When A Sign Tells A (Bad) Story

Sometimes a sign does more than just provide information.  Consider this warning bolted to the gate to the pool at our hotel, for example.  Doesn’t it leave you wondering what must have happened, on some grim day in the past, to cause a hotel to post a permanent notice that people who have “active diarrhea” — in itself an extremely evocative phrase — shouldn’t swim in the pool?  The mind reels!

You’d like to think that it’s not necessary for hotels to notify guests that if they are suffering from uncontrollable physical conditions that are inevitably going to soil the water in a communal pool, thy shouldn’t take a dip.  After all, chlorine can only do so much.  But apparently that’s not the case.  It’s just another sign — in this case, a literal one — that the normal code of behavior no longer holds, and the world is going to hell.

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Coffin Nail Fail

Here’s some good news:  the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Health Statistics reported this week that the percentage of the adult population that smokes cigarettes has reached its lowest level since the government began keeping track of that activity.

11034958_web1_m-smoking-edh-171122The CDC report concluded that, in 2017, 13.9 percent of the adult population in the United States smoked cigarettes.  That number is down from 15.5 percent in 2016, and has been steadily declining over the years.  Back in the 1960s, more than 40 percent of American adults smoked.  Ask anyone who was around during the ’60s, and you’ll hear stories that give you an idea about just how dramatically things have changed since then.  When UJ and I went with our grandparents to University of Akron Zips basketball games back in those days, for example, people could smoke in the hallways before entering the seating area.  At halftime when you walked through the hallway to get popcorn or a hot dog, you walked through a thick, gag-inducing wall of smoke emitted by throngs of smokers.  Now — unless you’re in a Las Vegas casino — you almost never encounter even a whiff of smoke in a public place.

Why are the numbers of smokers falling?  Some attribute it to aggressive ad campaigns against smoking and some attribute it to changes in general social mores; others think that a positive feedback loop may have occurred, where the decline in the number of smokers means people see fewer smokers and aren’t tempted to start smoking themselves in the first place.  There’s also another reason for the decline:  call it coincidence, but people who are smokers often seem to have fatal health problems, like the cancers that claimed three of the heavy smokers in my family.

While the overall trends are encouraging, there’s still work to be done.  Even though adult smokers now number less than 14 percent of the population, that still amounts to millions of people who are in the grip of a very bad habit.  And the statistics show a real disparity in the percentage of smokers by location, with city dwellers much less likely to smoke than residents of rural areas.  We need to continue to work on getting current smokers to quit, and convincing potential smokers to never pick up one of those coffin nails in the first place.

A Course Everyone Should Take

Students often come to college with their own set of impressions about the people in the world around them, whether they’ve ever personally interacted with those people or not.  That’s not a criticism of college students, it’s a reality of modern life.  We all live in our own little worlds, and we form impressions about what others might be like based on the news that we allow to filter into our bubbles.

img_20180526_130448But what if people tried to get out of their bubbles and actually meet some of the people they’ve formed impressions about, to see what their lives are like and experience their worlds?  That’s what the Harvard Institute of Politics tried to accomplish with something called the Main Street Project.  The goal was to get Harvard students, most of whom hailed from the coasts, out into places in flyover country where they could meet real people who live and work in the heartland.  The group of students visited towns in western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, saw people working at their jobs, and went to the restaurants where the locals go.  They stayed in bed and breakfasts owned by locals, traveled in a van, and took the back roads.  In the process, they even met a few Trump voters and went to a gun range where women were engaged in some vigorous target practice.

As one of the organizers wrote:  “Even though these kids had almost all been raised in the United States, our journey sometimes felt like an anthropology course, as though they were seeing the rest of the country for the first time.”  The students admitted that they “had been fed a steady diet of stereotypes about small towns and their folk: “backwards,” “no longer useful,” “un- or under-educated,” “angry and filled with a trace of bigotry” were all phrases that came up.”  But as they traveled through places like Youngstown, Ohio, meeting good people who were living happy, productive lives, the students saw the stereotypes break apart.

None of the students got course credit or a grade for participating in the Main Street Project, but they did get an education.  One of the student organizers said:  “The best way to blow apart a stereotype is to challenge it” — and he is right.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone, regardless of their age, had a similar opportunity to meet people and challenge some of the stereotypes that we all carry around?

Vegased Out

Having just returned from our second trip to Las Vegas in as many months — after an absence of more than a decade — I think we could happily let at least another decade pass before we hit The Strip again. I feel a little bit wary of more Vegas exposure right now — sort of like the look on this chair at the Shops at Caesar’s Palace that is modeled on the bust of emperor Constantine.

You might say we’re Vegased out.

We went to Las Vegas to join in celebrating Richard winning some national awards for his reporting on real estate issues, and we enjoyed getting together with family and toasting his success.  And Las Vegas is an interesting place and a great spot for people watching.  But if you don’t gamble — and we don’t — it gets old quickly. The extreme heat, the jostling crowds surging from casino to casino, the slot machine-boosted level of general background noise, the inflated prices for just about everything other than the cheapest souvenir, and the sense that almost everyone around you is eager to cut loose and create their own “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” anecdote to tell their pals back home . . . it all makes Las Vegas a weird place.

Most American cities are pretty similar; only a few are really distinctive, with a special vibe all their own. Las Vegas is one of the few — but a little taste of it is plenty.

Stand-Up In The #MeToo Era

Last night a group of us went to Brad Garrett’s Comedy Club at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.  It was the first time I’d been to a comedy club in the post-Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo era, and as we waited for the performance I found myself wondering if the MeToo movement would have any obvious effect on the material the comics would address.

Having now sat through a very funny night of performances by three different comedians, including Brad Garrett himself, I can report that, last night at least, the MeToo movement didn’t seem to have a material impact on the subject matter of the humor.  The comedians were as raunchy and focused on sexual humor and race- and ethnicity-related jokes as they’ve ever been.  So far as I can tell, the only change is that the sex-oriented humor dealt more with the sexual attributes and capabilities of men, rather than women.  I’m not sure that is a real change, because a rich vein of modern American humor has always been of the self-deprecating or male-on-male roasting variety.  Think of Henny Youngman or one of the Dean Martin celebrity roasts, for example.

Stand-up comedy is almost by definition not politically correct, because a significant element of humor is shock and surprise and lampooning social norms.  When, as happened last night, there is ongoing interplay between the performers and the audience, there are bound to be off-color comments as the comedians lob a few insults at the brave people in the front row.  And in the set monologues, there was lots of racially and sexually tinged humor that was at, or over, the edge.  But nobody seemed to be terrified about crossing any new, poorly defined boundaries, nobody seemed to be aggressively self-editing, and nobody seemed mortally offended, either, when last night’s performance came to a close.

One performance obviously doesn’t permit me to draw deep conclusions, but I’m guessing that live stand-up comedy is going to survive the MeToo movement.  But boy, if they ever outlaw jokes about sex and male body parts, stand-up comedy might not survive.

Political Propriety

The Tony Awards broadcast was last night.  Actor Robert DeNiro, who appeared to talk about Bruce Springsteen, thought it was appropriate to come out, pump his arms in the air, and say “F*** Trump.”  Twice.

DeNiro then received a standing ovation from those in attendance.

1528693568996It’s just another example of how our national political discourse has run totally off the rails, and people have lost their minds.  We’ve got a President whose unseemly tweets and unusual behavior push the envelope in one direction, and the people who ardently oppose him are pushing the envelope in the opposite direction.  When somebody decides the time is right to appear on a live broadcast that is supposed to be celebrating American theater and start dropping f-bombs, though, we’ve reached a new low.  And when the high-brow, tuxedo-clad audience decides that the appropriate response to the vulgarity is to give the speaker a standing ovation, we’ve reached a lower point still.

DeNiro’s comments couldn’t have come as a surprise.  He’s launched into profanity-laced tirades about President Trump before, including when he introduced Meryl Streep at a different awards ceremony earlier this year.  Did the Tony Awards decision-makers think DeNiro had mended his ways, or did they think, instead, that having the unpredictable — or, perhaps, entirely predictable — DeNiro on as part of the broadcast might just result in an incident exactly like what actually happened, that would help to get the Tony Awards program a little more attention and more news coverage?

I don’t have a problem with people opposing or criticizing President Trump — obviously. But name-calling and profanity aren’t exactly calculated to persuade people about the wrong-headedness of President Trump’s policies, or conduct.  Instead, it just looks like a classless, desperate bid to get some attention that isn’t going to persuade anybody about anything — except, perhaps, that the people who think launching a few f-bombs on a live broadcast, and the people who reacted with a standing ovation, have lost their minds.

Is it too much to expect a little reasoned discourse, and some political propriety?  These days, is it too much to hope that people can refrain from using the Queen Mother of Curses in connection with the President on a live television broadcast?  Apparently so.

The Suicide Cascade

The recent deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade have focused attention on a growing health problem in the United States:  suicide.  If it seems like suicide has become more commonplace in recent years, that’s because that is exactly what has happened.

anthony-bourdain-dead-6Coincidentally, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report last week that sketched out some statistics on suicide in America — which are deeply disturbing.  The CDC report states that suicide has been steadily increasing for more than a decade and is now the tenth leading cause of death in the United States.  The CDC looked at data from individual states from 1999 to 2016 and found that suicide rates have increased in virtually every state.  In half of the states, the rate has increased by a mind-boggling 30 percent.

The CDC report found that, in 2016, almost 45,000 Americans died by suicide, with especially sharp increases in suicide rates in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, North and South Dakota, Kansas, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Vermont, New Hampshire and South Carolina.  The statistics also show that women are beginning to close the historical suicide “gender gap,” in which men have been far more likely to take their own lives; suicide rates among American women also have surged.

What causes a person to commit suicide?  Why would someone as interesting and witty and evidently successful as Anthony Bourdain, for example, decide to take their own life?  The CDC report found that more than half of the people who committed suicide did not have a diagnosed mental health condition.  Another recent study, on suicide trends in 27 states, also determined that suicide is more than a mental health issue, with many of the people acting as a result of relationship problems or loss of a loved one, substance misuse, physical health problems, or other personal or financial strains.

And suicide also seems to have a nefarious cascade effect, in which each suicide makes the next one more likely.  It’s apparently due to a variation of the “broken windows” effect, in which learning of someone’s suicide gives struggling people who otherwise might not think of it the idea that suicide is a viable option.  The effect has produced well-known instances of “suicide clusters” in towns or schools, in America and elsewhere — which may mean that we should hold our breath and hope that highly publicized suicides, like those of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, don’t trigger an even greater epidemic of self-inflicted harm.

We all need to keep our eyes open, pay attention to our friends and colleagues who are struggling, and try to help them understand that their lives are worth living, even in times of great difficulty.