Thursday, December 30, 2010

All's Heimers

We all start forgetting as we age. Many become victims of various forms of dementia. The scarlet letter"A" refers to the dreaded Alzheimer's disease these days although there are other causes for dementia, some of which are just signs of aging. I don't yet greet my image in the mirror but just this morning realized that I had forgotten to pay our real estate tax a month ago. As my mother and her younger brother both suffered from Alzheimer's, I know there is a genetic possibility that I'll suffer the same fate, but hopefully I have succumbed to another illness by then. And on my father's side people stayed unaffected for much longer.

One of dementia's first signs is disappearing short term memory. Often I feel like our society as a whole is becoming demented. We seem to have forgotten the reasons for the economic scandal which started the recession and our country's downhill slide just three years ago. Initially there was a lot of anger against the bankers' greed and resulting enormous financial compensations even when the financial institutions themselves had to be rescued with taxpayer money. This recent article on is one of the increasingly few attempts to show how much political clout Wall Street has, and how it managed to weather scary times and end up with bigger bonuses and profits than ever before.

Our government rushed to the rescue of the very rich, yet left the victims of the banks' greed, the homeowners with their mortgages, fend for themselves, in most cases unsuccessfully. Even I know several people who have lost their homes or are at default due to their inability, or sometimes reluctance, of paying for a loan that is far greater than the property is worth. Many of these people suffered a terrible blow when their jobs disappeared and with that their health insurances and pension investments. The way we count the number of unemployed gives a completely false, overly optimistic picture of destitute people. Even with the extended jobless benefits there are millions that don't show in the statistics. They haven't been able to find a new job, many of them in the 50+ year age group, and have given up hope. As I personally know, threatening to discontinue health coverage is used by companies and organizations as a way of blackmailing an employee to accept an illegal demotion. Few have the brains and means to fight back. America being the capitalist dream country, many people prefer to have their own business. When that doesn't survive, there is no public safety net.

As long as a person has employment and benefits, in our society he or she is not going to worry about his neighbor. With our short attention span and "me here now" focal point, most of us refuse to think that a disaster might strike us next. People don't want to pay for taxes that might benefit the unfortunate. But people get sick and lose their jobs, even those who eagerly have voted for tax cuts and against universal health care coverage. I hope they will remember their ideology when they are faced with hard times. Rising health care costs, together with the insane amount of money we spend on education, will quickly result in a bubble that inevitably leads to bursting. At this rate we are rapidly becoming another India with its super-rich and untouchables. Already our society shows increasing intolerance to different faiths and our caste system is alive and well. One of the principal reasons parents rush to make their offspring apply to the most prestigious colleges for undergraduate studies is hoping that they will meet a partner from an upper class. Basic education is pretty much the same in hundreds of colleges, both public and private, yet big money is spent in hopes of a successful U-Harmony dating service.

It strikes me as odd that this country of ours thinks of itself as perhaps the most Christian country on the planet. Our founding fathers decided in their wisdom to keep religion and state separate. Yet politicians today increasingly speak about bringing prayer and faith to public life. If we really thought along the teachings of our Judeo-Christian heritage, we would all be socialists and care about the well-being and safety of our brothers and sisters before our own. This hardly is the case: the Christ in which so many believe is actually the Antichrist. Our favorite preacher promises everyone wealth and new luxury cars if we pray for them. If 40% of people take the biblical story of Creation as a fact, what is the point of trying to teach them science or history in schools and colleges? Since my wife and youngest daughter played on two violas for the local Finnish Lutheran Church on Xmas morning, I was present there, too. The visiting pastor spoke about the first Christmas in her sermon and how the message of the birth of Jesus was first given to the poor untouchables of that time. She then went on to ask the rhetorical question of if the Messiah was born today, who would be informed first? Being a Finn, she obviously thinks differently of life's true values from most of us here. I thought her logic was perfect.

Back to dementia. After losing one's short term memory, sooner or later the patient forgets about present time altogether and starts living in the past. My father will turn 100 this coming summer unless he is taken from us before then. Living in a care facility he has become "institutionalized" and doesn't really follow today's events. His thoughts and dreams are most often back many decades when he was much younger. People long gone are still alive in his world which is a much simpler place from today. When an old person has little to look forward to, it is a blessing to be able to live in the past.

In our society we also like to pretend often that nothing has changed. A prime example is the world of fine arts. For instance, orchestra musicians have a hard time accepting the possibility that today's younger people may not find their trade as valuable as did the generation and two before. Of course classical music is still important, as are other art forms. Times have changed, however. Do we still have the need to spend an entire evening and small fortune to attend a concert when a better performance of the interesting composition is a few keystrokes or a compact disc away? A painting is easier to study on a large monitor screen than trekking to an art museum. How many of us would think of doing research today using nothing but a library as a resource? Who would be willing to give up the cell phone which many people seem to have practically glued to their ear? How many still take the time to write thoughtful personal letters and send them via snail mail? Even that qualifies as an art. People's writing skills have disappeared with texting and electronic messaging on social websites. Grammatic rules don't matter any longer for most: reading postings and emails is often painful. The younger generation prefers electronic shorthand and resulting short utterances to speaking; many don't even check their voice messages.

So, with the New Year, let us look at ourselves and our lives objectively and not allow any kind of dementia affect our thinking. Past is important, but it is history and we have to make sure the future will be tolerable for our children and grandchildren. Spend an afternoon at the library, unless it has been closed for lack of funds, and another one taking a walk in the nature. Just leave your cell phone and iPod at home. Enjoy life the way it was meant to be.