Monday, April 23, 2012

What do "Food Deserts" and Cardboard Arcades have in common?

One of my favorite games is finding connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena. What do "healthy food deserts" have to do with Internet sensation Caine Monroy, the 9-year-old who made a cardboard arcade at his dad's auto parts store in LA?

Aside from the fact they both interest me, they both say something about the free enterprise system.

Lots of my friends sent me last week's New York Times front-page story about "healthy food deserts" because they recalled my post nearly a year ago saying the same thing. New studies now verify that obese people don't lack access to fresh food. The twisted conventional wisdom blames eeeevil fast food chains, with their nefarious advertising campaigns, for expanding the national girth by forcing out sources of healthy veggies:  in 2008 a third of the US population was overweight, and an additional third obese.

The assumption is that the obese would choose salads over Big Macs if only they had lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes nearby. Our government has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars directly, and at least another $250 million into tax credits to make food deserts bloom with carrots and broccoli (detailed in my blog). The problem is--all along studies have shown that people in the poorest neighborhoods, with the highest percentages of obese residents, actually have greater choices for food than other areas, including stores with bountiful fresh vegetables.

Yes, I told you so, and I also told you that the real issue isn't availability of food but the fact that our "do something" culture tries to spend its way out of problems, even before understanding their causes.  We don't need to throw money at corner stores so that they'll put baskets of fruit by the cash register (to rot).  We need to find out the real reasons why obesity rates climbed steeply between 1980 and 2000, and remained steady ever since.  Is it a virus (Adeno 36)? A mutant gene (called "FTO"), a hormonal shift (related to ghrelin) or something else?  It's not that big corporations, in their greediness, foist gluttony on a hapless public.

And neither is it only that consumers themselves are shoveling sugary calories into their mouths while inert at their computer screens.  I was struck viewing an excellent BBC TV series called "Why are Thin People Not Fat?" that followed ten thin people through four weeks of consuming twice the calories they needed, exercise forbidden.  Under careful medical supervision that monitored everything--including minute changes in body composition measured inside a strange egg-shaped device that sucks out the air inside--volunteers documented their own fattening processes. It was expected they'd gain about 15% of their body weights in that time, but the "winner," the person gaining the most, added 9%, practically invisible on his frame because it was muscle, not fat. Some added as little as 2% to their body weights. And in every case, after the experiment the extra weight fell off effortlessly, almost immediately.

We learn from this that some people are designed to be thin; others (for a variety of reasons) are going to be fat, and temporary alterations in consumption aren't likely to bring permanent results. Ask anyone who's dieted.

Flash now to an industrious kid in Los Angeles, who instead of spending a lonely summer watching Hulu or playing video games, decided to create something: A place for other people to have fun, from which he would profit.  Caine Monroy made discarded cardboard boxes into an old-fashioned arcade, where players could throw a wad-of-tape ball through a net, or dodge rows of scotch-taped toy soldiers, and if successful could trade win tickets Caine pushed through a slot for prizes. The games weren't really impressive, and the ever-hopeful Caine was heart-rending, waiting by his creation with nary a customer, hour after hour.

Until documentary-maker Nirvan Mullick happened by for an auto part, and was captivated by the Rube Goldberg array of cardboard options. His touching 11-minute YouTube about the flash mob he organized to surprise the boy went viral and catapulted Caine and his kindly dad to national fame. Now a scholarship fund for his college education holds $170,000, according to a New York Times article, and Forbes magazine predicts Caine will be a billionaire within 30 years.

I'm not the first to point out how Caine's charming story illustrates that the drive to achieve and improve one's lot still thrives in America, and that the entrepreneurial spirit flourishes even in the face of discouragement (like zero foot traffic near your cardboard arcade). But  the same free enterprise system explains why the notion of "food deserts" is a crock.

Business is wonderful; Owners profit by providing people something they want, at a price they're willing to pay. A 9-year-old bases his arcade on the premise that others want to have fun; a grocer in the inner city stocks his shelves in response to the foods his customers want to buy.  It turns out that even with vegetables available, more people want to buy packaged food. When the system works, supply responds to demand.

The impressive thing about Caine isn't really his adorable discarded-carton arcade, but his indomitable industry. Before taping together his boxes, Caine tried peddling yard signs, and sold soda and chips door-to-door in his neighborhood. He offered rubber bracelets on eBay and at swap meets. If Nirvan Mullick didn't happen by, Caine would no doubt have invented another get-rich-quick scheme.  How come a kid knows something governments don't? Some people do

The bottom line actually refers to the top: social programs from the government down seldom succeed in improving people's values, but the values of tenacity and applied creativity can make a big difference when expressed from the individual up.

For $15, Caine will sell you a self-designed "staff" t-shirt that says "Caine's Arcade" on the back. The Times article describes a shirt purchaser who offered him a $20 bill. Before pulling out his stash,"without a hint of sarcasm," Caine queried his customer: "Do you need any change?" For $2, he'll sell you a "fun pass" good for 500 turns, 20 seconds each, as counted aloud by the young proprietor.

By contrast, handing a corner grocery store $100,000 in tax money to add refrigerated veggie display cases to supply a nonexistent demand makes no business sense. Instead, the purpose is to salve the "do something" conscience of bureaucrats and bleeding-hearts far away, who think they know best how to help fat unfortunates.

Subsidizing stores to carry undesired items shows appalling disregard for a free-market system 9-year-old Caine already understands. Which effort is more likely to succeed--the one to slim down neighbors by stocking more veggies for them to buy, or a kid willing to keep taking entrepreneurial risks until one breaks through?

I'll take the fun pass.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Tattoos--eewwww. And many of the tattoo'd agree.

For the love of Nascar
Amazingly, half of adults 18-29 have intentionally scarred their bodies with tattoos, and enough people want to join this marked band that a new tattoo parlor opens every day--with expectations of profit. But the tattoo removal business is also thriving, and recently I spoke to a young woman who says she'll have the rose on her hip wiped off as soon as she can afford it.

A news report from WCVB in Boston this week describes the costly, painful process required to eliminate drawings and slogans that took just minutes to etch.  Lasers shoot through the skin to disburse embedded ink, but each treatment can only lighten the image somewhat. The ink re-collects, and so another, then another session, six weeks between each, must be endured--perhaps as many as a dozen times.  Even so, says Dr. Oon Tian Tan, a patient can have adverse reactions like white or bubbled scars, or the tattoo can even darken. Deeply colored drawings may be impossible to obscure.

Beautiful? Or just tra(d)gedy?
The travail of removal doesn't deter Seattlites, and here tattoos are ubiquitous.  Seeing someone's complete arm transformed by navy blue, black and colors, or even noticing a snake or thorn garland around someone's neck always manages to take me aback, and I do my best to feign nonchalance, focusing on the individual's eyes.  Every person is worthy of respect, though when someone turns his skin into a visible sketchpad, he's sending a message--even if you can't tell at a glance exactly what it is. The only thing certain is that he (or she) felt his (or her) body would be enhanced forever via someone else's artistic imprint.

While honoring each individual's choice to tattoo, I must disagree. Nature-given bodies certainly can be imperfect, but why subject them to permanent scars in designs that reflect the wearer's state of mind only at that one point in life? Such an intrusive alteration shows either a lack of long-term perspective or perhaps too much confidence in the future--how can anyone assume that he'll never change his opinion?  What if later he tires of it, a spouse dislikes it, or skin sags to distort the drawing into something unattractive (see the Nascar lady)?

In that case, there's always the laser. Out of curiosity, I googled "cost of tattoo removal" and came upon an enterprise called Dr. TATTOFF, which has clinics in Dallas and Southern California dedicated to the regretfully inked.  Two of that clinic's dermatologists created their own scale to estimate how many laser sessions would be required to blast off a given tattoo.  They give a score based on the client's skin type, density and color of the ink, and its location on the body, to estimate cost; any work beyond that price is free.

According to their website, most tattoo removal requires 9 to 12 laser sessions, and sets back patients between $600 and $2,000. Looking at some of Dr. TATTOFF's examples raises the obvious question, "what were these people thinking?"

Is that really a BABY?
One individual had the word "Best" tattooed across the breadth of his upper back in "Chinese-restaurant take-out" font about 6 inches high. The estimated removal expense was $2,230. A 6-square-inch color drawing of what appears to be an angry bird on another client's back cost $1,823 to obliterate.  Dissolving a one-inch script name carved around a ring finger runs about $600.  Perhaps the most obvious candidate for removal was the 9-square-inch tattoo of a naked woman, hands behind, body cris-crossed with what seem to be leather straps, covering a patient's entire upper arm--labeled by the clinic with the word "bondage." Scuttling that beauty was likely $1,553 well spent.

Wow, that looks GREAT....
Of course, there are several "worst tattoo" sites, if you'd really like to be grossed-out. Reminds me of "cake wrecks," where well-meaning bakers misspell or misinterpret order forms to hilarious result. But you can eat or dump a hideous cake. Bad tattoos aren't so easy to destroy, and unsightly results don't leave 'em laughing. And often leave 'em lasering.

Years ago, I was asked to appear on a TV talk show to represent anti-tattoo sentiment. I was flown from my hometown (LA) to the site of the show (Seattle)--unaware that the audience was completely filled with the colorfully-ornamented clientele of the tattoo parlor-owner set to be my opposition. When the host brought his microphone into the well-pierced and needled audience, my hostile questioners had no qualms showing their "significant" etches, no matter where. My point then, as now, is merely that people change.  Tattoos, too, are affected by time, and the amount of pain and expense by many ruefully adorned to return to just plain skin ought to bring anyone considering the alteration pause.

A blog post in the Seattle Weekly a couple years ago offers an amusing flowchart of the tattoo decision-making process in which arrows lead through funny, relevant questions about ramifications, concluding, "you probably shouldn't get a tattoo." Right.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Why Mothers Miss their Grown Children (and why this mother dislikes the movie "American Reunion")

I was incredibly touched by a beautifully-written New York Times article about how humans are affected by love. Not sex, which was the theme of a disgusting film I saw last night, "American Reunion," but the kind of visceral, integral connection forged originally by a mother's first bond with her baby, which research now shows determines all future relationships.

The foundation created in the earliest moments is then only subsequently shaped, clarified, and revised.  Those critical emergent, wordless interchanges define for each infant love, trust and the nature and character of the physical and emotional world.

"Every great love affair begins with a scream," writes Diane Ackerman. "An infant is steeped in bright, buzzing, bristling sensations, raw emotions and the curious feelings they unleash, weird objects, a flux of faces, shadowy images and dreams--but most of all a powerfully magnetic primary caregiver whose wizardry astounds."

The magnet propels both souls together in an inseparable joining that compels moms to throw themselves as shields before any threat to their children. It allows them to hear their baby's whimper from far away and identify their own infant's cry within two days of birth from among scores of babies' wails.

"Brain scans show synchrony between the brains of mother and child," Ackerman explains, "but what they can't show is the internal bond that belongs to neither alone, a fusion in which the self feels so permeable it doesn't matter whose body is whose."

"Yes!" I'm thinking, recalling the intensity the arrival my first daughter brought me, the astonishing, complete bonding that unexpectedly transformed my normally in-control being. It fueled my compulsion to leap to soothe her every whine, and to stare at her perfect sleeping face interminably.

"Wordlessly, relying on the heart's semaphores, the mother says all an infant needs to hear, communicating through eyes, face and voice," the article continues. "Thanks to advances in neuro-imaging, we now have evidence that a baby's first attachments imprint its brain. The patterns of a lifetime's behaviors, thoughts, self-regard and choice of sweethearts all begin in this crucible."

The newspaper story then describes the bountiful, beneficial effects of love, as one matures and transfers primary conjunction to a spouse, whose mere touch can reassure, calm and even protect from disease.

But wait, what happens to the mother, the second half, or perhaps the foremost half of the original infant-parent connection?  The other part of the "fusion in which the self feels so permeable it doesn't matter whose body is whose"? Excuse me?

As the child grows and adds to his repertoire of relationships, the mother continues to provide unconditional nurturing, adapting her style to the youngster's ever-changing needs.  Mom teaches, scolds and indulges, carrying dirty plates to the sink and washing them willingly, with only a knowing shake of the head that her child didn't do it himself.  Later, she absorbs the teenager's moodiness and sometimes even rejection by increasing her capacity for patience.  The mother continues, no increases, her love and appreciation of the newly blossoming personality, seeking only that her child flourish.

And then, dum-dum DUM. The child leaves home. Oh sure, the kid's bedroom remains intact, but it instantly shifts from residence and cocoon to relic and souvenir. Storage for the chatchkes that don't look cool in the new apartment.

After all those years of caring, it isn't that mothers require someone to dote upon and respond to them. Speaking as a relatively recent empty nester, let me say, I miss my children because I miss who they are, how they speak, what they're thinking, and the unique whirlwinds of activity they create that reflect their interests and irritants, their basic needs (even the food-crusted empty bowls) and their emotional complexities. Skype doesn't cut it.

This article, called "The Brain on Love," capsulized for me the depth of connection that is lost when a child moves out and on.  For the child, it's replaced--with sorority life, with schoolwork, with generating new friendships and eventually that grand replacement in which the hand held for support and nurturing becomes a soul mate. Though parental devotion can be sublimated and redirected, the craving to hold, kiss and cuddle your unique child can no longer be fulfilled.

That may be life, but given how intrinsic and essential the mother-child bond is--and its permanent impact--adult children should at least humor their moms. "Honor thy father and thy mother" doesn't just mean to show up at Thanksgiving, but to let parents into your daily life; tell them the funny incident that happened today, let them know who you're mad at and the quandries you're pondering. Let them hear the sound of your voice and not feel they're imposing on your busy schedule.

"American Reunion" is rife with the adolescent scatological stupidity fans of the previous two "American Pie" films expect.  Having not viewed the originals, I was unprepared by the trailer for the extent of gross and graphic content, and was falsely lured by the notion of married-with-kids 31-year-olds (ie grown-ups) returning for their midwest high school's 13th reunion.  Part of the plot was the relationship between Jim (Jason Biggs) and his dad (Eugene Levy), and while a single contrived and superficial scene aims to illustrate their bond, it simply reinforces the pervasive message of the movie--that sex is constantly essential.

During the parts of the film when I closed my eyes (and there were plenty) I didn't hear the audience laughing--instead they went "eeew!" or "aargh!" or "ack!", responses to repulsive thwacks or, um, other actions that for some bring entertainment.

But none of the characters showed any real connection. The dad sat on the couch pathetically watching his son's bar mitzvah video. Stifler's mom reclined on a chaise with her anatomy bursting a satin gown. The cadre of friends seemed only to reinforce each others' immaturity, and the peripheral wives and girlfriends symbolized sanity but didn't exhibit it.

Watching that kind of display at least fueled my gratitude for the indelible connections that enrich real life. I'm glad I have my own husband's touch to soothe and reassure. But I do miss those little ones for whom I could define love.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Obamas "Have My Back"

What is all this about "have my back?"  It seems the phrase is everywhere, including where it shouldn't be. President Obama uses it to plead for donations, and Rick Perry considered it a request for his presidential bid.
Have his back for just $3
And now it's Michelle Obama's turn, in a "poor baby" email describing her husband's sleepless nights as he responds to your letters and works so hard for you, and oh, needs your money--why? To "have his back."

Many who had his back in 2008 are now ready to give his back back.

Why is it that educated people insist on resorting to ridiculous slang?  Answer: to seem hip. To seem cool.  Have my back. Please.

Let's look at this a moment. On the day of the 2010 elections, the President told Chicago TV: "You can make a difference today and how well I'm able to move my agenda forward over the next couple of years is gonna depend in part on folks back home having my back."

The erudite pronouncement of a law professor.

In January, just before the Iowa caucuses, Gov. Rick Perry told audiences in Sioux City,  "If you have my back tomorrow at the caucuses, I'll have your back for the next four years in Washington, D.C."  Not that he'll work diligently on the serious issues confronting our nation and the world; he's more interested in back story. Apparently Iowans had little interest in Gov. Perry, forward or backward. He earned 10% of the vote.

And this week, in an email signed "Michelle," the First Lady asks for a donation of a mere "$3 or more" to repay our President for his ceaseless, selfless devotion to you.  "Every night in the White House, I see Barack up late poring over briefings, reading your letters and writing notes to people he's met.  He's doing that for you--working hard every day to make sure we can finish what we all started together."

Then the clincher: "This week, I need you to have his back."

The President has Mrs. Obama's back
The phrase, I thought, means to watch behind him to guard against a threat.  I think people intend the term "back me up." Like in the old cop TV shows, where they're always calling for back-up. (Not "backin' up," as in the internet meme.) Michelle wants you to back up her husband so after November he can get back up for another four years. Or maybe he's just begging, "take me back," given his deficit expansion, soon-to-be rejected Obamacare and failure to make the nation group hug.

A very hard rock Australian group has addressed the issue appropriately. In what I consider a hilarious series of hoarse shouts, the group Carpathian offers lyrics that begin, "I want to know who's for real. All this talk of having my back has been overdone. I have no compassion for this f---ing trend." They end two-and-a-half minutes of throat-scraping with the scream, "Don't! Have! My! BAAAAACK!" 

Not to disappoint the Aussies, but "have my back" is everywhere. Often used incorrectly.  And if I'm wrong, you can get back to me.