Thursday, October 29, 2009

Baby Boomer Shame

My 24-year-old son emerged into the job market from college at a very bad time—in the heart of a very bad economic recession. He's one of those young people who have been unable to find work in his discipline of choice (Physics) and instead is working at a grocery store doing  variety of duties. In some ways, he's quite lucky to have this, but I wish better for him, of course. 

Occasionally I find myself a bit glum for his situation. This is no longer an era where every hardworking young person can find a good-paying job quickly. He's really not able to put much money away in the job he has now, and it may be a long, long while until he'll be able to join the middle class routine of home ownership, new car, etc. LIke all parents, I'd like the very best for my son, and his economic struggles are hard to watch.

But it also occurs to me that my perspective is colored by an expectation of affluence that is perhaps a bit unreasonable to begin with. The last 30 years of so has seen a period of pretty unprecedented wealth among white-collar Americans, and who is to say that this current slump is not a long-overdue reality check for our entire culture? 

When I back away for a moment, I realize that my son's situation——struggle though it is——would be enviable to most of the world's population. He maintains his own apartment, albeit a small, very basic one. He keeps an aging car running well enough to get around town. He has a good circle of friends, a social life that include a bowling league, fantasy football. His job doesn't pay great, but it offers full benefits, and is enough for him to save a bit of money to go on a carefully planned week-long skiing vacation every January.  His tight budget makes him choose between electronic amenities——he has a cell phone but no land line, and has decided that internet access is more important than cable TV. He has a pet dog to which he is extremely attached. He lives carefully, but you wouldn't describe him as poverty stricken. He is disciplined enough to live well within his means, and doesn't carry any credit debt whatsoever. No college loans, no credit card payments.

Overall, he gives every indication of being pretty darned happy. So why is it that I want for him to have a large home mortgage, a new car loan, and all the rest? 

Among friends of my own vintage, I have few who have commented to me that the bad economy has caused them to re-evaluate what is genuinely important to them, and a couple have said that they have now found a new-found freedom in living simply and efficiently, and no longer particularly even long for the expensive luxuries they once regarded as automatic. 

However, there are more of my contemporaries who seem to feel that affluence is their birthright, and they simply won't tolerate moderation.

We American baby-boomers were unbelievably lucky  to have dropped onto the planet at the time we did. Perhaps its time we learned the reality that Gen X and Gen Y Americans, and the rest of the world, are taking in stride. 

We could start by supporting health care reform that benefits the greater good. Everywhere I look, there are aging baby-boomers arguing against health care reform, because it might create slight friction against our expectations of getting everything we want, when we want it. I overheard an office mate on the phone the other day, cussing out a health clinic because they didn't want to provide H1N1 vaccinations to healthy folks until the at-risk children had been innoculated. The accusation was that perhaps these innoculations were going to uninsured people rather than those with health insurance.  We're the ones who deserve it, was what my colleague was saying.

Makes me a bit ashamed of my generation. I can't help thinking that we're in this pickle because baby boomers have been snorting riches from the trough for far too long. 

Sunday, October 25, 2009

What Next, Teacher?

Sunday mornings nearly always find my wife and me sitting on the living room floor reading the
Sunday papers. When we find something that especially offends our sensibilities, we'll read aloud some bit of absurdity. Often it involves politics, sometimes cultural trends.

This morning, the subject matter was James Arthur Ray, the self -proclaimed self-help guru whose Arizona sweatlodge recently killed 3 people, one of whom was a local woman from Minneapolis.

Ray practices something he calls "practical mysticism," and travels about the country giving free self-help lectures hook people into signing up for his paid retreats, which go for a cool $10,000 per week. James Arthur Ray's "credentials," according to the article my wife read aloud, was that he had read voraciously over his lifetime, on subjects including science, psychology, religion. "Huh," my wife said. "You read the same subjects, and I'll bet you know a hell of a lot more than he does. Maybe we should go into business...but wait a're an honest man, so I suppose that wouldn't work out, really."

All of which got me to thinking about the issue of spiritual guides, and how tricky it is to find somebody who is a legitimate teacher. It's relatively easy to spot the obvious frauds. You'd have be quite stupid not to see that L. Ron Hubbard was bogus, for example. And this James Arthur Ray appears to cut largely from the same mold. These guys are easy, because anytime somebody's primary goal is make money, it's obvious what's really going on. And a few of the legtimate teachers are pretty much beyond reproach. Doing a little reading about Thich Nat Hahn, or the Dalai Lama,for example, and you'll be hard pressed to find anything that dilutes your admiration.

But others a little trickier. The Indian mystic known as Osho, for example, has some legitmately deep writings, but when you look a bit closer, you learn that he was also famous for a fondness for Rolls Royces. The Hindu leader, the Mararishi who instructed the Beatles in the 1970s is another example of spiritualism corrupted by materialism. In modern times, I find myself puzzled by the case of Eckhart Toll, for example. When you listen to his taped lectures, there is most definitely something legitimate and sincere in the message. But the fact that his philosophy has become such an obvious money-making cottage industry means that I remain uneasy believing that he's the real deal. The novels of Paulo Coello are seriously interesting, but he too, seems to be mostly about making money and promoting himself.

Similarly, I don't quite know what to make of people who flock to "the secret" with its law-of- attraction philosophy. I have friends I respect who have been greatly reassured and helped by this movement, but when I listen to and read the material, I have an uncomfortable sensation that it's a variation of magical thinking, in which folks imagine that spirituality is about gimmicks to help you get what you want. True spirituality, it seems to me, has almost nothing to do with getting want you want, but rather about developing acceptance and joy with what you already have in any moment.

So what is the answer? For me, anyway, I suppose it's largely a matter of going back in time and studying some of the original thinkers, for whom history has already established some judgment of their sincerity. You cannot read Meister Eckhart, for example, and not know that this is mysticism of the first order. Even this is not foolproof, though, for upon close examination of one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Chogham Trunpa, I learned that he died from advanced liver disease due to a lifetime of heavy drinking.

Maybe, at the end of the day, the real key is to court inner silence, and listen to no one but the inner voice deep inside us.

I think it's best not to do this in an Arizona sweatlodge, though.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Killing Me Softly with French Fries

I'm very much like many middle-aged Americans. I don't have a lot of terribly bad habits, but I eat an occasional muffin for breakfast, have a burger sometimes, succumb to the chocolate-chip cookie every so often.  Okay, maybe I do this a little more than "every so often." But I try to offset this by staying moderately active, eating a good volume of vegetables and fruits. I take my daily fish-oil capsule, a multivitamin. I don't smoke; I drink in very small amounts. 

It hasn't been enough.

In the last year or so,  I've been increasingly aware of what seemed like signs of the years encroaching. Energy level ebbing a bit; spare tire around the middle continuing to expand uncomfortably. My sleep hasn't been great, nor my mental focus. I was peeing, very, very often. Mind you, these weren't terrible problems, and I more or less just assigned them to the process of aging.

At my routine physical a few weeks ago, though, my doctor gave me a reason for this quiet malaise. Though my blood pressure and cholesterol and PSA numbers are within acceptable levels, my blood sugar is now becoming uncomfortably high. Although I technically have "prediabetes", if subsequent physical exams show the same rate of glucose increase, I would be two years or so away from having a formal diagnosis of diabetes.

A rather stern lecture from my doctor, as well as a fair amount of reading over the past few weeks, has sold me on the merits of radically changing my diet. At first, I ruefully felt that this diet pretty much cut out everything that might be at all tasty. I joked that I was allowed to eat all the spinach I wanted, plus three cashews each day.

But what my research, and my own experience, is now telling me, is that modern Americans are being quietly poisoned by food that is as deadly as it is tasty.  The food corporations in America are not your friends.

We all might guess that sugar and fat are bad things for us, but as my doctor and other experts are telling me,  the more insidious culprits are corn, potatoes, refined flour. These food substances are now present in so many food combinations, and are available for such ridiculously low prices, that they have come to dominate the modern American diet. Incredibly rich in starchy sugars, these substances alone are creating the blood-sugar emergency in America. The U.S. food industry has demonstrated true genius at combining food flavors in ways that make their product every bit as habit-forming as cocaine.

Stay away from white foods, I'm told, or foods containing these substances,  and we very likely can avoid the epidemic of diet-related diabetes that threatens so many of us. And it's not only older Americans susceptible to this; young kids are showing up with this kind of diabetes at alarming rates.

So I began to eat nuts, vegetables, salads, certain "safe" fruits, lean meats almost exclusively. Whole oat cereals in moderation, an occasional  low-carb cracker heavy in fiber, but no bread at at all. Non-sugar yogurt. Green tea, but no other caffeine. During the first week of this new diet I felt simply awful. Avoiding cookies, muffins, burgers, french fries was very, very hard, even though I hadn't seen myself as a glutton for these things. That's how powerful the hold is on these foods, engineered for "mouth-feel" and flavor combinations, and dissolving instantly in your mouth. For a week, it really did feel a lot like withdrawal from an illegal drug, with headaches, irritability, digestive distress. I began to pee even more often than before. "Holy hell," I thought. "If this is health, I'd rather be diseased."

But after a week or so of different eating, I suddenly began to feel much better. The monkey was climbing down off my back.  Seven pounds evaporated from around my waist almost overnight. My energy level began to climb a bit, and my mental focus was better.  The sluggish late-afternoon doldrums that I'd had come to view as inevitable faded away, and I found that I could focus adequately right up to closing time at the office. Most encouraging was the fact that my appetite became more manageable, even though I was eating less. The rollercoaster of blood sugar highs and lows was seemingly largely behind my sometimes ravenous appetite. While my fasting blood-sugar levels haven't yet diminished much, I feel considerably better and have a good likelihood or reversing my pre-diabetic condition, given a little time. 

So there you have it...I'm the poster child for that coming epidemic of food-related diabetes we've all been reading about. It would be ludicrous for me to proclaim myself a victor over my eating urges. I've only been at it a few weeks, and I don't pretend to have such self-control that I can avoid every slice of pizza that winks at me. But what I have learned recently does help , as I've come to see delicious food offered so plentifully and so cheaply as something of an evil conspiracy against consumers. 

For those of you interested, I can recommend a book and movie that will open your eyes to these issues. The movie is "Food, inc."  The book is "The End of Overeating,"  a truly revelatory expose of how the food-engineering industry has successfully made legal addicts of many Americans.