Saturday, August 23, 2008

Fast Food Nation

The Los Angeles Times published the above article on Monday about a new law that’s making its way through the California legislature. The proposed law would require chain restaurants operating 15 or more stores to blatantly label the nutritional information of their products, including calorie content, on each of their menus. What do I think?

Bring it on! Amen!

This law touches on a sensitive subject for Americans: does anyone have the right to make you go on a diet or lose weight? The obvious answer is no; you absolutely have the freedom to choose what you eat, but this law doesn’t get in the way of that. What it does is simply give you more information about the calories you consume in the hopes you’ll make better food choices. Hey California, the legislature is giving you the benefit of the doubt here. They’re assuming that the reason 3 out 5 of us is overweight or obese is because we’re ill informed and if we just knew what was in the food we’d eat better.

I enthusiastically support this law, and it’s not just because I’m an athlete in the middle of a nation that spearheads gluttony in all forms. I don’t silently wish everyone was a fitness nut like me, but being a competitive athlete does change your perspective on these things and that has made one thing abundantly clear: we need these laws.

Looking around, it’s obvious that many of us cannot handle eating healthily on our own. Instead, we go overboard, consuming way too much of this wrong foods. This is the direct result of companies intentionally bombarding us with fattening foods combined with us not thinking about what we eat. We don’t think critically or weigh the pros and cons of our food options-- it’s a simple “I want it, so that’s what I’ll eat.” This is why we’re perpetually overweight and why we feel so weighed down by the nutritional consciousness required in dieting. Now I’m not saying this country is a nation of whiners, but if you’re used to just reacting to food emotionally, it can be very overbearing to suddenly have to see food as numbers and nutrients.

I went to a Dodgers game last night and this oblivious attitude towards calories was everywhere. It was commonplace for everyone to have their own personal serving of what was on the menu. People bought themselves a whole serving of nachos, a whole serving of garlic fries, or their own bag of Cracker Jacks. I saw several 200-300 lb. people at this game stuffed into their seats carrying trays of 22 oz. beers and lemonade, 2-3 Dodger dogs and huge plates of nachos. What’s the nutritional content for that meal? Well, according to New Yorker Magazine and the beer and lemonade total 550 calories, two hot dogs are 640 calories, and the nachos with cheese are 1,500 calories. The grand total is 2,690 calories. That’s more than what an average adult should be eating in one day and we’re not even counting snacks like Cracker Jacks or peanuts.

Splitting portions didn’t seem to have crossed anyone’s mind either, nor did the concept of maybe not eating ballpark food. You have options-- the Dodgers generously allow fans to bring their own food. Is the cuisine really that good or are you eating it just because you’re at a ballgame? I bet the latter, because the food I saw didn’t exactly look appetizing. This lack of thought in choosing what to eat is precisely what I mentioned earlier. Why don’t we ask ourselves how good does it really taste? Is it worth the calories?

Also, if you want a study in childhood obesity go to a baseball game. Parents were buying their obviously overfed children their own iced lemonade, plus a whole plate of nachos. And it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that these kids couldn’t make it up the stairs much better than their parents.

I think parents sometimes make poor food choices out of unfounded conventional wisdom. If you saw Super Size Me, you know that McDonalds and fast food in general wreaks havoc on your body. It’s not any less harmful if kids eat it, even though they might not gain weight as quickly as adults.

I went to an amusement park this summer where it seemed like every child survived on a diet of regular cola, Sno-Cones, cotton candy and French fries. I saw one mother tell her kids they should buy regular soda because the aspartame in the diet drinks wasn’t good for them. I’m sorry, but most nutritionists would probably say the amount of sugar and carbohydrates in regular cola is far worse than a little aspartame.

Let’s not forget that children learn what’s acceptable to eat from their parents. If we’re going to eat junk ourselves and feed it to our kids too, why are we so baffled by childhood obesity? How can we expect their waistlines to be any better than ours?

There’s a term is psychology called cognitive dissonance to describe what happens when we’re faced with the reality that what we think about ourselves doesn’t match with our actual behavior. Imagine if you thought of yourself as the furthest thing from racist and then someone somehow proved to you that you held some racist beliefs. This experience makes us uncomfortable, so we often try to change either our behavior or our beliefs in order to not experience this “dissonance. “

This proposed law pulls from the cognitive dissonance theory. Part of our problem is that most of us severely underestimate the calorie content of our food. This has been clearly demonstrated by several peer review studies, many of which are highlighted in this article. We don’t think of ourselves as terrible eaters and so we continue along in our blissful ignorance because nothing has proven us wrong yet. Slapping nutrition facts on fast foods would provide us proof that the food is not healthy, so according to the theory we’ll either accept this about ourselves or change our caloric intake to match our self-view.

Will injecting some cold reality ruin the eating experience? Absolutely not! I’ve actually found a sense of empowerment in having a leg up on companies who profit from our carb and sugar cravings. I find that being in the know is much better than trying to enjoy wearing blinders.

On the other hand, I’ve come across a few people who feel the opposite way. These people, who’d likely oppose this law, see it as forcing them to go on a diet and seem to want to protect their “right” to eat badly. Apparently, this is a freedom of choice issue; that they have the right to not make healthy eating a priority and no person or law should get in the way.

Well, what about my right to make informed decisions about what I eat? I could say those rights are being infringed on because restaurants do not currently have to provide calorie or nutritional information. Many of them take full advantage by scrimping on raw ingredients and injecting fattening additives such as lard, butter, sugar and heavy cream to keep the food sell-able while cutting costs. Imagine if you were made to buy a car but were not given information like miles per gallon, or if you had to rent an apartment without first taking a tour. If we think about it, I’m sure there’s a way that we’re all having our rights assaulted.

I didn’t know there was such a thing as a person’s right to trans fat. Isn’t this a ridiculous thing to get up in arms about? I understand the argument about priorities, but what’s the big deal here? This law would help millions of Californians make better choices and after all, it’s just information—not forced dieting. There is no good reason that on personal grounds any of us should contest policies that improve public health. Perhaps we should be more concerned with solving this country’s obesity problem than advancing our personal agenda. California, isn’t it about time we started thinking beyond ourselves?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


So much of our national attention is showered on China right now: our best athletes are there competing, our channel guides are chock full of Olympic events and it’s all the media can seem to talk about. Its official, China is the “it” thing right now.

If you keep up with the news, you'll notice how feature articles outnumber simple news stories. While there’s definitely news coming out of Beijing, what’s interesting is that the media seems to be just as preoccupied with understanding China as we are.

I, like many Americans, find myself struggling to understand China in the midst of this year’s summer Olympic games. I’m not sure we as a nation gave China or Beijing much thought until recently, but now the Olympics are here so we’ve started to wonder.

The myriad articles leading up the Summer Olympic Games can basically be put into two categories:
1. The Communist Chinese government and how the Olympics have or have not changed things.
2. Now that we’re curious, what we Americans should know about China.

Regarding Category #1, it’s pretty clear that China has a big chip on its shoulder. For example, just last week President Bush denounced China’s human rights violations before travelling to Beijing and stated that he wanted his presence at the games to help draw attention to the issue. The Chinese Foreign Ministry fired back that he’d "rudely interfered in China's internal affairs." We’ve also gotten very mixed messages about China in the past few months; there’s been the country’s loud and very public tirade over the Dalai Lama and Tibetan protesters, along with their uncharacteristically humane response to May’s Sichuan Earthquake. Now that China has our attention for the Olympics, we find ourselves asking: what is their deal? The best answer I’ve found was this article in the Toronto Globe and Mail. I am half-Canuck, so we have to invoke the Globe and Mail.
“Which spirit of nation will prevail in rise to greatness?”

Category #2 has been mainly news and feature articles providing a firsthand perspective of life in China. This is probably to help us see what’s changed and what hasn’t since the country opened its doors to the west after Nixon’s visit in 1972. If you’re up for a read, check out the LA times feature “The Beijing she knew is gone; in its place, the Beijing she loves,” a very well-written personal piece by one of the paper’s foreign correspondents.

Americans seem to have suddenly developed a voracious appetite for information about China, whether it’s a narrative, a bunch of photos, or even cookbooks, as mentioned in this LA Times book review. Here’s a brief quote:

“Of course, the economic benefits of the Olympics are not exclusive to China; in fact, if the number of new books on China is any indication, American publishers, like Beijing real estate developers, have decided that Olympics+China=$$$. Cookbooks, business books, political books, poetry, books about Chinese food and, of course, travel books . . . all have poured out in a torrent”

So why are we so curious now? It seems to me that our rush for information comes from a collective realization that we really don’t understand the country where the Olympics are being held. Why? I doubt many Americans, especially those who were around for Nixon’s visit and Tienanmen Square, feel they can relate to the Chinese people at all. We live in Capitalist, corporate-driven America and they live in Communist China. No matter how profit-driven and modernized the country has become, it’s still China. Plus, they always value the community above the individual—a perspective we Americans don’t know anything about.

Even though everything we buy seems to be made in China we haven’t quite figured them out yet. Besides, how can we be expected to keep up when Chinese society is so rapidly changing?

I think we’re right to acknowledge that we don’t know anything about being Chinese. Most of us have no clue what it’s like to live in a Communist country. I certainly don’t. Before the Olympics, the only meaningful perspective I’d heard was from Ted Gup, my college journalism mentor who spent some time in China while working for The Washington Post. He would elaborate on the experience of living in a country that doesn’t have free speech or freedom of the press. For a journalist, this was particularly jarring. I remember him being struck by the reality that none of the people he interacted with daily were allowed access to independent news. All these people had one source of information about their world, and that source was nowhere near unbiased.

So it seems we’ve pretty much resigned to accept our ignorance about China. It’s a country completely unlike our own, so the best we can do is to a read a few books and buy a wok. But are we right? Listen to this perspective from a LA Times Letter to the Editor published on August 10th, 2008:

“Before we use the Olympics as a tool to brazenly criticize life in China, why don’t we first tend our own garden?

While China has pollution, American’s carbon emissions per capita are many times that of China’s. While China can’t play well with others, the United States fights an unpopular war and is ridiculed around the world. China clearly should not violate human right—oh wait, we wiretap civilians while we torture and detain suspected terrorists without a fair trial.

China today isn’t a rose garden, but why can’t we as Americans be half as fervent about improving America as we are about bettering China?”

-Eric Chow
Walnut, California

So maybe as much as we don’t want to think about it, we do know a little about what it’s like to be Chinese after all. What about our own human rights violations? Just take this heartbreaking story in today’s New York Times, “Ill and in Pain, Detainee Dies in U.S. Hands.” Here is an excerpt describing two similar cases:

“In March, the federal government admitted medical negligence in the death of Francisco Castaneda, 36, a Salvadoran whose cancer went undiagnosed in a California detention center as he was repeatedly denied a biopsy on a painful penile lesion. In May, The New York Times chronicled the death of Boubacar Bah, 52, a Guinean tailor who suffered a skull fracture and brain hemorrhages in the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey; records show he was left in an isolation cell without treatment for more than 13 hours.”

Aren’t things like that only supposed to happen in places like China?

In America, we don’t jail people for criticizing our leaders. We also have the freedom to assemble and practice any religion we choose. But our government has also suspended the writ of habeas corpus for its own convenience and we torture too, remember?

Also like the Chinese, we Americans seem to be conflicted about the oppressive activities of our government. Both countries seem to be in some amount of denial, and both of our governments play a role by not informing us enough to know for sure what our reality is. Maybe we have more information than the Chinese—our news outlets aren’t state run, investigative reporting isn’t illegal here, we have the Public Interest Declassification Act—but we certainly aren’t given the big picture. It’s just in China we call it Communist and here we call it “classified.”

Yes, it’s unfortunate that we may find common ground in the negative, but perhaps just thinking about these things can give us a perspective on China that we’ll never see in a travel book.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Elderly Equation

First, the article.

This New York Times piece draws attention to an important issue that doesn’t capture enough national attention. The article describes a sensitivity training program called "Xtreme Aging" which simulates for participants what it feels like to be 85 years old. While this program stresses the physical hardships of getting older, I think that’s only half of the equation. My experiences caregiving for my 84 year old grandmother have shown me that the stigma of old age and the social and mental hardships of being elderly are just as significant. Unfortunately, these often get overlooked. I wrote about this problem in an internship application a few months ago that I’d like to share. It's posted below.

Prompt: Identify a societal issue that seldom attracts the attention of the news media. How would you cover this issue as a journalist?

The quality of life for elderly people who are experiencing the frailty of old age but retain their mental sharpness seldom attracts the attention of the news media. Many times people respond inappropriately to the aged as if their obvious physical handicaps mean that their minds are equally handicapped. Not only is this demeaning, but it can lead to incomplete or incorrect responses from the very people that the elderly need for help.

I believe this issue would be best covered by a television newsmagazine such as Dateline/NBC. This format would provide an opportunity to tell the stories of many older adults through the voice of one or two seniors who experience these difficulties first-hand. If I were assigned to conduct interviews, I would select both people who are currently living in their homes and those who have recently been forced to leave. There would be taped interviews and background information detailing how prevalent this issue is in America. The story’s effectiveness would also be strengthened by providing data, such as how many people are aging in their homes and how many are dependent on community networks for basic needs.

To illustrate the dismissal that many other older adults experience, it would be effective to show taped material from a hidden camera or voice recorder. Some of the locales could include restaurants; although many older adults walk slowly and arduously, in many instances they are seated far from the restaurant's entrance. I have also witnessed restaurant servers treat older guests as mentally incompetent by making eye contact with the younger people and asking them for the elderly guest’s order.

Another locale could be a medical center or doctor’s office, often a source of trouble for the elderly. Because of macular degeneration, many older people cannot read the fine print that is used on forms and medical instructions. Medical staff often disregard this. During a recent hospital stay, I was asked to answer how well my grandmother felt. She was in the room, was perfectly capable of answering for herself, and was much more aware of her physical condition than I. I have seen cases where older adults have had their requests for water ignored for several hours, as if they are not mentally competent enough to know when they are thirsty. I believe that the elderly themselves could provide additional examples.

The outside world often does not make fitting considerations for older adults’ mental and physical conditions, which makes it far more difficult for them to stay in their homes. If the news media helped bring about change by increasing awareness of this issue, many more older adults would be able to function comfortably in society and fewer would be confined to assisted living centers and nursing homes.

As the New York Times article pointed out, the experience of getting older in this country is not an enjoyable one. My grandmother, for example, was one of the first women of her generation to experience the freedoms and opportunities made possible by the Feminist movement. She worked as a bank manager for almost 35 years while also maintaining a home and raising two children. As you can imagine, she is still fiercely independent at 84, she still wants to carry her own groceries, and she even entertains the notion of traveling by herself. Those things don't happen; in fact, she spends most of her days lying in bed listening to CSPAN, MSNBC and the Food Network because Macular Degeneration has made her nearly blind. Yes, she's in a healthy amount of denial, but can you blame her? She took care of herself and other people for almost her entire life, and now she has to depend on other people to do everything for her except go to the bathroom, cook her meals and have a shower. And when she actually goes out, people often treat her like an imbecile. Can you imagine what that must be like?

While Xtreme Aging is doing very valuable work, I think the larger issue here is that most of us don’t really understand what older people are going through both physically and mentally. While most of us have known someone older quite well, there is still a general lack of understanding of the elderly, their needs and what we can do. Older adults need us younger and middle aged people to understand their position so that they can stay self-sufficient and avoid the hardships of nursing homes. There is a clear need for us to put ourselves in their shoes, but until we do, we just won’t get it.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

What do you think of Dancing with the Stars?

I haven’t talked much about my Ballroom dance career yet, but since I came home from a competition last Friday with two trophies, I think now might be a good time to delve into my insider’s perspective on all things Ballroom. Just so you know, I specialize in the Latin category of Ballroom dancing, meaning I compete in Cha Cha, Samba, Rumba, Paso Doble and Jive. People actually know what that means now thanks to Dancing with the Stars, the enormously popular ABC show that’s catapulted Ballroom dancing out of its artsy niche and into the forefront of pop culture.

When people find out that I’m a real life Ballroom dancer, they often excitedly ask me “so what do you think of Dancing with the Stars!?” I always answer that I think it’s done great things to broaden the public’s awareness of Ballroom dancing and I’m very happy to see some of the world’s top ranked ballroom dancers actually get the recognition they deserve. And I’m not talking about the lollipop Mormon Julianne Hough, I mean Louis van Amstel and Karina Smirnoff, two world class professionals who have both been top competitors at Blackpool--the closest thing Ballroom has to a World Championships or an Olympic games event.

If people ask me this same question after I’ve had a few glasses of wine and I feel sufficiently anonymous, sometimes I’ll tell them the rest of what I really think. As someone who actually dances competitively, I think the show is overrated and obnoxious. I don’t know any Ballroom people who can actually stomach it except for Shirley Ballas, the mother of DWTS’ Mark Ballas and a World Champion Latin dancer herself, who occasionally yells to me across the ballroom to ask if I’ve been voting for her son. I don’t have the guts to say ‘no’ to someone of that caliber, but I don’t watch the show and I most certainly haven’t voted for anything or anyone. Even after she gave me this handy LIVESTRONG-esque bracelet with Mark’s call-in number, I’m still just not into it.

The reason I hardly ever watch the show is the same as why I think it’s overrated. Lots of times people who watch the show ask me “aren’t the dance steps really trickey?” and I awkwardly reply, “the Pros, yes--the celebrities, no.” The routines they do on the show I’d categorize as Open Bronze level. Bronze means its beginner steps, but then they add what we call “open” material to the choreography with back bends, side by side work and some fancy things for the Pro to do. Branching out from elementary dance steps gets the job done of making Bronze interesting enough for TV, and the fact that they have the celebrities dancing with Pros, not other celebrities, does a lot to improve the show’s aesthetic. This teacher-student set up actually comes from the competitive Ballroom world, where it’s called Pro-Am. You pay your teacher to compete with you and, of course, you look and dance better as a result. Choosing this arrangement for the show was a very good move because otherwise these beginner celebrities would look like just like what they are, beginners. There’s no way this would pass for prime time material, so adding Pros makes the dancing actually look okay-- some would even say impressive. However, for those of us who dance Ballroom in real life, this means Dancing with the Stars is nothing more than just televised Pro-Am. And we’ve already seen enough of that.

I think the show’s obnoxious because for one, it’s unrealistic about competing and this gives people a totally distorted view of what Ballroom dancing really is. At a real competition you don’t see any of that self-indulgent, saccharine, “I felt like a princess!” nonsense. Competitors don’t sit backstage blowing kisses and playing around, we’re going through our routines and running in place to keep our heart rates up. After all, we’re professionals and we take our work seriously.

Even if the celebrities on the show prepare for their competition like we do, it doesn't matter because viewers only get to see the happy part. The producers obviously want to keep things light because you don't see much of the difficult side of rehearsals. You don’t see anyone get angry – maybe a celebrity gets their feathers a little ruffled but then they cut to the couple getting facials. Oh, how I wish it was that easy.

And as for feeling like a princess? Well, when I’m in my comp gear a princess is probably the least thing I feel like. Let me tell you, that fake tanner not only turns your skin bright orange but it also makes you smell funny. You couldn’t buy a deodorant to handle both the tanner smell and you sweating all day, not to mention that you look practically radioactive next to normal people.

You start your hair-do by pinning it into a tight, uncomfortable bun and then gluing the whole thing down with gel. Then, you make your hair solid by repetitively saturating it with hairspray and then blowing it dry. By the time you’re done, your head is a shiny bowling ball. But my favorite part of the make-up experience are the fake eyelashes, which feel like you have a delicate critter quivering atop your eyelids. Distracting? Yesss...

In reality, competitive Ballroom is far from the happy walk in the park DWTS makes it out to be. Real ballroom isn’t sentimental, it’s not romantic and it’s certainly not some magical force that takes hold and floats you around on Cloud Nine—it’s a sport. Ballroom is muscle knots, bleeding toes, tendonitis, practicing for 3 hours in 100 degree heat, bathing in your own sweat—this isn’t unleashing "feminine powers," you’re unleashing an athlete. You get angry at your body and frustrated with your inability to do things. Your coaches are strict and demanding; to them, your mistakes are unacceptable.

So why do we do this? It’s absolutely exhilarating. And not in an “I feel pretty” sort of way; it’s like training for a marathon, where the exhilaration comes from you pushing your body so hard and amazing yourself with the results. You watch your feet and legs become skin and muscle. You see your toes get boney and you notice your posture changing into that of a dancer. You learn what specific muscle fibers feel like and how to isolate and control them in a sequence, to rhythm. Remember what ol’ Teddy Roosevelt once said:

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty... I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” Yeah, Ballroom’s like that.

Sometimes people ask me if it’s such a big deal that the show is unrealistic. Can’t the audience have a little fun and just enjoy it? Let me first say that I am proud that Ballroom has gone mainstream and I have no problem that people watch it for the entertainment value. You know, the rhinestone dresses, the scantily clad women, good looking guys moving their hips, etc. However, when people believe Ballroom is just what they see on TV, or start think of it as entertainment and not a serious, competitive art form, that’s when we start running into problems.

Ballroom isn’t only present in a frivolous way on Dancing with the Stars. The show that started it all, America’s Ballroom Challenge on PBS is produced in much the same way. It isn’t like at a televised sporting event where the commentators are retired, but current, professionals who mostly say intelligent things. I watch basketball; those guys actually seem to know what they’re talking about. In contrast, PBS features the highly commercialized Ron Montez who’s been retired for almost 30 years now and probably can’t dance his way out of a paper bag anymore. It shows too, like on the 2008 show when one of his comments was“those are some strong walking movements.”

Beyond broadcasting, newspapers usually aren’t much of a help either. They seem to send out the reporter with close to zero background knowledge to write feature articles about the retiree-dominated social dance scene and then you get silly, insignificant pieces about how Ballroom is one of the few places where men and women can be elegant together or how dancing is saving women from their midlife crises.

If these reporters want some real stories, I suggest they look at the highly sexualized world of Youth Latin dancing. These little girls are pressured harder than anywhere I’ve seen to dance like sexually active, mature women. They do a very convincing job too, in fact I know some parents force their younger than 10 year old daughters to get breast implants in the hopes that they’ll score higher in competition. I wonder how many of them end up pregnant by their partner or on a shrink’s couch later in life because dancing has severely stunted their psychosexual growth.

Please browse these photos:

Print media definitely plays a role in people underestimating Ballroom. Yes, the dancing looks beautiful and carefree from afar, but most people have no idea how much work is involved. This is a serious sport and people will continue to treat it trivially as long as journalists keep misspelling words like "chassé" and publishing cheesy one-liners like “never underestimate the power of the mambo.”

However, it still seems that Broadcast media sets the main standard for how the public sees Ballroom dancing. Its decision to present it in such a frivolous way to earn ratings takes away from the dance industry’s hard work to promote Ballroom as an respected art form and sport. This reminds me of how even some Americans I know think of the arts as trivial. For example, I have a close family member who has never understood my dancing. I’ve been doing this for six years now, I’ve devoted huge chunks of my life to getting better and he still thinks of it as a hobby… sort of like knitting. To him, dancing could never be a real job. Is the media’s portrayal setting this idea into the minds of prime time captive audiences?

Does it harden some sort of glass ceiling that no matter how technically advanced or internationally renowned something is, it’s still not significant because it’s just art?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

L.A. city attorney sues over canceled policies

Let's just for a second turn our attention to this article in today's L.A. Times Business section. Click on the above title to read.

This is yet another case of a California health insurance company being sued for rescinding their members’ policies when those individuals become ill or needed an expensive medical procedure performed. However, we’re looking at Blue Shield, which is a nonprofit health insurance company. When I interviewed the former President of the National Association of Health Underwriters, Bruce Benton, he certainly told me the nonprofits do business the same way. I guess I was warned, but it still doesn’t make reading about a nonprofit participating in these same predatory rescission tactics any easier.

While this piece has many similarities with other articles that the media, specifically the L.A. Times, have published on this topic, there is something else about this story that stands out to me. This is the first lawsuit I’ve come across in where the health insurance application has been called into question. Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s lawsuit specifically accuses Blue Shield of making their applications intentionally confusing to increase the chances that applicants will make a mistake. This makes sense, then the insurance companies have something to call those people on if they ever “need” to. Hey, who doesn’t like to have leverage?

I’ve filled out those 22-page things multiple times in my debacle with Anthem Blue Cross. I think it’s perfectly understandable to see how a person could make a mistake, especially if English is their second language as in this L.A. Times case with the Simoes. Maybe it's just because Anthem’s turned me into a health insurance cynic, but I definitely find it plausible that Blue Shield intentionally made their applications mistake-prone. Sorry guys, that's your fault-- you’ve lost your benefit of the doubt with the state of California many times over.

Remember how Mr. Benton explained how the health insurance companies weren’t doing anything wrong? How those people with canceled policies all lied on their applications and they deserved to have their plans taken away? That the media unfairly singles them out for exercising understandable company policies? Well, I particularly like these Blue Shield quotes from the article:

  • · “This suit is a cheap political stunt that is totally without merit”
  • · “Blue Shield cancels policies rarely and that the practice is a legal and necessary tool to combat fraud….if there were no consequences for applicants who misrepresent significant medical conditions, insurance rates would skyrocket for the vast majority of Californians who complete their applications accurately.”

Where, oh where, have I heard this before?

Let’s just take a minute to give props to City Attorney Delgadillo for helping protect the millions of Californians like me dependent on Anthem Blue Cross, Blue Shield and Health Net for insurance. Private enterprises have made it clear these days that they cannot handle not being regulated, so now we must look to the courts to ensure that our rights are a priority now, and into the future. Good luck to all of us.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Reverend Matt Interview

I sent last week’s posting to an old friend of mine who works as a Protestant minister at one of the largest churches on the East Coast. First, I asked him what he thought of the lack of formality in the Glendale church and if this whole “modern” worship thing is really the recipe for success that these churches hope it is.

Here’s what he had to say: Reverend Matt 1

He also added this interesting perspective on how this dichotomy of formal vs. informal that these churches are wrestling with is far from new in America.

Reverend Matt 2

Next, I asked him to respond to my talk about the nature of communion and role that behavioral expectations and community play in the overall worship experience.

Specifically, why do we have communion and what purpose does it serve for both the individual and the community? Beyond this, how important are expectations in a religious experience? In order for church-going to make sense, does the church community need to expect something from us?

Here are his answers: Reverend Matt 3

Thursday, July 3, 2008

"Modern" Worship

I have a friend who is the weekly organist at a Protestant church up in Glendale, a small city in the San Fernando Valley near Burbank. In my occasional attendance this church overwhelming reminds me of how many American churches attempt to make religion hip, not stuffy, and generally more appealing to the masses. This church does it all, from Christian rock music to casual dress; this is a major relaxation of traditional means of worship. As you can imagine, this not only effects how people behave during church, but also the experience of 'going to church' and what that's supposed to signify. Seeing a worship service without rules or structure raises some important questions for me about why people come to church and what makes a person's religious experience meaningful.

First, let's talk about the dress and behavior code---or lack thereof. When I showed up for the first time in a conservative sun dress and heels I looked like a bridesmaid standing in the middle of a Burger King. People don’t dress up here, not that anyone on the West Coast does either, but because we were at church it seemed so much more out of place to see everyone wearing jeans, t-shirts and flip flops. Men kept their baseball caps on during the service and my organist friend has even seen people sit in the back and start chowing down on the fast food they brought. I guess that’s truly “have it your way.”

It also seems that quite a few church members have concluded that the service is a vocally interactive medium. Not only do members randomly interject comments during the service, but they’ll also interrupt to make social event announcements. This will happen during any part of the service, including scripture readings or even sermons, and this isn’t call and response, “can I get an Amen!”-- this is about stupid stuff like Crop Walks. I was there one Sunday when a woman chose the first gospel reading to remind people about one such Crop Walk. There’s also an older gentleman who consistently shares his “when I was a young man” stories aloud and usually does so at inopportune times, like right before a hymn is about to start. Another lady fancies herself a professional musician and has decided that my conservatory-trained friend plays the church hymns too slow. So, she’ll pipe up with “don’t drag!” right before the offertory, or yell “speed up!” or “you’re dragging” while he is playing. Of course no organist would appreciate this sort of thing, but either way their behavior makes me wonder why these people think it’s appropriate to yell out and interrupt a religious ceremony. Are these people there to worship or do they see the congregation as just a captive audience for their own 2 cents?

There’s lots of little things too that make me wonder about this church. Whomever has been selected to read scripture aloud usually hasn’t looked through the it beforehand, which you can tell by the butchering of Biblical names and fumbling through the text. Parents don’t seem to encourage their kids to stay quiet or pay attention; usually the kids are doing their own thing, running around or sitting up at the front and flipping the altar curtain back and forth. It's just odd.

This church also chooses to not sing the ritual hymns by Bach or Haydn, etc. that have stood the test of time and have been a part of worship services for centuries. Instead, their hymnal is filled with 1960’s Christian rock music. Great. So are the classical hymns really that much of a drag? I personally would take Bach any day over that mediocre hippie music, but still there’s one glaring question I have to ask: does using music from the 1960’s rather than the 1860’s really do that much to engage the masses? It’s still outdated and I feel that church music is either old, so you honor it because of its age, or it’s totally modern and brand new. 60’s music isn’t in either category, it doesn’t have either an archaic or contemporary appeal, so nobody in the congregation's going to relate to it. Sounds like a pretty good formula for indifference.

Communion here is downright weird. First of all, it’s taken every Sunday like the Catholics-- it’s not a big event every once in a while like what’s done traditionally in most Protestant churches. And, despite this place being Protestant, they do another pseudo nod to the Catholic Church by having everyone get up and stand in line for communion, just without offering wafers or wine. My first time at this church I chose not to take communion—I’m not particularly religious, I don’t even belong to this denomination and I don’t believe in communion for the fun of it. I guess this was too upfront because after the congregation had finished, the communion ladies walked over to my seat and handed me the tray. This was of course, with a “you know, we allow non-members to take communion.” That’s subtle.

Now you know I’m not religious, but I still feel communion is a very private, intimate interaction between you and God, not a social activity put on by the church where everyone gets a snack. So not only do I think it’s something to be taken very seriously, I also see it as 100% my business. If I don’t want to participate this should not be questioned. It’s obvious that I am perfectly capable of walking and if I don’t get up for communion that means I’ve chosen not to take it. Just leave it alone.

My friend the organist has had similar odd experiences there with communion. After the congregation is finished, those ladies can be counted on to come over and chat with him while he's taking communion. And they’re not saying a sacramental prayer, it’s stuff like “Oh, I really love this music.” I feel both of these instances say a lot about how this congregation sees communion. I think for them communion is less an individual practice than something that the church community does together, sort of like coffee hour or a pancake breakfast. That’s all well and good except for when you think about what communion is supposed to be: a sacred recognition and remembrance of what Jesus sacrificed. Is this a casual chit chat or a religious ceremony? You have to pick one. It cannot be both. Communion is either going to represent something meaningful or let's cut the crap, it's just Hawaiian bread and grape juice.

It seems overall that this church has chosen a “come as you are” approach. This sends a message of welcoming and acceptance, which is fundamental for a church, but what happened to the notion that before God you try to better yourself? That’s why you dress up, why you do different things at church than on other days, because you’re shedding who you are in your everyday life to become something greater, something more.

Am I too focused on the procedure of the service and not its substance? Well, the sermons are usually very good. The pastor picks thought-provoking topics, he’s very insightful and tells it like it is— being from the Midwest, I appreciate this. But he can’t do everything to make the service an actual ceremony. The church members have to be respectful and be there to worship God. What have we given up to gain membership? The idea of sacrificing tradition to boost the bottom line is hardly new, but I never expected to see churches go this far. In our efforts to get people to show up, by paring down all the procedure, tradition and rituals, have we stopped worshiping?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Health Care Interview with Spicey G

Today we are joined by Spicey G, one of SEE Level's favorite commentators, to address the health insurance and public policy issues we talked about last time. She brings a unique perspective to this discussion for several reasons. First of all, she's been covered for the past 38 years under the federal government's health insurance program. This plan is currently only available to government employees, but it closely resembles the favored Democratic plan for health care reform. In addition, she is currently the financial director of a private business firm, making her responsible for the purchasing and maintenance of their employee-based health plan. But most importantly, she lived part of her adult life in Great Britain, the country we will use today as our model for socialized medicine. Thus, her background gives her firsthand experience with the pros and cons of single-payer systems and important knowledge of how different universal health care systems can realistically be financed.

This interview will be presented in audio, so please click on "Spicey G" following a question to hear the response.

1. How good of a job do you feel we’re doing with health insurance in this country? Spicey G

2. In consideration of surging health care costs coupled with the high expectations we have for treatment, have we lost touch with how much it all costs? Are we the ones to blame? Spicey G

3. Would socialized medicine be a quick and easy route to universal health care? Spicey G

4. Here, S.G. tells us about how the British came up with their socialized medical system, which centers around a national debate they had in 1945 over what the government should provide for its citizens.

So what came of this debate in Britain? Are the issues we’re wrestling with 60 years later any different? What have they done about them? Spicey G

4. Mr. Benton mentioned how the big disadvantage we see with government-run health insurance is rationing of care, which inevitably happens due to lack of funding. But are we not rationing now? What are the differences between how the British ration health care and how we do it? Spicey G

5. What do you think of his argument about people in this country trying to get free health care? If not exploiters or young invincibles, who do you think these people are who lean on emergency rooms for health care? Spicey G

6. John Kerry and many other Democrats attempted to have a health care national debate around the 2004 election and drew up a proposal for what they thought would be a feasible was to achieve universal health care without being stuck without all the downsides of socialized medicine. Can you summarize this proposal for us? Spicey G

7. How would this program be paid for? Spicey G

8. Why shouldn’t businesses pay for this new system? Spicey G

As a side note, the British pay for their health care system with the VAT, value added tax, which is added to anything sold in country. We in the United States do not have this tax added to our imports, so we do not receive that extra funding for health care.

9. Lastly, what else do you think needs to change about our health care system? What about the fraud Mr. Benton talked about? Spicey G

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Health Insurance Follow-up

For Part 3 of my health care series, as promised, I conducted an interview with Bruce Benton, an insurance broker out here who works with Anthem Blue Cross, Signa, all the major health insurance companies. He was President of the Los Angeles National Association of Health Underwriters and served as Vice-President of Public Affairs for their California state board. This was supposed to be a conversation in which I’d get some insider perspective on what’s wrong with the health insurance system. I indeed did get background information, quite a lot of it actually, but this interview turned out to be much more complex than I’d anticipated. Why? He turned out to be a conservative.

This really threw me off because in all my interactions with him, Mr. Benton has been remarkably cool. And I don’t usually associate conservatives with being “cool,” so this was a surprise—we’ll just call him my friendly neighborhood Republican. Despite this pulling me in an entirely different direction, it was quite illuminating to hear the other side’s point of view. I have serious problems with what he said, but I felt he shared his opinions in earnest and that deep down he’s not a bad guy. It still freaks me out though, mainly because of how out of touch, intentionally evasive and judgmental a lot of his comments seemed to be. In any case, this interview raised brand new questions for me about the health care problem and put me face to face with why there’s so much controversy in Washington. I think I finally have a clue about why the Capitol can’t seem to get anything done—Democrats and Republicans are in many ways living on different planets.

So here’s what we’re gonna do: I’m going to give you my analysis of what he had to say, along with some clips from the interview, and then I’ll present responses from one of my favorite See Level pundits. So without further ado:

Here’s What I Think

Part #1:

Question: Is the health insurance industry what the media purports it to be?


No. The health insurance industry isn’t primarily concerned with stockholder profits and equity, it’s just an easy target. Non-profits act the exact same way in how they assess risk, collect premiums, etc. These companies are really the good guys-- they’re in a difficult position and doing the best they can with the resources available.

So what about all the money they’re raking in? No no, corporate executives are just easy targets too. Consumer perception is the real problem; in seeing the industry’s high salaries and 10-15% rate increases each year, lots of people start thinking senior management should take a pay cut. The impact of their salaries on what you pay every month is extremely insignificant and besides, it’s not our business to dictate how much someone in private enterprise should pay themselves. We shouldn’t go after the health insurance industry’s means and ends because profits are the sign of a vibrant marketplace. In reality, health insurance people are just trying to make a buck like the rest of us.

Benton 1; Benton 2 (click to listen)

Rebuttal: While I agree that the insuring millions of people, keeping costs down for everyone and making profits must be really tough, let’s be honest--the health insurance industry isn’t hurting for money. The practices they use, including on young, healthy people trying to do the right thing, are without a doubt earning them a very pretty penny. That’s a lot more than “just doing the best you can.” To minimize how much these companies are motivated by personal financial gain would just be naïve. And that fact that oil and prescription drug companies were brought up as similar industries just doesn’t lend a lot of credibility to stating that health insurance companies are benevolent.

Now, while I agree that our monthly premiums don’t mainly consist of senior management payroll, I do believe that corporations have to be accountable to their customers. If the cost of health care is rising and our premiums are rising along with them, why should the boss still get his 15 million dollar bonus? Since we’re the ones cutting the check, don’t we have a right to ask these questions and deserve honest answers?

On another note, about the statement that published information in the media isn’t true-- there’s a reason health insurance companies like Blue Cross constantly make the news. Part of being a reputable journalist is that you don’t publish writing without facts, so if a health insurance company shows up in the New York Times for doing something wrong, it’s not because the paper made it up. This whole notion that highly regarded press organizations publish things they randomly made up is ridiculous. It’s the sort of crap Ann Coulter writes about… and the kind of thing that makes me wish I could raise just one eyebrow. Actually, when it comes to Republican ideology, I often think about how much I wish I could do that.

Part #2:

Question: Okay, so what about Blue Cross? They’ve been in the news quite a lot recently and they’re the largest individual health insurer in California. Are they just good guys too?


You know all those cases Anthem Blue Cross has been sued for, well the truth is that all of those individuals who won their cases were actually at fault. Those previously insured members lied on their applications to get insurance. If they hadn’t deliberately concealed smoking, heart conditions, etc. Blue Cross would never have insured them in the first place. Innocent company investigations exposed their lies, so Blue Cross dropped their policies—something they had every right to do. Those members got exactly what they deserved. About the legal mess? Blue Cross got unfairly convicted for exercising their rights as a company.

Benton 3 (click to listen)


This argument makes no sense. First, here’s the back story. Anthem Blue Cross, the same health insurance company I wrote about in Health Care Part 1, has consistently been in the news for illegally rescinding members’ health care coverage when they’ve become very ill and run up high medical bills. Despite all the aggressive lobbying I’m sure went on, numerous impartial courts have convicted them and assigned millions of dollars in fines for these illegal practices. So considering all this, it would make sense that the prosecution had quite a bit of evidence that Anthem BC was indeed doing something very wrong. Now I wouldn’t begin to say that I have more inside knowledge of these cases than the people who tried them in court and won. If Blue Cross was ruled against in all those individual cases, I’m inclined to agree they had some culpability. Regardless, we're supposed to respect and uphold the decisions made by our courts of law and generalizing that Blue Cross was somehow right and all those people were wrong certainly does not do that. In Mr. Benton's statement, I also sensed a tinge of that Republican “you made it up” claim that I talked about before. So now, not only is the New York Times a bunch of biased haters, but apparently so is the California Supreme Court. Good to know.

Part #3:

Question: What are some of the biggest problems with the health insurance industry?

Benton: All those people trying to get free health care. Americans want health care when they need it, but lots of them don’t want to pay for it. Too many choose not to be responsible or accountable by buying health insurance and our lack of mandate to purchase it affords them that option. But those people get sick just like everyone else, so their bills get paid by the responsible people who actually buy health insurance. We live in a country that says “we cannot deny you critical emergency care at a hospital when you need it.” People think that means they can go without insurance because if they have an emergency, they’ll be stabilized at an ER. Without assets, they’ll just file bankruptcy and think "Bang, I’ve had free health care.”

Benton 4 (click to listen)


Yes. I’ll bet that’s exactly what millions of Americans are scheming. Let me first point out that he decided to point fingers at us first and not talk about any wrongdoing by the health insurance companies. This is ridiculous. Considering the sheer amount of reform legislation Congress tries to pass every year and how often insurance companies make the news, it’s not like they’ve got it all together. Is it really true that most of the 6 million uninsured people in California are that way because they’re trying to cheat the system? So the uninsured and the people who won their lawsuits against Blue Cross are all just irresponsible cheaters and liars?

Also, in this talk about how insurance is expensive because we the insured are the recipients of cost-shifting, I’m not hearing much about the health insurance companies absorbing costs. I hear about hospitals going bankrupt because they treat too many uninsured patients, I see my bill every month, what about the corporate execs? How are they doing their part-- is this “just the best they can?” Their paychecks suggest otherwise.

I also kind of got the feeling that Mr. Benton seemed to kind of disapprove of our national policy that ERs have to admit people who’re having a medical emergency. It was almost as if he wanted to say “Unfortunately, we cannot deny you critical emergency care, but we would if we could. It would be much cheaper that way.” Good to know how the other side sees it.

Do you hear that too?

Part #4

I asked if universal health care might be a viable option to alleviating our health care woes, to which Mr. Benton gave me some valuable information about how instituting this system would change the health care landscape. Using other countries as examples, he told me how there becomes a severe need for rationing of care based on the country’s inability to fund health care for everyone, especially at the levels Americans are expecting. In addition to significantly higher taxes, universal health care is also known to bring long wait times for essential treatment (3-6 months), and it’s common to see patients pass away while waiting for medical care. While I’m not convinced we should give up on the idea altogether, this information made sense to me and seemed very objective.

Mr. Benton then included this statement about the American consumer mentality: Benton 5

So, is this what the conservatives really think of us? Not only do some of us try to steal health care, but we want the best of everything and never want to pay for it. We’re selfish-- we want the latest technology when we're ill, we want to “keep our family members around forever,” all without footing the bill. And like a bratty kid, we bite the hand that feeds us—we blame health insurers and how much they earn when we don't like our monthly premium. So I guess that’s what they think of us, we’re just a bunch of spoiled brats.

Are we? Now I understand and agree that Americans are notorious for wanting something for nothing. I see it all the time, especially here in L.A., but I have real trouble accepting that our health care problems are all our fault. I’m not so sure the American people are deep down just a bunch of users who take what they want and totally disregard how it affects other people. Do most people not buy health insurance because they’re irresponsible and don’t care if someone else has to pay when they get sick? Are we that base? I don’t know, I think people don’t buy health insurance mainly because they can’t afford it. My premium is $316/month right now and while the national average in 2004 was only $189, that’s still a lot of money for a great number of people. I also understand that we too often look to health care to make our pains go away and sometimes to save our lives and the lives of our loved ones, but can you blame us? Modern technology has taught us that when a person contracts a terminal illness it doesn’t automatically mean their life is over. There’s a chance that they’ll survive because of medicine and powerful new treatment options, and when that person is our mother, father, sister, why is it so unforgivable that in those times we'd want everything to ourselves? Doesn’t love and desperation make everyone a little selfish?

What most offends me about these conservative opinions is the lack of humanity. I re-read and re-listen to them and I just don’t hear empathy, I don’t hear “we’re on your side, we’re all in this together.” In fact, I hear the opposite, “look and what you did,” "you did this to yourself," not “what can we do to contribute?” There’s no benefit of the doubt, just this ugly assumption that underneath it all, you’re nothing but an user.

This all makes sense—look at the Bush administration and how it’s flagrantly disregarded civilian rights and common human decency. All along I’ve sort of known this is what the Republicans think, but to have it in my face makes me even more scared for this country. This is what we’re up against; no wonder people voted for Obama. He still seems like one of us, like he’s on our side, and that is giving people hope that government might not have to be a game rigged against them. This speaks to the core of who we are as people, how we want to be treated by those who represent us and what role government can play in making our lives better.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Ghetto, noun:

A section of a city, often rundown or overcrowded, inhabited chiefly by a minority group that is effectively barred from living from other communities, as because of racial prejudice or for economic or social reasons (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2006).

Los Angeles is filled with ghettos, real ones. How do I know this? My work has more recently taken me into the city’s rougher sides and it is quite clear that there are large portions of Los Angeles that are, for all intensive purposes, Mexican ghettos. If you don’t live here, you don’t know that probably one third of L.A. looks and feels like Mexico. This is another reason why I don’t use the term “Little Mexico”--there’s just too much to call it that. Beyond L.A.’s well-traveled roads and freeways, you enter the city’s third world, a place populated by poor, non-English speaking immigrants who have banded together, effectively creating insular communities for people like them. This is not new behavior, it’s why we have Chinatowns and Slavic Villages, but L.A. is different because of how large the immigrant population has become.

I’m coming at this from a unique place. Cleveland, my hometown, is far from being an all white city. In 2006, the U.S. Census declared it 64% White, 29% Black, 2% Asian and 4% Hispanic, with only 11% of the population not speaking English at home. To a native, the reality is that while there is a dominant minority, that minority speaks English and has been in America for quite some time. Also keep in mind that this minority, however dominant, still doesn’t even come close to exceeding the majority in size. Thus, race and immigration hasn’t been such a big deal**. In the absence of a significant immigration problem, there’s not only less racial and cultural tension but far less fighting over “who deserves to be here.” Before I moved to L.A., I honestly hadn’t given immigration or the need for reform hardly any thought.

However, it is a much more pressing issue in L.A. county. First of all, there’s almost 10 million people stuffed in here, not including commuters from Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Everyone’s competing for very limited resources--something that never makes people very friendly. In any case, here are the stats : 29% White, 10% Black, 13% Asian, 47% Hispanic.

So how has this been different for me? I feel uncomfortable saying this, but just the sheer amount of Latino influence is overwhelming. This realization is odd for me, because I specialize in Latin American social dancing like Salsa, Merengue, etc. so I’ve spent tons of time in the Salsa community. Here’s the difference: Salsa is mainly popular in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Columbia, and some other Latin American countries—not Mexico. Mexicans do their own thing, they like cumbia and ranchera music, they prefer tacos and burritos to yucca and plantains, and then there’s this odd thing with Southwest ranching culture, like with these radio show ads from 97.9 La Raza which, somewhat appropriate to this discussion, translates as "the race.".

So the result of this is that I just don’t get Mexican culture. Anything Latin American I pretty much get, but not this. And because Cleveland was 29% black, I get the Mexican community’s sworn rival too. I could probably deal with this situation better if L.A. wasn’t almost half Mexican, but it is—which makes things a little strained. I’m surrounded by a culture I don’t understand and trying to live cooperatively with people who very often don’t speak my language. This sort of things usually happens when you’re in a different country, but Los Angeles isn’t some hybrid Baja-like country--this is America. Very often it’s like I’m standing in the middle of crowd asking “why are you guys all wearing cowboy hats?” There are two cultures here trying to live separately in the same place; Americans live here like its America and lots of Mexicans live here like its Mexico. We’re both turning our backs to each other and trying to do our own thing, but the inevitability of this is that have to coexist and we’re going to clash.

Many of the immigrants residing in L.A.’s Mexican ghettos came to this country for the opportunities it provides. They are avoiding assimilation partially because doing so is more convenient and it is not required. This sounds harsh, so to be clear I’m not saying this because of some beef I have with the entire Mexican community. There are enough large pockets of unassimilated immigrants existing in L.A. that you can rent an apartment, earn a living and build a life here, all without ever having to speak English. There are all the comforts of home plus the benefits and opportunities of being in the United States. I feel awfully Republican feeling this way, but is how that not selfishly using our country?

Eastern European immigrants who came over to the United States in the early 20th century didn’t have some federal program helping them assimilate or learn English. But they did because they wanted to assimilate into American culture and speaking English was the fastest way to upward mobility. The other big difference is that while there was a huge influx of immigrants at that time, you didn’t have cities that were 50% foreign born. That’s our problem today—the sheer volume of immigrants living in Los Angeles has created the possibility for ghettos so developed that you can move to the United States but never become an American. This is not to say that many Hispanic immigrants don’t try to fully integrate themselves into our society or attempt to learn English to get a better job. But unfortunately, you don’t always see those individuals when you look around L.A.

Living here, language is the largest barrier you run into with the working immigrant population. At many restaurants and cafes, you cannot ask for something they don’t expect, like half-caff coffee or no ice in a drink. If you try, it just doesn’t happen. At one restaurant, I was ready to order my dinner but hadn’t yet decided what I wanted to drink. When a server came over, I wanted to place my dinner order and this completely threw him off; he had to leave and get another server. I figured out that they’ve instituted a system where one server, always the less fluent employee, gets drinks and another takes food orders. Now, I understand the practicality of doing this since drinks are usually simpler to understand and dinner orders often come with more specifications. But this takes me back to a point I raised earlier: we’re not in a foreign country, this is America-- why in the spirit of accommodation and political correctness do we have to accept this?

These restaurant incidents happened well before my work started taking me into L.A.’s Latino ghettos. One day, I took the Metro from Long Beach (in the South) through to Downtown. I went through some crappy parts of town near Compton, places that looked more like Puerto Rico than California. The houses were old and rundown, there was an enormous amount of graffiti, the only thing missing were all those chickens running around. I’m serious, there is a substantial on-the-move chicken population in P.R. In any case, I started looking around on the train and realized that I was the only white person on the entire car. Apparently this is how things usually are because the all of the on-board ads were in Spanish. By now, I’m used to hearing Spanish more often than English in public places in L.A., but being the only non-Hispanic person on that Metro really made me feel like I was in a different country. But I wasn’t, I was in the United States.

Around this same time I was working a promotional marketing gig at a bank near the LA/Orange County border. About half of the people coming into the bank were Latino immigrants, something made instantly clear when many of them said outright “I don’t speak English” or smiled uncomfortably when I approached them. You get used to this shy response out here, when a person just doesn’t understand you. These were people who were customers of the bank, who had accounts and jobs that earned them money to deposit in them. I asked myself, how do these people go through life in America without speaking English?

One of the women I met at the bank reminded me of this same question. She didn’t speak enough English to recognize that I said Jamba Juice, which for Southern California is sort of like not knowing the word McDonalds. I ran into another woman at a street corner and asked her which way was west (I think a simple enough question) and she too replied “no English.” I feel Republican for this, but the first thing that came to my mind was “well, why don’t ya learn some?” Second, I tried to remember if oeste meant west or east and asked myself if I could form this sentence in Spanish.

This brings me back to my question again: how do you get through life in this country without learning enough English? When I couldn’t communicate (albeit, due to their not assimilating), I immediately thought to be accommodating and try some Spanish. This might be another large contributing factor into how so many get by not knowing English. Not only are the Mexican ghettos a safe haven, but the public transportation system, banks, etc. are doing everything in English and Spanish, even though the U.S. is not a bilingual country like Canada.

When I was working at that bank, people came up and started talking to me in Spanish. This sends a pretty clear message of how prevalent our accommodation is of the Spanish-speaking Latino community. Even as a white woman, these people just assumed that I spoke Spanish because, well, who doesn’t out here? This seems relatively harmless, but I think it illustrates that the Latino community has grown so used to us accommodating them and making their cultural needs a priority that now it’s something they’ve come to expect. This isn’t right. Maybe being practical and just making everything Latino-friendly isn’t making everything easier in the long run. Maybe it’s just putting off the problem and, in all likelihood, making it worse. Plus, half of Los Angeles is female, so there are countless non-English speaking women raising children, who of course won’t speak English either. And so the cycle continues.

I consider myself to be a very patient and tolerant person, but hitting these linguistic and cultural roadblocks all the time makes it very difficult to not start thinking about illegal immigration in this country. I’m all for welcoming and accepting other cultures, but the number of unassimilated Latino immigrants is Los Angeles is way out of hand for this being an American city. Yes, I feel Republican saying that but L.A. has gotten to that point where you have to begin addressing those questions. No wonder so many people have such an angry, “they’re taking over” mentality. If we just talk numbers, California has huge problems including our deficit, traffic, the water shortage, overburdened hospitals, pollution, quality of schools--the state is effectively sinking. According to Californians for Population Stabilization, much of this can be traced back to overpopulation and the rapid influx of Latino immigrants. I’m not surprised; not everyone can crash the party and still get a beer.

So how do the presidential candidates propose to address this issue? John McCain’s Straight Talk Express certainly didn’t extend to this issue with his website simply stating that we need to secure our border …as if we didn’t know. He also suggests that keeping a political alliance with Mexico will discourage its citizens from fleeing to the U.S. (um..right), that not cramping American businesses with taxes, regulations, etc. will make it so they don’t have to hire cheap labor, and also that we must recognize the importance of assimilation (we have, John, we have). Lastly, he added this self-congratulatory message about remembering that America’s a “shining city upon a hill”— that’s why everyone wants to come here! Aren’t we great!

Obama highlighted surging undocumented population growth, the process of acquiring citizenship and unsuccessful raiding as the prominent contributing factors to our immigration problem. He mentioned securing the border too, but also promoting economic development in Mexico and removing employment incentives for people entering the U.S. illegally. As for citizenship, he talked about creating a system where illegal immigrants in good standing can more easily go through a citizenship process that involves learning English and not receiving priority status in processing.

Obama seemed to have it more together; he was far more specific than McCain, which is funny because people have gotten on him for not talking specifics. I’m impressed. Because if we really look at this issue, you can’t simply tell everyone here that doesn’t speak English or who came here illegally to just get out. Besides how impractical this is and how immigrants are a viable part of America’s economy, telling all these people to hit the road and leave their families behind is neither a graceful nor humane way to deal with this problem. Despite how this “we’re already here” philosophy reminds me of Iraq, it cannot be denied that this problem is urgent and we must make it a priority. I truly hope our new president can do something, because if this post accomplishes anything, I hope it drives home the point that this is a serious roadblock for California and we can’t keep banging our heads up against it forever. Something’s got to give.

*Don’t get me wrong, I understand that there are significant racial tensions in Cleveland. However, the scope and magnitude of the problem in LA dwarfs that of Cleveland, especially when you consider factors such as population and the persistent Latino-Black gang violence.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Before I moved here, everyone told me Southern California wasn’t just a place, it was a “state of mind” where life was slower and the people were laid back and carefree. I always found this notion odd because well, Los Angeles has the second largest economy in the U.S.--it isn’t going to run itself. But it still made me wonder how this might apply to the great inevitability of our lives: work. Since there’s so much to do here besides work, do Californians not work as hard as people in harsher climates? Again, I found this doubtful from the beginning, but I was still curious to see if there might be any significant difference in how they do business and how much value they place on comfort and leisure. At first, I got mixed messages. There were all those people rushing around the 405 freeway and most people seemed to have fairly normal ideas about work ethic. But, then I joined a temp agency and got to see LA’s business men and women in their natural habitat. That changed a few things.

I joined the temp agency back when I was first getting my business started, but I continue to stay on call for several reasons. For one, the work is inordinately easy; I really do just answer the phone. I learned this the hard way; on my first assignment I showed up in a full suit ready to work a hard 8-5 and instead just got told to stay at the desk and not get in the way. So I pretty much get paid to sit on my computer, sign for FedEx packages, and blog while eating the catering food that intermittently gets delivered. Oh, and answer the phone when it rings. I swear, a small monkey could do this job. However, I also get an inside scoop on workplace goings-on, not to mention tons of high-quality people watching.

So while I continue to do this at various LA businesses, one thing has become abundantly clear: work is a very different experience for many people in LA than in any other place. Now, while people are usually professional, proactive and very dedicated to what they do, what’s really thrown me for a loop are the working conditions. All but one of the LA offices I’ve been to, and I’ve been to quite a few, were designed rather than merely furnished, so much that they often seemed more like works of art than places of business. I couldn’t believe how much money these businesses had sunk into their offices on entirely re-done floor plans, custom furniture, art pieces, etc. It’s incredible, check out these pictures:

Now onto the details—one dot com company had the liquid crystal line of widescreen plasma televisions above every single cubicle-- just so there could be a 57 inch image of their website topping off everyone’s workspace. One office had bathrooms with Meyer’s Lemon Lotion and Hand Soap, which I found selling for $58 on the Williams Sonoma website. That’s not including refills, which you know this place goes through like TP.

I’ve also never seen this much thought being put into the employee fridge. I was in a place that buys whole, skim and soy milk just for morning coffee along with every single fixin’ you could possibly imagine. And if regular coffee’s just too common for you, a gleaming steel espresso machine awaits, complete with espresso from Starbucks and separate cappuccino cups and saucers. The only thing missing was a private company barista.

Another place ordered $250 worth of fruit each day just so the employees could pick at it whenever they wanted a snack. Thursday was bagel day, where every available type of bagel and spread got ordered. I also happened to be there for an employee function where they bought eight types of sandwiches and three kegs of beer for a Friday lunch. Anything so the employees have limitless choices. Another company spent $1000 on a small catered breakfast and lunch duo, and let me tell you, I didn’t know something that would be consumed so quickly needed to look that beautiful. If that’s what they spend on food, think about what they must be spending on travel or corporate gifts. Or rather, think about what their clients must be spending.

The office kitchens I’ve seen have far surpassed their humble beginnings. Most have top-of-the-line, stainless steel appliances. A few have put in what exemplifies what's different about working in many California companies: the built-in beer tap. Yes, I’m serious, they had beer taps in the kitchen. This suggests that the staff are drinking so much beer that even just buying the occasional keg isn’t economical. And, by the way, the tap was Newcastle Brown Ale, quite a far cry from Natty Ice.

When I ask the office coordinator ladies about this, they say “yeah, we have a beer tap” like it’s just a great job perk. And as they said this, they also looked at me like some not-with-it Midwesterner, like if I told them I didn’t have text messaging. But still, what blew my mind was that it had never seemed to cross anyone’s mind that their employer’s spending habits might be a bit extravagant. To them it was no big deal, an expected part of working there, even something they deserved. What’s happening here is that the employees are being spoiled so often and to such a lavish degree that they’re taking it for granted.

This is going to sound old geezer, but where I’m from spending such lavish amounts of money on yourself is wasteful, whether you’re an individual, company, whatever. There’s no arguing this crap is somehow necessary-- you don’t need the $500 breakfast or the gleaming toaster or the beer tap—and that fact they have them makes it even more abundantly clear that these companies, when it comes to themselves, spare no expense.

Despite the obviously large amount of money being thrown around, I seemed to be the only one asking where it was all coming from. Somebody has to pay for all this stuff. Is it the clients? Possibly. Is the company not paying its employees very well in return for the fab working environment? Also possible. I couldn’t get an answer without sticking my nose way in where it doesn’t belong, but I highly doubt the higher ups are taking a pay cut for that beer tap.

I have never seen corporate spending like this in my life, not in Cleveland, Washington D.C., New York, anywhere, ever—in fact, the Washington Post looked like a shack by comparison. These aren't even oil companies either! You see, I come from a fairly conservative steel town, where offices actually looked liked places of business. They've got a microwave, fridge and vending machine in the kitchen and that's it. This is because you’re there to work, not anything else, and the office theoretically should reflect this. The rationale is that you try to remove distractions from the work environment in order to encourage people to focus while they’re there. Makes sense, right?

I’ve contemplated the purpose of all this grandeur? Is it for the employee’s comfort and enjoyment to help them to be happier at work? Doubtful. Does the company want to be seen as innovative and fun? It’s possible—this is L.A., image is everything. Or it is to impress visiting clients? Does investing a fortune in a place really gain you that much business? I’m not sure; I can’t imagine how much more it cost to create this rather than a regular office, but I’m doubtful the results justify the investment.

I was leaning towards the client/image reason at first, but then I heard an interesting perspective from one of my former employers who stands, hands-down, as the best boss I’ve ever had. He explained that they’re probably trying to fashion an environment in which the line is blurred between work and not-work. By spending all that extra moolah and recreating the comforts of home, you entice salaried employees to put in longer hours, and then they are more productive. Plus, it makes the employee think fondly of the company and feel more dedicated to doing their job well, thus inclining them to work harder. According to my old boss, this can easily translate into the company getting more than they’ll ever shell out in payroll or in all those job perks.

This made sense to me, but it reminds me why it’s difficult to not be cynical as an adult in this society. Everything costs money, people are always trying to make money off you, there’s always some ulterior motive you’re facing. In this situation, I can’t see there being some innocent reason for such lavish decoration and spending. Companies don’t spend that much money just to be nice-- what do they get out of it?

So, back to my original question: is there a difference in working in California? Most definitely, yes. From my casual research, it appears that these companies are trying to appeal to Californians’ laid back, leisurely “nature” to hopefully get them to work harder and longer hours. This makes sense and definitely says something about what Californians expect to have in their lives: comfort, treats, nice things, yuppie stuff. So much for disproving the stereotype. But maybe this is how that “state of mind” intersects with real life: Californians will work hard and put in long hours if the experience is enjoyable. After all, there’s a lot of sun out here.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Doggie Fizzle Music Televizzle

A guy probably in his mid-forties approached me today at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Hollywood. He came up to me sweating rather profusely in a little faux silk shirt number with stringy, long hair in desperate need in need of maintenance, his head topped off with a tragically hip “Doggie Fizzle” scripted baseball cap.

It was hot.

Doggie Fizzle proceeded to ask me if I’d audition for a music video for this band named Julie, which plays ambiguously classified music that I may or may not be able to look up on Myspace. Yay for credibility. He excitedly tells me I’d be the ex-girlfriend subject of this break-up song in which I’d be filmed pulling out a heart and random other internal organs from a fake cadaver. Despite how this idea reminds me more of a misguided 7th grade science fair project than a music video, I let him finish.

Doggie Fizzle: “So, you’re an actress, right?”

Me: “Um, no…”

He was quite surprised at this. Why does everybody in Los Angeles seem to think that I’m one of those blue-eyed wonders who’ll do anything for face time on camera? I’m not even an actress and I’m still being typecast! He also told me that they were looking for a certain look, i.e. so that’s why he came up to me in the first place. So apparently I look like some crazy woman who’ll going around ripping people’s hearts out. That’s comforting.

I find it odd that Doggie Fizzle, or whomever he works for, thinks that randomly approaching people to be in some no-name band’s music video is actually going to work. If you live in L.A. and spend any time in Hollywood, you are automatically skeptical of people hitting you up for entertainment stuff. It happens all the time, and usually from scruffy looking white guys who’d never look right in a real recording studio anyways. Out here, everyone’s got something big in the works or knows someone really high up but rarely does their stuff go anywhere. We Anglenos know this all too well, so why would you send out Doggie Fizzle to do some grassroots recruitment with that “winning” pitch and expect people to go for it?

I considered it for a second. Hey, I try to be nice and it might even pay. But the idea of me standing in a room being told to look a little crazy and “just dig in” didn’t appeal to me in the end. Sorry. I guess I’m not set out for hustling in the entertainment business—good thing I don’t fancy myself an actress.