Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Asthma Is a Serious Problem, But What Are the Causes?

From Brooklyn Daily eagle

Asthma is costing New York's Medicaid system more than half a billion dollars a year, according to a report by the state Comptroller’s Office quoted in an Associated Press article that has been posted on the Brooklyn Daily Eagle website.
The cost to the state is estimated to be $1.3 billion a year, the article continues. A large percentage of this cost is due to Medicaid expenditures. The only good news seems to be that asthma deaths have dropped by nearly 23 percent in the past decade.
There are several causes for asthma. One is hereditary. I have asthma, so did my mother and so did half the people in my mother’s family, to varying degrees.
Another is environmental. Asthma has been blamed on air quality, mold in old apartment buildings, roaches in the same buildings, lack of exercise and many other factors. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, New York County (Manhattan), Brooklyn and the Bronx all are in the Top 10 for cancer risks caused by airborne chemicals. The city is also one of the 25 in the country in ozone pollution.
On the other hand, a survey by then-Mayor Bloomberg’s administration last year found that air pollution in New York City has reached its lowest levels in 50 years, For example, the level of sulfur dioxide in the air dropped 69 percent since 2008, possibly lowered by new emissions regulations that phased out obsolete “heavy” fuels like Number 6 oil. The city’s air quality may still be higher than most of the country’s, but these figures show a step in the right direction.
As we’ve mentioned, roaches have also been mentioned as a cause of asthma. According to the American Lung Association, “Roaches produce substances, or allergens, that aggravate asthma and cause allergic reactions in people who are sensitive to those substances ...  These tiny particles can become airborne and contaminate the air in your home.”
Molds, also common in older buildings, are another asthma trigger. Molds send out tiny spores that float through the air. And of course, there’s also the danger of smoking and second-hand smoke.
While I don’t pretend to be a scientist, the problem with many of these explanations is that these conditions were often worse in the past. I know that air pollution is often horrific, but I find it difficult to believe than it’s any worse than it was during most of the 20th century, when factories and incinerators within most apartment buildings released smoke into the atmosphere day and night.
 And smoking? The percentage of Americans who smoke has gone down from 45 percent in 1953 to a mere 22 percent in 2010. You can’t tell me that there’s more second-hand smoke today than there was in the days when people smoked in buses, at the office, in restaurants and even in doctors’ offices.
Perhaps the answer lies elsewhere. Several scientists have remarked on the links between obesity, which has been rising steadily since the mass introduction of high-fructose corn syrup, and asthma. Food additives are another possible cause. The Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America has identified several common additives that may cause reactions, including sulfites, aspartame, MSG, tartrazine (a common food dye used in desserts and beverages) and others.
Whatever the cause is, the problem of asthma is a serious one that deserves more study.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Give Former Journalists Policy-Making Positions

By Raanan Geberer
An old movie I once saw on TV focused on the relationship between a crusading lawyer and a crusading journalist. Soon, the lawyer is elected to office. But the journalist remains a journalist, seemingly forever consigned to his role on the sidelines.

Traditionally, journalism, unlike law, does not open the door to new careers. But this state of affairs is dramatically out of date. According to a survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the number of newspaper jobs declined from 52,600 in 2007 to 38,000 in 2012. And that doesn’t even take into account magazine jobs.

In addition, an article in the February-March edition of the American Journalism Review reported that of those journalists who left or were laid off from newspapers, only 6 percent found other newspaper jobs. “the rest are doing everything from public relations to teaching to driving a bus and clerking in a liquor store,” the article reads. And we doubt that it’s gotten better since then.

Since so much of what journalists do involves reporting on city, county, state and federal governments, why shouldn’t elected officials or government agencies hire more journalists in managerial or administrative positions? This sometimes happens, but the journalist usually finds himself or herself relegated to the “ghetto” of press secretary.

Why should a journalist or former journalist who has spent 30 years covering education and schools NOT be appointed to a decision-making position with the Department of Education? As it is, these positions are not always filled by education or teaching professionals. A veteran education reporter knows most of the people in important positions, knows the issues, knows the controversies and probably has some opinions on what should be done.  He or probably knows a lot more than some lawyer or MBA with little or no direct experience in the field.

The same thing goes for commissions that are appointed for a specific purpose – for example, to investigate the need to clean up a polluted body of water or to look into building a light rail line or to examine why a particular business district is losing money. If there is a journalist or former journalist who is an expert on the relevant topic, why not appoint him or her to the commission? Unfortunately, in most municipalities, the same people – elected officials, business leaders, attorneys, heads of community organizations – are appointed to these bodies over and over and over again. Why not give someone else a chance?

People go into journalism for a variety of reasons, but most will say that one of the reasons is that want to make a difference in their communities. Often, their decision to go into the field made in their teens or early twenties. For veteran, long-time journalists, there is no way they could have foreseen the decline in journalism jobs. Just because they now find themselves in a landscape where new positions in the field are few and far between, does that mean that the knowledge they have gained over the years should be thrown in the trash can? Definitely not! Many have already begun to reassess their roles during the past few years.

In general, society should invite older journalists and former journalists in from the sidelines to become active participants in the political and governmental processes. It can only benefit.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Inanimate Objects react to the snow

From Brooklyn Daily Eagle

By now, we’re all used to weather reports predicting heavy snowfall. This has happened maybe five or six times this winter, and there’s probably more to come. We know how people feel about the snow. But how do inanimate objects feel about it?
I have several pairs of shoes and several coats. One of the coats, a nice green coat, is perfect for normal winter weather, say, the 40s or 30s. I have a much heavier coat, but normally, I only wear it in extremely cold weather, in the teens or 20s.
This winter, however, is throwing my coat routine way off balance. Instead of wearing my extra-heavy coat two or three times, I’m wearing it more often than the other one. As for my third jacket, the one that’s appropriate for temperatures in the high 40s or 50s, I’m not wearing it at all.
And if this is the case for my coats, then, what of my shoes? I have two “regular” pairs of shoes, one pair of sneakers and one pair of heavy boots. Most of the time, I rotate the two pairs of shoes and wear the sneakers on weekends. During normal winters, I only wear the heavy boots maybe four or five days, when there’s a heavy snowstorm.
But this winter is different. This winter, I’m wearing the boots, which I think of as being for abnormal weather, more often than the shoes.
I haven’t even mentioned my pants. I have two pairs of heavy corduroy pants that I usually wear two or three times for the entire winter. This winter, I find myself wearing them a lot more than that.
It’s plain to see that my regular shoes, jackets and pants are jealous of my heavy-duty clothes. They’re accustomed to being worn on a regular basis. Being inside the house most of the time, they don’t know about the constant snowstorms, and they blame me for not wearing them enough. If I’m not careful, they’ll start a revolt, and I’ll come home to find my clothes scattered all over the bedroom floor.
Also in the bedroom, there’s a small toy polar bear that we’ve had for years. Usually we don’t pay much attention to it, except when the cat decides to play with it. But now, the little polar bear is looking forward to the time when real polar bears will come to New York if this weather continues, and it’s getting ready to join them. One day, we’ll come home and the toy bear will be gone.
If you think that’s bad, you should see what’s happening elsewhere! Over in the Museum of Natural History, the mock-ups of the wooly mammoths behind glass have come to life. For maybe 10,000 years, since the end of the last Ice Age, they’ve felt out of place. Now’s their chance. The  snowstorms have awakened them, they think there’s a new Ice Age, and they’re beginning to move about in their display cases when no one’s looking. Soon, they believe, they’ll be roaming the Arctic tundra once again.
Clearly, the snowstorms are disrupting people, animals, stuffed animals, coats, shoes and everything else. It’s time to tell the weatherman, “Enough already!” Tell the scientists to bring back global warming. Anything’s better than this!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Jean Shepherd and `A Christmas Story'

 From Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 2013

It’s Christmas time, and once again we’re treated to showings of the holiday favorite “A Christmas Story.” The film has become so much a classic that it’s been turned into a Broadway play, and the house in Cleveland that was used as the Parker family’s house has been turned into a museum. Characters like The Old Man, bully Scott Farkas and the hillbilly Bumpus family, not to mention inanimate objects like the leg lamp, have become part of American folklore.

Lost in the shuffle, however, has been the author and narrator of the story—Jean Shepherd. Many of the millions of people who have seen the film, perhaps most, are only familiar with him through “A Christmas Story.” And that’s sad, because as good as it is, it only represents a small portion of Shepherd’s work.

Jean Shepherd was born in the early 1920s and grew up in Hammond, Indiana (called “Hohman, Indiana” in the film). The late Eagle columnist Dennis Holt, who lived there during part of his youth, knew Shepherd and his friends, although they were older than him. While the film takes place around 1940, the real events upon which it is based took place about seven or eight years earlier.

Like most men of his generation, Shepherd served in the military during World War II (his Signal Corps stories have recently been collected as “Shep’s Army”). Afterward, he drifted into TV and radio, but he didn’t become famous until the mid-1950s, when he began broadcasting one of the first talk shows on WOR-AM. About half of his show was dedicated to tales of his Indiana childhood and his Army days. The rest consisted on his observations of the passing scene. He commented on advertising, popular music (he loved jazz, disliked rock), sexual mores, suburbia, all-night diners, beer and almost everything else. He avoided politics, but at times he “got serious,” as he did after JFK’s assassination and again after Martin Luther King’s assassination. In between it all, he played hokey Dixieland jazz songs, accompanying them on the kazoo and Jew’s harp, and recited old-time folk poetry like “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.”

In one of his best-known pranks, he began to talk about a non-existent sexy book, “I, Libertine,” supposedly written in the 18th century. He told his listeners to ask for it in bookstores. Eventually, the demand was so great that a publisher hired several authors (including Shepherd himself) to ghost-write the book.

Shepherd continued on, broadcasting every weekday at 10:15 p.m. and on Saturday nights from the Limelight in Greenwich Village. Thousands of young New Yorkers listened to Shep on their transistor radios under their pillows when their parents thought they were asleep. In 1977, he quit his radio gig. By this time, he was becoming known nationally. He wrote stories for Playboy and published several short-story collections. He also had a public television show, “Jean Shepherd’s America,” in which he visited different parts of the country. There was even an unsuccessful follow-up to “A Christmas Story,” called “My Summer Story.”

Shep died in 1999. After his death, his dark side was discovered: He had two children from an early marriage, neither of which he had seen for 30 years. In fact, he often denied that he had children at all. Still, I prefer to celebrate his contributions to American culture. Quoting Shep’s most famous catch phrase, I proclaim to everybody concerned, “Excelsior, you fatheads!”

Remembering the Masters School

By Raanan Geberer

One rarely thinks of attending a school for disturbed children as being a golden time in one’s life. And yet, that was the case for the three years I attended the Masters Children’s Center, described as a “therapeutic nursery school” for autistic children, although it actually continued through the lower grades of elementary school.

When I was four and a half, my “regular” nursery school teachers began to notice that I was acting withdrawn and wasn’t interacting with the other children. The teachers recommended to my parents that I be sent to a “special” nursery that was being organized at Jacobi Hospital, right there in the Bronx. In the fall, my mother started to take me there every day. The school was run by old-school Viennese psychoanalysts who had come to the U.S. just before World War II, and they soon diagnosed me as having “infantile autistic psychosis.” None of these things meant anything to me at that age, of course. What did is that I enjoyed the school. I began to read and write, and wrote down some of my thoughts, with stick figure-like drawings and the assistance of my mother, in a notebook that I still have to this day.

The next year, the school moved down to an old brownstone in Greenwich Village, and that’s where I really began to thrive. There were three floors – one for kids like myself, one for non-autistic siblings (such as my brother), and a third for kids who were more seriously, violently disturbed. My group was very small–there were about six or seven.

Although my memory is dim, we spent most of the day playing. The teacher, Mrs. DelFiore, was friendly and helped me write and draw stories starring  my imaginary characters (many of which were based on the stuffed toys and dolls at the school). There was a train set made of wooden blocks and a ‘train’ with wooden wheels that I played with endlessly. I loved constantly devising new layouts for the train, then showing them to my friends. .

One day, I made a tunnel for the train to go through. Ronnie, one of my fellow students, pointed inside the tunnel and said the immortal words: “there’s eh-eh in there!” “Eh-eh” was her word for feces. To this day, the phrase is a running joke between me and my wife.

Sometimes, we had group play. We would line up, Mrs. DelFiore would play records of children’s songs like “A Hunting We Will Go” and “Pony Boy,” and we’d run in place to the music. Other times, we’d go in the back yard and go on the swings and the slide. This was called “Jungle Gym”

Actual learning was done individually. Mrs. DelFiore or the other teacher would call me or one of the other students over to the table and give a lesson in reading or math. The reading sessions were straight out of “Dick and Jane,” but they helped me with my penmanship, and I learned how to write in “big” and “small” letters rather than in my previous all-caps style.

 I also saw a psychiatrist there, but I didn’t know it – the teachers called him a “play doctor.” Interestingly, the last time I looked him up, this particular “play doctor” was still practicing, although he must be in his early nineties now.

After three years at both Jacobi and Masters, it was decreed that I attend a “regular” school, or public school. The school’s supervisor, one of the old-time Viennese psychoanalysts, wrote a note intended for the principal of the school, explaining that while I had been extremely withdrawn when I came to Masters, now I not only played with the other children but often invented stories and games and led them in activities.

My first semester in the public school, I continued to be a leader – it just came naturally-- and was elected president of the class. Sometime during the Christmas vacation, my mother took me back to Masters for a visit. I noticed one of the kids, Peter, playing with a toy racing car. “What happened to the train?” I asked. “You’re not here, so we don’t play with trains anymore!” he answered. I felt a little betrayed!

That spring, a tragic incident happened that left me in a state of shock. My mother had a nervous breakdown and was taken to the psychiatric wing of Jacobi Hospital, where she stayed for six weeks Little by little, I became withdrawn and fearful again. Within a year, I went from being one of the most popular kids in the class to being one of the least popular. Clearly, the Freudian psychonalytic methods espoused by Masters (and probably by most mental health professionals in those days) didn’t inadequately prepare kids like myself for the real world, with its trials and tribulations. I continued to see a psychiatrist after school, but he didn’t help me either. It wasn’t until I was older and sought out more unorthodox methods of therapy, like bioenergetics and primal therapy, that I began to make some progress.

My mother kept up with Beatrice, Ronnie’s mother. Ronnie apparently wasn’t able to handle either the work world or the school world, and eventually went into a group home. At my mother’s funeral in the 1980s, one of the other mothers from Master’s showed up and told me that her son, Jim, now worked for the Sanitation Department.

The Masters School is no longer there, and the brownstone is now a private residence. The school didn’t completely succeed in its mission, at least not where I was concerned. But while I was there, it provided me with a wonderful time.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Down and Out in Indianapolis

Back in the early ‘80s, when I accepted a one-year job as an editor at a weekly Jewish newspaper in Indianapolis to get much-needed journalism experience, I didn’t have a place to live when I first got into town. So I thought I’d stay at the local YMCA until I got my bearings and found an apartment. I’d briefly stayed at a YMCA in San Francisco three years beforehand, so I knew what to expect.

The place was on the west side of town, on the fringe of the African-American area. In fact, it was near Crispus Attucks High School, the school that had produced "The Big O," basketball star Oscar Robertson, in the 1950s. The Y itself was surrounded by empty lots, and there just wasn’t much around there.

There were no cooking facilities, and no supermarkets in the area either – not even a small grocery store. However, there was a convenience store attached to a nearby gas station, so I bought stuff like crackers, cheese, soda and canned sardincs. Thank God that there were places to eat lunch near my office – especially Wendy’s which hadn’t yet made inroads back in New York, where I came from. Wendy’s was a step up from Burger King and McDonald’s, I thought, pleased. My newspaper was in an old industrial building in the semi-seedy downtown area –an area surrounded by junk shops-- but even that neighborhood was better than the one near the Y.

There were no laundry facilities near the Y either, so I took to washing my clothes in the sink with powdered detergent, then letting them dry. This gave my clothes a gray, wrinkled appearance. It also made them smell. "Hey, Ron," Mr. Goldberg, the elderly publisher of the paper, said one day, taking me aside, "people are saying that you stink. You sure you take showers?"Mr. Goldberg, a tough-talking former boxer and Prohibition-era bootlegger, was not known for his sensitivity.

By and by, I got to know the people in the Y’s residence hall. There was a young, blond, long-haired guy who was recovering from meth and alcohol addiction. "You know," he said in a semi-Midwestern, semi-Southern accent, "I used to sell my blood to get money to get high, but now, I’m really into the Scriptures. I’m really into meditation, too! I just like to sit back and meditate to Black Sabbath, Zeppelin, Molly Hatchet!" What ever one thought of those groups, it was very hard to think of them as background music for meditation.

There was also an old guy who would leave the door of his room open and just look straight ahead with a bottle of beer in his hand. "You may think he’s a nice old guy," Consuela, the middle-aged front-desk clerk said to me one night, "but he used to be a cop! If you met him 20 years ago and he stopped you and asked for your driver’s license, you wouldn’t think he’s so nice!" While there were often allegations of police brutality back in New York, I got the feeling that here in Indianapolis, the cops could get away with doing whatever they wanted – especially if you were Hispanic, like Consuela, or black.

One day, walking down the hall in the Y, a tall, thin guy with brown hair and a beard who looked like he was about the same age as me introduced himself. "Hi! I’m Vince Grimaldi," he said. He invited me into his room. It was filled with heavy-duty radical books – Marx, Trotsky, Kropotkin, Herbert Marcuse, Wilhelm Reich, Thorsten Veblen. "Right now, I’m organizing for the Citizens Party. It’s a new party, founded by Barry Commoner. We need a party that’s not dominated by conglomorate business...."

"Wait a minute," I objected. "Third parties have always come to failure, at least on the national level. Look at the Populist Party in the 1980s, Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, the LaFollette party in 1924..." We had a lively discussion, and I started visiting him every night after work.

We talked a lot about Indianapolis and how conservative it was. I remarked on how all the businessmen I saw downtown wore gray suits. "What if one wore a brown or blue suit?" I asked. "They’d think he was from out of town," Vince answered. We both laughed.

I wondered what Vince was doing here. One night, he wasn’t there. I opened the door and there he was, passed out on the bed, an empty bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand. Now I knew what he was doing here.

On the weekends, I started looking for apartments. "Just walk up and down Meridian Street," one of the secretaries at the newspaper said, referring to the main street of the town. "There are vacant apartments in every building!" I expected these buildings to be full of young, single people, but in Indianapolis, most of the young single people either lived with their parents or in one of the newer condos on the edge of town. "Most of our tenants here are elderly," the manager of a once-elegant 1920s apartment building told me, looking at me with hostility. "We also have some mental patients who are placed here by a social service agency." I passed.

As the weeks went on, I began to despair of whether I would ever find a place. "You look homesick," Mr. Goldberg said. "Why don’t I order you some Hebrew National pastrami, corned beef, salami? We get air-mailed from Chicago...."

On the fourth Saturday, I found an apartment in an Art-Deco-style apartment building a little further to the north, in a more "respectable" area at 39th Street and North Meridian. There was a Chinese restaurant a block away, a bar across the street, and best of all, a built-in laundromat. The next Monday, I talked to Mr. Goldberg, who knew a furniture-store owner who helped me rent some furniture. Now, all I needed was a car. On my last day at the Y, I packed my bags and promised Vince that I’d stay in touch.

Next weekend, I went shopping in the nearest supermarket. Walking down the wide aisles, examining the huge variety of food, it occurred to me that the last time I’d even been in a supermarket was a month and a half ago. After the way I’d been living for the past month, just being there seemed like an untold luxury to me. Welcome back to the world, I thought.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Marijuana's Going Legal--and Nobody's Raising a Fuss

Originally published in "Brooklyn Daily Eagle"


By Raanan Geberer
Brooklyn Daily Eagle

This week, Governor Cuomo is expected to announce a plan to introduce legal medical marijuana in New York State.

Unlike some states, where marijuana can be prescribed for almost any minor condition (and many dispensers undoubtedly just wink at this prohibition), medical marijuana in New York is expected to be only available for serious conditions such as glaucoma and cancer. It will also be dispensed only at a select number of hospitals, rather than “dispensaries” like those in states like California, which often bear provocative names like “The Green Light District.”

Here in Brooklyn, our new district attorney, Kenneth Thompson, has said his office will not prosecute arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana, but will just give them non-criminal fines. "Too many young people are being arrested for low-level drug charges that leave a permanent stain on their records for what should be a violation," Thompson said.
Getting back to medical marijuana, 20 states have now legalized it in some form or other. More remarkably, two states – Colorado and Washington  -- have passed laws legalizing recreational marijuana. The initiative is being delayed a few months in Washington, but in Colorado, a reported $1 million in business was done at about 35 “pot shops” during the state’s first day of legal marijuana. One such store, in Boulder, also offers items like “Sweet Mary Jane Crackers,” “Heavenly Honey Lemon Chill Pills” and “Twirling Hippy Cheesecakes.” Maybe the latter item can give Junior’s a run for its money.

The most remarkable thing, however, is that these wide-ranging changes aren’t setting the world on fire. No one’s turning cartwheels in the street. Conversely, no one’s warning that legal marijuana will lead to heroin and crack addiction.

Imagine if marijuana, legal or otherwise, had become legalized in the ’70s! What a change it would have been! Radio stations would have been playing songs like “Panama Red” and “One Toke Over the Line” night and day. People dressed in tie-dyed shirts and walking like Mister Natural would be “toking up” in public. Chcech and Chong, and a thousand other comedians, would have been making “weed” jokes on late-night TV. “High Times” would have sold out every copy.

What do we have today? There are few modern equivalents to Cheech and Chong or the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour’s“Take a Little Tea with Goldie.” Smoking marijuana isn’t considered “deliciously naughty” anymore. Much of this can be blamed on the Reagan administration, which included marijuana in its “War on Drugs” along with cocaine, heroin, meth, etc. Whereas beforehand, students smoked marijuana openly at college concerts and in their dorm rooms with the doors wide open, this attitude forced marijuana indoors. While few people share those attitudes nowadays, the damage was done.

For the record, I smoked marijuana, mainly at parties, but didn’t think much of it. To me, it was like having one glass of beer – something with little effect. Maybe the big mystique of marijuana was that it helped to give the younger generation a sense of identity. “They” drank Scotch and martinis, but “we” smoked marijuana (and drank sweet, cheap wines like Boone’s Farm Apple). Now, that distinction has been removed. Parents of one of today’s college students, upon learning that their son or daughter smoked a joint, are likely to just shrug their shoulders.

Legal marijuana is arriving, fast and furious. Too bad they took the fun out of it!