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?