The Cigarette and The Mask

“Just as I catch my bags and see if I’ve been clipped, I noticed that he’s wearing sunglasses on with his surgical mask pulled down below his chin and has an unlit cigarette in his mouth.”

While I walk back to my apartment with bags full of groceries under my arms, I stop at the cross section waiting for the walking signal to light up, seemingly unaware of the bike screeching by me. “Hey, watch out, man!”, the bicyclist yells as he peddles past me almost knocking into my groceries. He speeds by just narrowly missing oncoming traffic as he heads downtown. Just as I catch my bags and see if I’ve been clipped, I noticed that he’s wearing sunglasses on with his surgical mask pulled down below his chin and has an unlit cigarette in his mouth.

Now, I would hope that he was not getting ready to smoke while biking, but it sure looked like he had smoked a few or more cigarettes. We were both outside at the time, of course, and I could assume that he maybe just likes to wear a mask indoors and would rather smoke a cigarette while he biked or afterwards to enjoy the rush while getting some needed fresh air. The confluence of events of almost getting hit by this biker along with the scene of him having an unlit cigarette in his mouth, a mask under his chin, and no helmet on as he sped through foot traffic without regard for anybody else was so laden with irony that I couldn’t happen to notice all the ironies afoot.

If a commercial could be made about this bicyclist, it would be quite entertaining. “Protect yourself from COVID in the short-term, but don’t forget about the long-term risks to one’s health!” In that commercial, it would show the bicyclist being transformed from having a cigarette in his mouth to having none with a nicotine patch or gum if it’s anti-smoking or if it’s pro-safety to have him properly wearing a biking helmet rather than not having one.

These kind of public health or public safety campaigns are quite common in our culture especially when it comes to the dangers of smoking and the dangers of not wearing a helmet while cycling or biking. Now, after almost two years, we now have quite substantive public health messages around wearing a face mask or adequate face covering, especially while indoors, to prevent the further spread of the Coronavirus. The same public health messaging was quite prevalent at first when it came to social or physical distancing before the arrival of tested and approved vaccines.

Undoubtedly, these public health messages have saved thousands of lives and done much to further the progress of the current vaccination campaigns. We now know society-wide how masks can help prevent the spread of viruses just as we knew starting in the 1980s and later in the 1990s the harm that smoking can do long-term to one’s health. It took a few decades but now smoking is much less prevalent than it used to be, and the risks are well-known. The same could be said about wearing a protective helmet when biking or riding a motorcycle. It took a while for these messages to be ingrained in our society, but they protect not only our health long-term but also our safety in the short-term.

The advent of mask wearing in a pandemic has not fully set in for some people but for most people, the public health messages had a massive impact and after some initial confusion and the lack of supplies for protective gear, almost two years later, that public health messaging has set in across society. You could argue if the advent of mask wearing in public will have the same longevity or the same need years from now as anti-smoking campaigns would. While virus and diseases can become endemic, they can also possibly burn out much quicker than the long-term health risks that will remain with us after the pandemic such as smoking or drinking alcohol.

While the public health and safety messages around mask wearing, helmet wearing, and not smoking especially near a building have made people healthier and safer, I fear that other health warnings or messaging has been rather lackluster especially during the pandemic. Wearing a mask and not picking up a cigarette are easy enough for society to adopt, but the messaging should not end there.

In the age of the Internet, social media, and seemingly endless modes of messaging mediums, I have not noticed any uptick in making the public aware about the benefits of exercising daily or multiple times per week. I also have not noticed an effort to educate people on what a well-balanced diet looks like or what foods to avoid that are both addictive and unhealthy. Smoking is a bad habit but so is not having a proper diet. I am not saying that people should be told what to eat and what to drink but I don’t see the harm in sharing more messaging about what a healthy breakfast, lunch, or dinner looks like or to give examples to adults, especially young people in college or in their 20s.

In addition to a proper diet, bringing to people’s attention the need to exercise has never been a real part of public health messaging. The lack of public and/or outdoor gyms provided by towns and cities has contributed to other health issues that have reared their head during the pandemic. COVID-19 may be with us now but other health issues like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are not going away anytime soon.

For the almost two years of the pandemic, there was a real opportunity that was squandered for the public to hear about other ways to stay healthy and well. Viruses make people fearful and anxious but instead of just saying “wear a mask!” and “be socially distant!”, other messages about sleeping 7-8 hours a night, reducing our time staring at screens, maintaining a healthy diet, and making sure to exercise each day or most days was rarely ever thought of to be entered into public consciousness.

Even something as simple as telling people who were mainly indoors to take their vitamins each day especially both Vitamins C and D, which some people are deficient in especially in wintertime was completely neglected. I usually refrain from commenting on matters of public health but having done all these things for myself as many others do on their own accord, I don’t see why this kind of public health messaging hasn’t caught on. It doesn’t take more than a minute or two to discuss proper habits to build such as having more hours of sleep, what goes into a healthy diet, why exercise is important, or what are the benefits of vitamins.

I am not sure of how much money has been spent on anti-smoking, anti-drunk driving campaigns over the years but I’m sure it’s much more than what could also been address to the public. Now, in addition to the ills of drinking, smoking, we know now why mask wearing is important during a pandemic with an infectious virus that spreads easily. I don’t think that we should stop there and to keep trying to advocate for other commonly known public health matters that sadly still go largely ignored in terms of messaging campaigns.

From the local to the national level, after the pandemic is over, I would strongly recommend investing much more money, time, and even public infrastructure (outdoor gyms, for example) in building awareness of different public health matters that have remained largely unaddressed. From sleep to diet to exercise to even how to manage anxiety and stress properly, these important messages will affect people’s long-term health positively.

We know messages have worked in the past as I mentioned with wearing a helmet, not smoking in public places, and wearing a mask when others are near you. Lives have been saved and society has been improved because of those messages. When it comes to everyone’s long-term health, I would ask us all to think bigger to improve messaging around other public health needs, so we don’t end up only receiving advice on protecting the public’s health during a once-in-a-century global pandemic.

A Most Difficult Year

“The first year I can remember in my lifetime where expectations are dashed, lives are thrown off course, and uncertainty is the norm rather than the exception is 2020.”

When you begin a new year, you expect the most out of it in terms of happiness, health, and opportunities. You hope for the best and pray to avoid the worst. However, there are going to be years that don’t live up to expectations and if anything, topple over any kind of expectations you had to begin on January 1st. The first year I can remember in my lifetime where expectations are dashed, lives are thrown off course, and uncertainty is the norm rather than the exception is 2020.

For the vast majority of people, 2020 has been a year to forget and to put behind us. Still though, there is a lot that we can and should learn from this year to make the next one a more forgiving and hopeful year. 2020 was a most difficult year and one long, seemingly almost never-ending ‘Black Mirror’ episode but I take solace in the fact that those of us who made it through this year are more resilient, better able to deal with uncertainty, and able to be happy with less instead of more.

We will always remember 2020 and while I am looking forward to putting it behind me, there are certain lessons to be drawn from a year like this one to ensure we never have a year as uniquely horrible as this one if only we start to change our behaviors and our actions collectively as a society. Beyond climate change, racial injustice, rampant inequalities, and a raging pandemic, there is also the sense that we are failing each other not just in terms of our institutions but also in terms of our commitment towards one another. Revitalizing faith, trust, and kindness as fundamental tenets of our society will be an important benchmark in seeing how much we have learned from the ills of 2020 and how not to repeat these failures in a future crisis of our own making.  

In a time where our institutions are increasingly unable to meet the challenges placed upon them, I hope we will recommit to them additional resources rather than letting them atrophy and decay after the pandemic is over. I think most of us have learned how necessary it is to have functioning and responsive institutions in a crisis and how much we can be hurt by not having them be available to us especially when time is of the essence. Institutions will only work as much as we allow them to so it’s up to us collectively to believe in them, to fund them properly, and to have leaders who will tell us the truth, understand our needs, and be able to respond effectively. When our institutions fail us, we are all put in the precarious position of relying heavily on our friends and our families, which is sometimes a luxury that not everyone has available to them.

Our personal connections cannot help us though when it comes to securing masks, getting us tests, or giving us financial relief when we have no other option. A pandemic shows us how vital it is to have both local and national institutions in place who can help and are there to help rather than leaving every man or woman for him or herself causing us to act more selfish or more distrustful of others. Pandemics can bring the best out of people and they can bring the worst out of people. It is my belief that this pandemic has shown us how much our institutions have become dysfunctional, how our leaders have been corrupted, and how our society has become way too individualistic especially in a time where cooperation and unity are so desperately needed.

Individuals have been heroic for all of us whether its health care workers, grocery store clerks, delivery people, teachers, first responders, etc. who have shown more care and urgency than many larger institutions who have taken months to actually do anything substantive to help people. They are doing their job well under extremely difficult circumstances and hopefully after this year, we will reward them more not just with our thanks but also with better treatment in terms of financial payment, respect, and providing them with more resources when they need them.

Those people on the frontlines like the rest of us have had to become much more resilient in the face of such difficult circumstances. As I have mentioned before in previous articles, Resiliency is one of the most important traits you can have in a year that has been so difficult. The ability to overcome challenges, break down barriers, and surpass obstacles has been so important in 2020 where our resiliency has been tested each and every day practically. Some have had to be more resilient than others, but we have all had to play our part in keeping each other healthy and safe.

Resiliency is also about keeping your spirits up, not letting yourself get too down, and reminding yourself that tough times don’t last forever but tough people do. If you thought you were going to make it through your entire life without facing a challenging or historic year, you would be mistaken. Whether it’s the Great Depression, World War II, or the tumultuous upheavals brought on by the 1960s or the end of the Cold War, each generation is inevitably going to face moments where their resiliency is tested, where comfort is hard to find, and where good days may be hard to come by.

However, if we can get through the hard years in our life like 2020, there’s not much you cannot overcome if you are able to maintain your resiliency. 2020 teaches us that life can go sideways, and that uncertainty is more part of the human conditions than we would like to admit. While we strive for some sense of predictability or comfort in our lives, we inherently know that is just not possible and that we are never guaranteed tomorrow. I hope 2020 also teaches us not to take anything for granted especially our health or our financial security.

Inevitably, we must always plan for uncertainty because it may be coming to us when we least expect it as it did in the early months of 2020. Whether it’s trying to save more money, keeping ourselves that much more physically fit, or keeping some extra food around the house in case of an emergency, I hope that we will plan for uncertainty to come our way again because you never know when it can rear its ugly head again.

Learning how to be more resilient and also knowing how to face uncertainty have been keys to overcoming 2020 but it’s also been about how to be more kind to others. You never know what someone else is going through, how they have been affected by the pandemic, and what they are risking by coming in to work every day when they can’t stay home. If you can’t be kind, then you shouldn’t say anything to anyone. Now, more than ever, it’s important to be kind to one another, to look out for your fellow man, to donate money if you are able to, and even if you’re feeling particularly generous, donate your time and effort to a food bank or a homeless shelter to help those most in need right now.

Also, be sure to check in on those people most close to you whether it’s a close friend, a family member, or someone who you are close to at your workplace or school. Now is the time to make sure everyone is doing as well as can be, that they are not isolated without hearing your voice or seeing your face virtually indefinitely. It is very hard to spend the holidays alone so now is the best time before a new year begins to check in on those people who matter to you the most. Lastly, do not forget to support your local businesses during these hard times whether it’s the mom-and-pop store down the street or your favorite restaurant since they could all use the business right now and it’s the right thing to do to support the economy.

Kindness is going to be even more important in the coming year than ever. Between economic troubles, a continuing pandemic, and political strife, it’s best to be kind always and to empathize with what other people are going through even if they are complete strangers. Give help to those you need and fight for those with less. Make sure you continue to hold people accountable for their actions whether it’s your neighbor next door or the mayor of your town or city. Only by strengthening the bonds of trust through kindness, honesty, and transparency can we begin to heal the divisions and disparities within our society.

The pandemic and other events in 2020 have shown us how important it is to work together, to look for one another, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, and to deal with uncertainty and stay resilient as much as possible. I hope things get better for all of us in 2021 and I want to encourage everyone to follow the public health guidelines throughout next year.

Keep wearing a mask, stay socially distant, wash your hands frequently, take care of yourself physically with enough exercise and healthy eating. Make your New Year’s resolutions too if you believe in them so as to strive for new goals and opportunities in 2021. Be kind to others again, stay positive, and don’t let adversity throw you into despair.

I wish all of my readers a very Happy New Year and for a healthy, prosperous, and safe 2021 to come to each and every one of us.

Greed Is Not Good

“My hope is that the ethos paraded in popular culture and media of ‘Greed is good’ first popularized back in 1987 by the fictional character on Wall Street known as Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) will die out and be replaced by a different ethos.”

The ethos of an era or a generation usually spans about 40-50 years. I think we are living in a time of great upheaval obviously due to the COVID-19 pandemic but also due to the economic and social disruptions that occur as a result. What was thought to be as acceptable before the pandemic will likely draw condemnation and pushback after the pandemic. My hope is that the ethos paraded in popular culture and media of ‘Greed is good’ first popularized back in 1987 by the fictional character on Wall Street known as Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) will die out and be replaced by a different ethos.

I’m not sure exactly what that new ethos will become but I do fervently hope that it will push back on the notion of greed being good at all but rather a detriment to the wider society. This new ethos in the 2020s and beyond will hopefully not prioritize the pursuit of money and fame above all else but rather the pursuit of kindness, caring for others, and leaving the world better than we found it.

While Gordon Gekko is just a fictional villain and the movie ‘Wall Street’ fictional in nature, there are examples throughout our society where people actually believe the ethos of ‘greed is good’ and actively pursue it in different ways without understanding or caring about the repercussions.

I’ll give a few examples that are not from 1987 or even earlier in the 1980s but from 2020: A college admissions scandal which involved bribery so the children of well-to-do families could get into prestigious colleges without earning their admissions, Multiple U.S. Senators caught red-handed doing insider trading to profit off of a pandemic and then not admitting their wrong doing, and large firms receiving loans they likely don’t need while they use that money for stock buybacks rather than investing in the solvency of their workers during the height of this unemployment crisis.

These are just three examples of this hopefully dying ethos of ‘greed is good’ but the problem still is that these kinds of practices, while they are being condemned, they are not being cracked down hard enough and the laws have not been changed enough to prevent future misdeeds. When you have an economy that protects high income inequality, lopsided CEO-to-worker compensation ratios, and a consistent hesitancy to guarantee collective bargaining rates for employees and an ability to raise wages to livable levels, that shows that ‘greed is good’ is still a predominant ideology that is hurting the average person.

The stock market may hit all-time highs but that is good news only for those who actually own stocks and that number is only over half of Americans whereas the gains of the stock market are only truly felt by the Top 10% of income earners. The previous financial crisis of 2007-2009 showed the world how ‘greed is good’ can cause companies to go bankrupt, houses to be foreclosed, and businesses to be shuttered, while no CEO who was responsible for the subprime mortgage crisis actually went to jail. The bonuses continued to flow, and the banking system maintained its solvency, but unemployment and inequality grew for the next few years with both now increasing in 2020 even while the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit 30k for the first time.

I should state clearly that I am not against people going into business, try to make money for themselves to feed themselves and their families, and enjoying the fruits of their labor. However, when people are caught being greedy and harming others in the process as which continues to happen, there need to be harsh consequences and changes to the law. As Theodore Roosevelt knew as President, corporate oligopolies need to be reined in, broken up, and held accountable. Gilded ages may be good for the few, but they lead to disaster for the many. In this pandemic, many billionaires have seen their net worth skyrocket and their stock prices increase but at the same time, you have millions of people jobless, homeless, and in food lines often for the first time in their lives.

The ethos of a culture has to push back against this kind of greed and ignorance. It starts with condemning the actions of those who don’t play by the rules, won’t change the rules to be fairer, and who go out of their way to make life difficult and unfair for others trying to succeed. It also means calling out those people who refuse to pay taxes, use offshore tax laws to park their money elsewhere, and whose companies don’t pay a time in actual taxes while other parts of society suffer. Not only should these practices be condemned but they should be made illegal as well.

Social trust, belief in the goodness of others, and the willingness to do what’s right suffers when greed is pursued #1 above all else. The past thirty years have shown this to be true as the increased financialization of the economy as a whole, loose regulations, increased corporate influence and money in government have all atrophied our system to where we are dealing with serious labor, environmental, and employment concerns.

Not everybody who has earned a lot of money is greedy, but they have a role in helping to make the system fairer by abiding by the rules and respecting the fact that they do have a role in allowing others to have their chance to be successful. You can’t climb up the ladder and then pull it out from under you when you get there. Others who are not greedy but do well for themselves have to remember that they have a responsibility to hold those in power and those who have immense wealth in check to be consistently vigilant that they are not flouting the rules or if the rules don’t exist yet, perhaps they should be incorporated to combat unrestrained greed.

There will always be some kind of inequality and differences in outcomes in a capitalist system but there are clear signs to tell when that inequality has gotten out of control, when greed has become too prominent, and when justice or basic fairness has taken a back seat. Greed is not good, and it should be one of the guiding ethos of the next generation. Being a success, working hard for that success, and spreading that success around so others have a good shot at it is a much better philosophy to embody. What’s good for you is not always good for others. It is important that those with immense wealth or power understand that they too live in a society and there are certain duties and obligations that we have to one another.

Knowing when enough is enough, knowing the difference between right and wrong, and knowing when things have gone sideways and need to be fixed, those are all key components on pushing back against the ‘greed is good’ ethos, which has had its prominence over the past four decades. Greed can harm others, do tremendous damage, and atrophy the bonds of trust in our society. It is important that we never forget these facts and to fight against it as much as we can in our lives, both personally and professionally.