Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Three Suggestions & a Short List

If you have been reading this blog on a regular basis, you have learned a few things about me. You know that I dearly enjoy my privacy. You also might’ve noticed that I do NOT enjoy having others force their opinions on me. I march to the beat of my own drum, in the grand American tradition of Henry David Thoreau, Charles Lindbergh and Gary Busey. “Don’t Tread On Me, Either!” is my motto.

“What a coincidence,” you say. “I have a brother who, all through grammar school, insisted on wearing the exact same pair of Captain America Underoos®. There are places for you both at the Too Big For Their Britches Hall of Fame. So what?”

I’m just saying that, under usual circumstances, politics and I go together like peanut butter and salsa. While I realize the importance of politics, I loathe the intrusiveness, preachiness, greediness and all-or-nothing, cookie-cutter mentality of the business. But sometimes, you must make exceptions and this entry is one of them. Today’s lunch special is PB & S on Midwestern wheat bread.

Hey, wait! Come back! Having just read the above paragraphs, you don’t think I’d dump that kind of stuff on you, do you? Uh-uh. I’m merely going to make three suggestions and give you a list of five brief factoids. You may, of course, take or leave them as you wish. The choice is entirely yours and whichever option you pick, we’ll still be friends. Okay?

Anyone who follows the news has heard something about the supposed connection between mercury and autism. Over the course of at least a decade, exposure to high levels of thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative commonly found in childhood vaccines, allegedly caused autism in millions of children across America. I have a young relative who, three years ago, was diagnosed with autism. I became convinced of the link between mercury and autism after reading two recent articles on the subject. These articles, “Deadly Immunity” by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (Rolling Stone 977/978 [2005]: 57-66) and “Debate on autism and vaccine puts parents on edge” (Chicago Tribune, 17 July 2005: 7) by Julie Deardorff, are the most cogent and concise analyses of this subject that I have seen. Both of these articles are available online (www.rollingstone.com and www.chicagotribune.com, respectively). Suggestion # 1: seek out these articles and read them, if only to be updated on a crucial topic.

Here’s that list I mentioned, gleaned from Kennedy’s and Deardorff’s articles:

1.) Between 1988 and 1992, Deardorff states that the number of vaccines kids were given “more than doubled”. Tragically, nobody “bothered to calculate cumulative exposure [to mercury]. When a government researcher finally did in 1999, he found that it exceeded federal limits” (Deardorff 7).
2.) “During the 1990s, 40 million children were injected with thimerosal-based vaccines, receiving unprecedented levels of mercury during a period critical for brain development” (Kennedy 60).
3.) Over the past 15 years, “the estimated number of cases of autism had increased fifteenfold, from one in every 2,500 children to one in every 166 children” (Kennedy 57).
4.) Between 1930 and 1971, Eli-Lilly, the drug company which developed thimerosal, received an abundance of scientific evidence clearly indicating that the preservative was harmful; yet, the company publicly maintained that thimerosal was safe (Kennedy 60).
5.) Why, through the 1980s and 1990s, did drug companies continue to produce vaccines containing thimerosal? The reason, Kennedy claims, was “cost considerations”. Thimerosal “enables the pharmaceutical industry to package vaccines in vials that contain multiple doses, which require additional protection because they are more easily contaminated by multiple needle entries. The larger vials cost half as much to produce as smaller, single-dose vials, making it cheaper for international agencies to distribute them to impoverished regions. . .” (Kennedy 60).

Okay, it’s time for Suggestion # 2, which is also the primary reason for this one-day-early entry. Deardorff’s article alerted me to an important event scheduled for Wednesday, July 20, 2005 in Washington DC. On that day, a parents’ group called Moms Against Mercury (www.momsagainstmercury.org) will be marching in the Capitol “to rally for anti-thimerosal legislation” (Deardorff 7). Deardorff notes that thirty states “have pending legislation” that would outlaw thimerosal-based vaccines (7). If, after reading this, you are so inclined, why not seize the day and show some support for the Moms Against Mercury? Check this site (www.conservativeusa.org/mega-cong.htm) to obtain your state governor’s e-mail address. Then, send your state governor a polite, 1-line message: “Please ban the use of mercury-based vaccines in (INSERT STATE NAME HERE). Thank you.” It’s that simple. Countless kids, maybe even one you’re related to, will be grateful.

Now, let’s wind it all up with Suggestion # 3. I am NOT, in any way, implying that parents should avoid having their children vaccinated. Vaccines save lives. If your child is due for his/her shots (or boosters), be sure to get them. And be sure to demand “thimerosal-free vaccines” when you do (Deardorff 7). Remember that knowledge is power, and the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Thanks for hanging in there with me. Next Wednesday, I promise to leave my soapbox at home. See you then. . .

UPDATE 8-19-05

Yesterday, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich signed the Mercury-Free Vaccine Act into law in my home state! Way to go Rod! You've got my vote in the next election.

See, friends? Sometimes the good guys win. For those of you with anti-mercury vaccine bills pending in your states, please write your senators, congresspeople and governors. For those of you in states not currently considering banning vaccines containing mercury, please write your senators, congresspeople and governors. This is not a partisan issue. It's a human rights issue. A short e-mail or post card from you could help save thousands of kids' health and well-being, if not their lives. Be one of the good guys!

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Gatekeeper

It started with waving. Or more accurately, not waving.

I must admit that I’m not a super-social kind of guy. I figure this comes from working sales jobs for so long. As a retail drone, you have to do so much gladhanding and asskissing, you strenuously avoid doing any more on your own time. I have my own circle of relatives and friends. While I’m not opposed to meeting new people, “live and let live” is my usual policy.

The neighborhood I’ve lived in, off and on, since age 8 is not a “Waltons”-style community. No one ever drops in to sample Grandma’s apple pie; if they did, she would probably sic the dog on them before she’d offer them a taste. That may seem harsh, but it’s also very American. I mean, the notion of respecting a person’s space, of leaving them alone to do as they please (within the law) is as American as, well, apple pie. Still, there are many misguided souls who are forever searching for Walton’s Mountain.

About ten years ago, one neighbor of ours went off seeking John-boy and company. She organized what she called an “annual summer block party” at her house, and invited everyone in our locality. By the time it was all over, this lady knew how Max Yasgur must’ve felt looking over his farm after Woodstock. The block party turned into a hedonistic beer blast, which culminated in one drunken reveler’s wild dance atop a picnic bench as “U Can’t Touch This” blared from the stereo. The fun ended when M.C. Hammered lost his balance and fell, twisting an ankle in the process. One lawsuit later, the “annual” block party was permanently discontinued.

Following that debacle, our neighborhood returned to its “polite but private” plan, which suited me perfectly. Think about it. Wouldn’t TV-type neighbors like Fred and Ethel Mertz, who were forever barging and butting in, be giant pains in the ass? They nosed into Lucy’s business so much, it’s a wonder Little Ricky was ever born. One of the blessings I always counted was that my neighbors left me alone. That is, until the Gatekeeper.

The Gatekeeper lives just up the street from me and my parents. His house sits on the corner of our little side-street and the main thoroughfare, which is the central entrance to our ‘hood. If you want to enter or exit, at least on my block, you’ve got to go past the Gatekeeper. Night or day, rain, shine, snow, or tornado, the Gatekeeper will be on patrol, waving and grinning like a coked-up Target door-greeter.

Before he transformed into a Marvel Comics-style villain, the Gatekeeper was a mild-mannered fellow resident I’ll call “Mr. Mancuso”. A widower with two kids, Mancuso moved into our subdivision about twenty years ago. His kids, a daughter and a son, were the same ages as my sister and I. We went to school together, and while we weren’t best friends, we’d occasionally hang out at each other’s houses. I met Mr. Mancuso just once, circa 1984. The rest of the time, he never seemed to be around. The common excuse was that he was “at work”. He was a single parent and he had to make a living. It was understandable.

After high school, I lost track of the Mancuso kids. They moved out and moved on. Soon after, Mr. Mancuso remarried. I was not invited to the wedding. While I never met her, I’d often see his wife out doing yard work when I drove by. Mancuso himself maintained a low profile. I assumed he was still working. Didn’t know, didn’t care. I had my own life to live.

Around the time I quit my job, something changed. The once-elusive Mancuso was suddenly as unavoidable as Tom Cruise on a press junket. I remember the day clearly. As I returned home from my orientation at the Career Center, I turned down my home street. Out of nowhere, a gray-haired and plaid-clad figure jumped in front of my car. I hit the brakes and stopped inches away from him.

“Hi, John!” said Mancuso, waving. “How’s tricks? What ya up to these days?”

Having just aged five years, I was too startled to say anything. I simply drove on.

Later that evening, I had a curious conversation with my mother.

“John,” she said, poking her head into the living room, “I just got off the phone with Mr. Mancuso.”

“Really? How’d he get our number?” I asked, quickly changing channels to PBS. Didn’t want her to catch me drooling over “G-String Divas”, you see. Doesn’t matter how old I am. Mom’s house, Mom’s rules.

“I don’t know,” Mom said, “but he was pretty upset. He said he waves to you every time you pass by his house, but you never wave back.”

I nearly gagged on my Hard Lemonade. “Are you kidding me? He should be glad he isn’t road pizza, after the stunt he pulled!”

Mom leaned on the doorframe and folded her arms---her “reasonable” stance. “He’s an old man and he just retired. He has all this spare time on his hands and doesn’t know how to fill it. You should know what that feels like. He waves to me and everyone else. Why not humor him and wave back?”

“Nevah!” I exclaimed, in my best British accent. “My life is my own. I am not a numbah, I am a free man!”

Mom didn’t get the joke. She isn’t a fan of the 1960s British TV series “The Prisoner”, from which I was quoting. She simply took away my bottle of Hard Lemonade and left the room.

But I wasn’t totally joking. Mancuso was out of line. I didn’t mean to ignore him, but when I’m driving, I have this odd habit of focusing on the road ahead and not on someone who appointed himself the one-man welcoming committee. I don’t wave to anyone; nobody waves to me. It’s nothing personal and that’s how it’s always been. It’s just a fact of life in our neighborhood.

I suppose I could’ve accommodated him. This shouldn’t have been a major issue, but Mancuso made it one. His “you must acknowledge me” game of chicken was bad enough. Then he goes to my mommy and tattles on me? According to standard playground rules, that was an act of war. I had, as an American, a God-given right not to wave. If it pissed him off, tough buns. He’d started the tussle, but I’d finish it! It was mark-your-territory, alpha-male, chest-beating, Tarzan-yelling pride time!

So it went, for weeks. Every time I drove past his house, the Gatekeeper would be there at that precise moment. Taking out the garbage, getting the mail, washing his car, grilling burgers or just standing there, like he was waiting for a bus (we don’t have bus service in our area). He must’ve lived in his driveway. As soon as he spotted me, he’d make like Uncle Jed, toodle-looing as the credits rolled on “The Beverly Hillbillies”. I swear he was psychic, in addition to being psychotic. But I did not wave. I didn’t even look at him. And it felt oh-so-very satisfying.

The battle raged on, through spring and into summer. I realized I was irking the Gatekeeper as much as he was irking me. Out of the corner of my eye, I noted that his waving had taken on a frantic quality. As time went on, though, the fun of snubbing him faded dramatically. It became, frankly, a staring contest and I was tired of it. But backing down was out of the question. I hoped the old fart would poop out and quit, the sooner the better.

Mom thought I was nuts and refused to take sides. But I was not without allies in this titanic struggle.

“Hey,” said my father, plopping down next to me at the kitchen table one day. “I talked to that goombah on the corner this morning.”

Dad, you see, is a politically correct and sensitive soul.

“He flagged my car down as I was coming back from the chiropractor,” Dad said. “He asked me why you came and went at such irregular hours. Then he asked why he never saw you wearing your red work shirt anymore.”

With that, my battle with the Gatekeeper sank from the “silly” to the “pitiful” level. Evidently, the Gatekeeper was so lonely, so without purpose, he’d been watching me even before I chucked my job, much longer than I thought. This guy had missed his calling. The F.B.I. could’ve used him. I asked Dad what he’d said to my foe.

“I said it was none of his business, and told him to go chase his tail. Listen son, everyone in life has a long list of asses they have to kiss. But Mancuso’s name isn’t on yours. Stick to your guns.”

Wow, the old man had stuck up for me, just like John-boy’s dad would have. Believe me, that hasn’t happened very often. I thanked him.

“No problem,” Dad said, grabbing the sports page and ambling off to the TV. “I never liked Mancuso. The guy who owned that house before Mancuso, now he was a neighbor. He was a dope-dealing goober who landed in jail, but he minded his own business.”

While I appreciated the support from Dad, I had by then had enough. Life had become a “Seinfeld” episode. I was George Costanza, fighting tooth and nail over the petty “principle of the thing”. The Gatekeeper had become the defender of irrelevant gestures. There was an errand I had to run the next day and I was dreading it. I decided to give in and wave. Hopefully, the Gatekeeper would back off.

The next morning, I hit the road a humbled man. When I reached the corner, the Gatekeeper. . .was nowhere in sight. Lucky me. When I got home, the Gatekeeper still wasn’t there. Luckier me.

In fact, I haven’t seen the Gatekeeper in over two weeks. Maybe he finally figured it out. Perhaps he returned to his previous sane and elusive form. God help him, but I don’t know and I won’t go asking.

What’s it all about, Alfie? I learned that adult men, no matter how old, never outgrow games of oneupmanship. I also learned that TV shows are not idealized fantasies, but biting satires of true life. Or true life is a biting satire of TV, I haven't quite decided yet. But most of all, I’ve come to appreciate privacy. I come and go and nobody notices. The neighborhood is normal again.

Except for those people in back. The lights in their house were on until one o’ clock this morning. What’s up with that?

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Highway to the Publicity Zone

The 4th of July. A time for fun, celebration, remembrance and. . .scattering in all directions. At least, that’s what the Left family did.

You see, it’s like this. The parents spent the 4th attending a party thrown by one of Dad’s V.F.W. buddies. They were nice enough to invite me, but I declined. I didn’t care to spend the day viewing some guy’s collection of World War II bayonets. Also, the ‘rents are suffering from serious overexposure to Yours Truly, so I figured they needed a break.

Normally, my sister’s house is a safe haven. I always look forward to hanging out with my nephews, ages 3 and 5, respectively. But this year, Sis went mushy and invited her ex-husband. This meant that her ex-husband would show up with his entire family, including second cousins twice removed, and proceed to eat and drink everything in sight, while hogging the TV. This, coupled with the fact that my former brother-in-law is a walking, talking case of hemorrhoids, made it an occasion I could afford to miss. I opted out.

So how does one spend a holiday alone? I had friends who were throwing parties, but a guy on his own is a third wheel. I was sick of hanging out at home. I did the only thing any self-respecting loner could do: I went to the movies.

Arriving at the local multiplex, I found it to be busier than I anticipated. An unexpected cloudburst had sent people running for cover. Many people, apparently, had nothing better to do. But I was different, I told myself. I was no mere holiday refugee. I was there to make a Serious Study of a burning question of Cultural Significance. Namely, would Tom Cruise’s nutspell be visible on film? Time would tell.

I know a million and one people have weighed in on this subject which, in some circles, has even pushed the war news off the front page. But when all is said and done, media is a secondhand source. Since Hollywood’s golden boy is not listed in the Yellow Pages, I did the next best thing. I saw “War of the Worlds”.

I am not going to review the film. I’ll leave that to Roger Ebert and the boot-licking geek who replaced Gene Siskel. I’ll only say that if you’ve seen “Jaws”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or “E.T.”, you’ve already seen “War of the Worlds”. This screen adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic novel is a succotash of Spielbergian trademarks: scary lights, John Williams soundtrack, bug-eyed actors staring into the camera, and C.G.I. galore. Note to Steven: time for a fresh approach, bro.

What about Generation X’s answer to Paul Newman? Listen, I was never a Tom Cruise fan. Years ago, I was working in the Electronics section of Nameless Department Store. The store sold TV’s, and in order to demonstrate each idiot box on display, we’d play a video on a VCR that was hooked up to every TV. Trouble was, our manager was a cheapskate who pinched pennies until they screamed. We had only one videotape to play, “Top Gun”. For eight hours a day, Monday through Friday, on a dozen screens for nearly a year, it was “Highway to the Danger Zone”. Some anonymous do-gooder finally, thankfully stole the tape (stop looking at me like that). God bless them, wherever they are.

Needless to say, this left me with little tolerance for Cruise’s cocky, go-getter charisma. With the exception of “Eyes Wide Shut”, I’ve avoided all of Maverick’s oeuvre, except for bits and pieces seen on TV. As far as actors go, I could either take him or leave him.

I was, however, firmly committed to my study. Something crucial, I figured, had to have caused Cruise to go apeshit so suddenly and publicly. Perhaps the genesis of this could be viewed through the brutally honest eye of the movie camera, similar to the tics and twitches of Inspector Clouseau’s progressively looney police chief in the “Pink Panther” series. Surely, film wouldn’t lie, would it?

Alas, all the camera revealed was a first-class performance. Cruise ably and authentically portrays an absentee (cocky, go-getting) father who makes superhuman efforts to protect his kids from alien invaders and reunite them with their mother. Over the course of the film, I actually forgot about my study and the media hoopla and simply accepted him as the character he was playing. That, friends, is acting. Credit must be given when credit’s due. Onscreen for 98% of the time, Cruise alone saves “War of the Worlds” from being a lazy compilation called Spielberg’s Greatest Hits.

True, my study did not attain its objective. But I did come to one important (to me, anyway) conclusion. Cruise’s media antics are what brought me to the theater. Without them, I would’ve passed on this movie, too. Most likely, the crucial something behind his behavior is called publicity. Plain and simple.

Somewhere in California, Tom Cruise is laughing heartily. He’s laughing, because he knows he’s a better actor than anyone ever suspected.