Five things Social Media does, like it or not

Official Trailer for The Social Dilemma

Yesterday my friend Frank Del Monte recommended a new documentary film called The Social Dilemma.  Maggie and I watched it last night and were stunned.  If you’ve ever used Facebook, Google, Instagram, etc. it explains how these platforms work and why you see what you see.  It is an exceptionally well done film and does not talk down to anyone.

This morning I’m alerting my friends to find this film and watch it as soon as they can.  It explains a lot.  Once my “alerting” is completed, I plan to watch it once more then do a longer write up here, detailing why these findings are so incredibly important and the impact I think these platforms are having on all of our lives – and not all for the good. But for right now, please make time to watch this movie.  That way, my analysis will have more impact for you as you’ll have seen what I’m talking about.  Let me predict something: After you watch this, you will be doing what I am, telling your friends and family to watch it, too.  What actions you decide to take are your own.

Vote like our future depends on it – it very well might

photo of Alona

Today I was surprised to see an opinion piece, a letter to the editor, written by my niece, published in The Arizona Daily Star, the Tucson newspaper. Alona Sukhina came to our family when she was a very young girl, when her older sister married my nephew, Robert. Their entire family, including Alona’s parents, are now fully part of our family. Any significant holiday without their presence would seem empty. We love her, her sister and her parents.

Alona at our 2004 Xmas gathering, showing off a gift.

I’ve watched her pretty much her whole life, seen her remarkable curiosity and incredible hard work as she excelled at school. I watched her fall in love and get married to a wonderful young man who just adores her. Alona and her husband, along with her cousins, give me tremendous hope for our future. I think you will enjoy Alona’s story as she explains her story of immigration and lessons she’s learned.  Today Alona is completing her residency in Phoenix. When finished she plans to to practice general pediatrics in Tucson. I can’t explain how immensely proud of her I am.  Her piece is below or you can read it at the newspaper’s website here:

I am a refugee who grew up in Tucson. I am an American, a millennial and a pediatrician. My family immigrated to the US from the Soviet Union in 1993, when I was 2 years old. Now considered a success story, my family would have likely failed without the supportive immigration policies of that time.

The programs in place then were made possible by voters in the late 20th century. Yet today, I see the threat and near extinction of the American dream for immigrants like myself because of people who might think their vote doesn’t count. Let me tell you why it does.

Thanks to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), my parents got decent jobs through a program designed to help refugees establish themselves with a stable income. We had access to doctors for preventative care thanks to Medicaid. That meant my parents could scrape together funds to get me a small telescope after expressing interest in becoming an astronaut.

Years later, I was gifted a microscope as my interest in biology grew. These gifts on a frugal lifestyle were explained by my mother this way: “Feeding your curiosity and mind was as important as buying food. When we saved enough money, the choice was simple.”

In high school, I was drawn to medicine as a way to provide the same support to others who ensured my family’s success. In medical school at the University of Arizona, I envisioned days as a pediatrician focused on preventing infections or cancer, scrutinizing growth charts, and screening, diagnosing, and managing all spectra of disease.

As a medical resident up in Phoenix, reality widened my gaze. I recently treated a teenager suffering from a panic attack because her parents were just deported. Recent restrictions led to their immigration applications being rejected.

I cared for a mother from Guatemala who struggled to find work due to lack of child care because rising naturalization fees prevented her husband from being here to help. Many legal immigrants visiting my clinic decline aid fearing being labeled a burden on the state and getting deported.

IRC’s funding is at risk, putting the benefits my family once relied on under threat. Medicaid’s enrollment is rising with COVID, despite state budget crises leading to cuts. Now with looming changes to the Supreme Court, the threats to the Affordable Care Act could leave millions of Americans without care.

People voting for policymakers elected from decades past who believed in the potential and promise of immigrants like me made it possible for my family to thrive. Individuals voting in 1960 elected people who wrote the 1965 Social Security Act, making it possible for my parents to get me a microscope instead of having to pay for preventative care. Votes cast in 1971 elected a senator who sponsored the 1977 Food Stamp Act, giving us access to a healthy diet of fruits and vegetables. Votes cast in 1978 elected legislators who passed the 1980 Refugee Act, providing the legal basis for my family’s immigration.

And because of all those votes and all of those programs, I will be a physician Arizonans can rely on to care for their children.

So if you question for one minute whether your vote matters, remember there are those who cannot vote who depend on you exercising your civil right. Those who are marginalized, those on the fringes of society, those too young to fill out their ballot, depend on our votes to stay healthy, educated and able to succeed.

I vote because my patients and community can’t afford for me not to. I hope you will join me.

What we fear, and why?

On a Sunday earlier this spring, before the whole Coronavirus issue, Maggie and I were hiking in the valleys surrounding nearby North Mountain, in Phoenix, AZ. As we walked a couple engaged in a vigorous discussion passed us, going in the opposite direction. They were speaking Russian, a language I’ve learned to recognize. They spoke freely, with no shyness or hesitation. As we walked I was struck by what my brother, Leif, had told me about riding the Russian subways when he and his family lived in St. Petersburg.

Leif and his wife would not speak out loud on the subways. Communicating meant pressing their lips carefully against each other’s ears or those of their children and whispering quietly. He had a genuine fear for their safety if other riders had been able to discern they were foreigners. The children, however, were fine. Growing up in Russia, they had no discernible accent and could speak freely. This experience made me think about how fortunate we are to live where we do. It is unlikely anyone in the USA fears for their safety when speaking a foreign language or having an accent.

At the most local level, where we live, Americans rarely feel fear of “the other.” The Greek family that runs the bakery upsets no one. The Mexican family living down the block with the mother and father who aren’t so good at English, heading to work every morning, and often getting back late, leaving the kids to fend for themselves are completely fine. The neighbors all keep an eye out for them with a willingness to step in if anything looks amiss. Even the elderly Sikh man who’s never seen without his turban has been accepted, with some neighbors figuring out that not cutting his hair is part of his religious observance and they’re okay with that.

Given this is true, then why are we so easily manipulated to fear “the other,” by politicians and others wishing to use that emotion for their own ends? How sad when “the other” even becomes our own neighbors, friends and even family, when they have political positions different from our own. Unfortunately, it’s not hard to understand although difficult to do anything about, other than being aware and vigilant of what is going on.

Our attitudes of fear and even hate of “the other” is a primal survival mechanism. It is part of our instinct to avoid danger, to fear anything appearing to be different. It is what kept us alive in ancient times. As the writer Bill Bryson so eloquently states in his book A Short History of Nearly Everything:

“Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result — eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly — in you.”

But like many remnants of our reptilian brain, some of what goes on in that part of the brain has very little usefulness in modern society. When one race or group of people consciously or unconsciously fears for their safety, if their importance or control is threatened, they’ll develop defenses. This can quickly lead to exaggerated and negative beliefs about the other race or group to justify their actions to secure their own safety and survival.

We’ve outlived most of the need for this deep-seated instinct, but it still exists and is often manipulated by unscrupulous individuals and advocators. It is easy to cause us to fear a horde of “XYZ militant terrorists,” or whatever “the other” group is that is being exploited, or “this party or people” who want to destroy our country.  It holds barely a thread of something that sounds like fact, and any actual risk of such an event or attack occurring is often so remote to be downright silly. Yet newscasts are frequently monopolized with these unlikely and remote eventualities having little chance of ever impacting a particular listener.

For instance, around Halloween, many people fear their children are at risk of being given poisoned candy by strangers while trick or treating, even though there has never, ever been a documented case of this happening. Ever. Yet “urban legends” are regularly brought up and repeated, often as fact and often on the news.

I get angry when the media blatantly exploits these deep instincts. My brother and his wife’s fears on the Russian subway were probably justified. It made sense to trust their experience and reports from American friends advising caution. But it does not make sense to trust politicians or media talking heads who exaggerate or make up facts to make us fear other people when that fear, in context, is not justified. Or, at the very least, they should be required to put the fear they’re pointing at in the context of other real risks the population actually faces. But that’s another whole set of examples and considerations.

Martinis and smoke – one magical mixture

Dr. Ed Banner gave me a glimpse into a part of the world of which I was mostly unaware, but in a way that made me feel there was nothing I couldn’t accomplish. We were vastly different in age and light-years apart in economic and social status, but he treated me as an equal. This story from nearly 50 years ago would be impossible in today’s world – for many reasons which you will discover. Enjoy.

As manager of Schaak Electronics in Rochester, MN in the 1970s, some of my best customers were from the Mayo Clinic, one of the largest employers in town. These men (nearly all buyers of high-end stereo equipment were male), had far more money than my family and friends had growing up. In Fairmont, where I lived until I was a junior in high school, people with this amount of wealth didn’t even exist. Attending my senior year of high school in Rochester, I became aware of people like this, but was mostly oblivious to the various cliques and resentments some students felt about “those stuck-up rich doctor’s kids.” My interest at Schaak Electronics wasn’t about status, it was about selling more stuff and winning sales contests. Going out of my way to help those who could make more and larger purchases was part of my job.

Three group photos from Schaak Electronics.
When managing Schaak Electronics in the 1970s, I sent Xmas cards to our customers. These three survived.

One of my favorite Mayo Clinic customers was Dr. Ed Banner. Not only was he a doctor from the large, mysterious white building in downtown Rochester, he was originally from “the big city” (Chicago), drove a Ferrari, and sported a shock of red hair. His coming into my store was more like a “grand entrance” than someone casually strolling in to shop. He’d purchased stereo systems for his living room, office and other spots in his house and frequently shopped for electronic-oriented gifts for family and friends. Not only was he a good customer, I considered him a friend. One evening he heard me coughing and told me to call his office at Mayo the following day. Even then I knew people waited months for an appointment at the Mayo Clinic. But when I called his office, his assistant told me she’d been expecting my call and to come right down. After a quick stop in his office, soon I was being examined by the head of Mayo’s ENT department. As head of the Gynecology Department, Dr. Banner would not be treating me himself.

Anyone spending even a short time in Rochester, MN would hear stories about Dr. Ed Banner. His exuberance, confidence and style made him the center of attention everywhere he went. He lived large and possessed a bigger-than-life presence. He was hard not to notice and impossible to forget. His Ferrari was the only one in town. If he was in a restaurant having dinner, everyone knew it.

One Saturday morning a few weeks before Christmas, Dr. Banner had finished making some seasonal gift purchases at my store and we were chatting at the counter. Making conversation, he asked about my plans for the evening. Normally, my life was pretty dull and I would have had nothing interesting to report. But this time it occurred to me I might be able to impress the good doctor with my evening plans: “Well Doc, tonight I’m having dinner with my girlfriend at the Country Club.” Now Rochester’s Golf and Country Club was a private, exclusive, and high-dollar place I’d never been. However, that particular evening, the country club was the venue for a corporate holiday party and my date was an employee of that company. The company owners were flying in on their private plane from Quincy, Illinois, and had arranged the dinner at the club. My girlfriend worked at KROC-TV (later to become KTTC), and invited me as her date. I was excited at the prospect of going to “the country club,” and proud of it.

No sooner had I revealed my plans when Dr. Banner said, “Ah, yes, Alice and I will be dining at the club this evening as well.” He then paused, thought for a moment, stroked his chin, and asked me, “Steve, do you like martinis?” I’d never had one in my life and only seen the odd-shaped martini glasses on television, but I instantly replied, “Yes, I do.” Then he asked, “And do you by any chance also enjoy a good cigar?” And again, although not having ever smoked a cigar other than those horrible Swisher Sweets in college, heard myself answering, “Of course, Doc.” And it was then he made the following proposal: “Steve, why don’t you come over to the house about an hour before you’re set to pick up your date, and we’ll have a martini and a cigar. I think you’ll like that.” We finalized a time, and off he went.

Late that afternoon, I arrived at the Banner residence just as it was beginning to get dark. Snow flurries, the big, puffy, slow-moving ones that you can see clearly as they lazily float past, were drifting down. I parked in the driveway and rang the bell. Dr. Banner’s wife greeted me warmly, saying, “You must be Steve. Ed is waiting for you in his library,” and she guided me past windows overlooking all of downtown Rochester. Wow, what a view!

Dr. Banner stood up from his desk in a large comfortable office that was indeed, full of books. Classical music played at a low volume from bookshelf speakers I recognized as ones from my store. Mrs. Banner closed the double doors and we shook hands in greeting. After some preliminaries, he said, “Now, let me make you one of my famous martinis.” He pulled out a large bottle of gin and a smaller bottle of vermouth, and carefully measured them into a stainless steel shaker filled with ice. Spinning the liquid around, he told me it was important not to be too vigorous, as one could “bruise the gin.” After a minute of this, he left the room and returned with two large martini glasses. From their frosted appearance, I knew they’d been chilled. He carefully poured the crystal clear liquid from the shaker into the two glasses, turned to me, and said, “Do you know what the ladies say about my martinis, Steve?” I said nothing. His eyes twinkled and he said, “Well, they say, ‘Doc, I’ll have just one, two at the most, because three I’m under the table and four I’m under the host.’” We both laughed.

Before we could sample the drinks, Doc said, “Now, we’ll leave these here to rest just a bit, while we find something to smoke.” We left the room and entered his garage where he had a large refrigerator. Opening the door he showed me the entire refrigerator had been transformed into a massive humidor and filled with boxes and boxes of cigars — nearly all he pointed out, were imported from Cuba or South America. “You know,” he said, “many of my patients are the wives of South American politicians, and when they wish to show their appreciation they send me boxes of cigars.” He pulled two boxes out and opened them, saying “Here are my two current favorites. While the fillings are virtually the same tobacco, you’ll see one is wrapped in a green tobacco leaf and the other in a brown leaf. Which wrapper do you think you might prefer, the green or the brown?” I looked at them for a moment and then said, “I’d like to try the brown one.” He pulled one of the huge brown cigars from the top of the box and handed it to me. Then he selected one of the green ones for himself. But before he left, he took another of the large green cigars from the box and slipped it into my inside suit jacket pocket saying, “Why don’t you take one of these for later,” as he selected a second brown one and put it into the inside of his jacket pocket.

Back in his office he patiently took me through the ceremony of circumcising a cigar and then the right way to light one. Apparently, you were never to use a lighter — only large stick matches — to light cigars of this caliber. Obviously he knew I was a novice and unfamiliar with all of this, but he never once treated me like we were anything other than equals performing a ritual together that we’d done hundreds of times before. As we sat across from each other in his classic Eames lounge chairs, I will never forget the smoke and its deep rich fragrance wafting slowly around our heads and filling the room. I can recall sipping the super-chilled martini while listening to music quietly playing in the background. I remember us clinking our glasses in a toast or two but not to what. It was like being in a deep and relaxing dream while simultaneously, being fully awake and hyper aware of every sensation. Before I knew it, Dr. Banner was rushing me to the door, saying I must not be late. I drove down the hill on an amazing high. The snow had accumulated about an inch and was still softly falling. Parking in front of my girlfriend’s apartment, I left the car and walked up to the front door – actually, it didn’t feel much like walking, more like I had floated up. And if you want to know the truth, boys and girls, when I turned and looked back down the walk toward my car to check, it was indeed the case. There were no footprints in the snow as there should have been. While I can only speculate, I’m quite certain that I had literally floated up the walk on an invisible pillow of cigar nicotine and martini.

Arriving at the Country Club, we soon found the party, which was being hosted in a semi-private room. No doubt due to my girlfriend’s stunning appearance, we were seated at the head table with the owners of the television station from Quincy, the local station general manager and the local anchorman and his wife. Dinner progressed easily and safely. I remembered everyone’s names while forgetting which piece of silverware to use when. As soon as people figured out I was uninvolved with the television business, they ignored me – and I was fine with that.

We’d completed dinner and desserts were being served when I heard a commotion behind me at the back of the room. I watched the eyes of the people across the table from me as they stared transfixed. Someone obviously had entered the room and was heading for our table, but stopping here and there on the way toward us. Then the voice became recognizable and I heard it say, “Good evening, I’m Dr. Banner, pleased to meet you.” At another table, “Yes, hello Bob, good to see you, happy you could be here tonight, so nice of you to come.” I turned and watched as he slowly worked his way in my direction, moving along as if running for office and everyone here a potential vote. With a big brown cigar clenched in his teeth, he shook hands, told everyone how lovely they looked, and finally arrived at the head table where the local managers stood and introduced this local celebrity to the out-of-town visitors. Banner exchanged pleasantries with them, all the while resting his hand on my shoulder. Then he looked down at me, with a twinkle in his eye, and said, “Now, everyone knows I like these Cuban cigars with the brown wrappers,” as he pulled the large cigar from his mouth and held it up to admire it. “But every once in a while,” he continued, “I come across a discerning gentleman who’s been lucky enough to find one with a green wrapper. Might you be him?” he asked me. At that moment I remembered the green wrapped cigar Dr. Banner has slipped into my breast pocket several hours earlier. I slowly reached in and pulled out the cigar, held it in front of my face, and looked at it, then turned to Dr. Banner and asked, “But how did you know?” Dr. Banner looked down at me, smiled and said, “I can smell them. Here, let me light that for you.” And he did.

Epilogue: This night, so memorable to me, no doubt was just one of thousands of wonderful nights in the life of this incredible man. Dr. Banner passed away at 80 years old, on Nov. 5, 1992 in Vail, Colorado. After getting his medical degree in 1939, he began a fellowship in obstetrics and gynecology in the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine in 1942. In 1947 he was appointed a consultant in obstetrics and gynecology at Mayo and in 1969 became a professor at the Mayo Medical School. While he’d never mentioned it to me, I learned Dr. Banner was on the board of directors for the Rochester Country Club. His son, Dr. Ed Banner, Junior, graduated from Mayo High School in 1969 as did I. Young Ed Banner practiced medicine in Houston, Texas.