their tendency to demonize those who seem other and are willing to correct the behavior, they can watch a movie like 42, sympathize with Jackie Robinson, and go right back the next day to spewing racial hatred in a milder form so as to keep their identity intact. In a few days, the whole lesson will be forgotten. This is why it takes generations to change what should actually happen in the time it takes for a television commercial to play. Progress will come only when honesty can trump identity. 
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Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Approaching Gray Asteroid

© Charles D. Hayes

Instantaneous annihilation by a massive object from space seems like a merciful death compared to losing oneself day by day, moment by moment, in the passageways of your own mind. Okay, it's not an asteroid, but what's coming is just as bad, if not worse. I'm talking, of course, about Alzheimer's disease, and for more than five million people the asteroid analogy is too late; it's already struck with a vengeance. The result is nearly $200 billion a year in medical expense, with more than 15 million people acting in the capacity of unpaid caregivers. If we felt the full impact of these conditions at once, instead of gradually over many years, the collective gasp of anguish would drown out most other concerns.

Alzheimer's brings with it a gift of guilt that keeps on giving, because there are no satisfactory solutions. If you take care of family members with the disease, you feel guilty. If you find them a great place to be cared for, you feel guilty. It's what this disease does to your family members that causes guilt to follow your every decision because, no matter which option you choose, things always get worse. In terms of the cost of stress, Alzheimer's is off the charts for both victims and caregivers. Both are wounded. Caregivers live shorter lives because of the emotional toll. My grandmother took care of my grandfather at home, and the cost to her own health was enormous.

My asteroid metaphor is especially appropriate because of what our demographics tell us is to come. In 2050 our gray asteroid goes from $200 billion to an estimated trillion dollars or greater, and the cost in individual anguish escalates by orders of magnitude that we are barely capable of imagining. If this disease were something for which a company could be considered liable for causing, the punitive damages in a court settlement would likely be for an amount too great for us to comprehend because not even our government counts that high.

Now, consider what steps we would be taking if we were dealing with a real asteroid whose orbit would, at some future date, bring it in direct contact with the earth. Our efforts, of course, would depend to a degree on its size. An object large enough to be considered a planet killer would be viewed differently than one that would only portend local destruction in the immediate vicinity of where it hit.

Alzheimer's by any measure is a seismic global event. Moreover, it's only one disease that increasingly affects an aging population. There are many kinds of dementia that are hard to distinguish from one another, as well as some medical treatments that actually cause symptoms that mimic Alzheimer's. A few years after my grandfather’s death at the age of 92, I learned that a conflict in his medications was very likely responsible for at least some, and perhaps all, of his dementia. And I have no reason to doubt that many aging people today who are under the care of more than one physician are still given conflicting medications because of the pace and economics of medical practice in America.

In his book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies, Jared Diamond writes about visiting a village on the Fijian island of Viti Levu. While he was there, an islander accused him of being from a country where we throw our old people away, referring to the fact that we often put our family members in retirement or nursing homes. Diamond also tells us about cultures where the old are killed or abandoned as a matter of what is considered economic necessity.

As for Americans, he writes, "Care for the elderly goes against all those interwoven American values of independence, individualism, self-reliance, and privacy." I suspect that it is no small part of this ethos that adds to our guilt, no matter what actions we take with our aging parents and relatives. Guilt is often an overt expression of the exasperation that comes from feelings of utter helplessness.

 And yet, every time we try to have a serious public discussion about the end of life, there is a chorus of political vitriol about death panels. Speaking only for myself, I would rather die a violent and painful death than be among those I could only identify as strangers, while being angry, confused, and existentially lost for what could amount to years somewhere in the shadowy corridors of my own mind.

Long before we experience the full effect of the gray asteroid of 2050, we need to find a way to let individuals decide for themselves whether they want to end their lives under medical supervision when their minds are gone and there is absolutely no hope for recovery. I suspect if the Fiji Islanders knew more about our society, they would declare that we often show more compassion for our pets than our old people.

The statistics are truly frightening. One in eight people over age 65 has Alzheimer's, and nearly half of us who reach the age of 85 will suffer its ravages. There are some hopeful signs in medical research for ways to fight Alzheimer's, but nothing close to a cure or prevention as of yet, and the asteroid gets closer every day.

The Obama administration is setting an ambitious goal for having an effective treatment for Alzheimer's disease by 2025. Their budget, unfortunately, doesn't measure up to the gravity of the challenge, but if they try to invest more money in the effort, we surely can expect more filibusters on the horizon.
In the meantime, if I get Alzheimer's, I would rather that the money required to keep my body alive go instead to looking out for young people. How about you?

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