Recession Anxiety

Update : Tour operators are offering guilt-free vacations.

We talked about canceling our vacation because we felt guilty. My spouse and I had more than one serious conversation about taking a vacation right now when so many are experiencing so much real economic pain, losing jobs, struggling to get by and experiencing the emotional trauma that comes with this recession.

Apparently we’re not alone. Recession anxiety is widespread according to an article in today’s New York Times and it comes in many forms. Many of us are plagued with everyday, on-going anxiety and decisions about the future.

As for my spouse and me, we wavered. We weighed pros and cons. We beat ourselves up. And, finally we went.

Both of us have jobs with a fair degree of stress and we agreed we needed time away. We had planned for the vacation and set aside funds, so it wasn’t taking away from necessities, it wasn’t running up credit card debt and it didn’t take the place of our giving to the church and charitable groups.

A couple of years ago I was admonished publicly to take time off. The board of directors made it clear. Frankly, it was embarrassing then and it’s embarrassing now to remember and write about. But this, too, came into our conversation.

Not taking time off would not change the global financial situation one iota, of course. Yet, it might make us feel better–or would it? Would we disengage and refresh ourselves by staying put? Would we feel we had done the right thing, even if we didn’t feel better after doing it?

So, we went. I’m glad we did. We both needed time away to clear our heads, rest our bodies, take in something new and replenish our emotional reserves.

But the doubt didn’t dispel easily. As we boarded the plane, she looked at me and whispered something about still feeling guilt. I said, "I know." And I really did because I felt the same.

Sunset off Grand Case Watching the sunset later that evening, listening to the ocean waves gently break I felt a sense of peacefulness and gratefulness that helped ease some of the doubt. Over the course of the next few days it nearly dissipated as we enjoyed our time together, relaxed and let the cares back home separate from our minds. Everyday, however, I said, "This was the right thing to do." As if saying would make it even more true.

I know today it was the right thing to do. I’m better at work and I’m thinking more clearly because I took time away. I really enjoyed taking pictures of butterflies and looking at the beauty of the ocean. We walked and swam and I feel as if I have more energy for the tasks at hand today.

But still, I waver. I even wavered about sharing the photos of butterflies with staff. Not because they were bad, or it was wrong, but because I was concerned about what they would think about me taking a vacation at this time! Wow, the punishment we visit upon ourselves–at least that I am able to visit upon me.

So however you read this–the musings of an obsessed workaholic, or the ramblings of an anxiety-riddled neurotic writer–I get it about recession anxiety.

I hope you enjoy the photos of the butterflies anyway.

Post-Christian America?

The loss of the political agenda of the religious right and Christian dominionists is not a marker for the demise of Christianity in the U.S.

Writer Jon Meacham apparently felt the need to clarify further the point of his cover story in Newsweek which was provocatively headlined The End of Christian America .

Meacham’s demurer isn’t a concern here. What intrigued me as I read the remarks of Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, is how different I respond to the same dynamics that he’s concerned about. The issue of how to live a meaningful spiritual life and make it inviting for others in a post-modern, secularizing society is real. One need not be naive or unrealistic about that. More people seem to be opting out of Christian faith and that’s a significant concern.

But the interweaving of politics with theology over the past several years has muddied the waters and also caused real harm to perceptions of religion and religious communions.

However, the broad principles of social justice, as distinct from the specific ethical issues that were written into the Republican platform, still remain strong and I hope will endure. So the fact that the political agenda of the religious right has been solidly rejected does not spell the end of Christianity. It spells the end of a political and social agenda advanced by one of the many branches of people who identify themselves as Christian.

I am encouraged by a new-found and growing sense of urgency in my own denomination. It’s expressed through reaching out to new people, tackling the killer diseases of poverty, addressing poverty, recruiting and training new leaders and living with greater concern for the whole of creation including concern for the environment.

I came away from a couple of meetings in the past two weeks with uncharacteristic optimism. Those who know me well are sucking air right now asking, "what’s happened to him?"

What’s happening is I’m seeing signs of awareness that the church (as it is represented by this particular denomination) needs to be relevant and to engage with people in an authentic, life-enhancing way. I hear concern about how the church provides opportunities for people to become servants in faithfulness to their religious convictions as followers of Jesus. And I hear sensitivity about language and culture and how the church talks with people who want to find purpose and meaning in these difficult times. And I see action that is energizing and fresh.

This is important and whether it results in renewal, transformation or completely new forms of religious communities and expressions, it’s exciting and encouraging.

We’re not facing the end of Christianity, nor its demise but there are urgent reasons for some of us to change and seek new ways to be faithful and relevant in the world today. The rejection of the public agenda of the evangelical right is instructive, but not a measure of the relevance of Christian faith to life today. Whatever it’s importance, the evangelical right is a branch of the Christian community, not the whole of the community in the U.S. much less Christendom across the world.

As I look at the challenges faced by people of faith today I am not discouraged, I am curious, enervated and charged up. We (followers of Jesus and those who don’t) live in hard times. Many are unsettled, in pain and struggling with life. The Christian faith was born in times like these. This is a wondrous time and we are a people of hope.

The AP Takes on File Sharing

The Associated Press is taking on file sharing. In an attempt to control unlicensed use of material it has generated and protect its financial model, the Associated Press is discussing how to deal with search engines and unauthorized use of its licensed content.

I understand the problem and sympathize with the economic challenge. But the music industry took a similar approach and hasn’t exactly prospered.

What is missing is the basic premise. The kids who share music files don’t see themselves stealing intellectual property or taking from the corporate bottom line, they see themselves sharing with their friends. This use of the Internet as a way to extend community and personal relationships flies in the face of the traditional gatekeeper role of content distribution. It blows it away.

That’s what the Internet has done. It was built into the medium from its birth. See Cluetrain Manifesto , the earliest assessment of the importance of an open Internet.

So corporate control of information as manifested in the AP effort will continue and some form of payment for information will eventually develop, I suppose. But the model isn’t yet clear, iTunes and Google ads notwithstanding, and AP doesn’t sound like it’s found it.

If the music industry is any guide, reacting, controlling, cease and desist letters and lawsuits don’t make for an expanding business model.

Poverty’s Effects on Children and the Rest of Us

Poverty diminishes general health. It causes stress. And now we know it also affects working memory. We’ve known about the debilitating effects of poverty for a long time but a new study documents adverse effects on brain function.

A few years ago we lived in one of the poorer neighborhoods in a very poor town in central Oklahoma. On any warm summer night I could go out on the porch and hear people shouting at each other. The level of stress in that economically strapped neighborhood was widespread. High blood pressure, anxiety and domestic violence followed.

I grew up in that neighborhood, in that environment. We weren’t aware of stress, we just lived it. It was so much a part of our lives that we didn’t identify it as anything but normal. Poverty is stressful, but talking about stress when you’re struggling to survive seems a luxury so it goes un-noted.

When kids live with this kind of stress it takes many forms, one of which is irregular sleep patterns, nightmares and insecurity. Unless the adults are wise, dysfunctional behavior takes hold and the family adjusts to both threats to emotional maturity and physical health.

The study’s mention of impaired working memory adds another dimension. One can imagine what this means to classroom function. Most likely it means nonlinear thinking which places different demands on teaching.

I produced a video on street children in Brazil some years ago and these kids were unable to give directions to places where they hung out daily. It wasn’t inarticulateness it was life experience that caused this inability.

They lived their lives in episodes of peace interrupted by violence. They were frequently beaten, chased away from stores and parks, and shot. Seven were killed a few weeks before I went to research the video.

This episodic life made it impossible for them to construct a simple narrative such as how to walk two blocks, turn right and arrive at the bus station on the corner.

Their disordered lives were so fragmented they remembered episodes of violence but linear memory was almost nonfunctional. This effect was environmental, not nutritional. But the interrelationship between environment and health is so organic, how can one approach health and not also address emotional and economic development, education and employment, and good governance and justice. Or does that make it too complicated and leave us saying we’ll always have the poor among us and so we can forget about it?

It’s clear enough that poverty is a breeding ground for human diminishment and we need to plant different seeds than the weeds of poor nutrition, poor education and stress. We can’t allow poverty to create memory loss among the affluent. If we do, we will all be diminshed.

Butterflies on St. Maarten

Blue MetallicaA few weeks ago I had the opportunity to photograph at the Butterfly Farm on St. Maarten. They have around forty species at the farm and the garden is compact and easily accessible. This is one of my favorite places on the island, so spending time there is a great diversion.

I went in the morning when the butterflies are becoming most active. They are activated by sunlight and warm tempertures. It’s a matter of waiting patiently for one to strike the best pose and snapping away as quickly as possible. A selection of photos is at this online album.

Upon returning home in the U.S. we had a remarkably warm Sunday and my daughter walked into the garage to discover that an eastern swallowtail chrysalis that I had set aside from last summer had emerged into a butterfly. It was an unexpected treat, especially after just returning from the Butterfly Farm. Early Swallowtail

Two more chrysalises matured over the next two days, then it turned seasonable cold again and the three remaining haven’t hatched yet.

FSA/OWI Photos

The FSA/OWI (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information) is one of the most important, revealing  photo collections from the Great Depression and WWII eras, if not in the nation’s history. The Farm Security Administration hired Roy Stryker, an economist from Columbia University, to run the "Historical Section" of the FSA. His boss Rexford Tugwell, said he was to "show the city people what it’s like to live on the farm."

The FSA hired some of the best photographers in the country to document what was happening to people in the cities and towns at the height of the Depression. Among them were Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, John Vachon, Marion Post Wolcott, Russell Lee, Jack Delano, John Collier, Jr., Carl Mydans, Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange.

While the majority of the photos are black and white, a number of color photographs were taken and many have the feel of a Norman Rockwell painting. While not as stylized and idealized as Rockwell, this quality is even more interesting in this is collection of documentary photography.

The Photo District News blog offered up a selection of the color photos earlier this week.

Root Canals, the Economy and Health Care in General

Since October I’ve been making the rounds of appointments between a general dentist, oral surgeon, endodontist and periodontist. What started as a simple filling turned into six months of extractions, surgery, root canals, re-treated root canals and more surgery. I’ve discovered how nerve damage can affect ability to pronounce words, cause loss of taste and contribute to TMJ making it painful to chew food. But this post isn’t a tale of woe, nor a complaint against these professions.

I’ve had good care despite complications and, thankfully, I have dental insurance that has covered a major portion of the costs. But the experience has highlighted a health issue I’ve given little thought. How we pay for dental care needs reforming as badly as other segments of health care. But dentistry isn’t mentioned in the wider health care discussion perhaps because it’s not perceived as the cause of life-threatening conditions and, except in acute circumstances, it’s considered optional. But oral health is neither benign nor optional. It’s as important to quality of life as sound heart and lungs, and as directly connected through the circulatory system. Sometimes a toothache isn’t just a toothache.

Sitting in waiting rooms I’ve heard patients talk about health, work and money. They speak of working with pain or missing work. Their untreated problems are costly to businesses in lost productivity and effectiveness. And dental problems are equally costly to individuals. They contribute to other health problems, some of which have significant effects on individual health. They can lead to emotional reactions that affect attitudes on the job. And they are costly in lost wages.

In every waiting room I’ve heard patients negotiating how to pay for services, sometimes unsuccessfully. I’ve wondered about the woman with no dental insurance who needed endodontal services but couldn’t work out a payment plan and the student looking for a referral who would take a small insurance payment. What does one do when the problem doesn’t go away but the cost is prohibitive? Find a dental school clinic? Keep searching for another provider who will deal? Stock up on ibuprophen and self-treat the symptoms?

Probably all of the above, especially if you’re working and can’t spend the time doing this research and can’t get the money together to pay the upfront portion of a large bill. In every office I’ve visited, the first matter dealt with is ability to pay. Then the consulting and diagnosis begin. Receptionists are trained to make clear what the costs will be. It’s done with finesse in some places and heavy-handed clumsiness in others, but in all cases this is the first item of business. (pun intended)

After hearing many variations of the problem, I wonder how many patients dental professionals are carrying and writing off. While I don’t wonder why the receptionists are trained to screen for financial ability, nor why the dentists don’t want to discuss finances after the patient is in the chair, a couple of times I felt as if I were buying a used car.

“If we do option A it will cost $500. Option B will cost $1000. Any questions?”

I say, “No.”

But I’m thinking, “Whatever it takes to end this pain.”

“Sign here for option A, and here for option B.”

Monetizing medical procedures changes the relationship between  patient and provider. It frames health and healing as a commercial relationship, which it is of course, but only in part. It is also a relationship of trust and compassion. One hopes for something more than a financial transaction, a modicum of personal touch and humanity, perhaps. I hope the person putting sharp objects in my mouth while I’m drugged is not only technically skilled but also compassionate and sensitive to my fears and concerns. Framing our exchange as a transaction from the outset puts this into question. It changes expectations, trust and, perhaps, results. I suspect it changes attitudes toward healing and followup.

Am I just old-fashioned and out of touch? Should we even attempt to change? And what would we change if we could? Well, that’s for another day. And I haven’t even begun with the time-consuming, wasteful, frustrating, incoherent maze we call insurance–dental insurance, health insurance, prescription drug coverage. But I’ll stop here. Just thinking about it reminds me I’ve got to take a pain pill.

Can Macs Get Malware?

Macs are relatively free of spyware, malware and malicious trojans, so they say. "They" are those who know better than I how computers become infected. And truth to tell, until now I’ve had no hint of infection and I’ve used a Mac for several years.

That changed recently when this blog got an unwelcome visitor. Fortunately, I was aware of the intruder almost as quickly as it appeared and removed it in a matter of minutes. But it was pure luck.

The visitor appears to be malware that attached a corporate logo and link to the opening page of Perspectives along with the Share This plugin logo. The logos redirected users to an online Japanese electronic store.

I disabled a suspect blog plugin and ran software to remove malware. I followed this with commands to remove infected files I found on the Internet from a reliable Mac magazine . I’m a rank amateur at using terminal commands but the instructions were clear and graphically illustrated. The symptoms matched and instructions to remove it worked, to my relief. I checked for unusual files in WordPress, based on other descriptions provided on the web.

Even after this I was unsure of my efforts and went to the Mac store and a local Mac dealer and asked about malware removal and protection. While staff at both places were courteous and helpful, neither was familiar with malware on a Mac because, they said, it’s so unusual.

The folks at Mac Authority took the time to look at my files, however, and agreed they look as they’re supposed to.

A couple of Mac blogs comment that as Macs increase market share they’re becoming bigger targets for viruses and malware. I can’t confirm that, but I can confirm that it’s a strange feeling to discover someone’s gotten into your computer and is using it for their purposes. It’s the same as someone violating your privacy. And, in fact, that’s what malware, spyware and viruses do. Hackers break into your space, and some are more damaging than others.

Windows users are familiar with viruses and other malicious intruders and know they must be on guard. As a Mac user, I’ve been less cautious but that changed today. I’m less trusting and better protected.

Social Ethics, Global Trade and Christian Faith

A few years ago I said in a meeting of colleagues I thought my denomination needs a global trade specialist. My remarks were met with a chuckle by one person and fell into the bottomless silence of rejection without words.

Now we’re in the midst of a global economic crisis that demands more of theologians than the balm of words. It demands structural change to address accountability, responsibility, equity and justice through specific actions.

Churches are good at offering words of comfort and hope. Words of hope and comfort are necessary and important. We need to be reminded that meaning and purpose in life are not defined by the bottom line of balance sheets. In Christian teaching, the core of faith is hope.

However, sometimes we need to be reminded that quality of life is also about our relationships to each other individually and collectively in communities of people, some of whom we know and some we don’t. Another core teaching of the faith is that we exist in community.

We need social policies and laws that at least attempt to ensure equity and justice in the economic system for all people. That’s why I thought we needed a global trade expert who could operate deftly in both social ethics and global economic policy. Mohammad Yunus is already offering insights that provide a different lens through which to view economic policy with his social business models, for example.

For the past several years religious faith in the public conversation has been narrowly defined by conservative politics and a culture war agenda. Morality was framed as individual behavior. Corporate accountability was ignored. While these debates raged, the world got its pockets picked by those who gamed the system. This is a theological issue and it’s about more than individual behavior, or even good personal intentions. It’s about our responsibility to ourselves, to each other and to God.

William Sloane Coffin said "Given human goodness, voluntary contributions are possible, but given human sinfulness, legislation is indispensable. Charity, yes always, but never as a substitute for justice. What we keep forgetting in this country is that people have rights, basic rights; the right to food, the right to decent housing, the right to medical care, the right to education." (Credo , William Sloane Coffin, Westminster John Knox Press, pp. 55-56)

Thomas Freidman writes that the world has reached a point of historic change. He refers to Paul Gilding’s phrase, the "great disruption." We’ve hit a wall. The whole growth model we created over the last 50 years, Freidman writes, is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically.

That behavior has led to the collapse we’re all struggling through just now, but it will return. And when it does, we as a society must ensure justice and collective responsibility are more than promises. They must be expressed in social policies that protect human rights and look after our communal responsibilities on a global scale.

It’s now abundantly clear that the world is so interrelated that economic ripples in one region slosh into other parts and cause erosion, or worse. Much as some try to deny it and fall back into national parochialism, we are global citizens. The system in which we live is global. Sometimes we forget how interdependent we are. But everything from the fruit we buy to the clothing we wear is now a globalized product. Our churches and educational systems have not caught up to preparing us for global awareness and a few loud voices are actually opposed to it.

We need new models . And the models should be informed by our best ethical thinking in addition to new sustainable economic policies. As Coffin said, Christian faith teaches that we are connected to each other through a variety of bonds that include human rights and a fundamental belief in human dignity. Where these values have been overshadowed by the contentiousness of the past few years, we need to put it to rest and offer a more holistic definition of faith.

In the perceptions of many in the U.S. and globally, Christianity is viewed as intolerant, doctrinaire and anti-science. Among other things, faith leads to probing questions, inclusive thinking and a framework for ethical behavior individually and collectively. It’s a comfort in times of distress but it’s also a challenge to act, to question and to stand for universal values that affirm the goodness of Creation and the human community.

Further, as I understand it, Christian faith is ultimately about service and sacrifice, both values that are counter to the  culture of individualism and acquisition. As the world looks for new models of behavior individually and collectively perhaps adding these values to the discussion could benefit the global community. They need not be proposed in a sectarian way. They are shared values that permeate many of the world’s great religions and ethical systems. The tragedy of the past decade is that we forgot them, or they got out-shouted by fear and undermined by self-serving behavior.

If we are indeed at a hinge point in history, and if the cultural values by which we’ve lived these past decades must change, then the time has come for a new social ethic , or a review of the social ethic that got set aside and ignored as we fought about these other issues.

And that’s why I thought my denomination needs a specialist in both social ethics and global trade, and it still does.

From Santelli to Kramer to CNBC

(Update: It just keeps on going and going and going and going.)

As millions of others, I’ve been watching the spat between the Daily Show and CNBC as it evolves. David Bauder of the Associated Press writes of the more serious journalistic questions the public interrogation is raising about CNBC . The trail from Santelli to Kramer is now leading to questions about the relationship of CNBC’s business journalists to the businesses and business persons they cover and it’s raising ethical questions about rumors and their effects on stock prices.

Bauder quotes Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review saying the CNBC commentators need adult supervision. He says they need to assess how closely they are to their subjects and get critical distance.

The issue of proximity in business news coverage isn’t particularly new and it isn’t limited to CNBC. In another period of my life I challenged–very mildly and unsuccessfully–PBS for its business news coverage. I proposed a  television documentary on an economic development project which would have been funded in part by religious organizations. PBS wouldn’t consider it because of these funding sources. They viewed it a conflict of interest.

I asked them how it was possible, then, for Wall Street Week, to receive sustaining production funds from the same businesses whose stocks and operations were discussed on a regular basis by the program’s host and guests. I received no answer and our conversation ended.

Beyond proximity, the story is viewed from another angle in a blog post on Fortune/CNN. Comments by Kramer about Apple stock in a video reprises attention about media comments, rumor and stock pricing. Kramer outlines how a strategically placed rumor could affect Apple’s stock prices. This raises a different ethical dimension to the story.

Santelli’s rant has focused attention on the relationship between business journalists and the subjects of their coverage. Stewart has brought the standards, ethics and practices of CNBC’s business coverage into public scrutiny.

If, for no other reason, we can thank Santelli for this, but he probably didn’t intend to put the credibility and reliability of CNBC’s business news coverage in the spotlight.

Kramer appears on the Daily Show and it’s covered by several media outlets.

The Motley Fool makes A Modest Proposal for Jim Cramer.

The Daily Show has moved from Santelli to sharp critique of CBNC’s Jim Kramer, CNBC and NBC. Bloggers have picked up the storyline.

It’s becoming a study in the dynamics of crisis communications management in the new media environment involving cable, broadcast, blogs and online video.

Drew Kerr on, makes it clear why there’s nothing worse than saying "no comment."  Kerr gives the background to Jon Stewart’s sharp satire on Santelli and CNBC after Santelli "bailed out" after agreeing to appear on the Daily Show.

Santelli not only brought attention to himself, he brought scrutiny to the network, and it’s not favorable. In fact, it’s withering. An old principle of journalism states the reporter should not become part of the story. Neither should the reporter’s organization.

With the refusal to appear on the Daily Show, Santelli broke a principle of public relations, Kerr says. He says it would have been better for Santelli to appear, laugh at himself, take the ribbing he would surely get from Stewart and let the air out of the balloon. He didn’t, and he gave the story new legs. He brought attention to his colleagues at CNBC and they were held up to unfavorable public satire. The story lived for yet another day.

All this from "no comment."