Monthly Archives: December, 2006

Touching News

File this news item from the Washington Post under “Researching the Obvious”:

Spouses Have A Hand in Quelling Anxiety

Husbands and wives lean on each other, but it turns out that lending a hand is good, too.

Research published in this month’s edition of the journal Psychological Science found that women facing a stressful event experienced less anxiety when they held their husbands’ hands.

In the study, 16 married women underwent a series of trials in which they were shown an image of a red X, indicating a 20 percent chance of a mild electric shock to an ankle, or a blue O, indicating no chance of a shock. Each woman variously held the hand of her husband, a stranger or no hand at all.

Researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to assess how the women’s brains responded. Holding any hand helped relax the women, they found, but holding the spouse’s hand had an especially powerful effect.

“Holding any hand at all calms regions of the brain that are responsible for the body’s physical stress response,” said neuroscientist James A. Coan of the University of Virginia, the study’s lead author. “But only the spousal hand affected regions of the brain that are responsible for worrying. . . . This is the region which is thought to be associated with your experience of pain.”

The findings are in line with other research showing that social ties have beneficial effects on health. Married people are, on average, healthier and happier than unmarried people, researchers have found. And those in the happiest marriages tend to have lower risks of infection and faster recovery from injury than people in less blissful unions. Similarly, although all of the couples in the experiment rated themselves as happily married, women in the most satisfying marriages experienced the most potent calming effect of holding their husbands’ hands. [full text]

Future research will undoubtedly be devoted to determining if men experience less anxiety when their spouses hold their _____. Other studies will presumably substitute any meaningful human contact with clinical trials of Soothera or Embracex or some such magic pill.

Of Past and Present Leaders

“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here, the people rule.�

These words, of course, were uttered more than three decades ago by Gerald Ford upon assuming the presidency. They echo still…though, sadly, they now ring more hollow than true. At the time Ford took office, the American public had been worn down by years of scandal and tragedy—including an unpopular war—presided over by men of boundless arrogance and scant ethics. In short, it was a time not unlike the present.

But no resignation is forthcoming from the current occupant of the White House. No threat of impeachment looms. No one of any solid character and integrity is waiting in the wings. Our long national nightmare is not over.

Upon hearing news of Gerald Ford’s death, President Bush gave a brief statement, in which he offered his condolences and words of praise:

During his time in office, the American people came to know President Ford as a man of complete integrity who led our country with common sense and kind instincts.

Americans will always admire Gerald Ford’s unflinching performance of duty and the honorable conduct of his administration, and the great rectitude of the man himself. [full text]

It is difficult to disagree with this assessment of the former President. It is difficult, also, to imagine any future President eulogizing George W. Bush in such a fashion. To put it mildly, there is a great decency divide between the two leaders.

After Watergate and Vietnam, this nation could do worse than Gerald Ford. And so it has.

Gross Inequality

I am not typically one to employ Biblical quotes, but the news article which follows–and, gee, it’s been so widely reported–invites this classic: “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

From OneWorld.net:

Richest 2 Percent Own Half the World’s Wealth

The richest 2 percent of adults in the world own more than half the world’s wealth, according to a new study released by the Helsinki-based World Institute for Development Economics Research of the United Nations University.

The study’s authors say their work is the most comprehensive study of personal wealth ever undertaken. They found the richest 1 percent of adults owned 40 percent of global assets in the year 2000, and that the richest 10 percent of adults accounted for 85 percent of the world’s total.

In contrast, the assets of half of the world’s adult population account for barely 1 percent of global wealth.

“It reflects the extreme nature of inequality around the world,” one of the study’s authors, New York University Professor Edward Wolff, told OneWorld. “Yes, we are richer than Africa and Latin America and most of Asia, but how much richer is what hadn’t really been established until our study came out,” Wolff added.

According to the report, the average American’s wealth amounted to $144,000 in the year 2000, more than 100 times higher than the average Indian or Indonesian, whose assets totaled $1,100 and $1,400, respectively.

The study defined wealth as physical and financial assets–like personal savings and home, land, and stock ownership–less debts.

Besides the United States, only Canada, Western Europe, Japan, and Israel showed average personal wealth of more than $50,000. [full text]

Yeah, and they only hate us for our freedom.

Complications of Diabetes

What happens when the challenges of managing an illness such as diabetes comes up against the challenges of managing a business, when the needs of an employee with a medical condition conflict in some measure with the needs of an employer to operate their business in a safe and cost-efficient manner? One would think that, in the early part of the 21st century, the law might lend some clarity to such issues. One would be wrong.

From the New York Times:

Diabetics in the Workplace Confront a Tangle of Laws

MINNEAPOLIS — John Steigauf spent more than a decade fiddling with the innards of those huge United Parcel Service trucks until an icy day two years ago when the company put him on leave from his mechanic’s job. A supervisor escorted him off the premises.

His work was good. He hadn’t socked the boss or embezzled money. It had to do with what was inside him: diabetes.

U.P.S. framed it as a safety issue: Mr. Steigauf’s blood sugar might suddenly plummet while he tested a truck, causing him to slam into someone.

Mr. Steigauf considered it discrimination, a taint that diabetes can carry. “I was regarded as a damaged piece of meat,� he said. “It was like, ‘You’re one of those, and we can’t have one of those.’ �

With 21 million American diabetics, disputes like this have increasingly rippled through the workplace:

¶A mortgage loan officer in Oregon was denied permission to eat at her desk to stanch her sugar fluctuations, and eventually was fired.

¶A Sears lingerie saleswoman in Illinois with nerve damage in her leg quit after being told she could not cut through a stockroom to reach her department.

¶A worker at a candy company in Wisconsin was fired after asking where he could dispose of his insulin needles.

In each instance, diabetics contend that they are being blocked by their employers from the near-normal lives their doctors say are possible. But the companies say they are struggling, too, with confusion about whether diabetes is a legitimate disability and with concern about whether it is overly expensive, hazardous and disruptive to accommodate the illness.

The debate will probably intensify. The number of diabetics in America swelled by 80 percent in the past decade. Experts say the disease is on its way to becoming a conspicuous fact of life in the nation’s labor force, raising all sorts of issues for workers and managers. [full text]

Happy Holidays to One and All

In my mid to late teens, I recall strenuously lobbying my parents for a “holiday” tree, despite our Jewish heritage. I wanted a taste of what my many goyim friends took for granted each December. With a little help from Jack Abramoff (not really), my lobbying was soon successful. So it was that, for at least a couple of years, my family and I enjoyed a lovely pagan tree, with twinkling lights and an assortment of secular ornaments. I can almost envision it now. And if I punch my head hard enough, I can still savor its fresh woodsy scent.

In any regard, this amusing essay by Cindy Chupack in the New York Times resurrected these memories:

Jewish in a Winter Wonderland

I BLAME the Pottery Barn holiday catalog for the fact that my husband and I, both Jews, spent last weekend at Home Depot picking out a Christmas tree. I cannot blame our kids who begged us mercilessly for a tree, because we do not yet have kids. I cannot blame my parents, because although my dad initially supported George Bush, he never supported the Hanukkah bush.

In fact, I recall that he was extremely judgmental of one Jewish family in the place I grew up (Tulsa), who did have a Christmas tree every year. Even though it was decorated exclusively with blue ornaments and silver bows, my dad made it clear to my sister and me that he thought the whole Jews-with-trees movement was in very poor taste.

Then again, my dad was a man who, in his wood-paneled wet bar, had highball glasses featuring busty women whose clothes disappeared when the glass was full. So I learned early on that taste was subjective.

Fast forward to last month. My husband and I have been married a year and a half, and I am flipping through the Pottery Barn holiday catalog while he sorts the mail, and page after page is something beautiful and not for us, because we are Jews. In my humble opinion, Jews have yet to make Hanukkah decorations beautiful, unless you consider a blue-and-white paper dreidel beautiful, but what can you expect from a holiday whose spelling is constantly up for debate.

So as I browsed past velvet monogrammed stockings and quilted tree skirts and pine wreaths and silver-plated picture frames that doubled as stocking holders (genius!), I said to myself, as much as to my husband: “This is why I sometimes wish I celebrated Christmas. Everything looks so cozy and inviting.� And much to my surprise, he said, “We can celebrate Christmas if you want.� And like a 12-year-old, I said, “We can?� And he said, “Sure.�

It seemed so subversive. Christmas? Really? I thought about it for a moment. Or rather, I thought about what my parents would think. But my parents live 1,200 miles away. They weren’t visiting this season. They wouldn’t even need to know. (Unless, of course, they read about it in The Times. Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad!)

Still, even just considering the idea felt wrong and dirty and, well, totally exhilarating, like your first night away at college, when you realize you can stay out until dawn because nobody is waiting up for you. My husband and I were consenting adults. This was our house. Why couldn’t we celebrate whatever we wanted? [full text]

The Transformative Nature of War

Regardless of whether one views the war in Iraq as a military misadventure or a noble endeavor, there seems little question that the experience has been (and continues to be) life-altering for the brave men and women serving on the front lines. Here is one tale, courtesy of the Washington Post:

From Parties to a Purple Heart

Before she was a soldier in Iraq, Monica Beltran was a party girl in Woodbridge.

She was always out with her friends — always, she says — and if it seemed that she barely talked to her mother or seldom slept in her bed, well, that was how she thought life as a teenager should be. There was always another club, another party, another pack of cigarettes.

Then she went to Iraq.

There, she worked the rutted roads of the war zone, sometimes behind the wheel of a Humvee, often at the machine gun in the turret. It was a year removed from life as a suburban teenager, a year riven with doubt, discomfort, loneliness and, on one fateful day, an ambush that tested her courage and skill as nothing ever had.

At 21, Beltran has now remade her life in the United States with a war hero’s medals and a combat veteran’s sense of life’s gravity — her experience in many ways a coming-of-age story, the kind that men have told for centuries.

“Now she knows the party is not everything,” her mother, Luz Washington, said recently, noting Beltran’s full-time job and college classes. “Now,” she said, “I worry she works too much.”

In the words of her platoon sergeant, Michael Kohrt: “She probably matured five years in one year’s time.”

For American women, the life-altering experience of combat has never been so widespread. In Iraq and Afghanistan, women have deployed in numbers previously unknown — more than 155,000 in the past five years.

Those who serve are often young, with 47 percent of enlisted soldiers younger than 25. For many, war becomes the defining force in life — framing the path ahead, its choices, its sense of purpose, its bonds. [full text]

Mourning from Afar

Ah, the things that the Internet has made possible. From the Associated Press:

Web site allows Iranian Jews to mourn

LOS ANGELES –As a young woman in Tehran during the 1970s, Susan Manavi never visited a cemetery, even after her grandparents were laid to rest a couple of years before Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Although they were buried in a Jewish cemetery near the city, Manavi’s parents adhered to an Iranian cultural taboo that death and youth should be kept apart, so as not to tempt fate.

The 52-year-old Los Angeles woman first laid eyes on her grandparents’ headstones two months ago on the Web site Beheshtieh.com. The site has photographs of thousands of graves from Beheshtieh Cemetery.

“Looking at those graves took me back to our homeland and all the memories, sweet and bitter,” Manavi said. “The sweetness of everybody living side by side, rather harmoniously, and the bitterness of leaving and not knowing if you will ever be back.”

The site was developed by L.A. resident Shahram Avraham Farzan. He has cataloged the final resting place for generations of Tehran’s Jewish people.

Indexed alphabetically, the site provides an opportunity for e-mourning at a time when many Jews throughout the world feel antagonized by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The hardline conservative has repeatedly called for the annihilation of Israel, and most recently sponsored a conference denying the existence of the Holocaust. [full text]

Stacking the Deck Against the Poor

This article in the Washington Post tells of a study which concluded that funds for education aimed helping poor children are actually benefiting richer states:

A $13 billion federal program to help students from low-income families has actually widened an education funding gap between rich and poor states, according to a study released yesterday.

The program, known as Title I, is part of a slew of federal, state and local policies that direct more resources to the nation’s wealthiest children than to its poorest, the study concluded. It found that the highest-poverty school districts receive an average of $825 less each year per student in state and local funding than the wealthiest districts. It also found that state and local money often flows disproportionately to wealthy students within districts.

“The decisions that we make stack the deck against low-income kids and kids of color,” said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, the District-based nonprofit group that issued the report. “These facts raise really disturbing questions about our values as a country.”

The report’s authors contended that Title I, which has become a key element of the No Child Left Behind law, has failed to narrow the yawning achievement gap between wealthy and disadvantaged students in part because its funding formula directs more money to states that already spend the most on education. That means the formula causes the rich states to get richer, leaving the poor ones further behind.

“Title I money is supposed to level the playing field for poor kids,” said Goodwin Liu, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley and co-author of the study, but instead it “ends up reinforcing rather than reducing inequality.”

Experts say children raised in poverty need more instructional time and specially trained teachers to help overcome their disadvantages — resources that require more spending.

The report lays much of the blame for the funding gap on states. In 26 states, the highest-poverty districts receive less state and local funding than the wealthiest ones; in 28 states, the districts with the most minority students receive less money than those with the fewest.

The Washington region fell in the middle of the spectrum. Maryland spends $123 less per student in poor districts than in wealthy ones and $302 less per student in high-minority districts than in those with few minorities, the study found.

Virginia spends $114 less per student in low-income districts than affluent ones, the study found, but $418 more per student in high-minority areas than in those with few minorities. The District was not included in the analysis.

Liu said the Title I formula should be changed so that states with the greatest concentration of poor children receive a larger share of funding. He said it made little sense for Maryland to receive 51 percent more Title I money per child than Arkansas even though Maryland has a lower percentage of poor children.

Liu argued that funding for Title I should be increased to offset disparities among states. U.S. Education Department spokesman Chad Colby said Congress controls funding. He added: “When you look at the funds at the district level, they are relatively targeted, so the money is reaching poor students.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the incoming chairman of the Senate’s education committee, suggested that he would be open to reviewing funding policy.

“We cannot close the education achievement gap in this country without addressing the funding gap, which keeps our low-income and minority children at a disadvantage,” he said in a written statement. “States must take responsibility for ensuring access to resources for all our children, but the federal government has to do its part as well.”

Signs of the Times

Georgia is most definitely not the place you want to run afoul of the law (as previously noted here and here). Authorities in the Peach State are about as soft on crime as sandpaper on a baby’s tokhes. Just ask Craig Breuwet, as reported here in the Macon Telegraph:

Man wears ‘liar’ sign as penance for filing false report

A 33-year-old Warner Robins man wearing a large sign board proclaiming “I AM A LIAR” marched up and down busy Watson Boulevard on Wednesday in lieu of facing trial for filing a false police report.

Craig Breuwet also confessed that the court-sanctioned experience was humiliating.

Breuwet’s punishment stems from his reporting falsely to police that he had been kidnapped by two men in a Warner Robins parking lot, driven to Macon and beaten up.

Breuwet must publicly display the “I AM A LIAR” sign for 10 hours to meet the condition of a pre-trial diversion that allows for dismissal of charges of making a false report of a crime and making false statements to police, Houston County District Attorney Kelly Burke said Wednesday. [full text]

However shaming the punishment, it’s certainly creative. Perhaps when the U.S. Congress reconvenes in January, the long-suffering Democrats who now possess majority control might consider sanctioning President Bush for his many lies about the war in Iraq and then punishing him like Craig Breuwet. Wouldn’t that be a lovely sign to the rest of the world that deceit in the seat of government is not taken lightly here?

Often, It Takes More Than A Pill

There is an old saying that charity begins at home. The same might be said of change, particularly when it comes to parenting a child with emotional and/or behavioral difficulties. Benedict Carey of the New York Times offers another fine article that illustrates why simply medicating troubled children is often not enough:

Parenting as Therapy for Child’s Mental Disorders

BUFFALO — In school he was as floppy and good-natured as a puppy, a boy who bear-hugged his friends, who was always in motion, who could fall off his chair repeatedly, as if he had no idea how to use one.

But at home, after run-ins with his parents, his exuberance could turn feral. From the exile of his room, Peter Popczynski would throw anything that could be launched — books, pencils, lamps, clothes, toys — scarring the walls of the family’s brick bungalow, and leaving some items to rattle down the hallway, like flotsam from a storm.

The Popczynskis soon received a diagnosis for their son, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or A.D.H.D., and were told that they could turn to a stimulant medication like Ritalin. Doctors have ample evidence that stimulants not only calm children physically but may also improve their school performance, at least for as long as they are on medication.

But like most other parents, the couple preferred to avoid drug treatment, if possible. Instead, with the guidance of psychologists at the University of Buffalo, they altered the way they interacted with Peter and his younger brother, Scott. And over the course of a difficult year, they brought about a transformation in their son. He still has days when he gets into trouble, like any other 10-year-old, but he no longer exhibits the level of restless distractibility that earned him a psychiatric diagnosis.

“People are so stressed out, and it’s so much easier to say, ‘Here, take this pill and go to your room; leave me alone,’ � Lisa Popczynski said on a recent Monday after work. Peter sat on the couch, hunched over his homework, while her husband, Roman, occupied Scott, 8.

“But what I would say is that if you are willing to take on the responsibility of extra parenting, you can make a big difference,� said Ms. Popczynski, an interior designer. “I compare parenting to driving. We all learn pretty quickly how to drive a car. But if you have to drive a Mack truck, you’re going to need some training.�

In recent decades, psychiatry has come to understand mental disorders as a matter of biology, of brain abnormalities rooted in genetic variation. This consensus helped discredit theories from the 1960s that blamed the parents — usually the mother — for problems like neurosis, schizophrenia and autism.

By defining mental disorders as primarily problems of brain chemicals, the emphasis on biology also led to an increasing dependence on psychiatric drugs, especially those that entered the market in the 1980s and 1990s.

But the science behind nondrug treatments is getting stronger. And now, some researchers and doctors are looking again at how inconsistent, overly permissive or uncertain child-rearing styles might worsen children’s problems, and how certain therapies might help resolve those problems, in combination with drug therapy or without drugs. [full text]

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