Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Stayin' Alive

Labor Day is really our New Year's Day. The annual rhythm of life in the U.S. is no longer set by planting and harvest. Our yearly beginning is the end of summer vacation, the beginning of a new school and work year. Stayin' Alive isn't quite a year old yet but this seems a good occasion to take stock of this project and tell you a bit about its author.

I started Stayin' Alive mostly as a discipline for myself -- to write every day, out in public where I have to be careful, thoughtful, and interesting enough that somebody might want to read. Of course I hoped to attract an audience, but it's the dialogue that matters to me. I've never installed a hit counter and I have no idea how many people read this blog. But the comments and the many e-mails I receive from readers make it worth my while.

In fact, Stayin' Alive gets a modest number of comments, but lately I've started to get nearly as many e-mails. Some people have questions about matters where they think I may have some expertise, others send me ideas for posts, and others want to take issue with something I have written or to convert me to one or another school of thought. I appreciate every kind of response and engagement, I do my best to answer questions, and I occasionally base a post on a reader's idea or tip. Don't take it personally if I don't use your idea, I just have to feel it, if you know what I mean. But it is not easy coming up with material every day so keep those letters coming.

As for taking issue with me, in general I prefer that people use the comments, because I'm trying to foster public conversation. We won't learn anything from conversation if there isn't any controversy, so please bring it on, in public. I acknowledge e-mails offering alternative points of view in civil terms, and give a brief reaction, but I just don't have time to engage in lengthy e-mail arguments about political philosophy or religion. If it's on topic, please use Haloscan and let everybody in on the fun.

Finally, I owe you all some more information about myself, I think. I use a pseudonym and I'm circumspect about facts that would blatantly blow my cover because I need to separate the blog from my professional identity. Like almost everyone in my line of work -- public health research and practice -- I am dependent on the federal government for much of my livelihood, and even more important, so are the institutions that employ me and the people I work with. Some of my federal funders have been completely explicit that if they see me or my organization associated with policies the Bush Administration opposes -- specifically needle exchange and the harm reduction approach to alcohol and other drug abuse -- they will pull our funding. More broadly, I don't want to be constrained to using a professional voice. (My identity is not really a secret, however -- the e-mail address is enough for you track me down if you are interested.)

I probably should tell you that my academic background is not in public health per se, that's just the field in which I find myself working. Actually I would say that public health and medical sociology is a better label for what I do. I have a doctoral degree in social policy, which required qualifying examinations in politics, economics, and sociology. I also have a master's degree in environmental policy, for which I took a lot of biology as well as economics and social science. My work includes program evaluation, public policy research and advocacy, basic social research in health disparities, and very basic research (including methodological innovation) in language and culture as factors in the provision of medical services and in the experience of health, illness, and healing. I teach in a graduate public health program at a medical school. My bachelor's degree is in theater. I worked as an actor and a community organizer before I wound up in my latest career.

There wouldn't be any point in blogging if I didn't think I had something unique to contribute, and that mostly means staying in fields where I have some special expertise. But public health is inseparable from all of politics. All the conditions of lfe are determinants of health, so there isn't much that's off limits here. I do my best to tie it together. I believe Stayin' Alive has a certain coherence, and an identifiable niche, though I'm not sure I can name it just yet.

Despite my use of a Spanish name, and the fact which should be obvious by now that I work with Latino people, I grew up in a nearly all white town and my ancestors are mostly celtic. I am bi-located. I live in Boston, inside the city limits, but I own rural property where I am building a house -- literally, with my own hands -- and where I have many friends. That's why you generally don't hear from me on Saturdays. So I often talk about rural as well as urban issues from a personal point of view.

My greatest difficulty in keeping up Stayin' Alive, posting every day and staying on topic, has been the emotional and intellectual burden of the difficult, tragic times in which we live. I came of age during the Vietnam War and I have never had any illusions about American exceptionalism. We've had plenty of bad leadership, crass and exploitive politics, and enough national crimes and misdemeanors to fuel a thousand bitter polemics from my pen. But the present era is an especially shameful time for our country. It is a devastating disappointment for people of my generation who believed that in the social movements of the sixties and early seventies we had taken great steps forward and set off on a path of progress.

Our present national leadership is by far the worst in memory -- nothing but a gang of murderous thieves, who are hollowing out American society, looting not only our present possessions but our children's future for the enrichment of their already obscenely wealthy friends and the pursuit of their megalomaniacal fantasies. They are the most shameless hypocrites in all of history, whose endless pious yammerings about morality and the sanctity of life only serve to cloak the obscentity of their utter contempt for life and their hatred of humanity.

What is most discouraging is that all of the institutions which we depend on to protect republican government and make the national leadership at least partially accountable have surrendered to this evil cabal. I include the corporate news media, and the opposition party. Under the circumstances, it's hard to resist the temptation just to yell and scream about the same things lots of people are already yelling and screaming about, even when I don't have anything special to add. But there are some hopeful developments of late, even in the midst of the latest undescribable horror. I'm going to try to focus on some of these as well, and not surrender to cynicism.

In the coming year, I'm going to try to tighten up the definition of Stayin' Alive and continue to develop a perspective and a voice which are particular and not just part of the clutter. Your suggestions, praise and brickbats are always welcome. Thanks for reading, and even more, for talking back.

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