What’s in the Library Bag: The Summer Reading Edition

Happy summer everyone!

This year I am celebrating my first summer without the task of changing diapers in a DECADE!!  Which means there is actually a little daylight to sit down and read without stopping to clean up someone’s digested food waste. It’s so beautiful and wonderful, that to revel in the joy (and also because getting boys interested in reading is an uphill battle,) I’m adding a semi-regular feature to the blog, called “What’s in the Library Bag.”

I honestly cannot believe that the library is still a thing.  Not only can you go in and borrow books AND movies AND music AND other media for FREE, but on top of that, they’re always giving you stuff just for showing up.  Free educational programming for the kids, prizes for summer reading, prizes for winter reading, raffles, coupons, wi-fi, etc. Even in our small town, I’m amazed at the depth of their offerings. And these days, you don’t even have to show up to check out books!  You can check them out on the Overdrive app, and download them to Kindle for free. It feels like a scam, like there is some kind of copyright law being violated, but I’ve been assured it’s not.

Libraries are our evidence that man is not entirely selfish and evil, that we still have altruistic tendencies woven into the fabric of society.  Since the state of world affairs has been so depressing lately, if you haven’t stopped by your local branch to experience this goodness, I urge you to do so.  You will be instantly renewed by the hope of possibility, and by the efforts of the programming to create equal opportunity for all.   

Anyways, thanks to a great summer reading program and a load of free time, everyone here has been having such a good time with their books that we thought we’d share.  We try to keep all of our books in the the same large reusable shopping bag so they don’t get mixed in with our own collection, and it is now endearingly known as ‘the library bag’.   It doesn’t always work, we often misplace or forget something, but I have made peace with our overdue fines by considering it non-dedcutible, charitable giving.  For this first edition, the kids and I picked out all our favorites (I’ve referred to each kid by their age,) and this is what we came up with…DSC_0630

Read Aloud Revival:  For those who don’t know, this is the practice of reading chapter books, slightly above your own kids reading level, to them out loud.  I guess the parenting movement to do this is called a revival because it feels like pre-industrial days, when a family would be lucky to have one book, and would read it aloud together.  I usually read this book as the kids are getting into bed, after picture books, potty trips and prayers.  I also cheat slightly, if I can, by checking out the audiobook version so we can listen to it in the car and get through the longer stories faster.  Reading chapter books aloud has the dual benefit of lulling the littles off to dreamland (either in bed or the car), while getting the bigger boys to expand their literary horizons, and mostly everyone seems to enjoy it. 

84369We stopped to read several books in between, and read a few of these books twice, but after two years on and off, we finally finished the “Chronicles of Narnia!” I feel like it warrants some sort of a party, although since they haven’t read the book of Revelations yet, or know much about end of the world prophecies, most of The Last Battle was extremely confusing for them.  Despite the confusion they begged for another chapter every night, and by the end, even the two year old was bringing me the book saying, “Narnia!”

I’m a bit lost as to what to read next, I hate reading books in a series because I get so wrapped up in them, I don’t know what to do with my life once they’re over.  We started Old Yeller last year, but put it down because our own dog was dying and it was too sad. Seven asked about it recently though, so we may pick that one up again soon.

 

Elementary Lit:  I’m categorically not fond of the books my older boys pick out. I’m coming around on the “Captain Underpants” series because it interested them not only in reading, but also in writing chapter books and in drawing, and truthfully they are pretty funny. Their second favorite is anything “Goosebumps,” which is painfully awful, but I remember loving R.L. Stine as a kid, so I try not to be judgy about it. If they can’t find one of those they’ll pick “Diary Of a Wimpy Kid.” The series has redeeming moments, but (in my opinion) mostly reads like Calliou going through puberty, “Whine, whine, whine. Funny part, life lesson. More whining. The end.”  In book choice, as with so many other boy things, they just think so differently from my female brain. If I push my dismay onto them about how they only want to read scary books, or poopy books, or worse, scary poop books, I will probably only succeed in damaging their will to read. I try to mute my horror by politely asking them to try and pick out one new or random book that looks interesting each month.  I don’t force them to read it, I just want it in the bag in the off chance that when they’re really bored, some actual literature might spark their interest.  In that pile, they did find a few interesting books this month…

 

28818327Nine’s pick of the month:  Fuzzy by Tom Angleberger. My bigs loved the, “Origami Yoda” series so much, that now both of them always check the ‘A’ section of the library to see what other Angleberger book they’ve acquired.  Fuzzy is a futuristic book about a robot that is being integrated into society as a middle school student. This particular robot is a big deal because he’s prototype of a new model that’s able to use Fuzzy Logic, hence his name and the books title. As he befriends a student and creates code to help her, he also becomes mortal enemies with the schools virtual Vice-Principal Barbara, who is something like a cross between Big Brother and HAL. In classic Angleberger style, it appeals because of his ability to empathize with misunderstood kids, and because the plot twists like a rollercoaster.  Also my kids are obsessed with all things robot, and most robot lovers will probably enjoy the story.  The bonus for grown-ups is that he weaves in references to old futuristic favorites, like I, Robot and 1984, and to great sci-fi themes which question the morality behind progress. Also, as in the “Origami Yoda” series, he continues his commentary on modern education, showing disdain for our constant testing, and standards based learning.  As a homeschooler who keeps her kids home mostly for these reasons, I love that he is subtly supporting my argument against public education, but parents with kids in school might not appreciate the questioning of the system quite as much. Regardless, the story has great characters and suspense, and your kids will love it.  Nine liked it and quoted it so much the other kids wanted to find out what was happening, so now we’re all reading this one.

Nine did also re-read the entire “Captain Underpants,” saga, again, after watching the movie. His opinion on that is that epic novel #10, The Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-Boxers is the highlight of that series.  But as the author, Dav Pilkey, often says,   ‘Before I tell you that story, I have to tell you this one….’

Seven’s pick of the month: Give Yourself Goosebumps: Little Comic Shop of Horrors I can’t say that this book is anything close to literary masterpiece. It’s R.L. Stine’s version of a Choose Your Own Adventure type of book.  He’s completely uninterested in regular ‘Choose Your Own Adventure,’ but Seven, squirrelly as he is, sat in the chair and read this book for hours. Literally, hours.  And Stine should probably get a literary award just for that.

953411His second, but better pick, was a fantastic picture book called Cowboy and Octopus by John Sciezska.  Sciezska is so funny, and when you’re trying to get boys like mine interested in reading, humor is one of the top things I look for in a book.  There is no plot to this book, each page is a new interaction between these two polar opposite friends, but I haven’t seen him laugh so hard while reading a book since The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak.  Despite the lack of plot, it does have value in promoting a friendship between two  characters that have in nothing in common, which is not a lesson you find in the world these days. There’s misunderstanding and cultural difference in every scenario, but still they forgive, make concessions and laugh about everything.  If it takes talking about, “things horses drop behind them” for my boys to witness a friendship like this, then I’m completely fine with that. The pictures are engaging, fashioned from cutouts of old fashioned news print and paper dolls, but the real charm for everyone here was the humor.

 

PreSchool Picture Books: I love reading bedtime stories, especially to my littles.  It’s such a healing moment that helps us remember we do love each other, despite acting like ogres during the rest of their bedtime routine.  Their stories can get repetitive quickly though, and often they leave you puzzled, like in “Despicable Me,” when Gru, holds up the unicorn book and says, “This is Literature?!?”  I’m as grateful that the library demands their books be returned, as I am for their large selection, because without either this bedtime tradition would’ve failed long ago. To keep it fun I ask each kid to pick out at least two or three books for bedtime each week, and then I throw in at least four or five more as a sanity buffer.

30320051Five’s pick:  Tugboat Bill and the River Rescue by Calista Brill, illustrated by Tad Carpenter. This is a cute character building story about a kind tugboat (Bill) and barge (Mabel) duo, who help save a drowning kitten when the other big important boats of the NY harbor are too proud to help.  In addition to its Good Samaritan plot, it offers introductions to a few basic language arts concepts: rhyming, adjectives, and character description. Things are introduced with a list, either of  “or” or “and” statements. For example, the Hudson river is “Smooth or choppy. It is Blue or Gray. It is swift or sluggish, depending on the day,” while the barge is, “Rusty and dusty. She is dented and heapy. She’s loyal and brave and just a bit leaky.”  The primary color illustrations are also appealing, and Five spent a lot of time flipping through them even when there was no one to read him the words, although it’s short enough that by the end of the week he had picked up most of the story himself.   

31324977Two’s pickGus’s Garage by Leo Timmers. This book is best for its bright, adorable illustrations, and will certainly appeal to any two, especially if they love trucks as much as mine.  Gus has a large pile of junk at his garage, but he’s very resourceful. So when everybody brings Gus their problem cars and he uses his junk to fix them up with a creativity that makes “Pimp my Ride” seem like a boring old body shop. I read this to Two so much, he had it memorized, and could ‘read’ it back to me.  While he liked this book best, the older boys didn’t find it babyish, were also fond of the pictures, and actually enjoyed trying to guess which piece of junk Gus was going to use to solve a problem.

Grown up land:  I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction lately, about some pretty depressing things, opioids, addiction, alcoholism, foster care and coal mining.  Or anything that will explain why Appalachia is the way it is.  It’s gotten to the point where my husband is starting to make fun of me and my ultra depressing book choices, but something about being done with baby stuff has lifted this huge veil for me, like my brain couldn’t handle the stress of societal problems and training toddlers at the same time, probably due to lack of sleep.  My favorites have been narrated journalism, Dreamland by Sam Quinones, Drink by Ann Dowsett Johnston, and To The End of June by Cris Beam. All of these are packed with information, but intertwined with interviews and/or memoirs that make them hard to put down.  They’re all worth reading, but they’re all incredibly sad.  I’ve talked about each on the Apple Mountain Facebook page, so I won’t go into them here.  I did finish one fiction book, but it wasn’t very uplifting either…

The Weight of this World 30763901by David Joy.  This book is classified as Appalachian Noir; it’s a web of chaotic relationships and depressing circumstance coupled with deep loyalty to family and to the landscape itself. I read a recommendation for this author at This Appalachia Life, which claimed Joy was the most important voice in the region right now. In full disclosure, these characters are the kind of people that are shunned even by their own neighbors, and their choices take the plot to some depressing and gory places.  In the books defense, it is well written. One lady sees herself as K-Mart classy, which I loved.  While the twists the story takes are dark, the characters were real, as was their kinship to the mountains. They weren’t likable, in the way that sometimes you sometimes find yourself rooting for a villain, but he did make you understand the traps they were caught in, and that due to everyone’s circumstances the story really couldn’t end any other way.  In the end, I found it way less horrific than Big Little Lies, so if you could read that book without feeling overly disgusted, you might do okay with this one too.  I’m supposed to be reading Fall of Marigolds  for a book club I’m in, which is pretty much the polar opposite of this book and may balance out my moral compass. It’s not that I’m cheating on you book club, its that one of you still has it checked out right now. HA!

This book has piqued my interest in finding more Appalachian authors. The original recommendation I read said that if you weren’t willing to advocate for the characters in this book, there would be no advocating for Appalachia. I found it to be true as the blogger said, and if you’re truly willing to, “love the least of these,” you can test your ability to do so by staring down these people’s stories without flinching.  I was very impressed by the preacher in the end who listened to the main character’s saga without freaking out or devolving into a sermon. Understanding is especially important right now, even if you have no connection to the region, because mountain problems are becoming the center of some big political debates. Between healthcare, opiates, coal and environmental policy, these debates will affect people nationwide, and occasionally globally, even though typical Appalachian people will have almost no say in what happens.  The population here certainly helped Trump win the last election, same as they helped win political battles for the Kennedy’s and LBJ, despite being a region that has been mostly caricatured, marginalized or ignored, and probably will be again once the current debates are resolved, or lose popularity, or both.  In the meantime, maybe the Appalachians can milk the national spotlight for good and for some lasting change. Maybe, through re-reading their history, and through their literature and the other arts, if we can learn to love or just understand the parts that make us uncomfortable, then maybe it’s issues won’t fade quite so much in the future.

So. That’s what was in our bag this month. Special thanks to our awesome Samuel’s Public Library for helping us fill it up each week! We hope you make it out to your local branch soon so you can also soak up some of the goodness of humanity.  And let us know, what’s in YOUR library bag?

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How to Create a Crisis

Edmund was such a bratty kid the first time I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  I loved Lucy, since I was a girl her age, but his relentless effort to embarrass her only made him half villain.  What I found repulsive was his ignorance to temptation; he didn’t even try to defend himself against White Witch. How could a person so shamelessly seek after evil, trudging through snow with no coat, to sell out his siblings for candy?  I understood that he represented me as a sinner, but I couldn’t bear being lumped in with someone so oblivious to an evil plot.

That same feeling is rampant where I live in the Appalachians. People’s resentment builds as heroin bashes away at the infrastructure of rural life. It’s not that they’re unfamiliar with addiction, or the depression that leads people to it. They’re just tired of the unrelenting pain the heroin version brings, and of lacking the resources to fight back.  People wonder, why can’t these addicts just say ‘no’? They did DARE in school like everyone else, so how could they be so helpless against such an obvious evil?  Maybe if addicts just thought about their choices, money wouldn’t be wasted on Narcan, social services and jail.  Someone in a crowd will always suggest we save our resources by just letting them overdose and die.  It’s callous and simplistic, but people are so annoyed that heroin is even an issue.

It took 30 years and raising 4 little boys for me to appreciate Edmund as a universal character.  My boys didn’t see him as a spiteful bully, but as an emotional little boy, frightened by the war and annoyed by his seemingly perfect siblings.  As a parent I was finally able to see the wounds caused by circumstance, separated from his parents and scared for their safety.  Every day I referee squabbles created by a child who’s been squashed by his place in the birth order, trying to undo the resentment that it brings.  Adding to Edmund’s plight, he’s sacrificing joys he’s been entitled to since birth- sugar, chocolate, even new shoes and socks.  He wasn’t wandering Narnia seeking fortune or dominance, they just found him cold and lonely in the woods with an unsettled heart and offered themselves as solutions.  All it took was a small choice of food, and suddenly his greed was insatiable. 

The enchanted treats perverted Edmund’s character similar to the way heroin would.  The more of the treat he ate, the less remained of his virtue.  Reality became distorted to the point he could no longer decipher the good from evil, or truth from lie. His disposition became increasingly combative, even when he was obviously wrong.  Of the Turkish Delight, Lewis says, “…anyone who had tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed to, go on eating it until they killed themselves.” His greed for it left Edmund with an empty container, making promises he couldn’t keep, to a woman he couldn’t trust, all to dominate his siblings and live in a fantasy.   We scoff at people who fall prey to addiction, the same way we do at Edmund, but truthfully we know more about this scenario than we’d care to admit.  

The creation of today’s Heroin crisis is rooted in the same oblivion as Edmund’s.  He didn’t know that the Witch’s treats were enchanted.  He’d probably eaten Turkish Delight before without feeling the urge to sell his soul, so why should he suspect danger? The Witch may have been exuding evil, but it was just candy.  The increase in heroin use today is attributed to the mass abuse of OxyContin that began about 20 years ago. The pill was first marketed as non habit-forming, and for a decade doctors were encouraged to prescribe it to anyone with chronic pain.  It didn’t matter if you were prescribed pills from your doctor or bought them on the street, the lie was pervasive and convincing: there have been studies, it’s not habit forming, it’s FDA approved for all your pain.  Maybe we should have been more wary, but doctors prescribe all kinds of drugs that heal and help, so why should this be different? Even after 1000’s of years of experience with opium and its derivatives, we never stopped to question if these claims were true.

In the time that it has taken OxyContin and its generic oxycodone to rise and level off in popularity, our culture has seen an abundance of fraudulent schemes fail. Our economy imploded as the housing market crashed.  Record breaking athletes almost all turned out to be bogus, and our olive oil was fake.  We wanted so much, we even ruined kindergarten in an attempt to have smarter kids.  Ignoring fraud and then being horrified at the consequences is just about our new national pastime.  It’s in this way we know Edmund and the addicts on the street. We know them through our blinding greed.  

The story of how we legalized drug dealing reveals that greed as the real epidemic, and our opioid abuse as a symptom of it.  It would seem, according to the arrest records, that the White Witch villain of this story are the people operating pain clinics. To an extent this is true, Jeff and Chris George were like this, They were twin brothers from Florida who were both housing contractors and felons, but from 2008 to 2010 they owned and operated the U.S.’s  largest chain of pill mills, profiting $40 million in just two and a half years.  They hired desperate doctors who were bankrupt, either literally or morally, and told them if they wrote a lot of prescriptions they could make $2 million a year.  As soon as patients realized how easy it was to obtain drugs without getting arrested, their business exploded.   People drove down by the van full from as far away as West Virginia and Kentucky.  Each patient needed an MRI (done for $50 in a trailer behind a nearby strip club) and a clean cup of urine (didn’t have to be yours), but as long as someone followed the procedure they could go home with a month’s worth of pills.

Since pain is relative and mostly invisible, you can’t prove someone is lying, which made it difficult for the DEA to build a case. It wasn’t until the brothers violently threatened people that agents were allowed to wiretap their phones and prove the clinic was a sham.  At any point before that, the George’s certainly could have walked away with a fortune, but when recounting the story they said their love for profits and power became insatiable.  By the time the clinics were shut down and everyone involved was arrested, the DEA estimated that 20 million doses of oxycodone had been prescribed, an average of about 10,000 per day.

Most doctors, however, were less villainous than the Witch and as blinded as both Edmund and addicts alike. Dr. William Hurwitz, star of the documentary “Dr. Feelgood: Dealer or Healer”, had an impressive resume compared to the George brothers.  He was educated at Columbia and Stanford, and then volunteered with the Peace Corp in Brazil. When he came back to the States, he specialized in chronic pain, became an expert in the field, and opened his own clinic in an affluent D.C. suburb.  His patients were people whose pain was so crippling they were unable to do basic things, like walk or get out of bed. They were grateful for his support, but traditional treatment involved multiple types of surgeries and therapies in addition to some meager medication.  It was a long, expensive road with lined with tiresome insurance battles, and no promise of relief.  Everyone was desperate for an easier answer to the problem of chronic pain.

In 1996, sales reps from a company called Purdue Pharma showed up in doctor offices across the country, and a ‘hallelujah’ rang out.  They promised their new pill, OxyContin,  was the first non-addictive opioid, thanks to its fancy, new time release capsule. They wooed doctors during special conferences at fancy resorts, and cited a few loosely applied studies to substantiate their claims.  At these conferences they promised even a primary care physician could prescribe it safely.  It’s so harmless, people could use it after a tooth extraction.  Purdue trained its sales team to ingrain the message that the risk of addiction was “less than one percent.” They even made up a term to describe skeptics: ‘opiophobic.’

Hurwitz was so enamored with the idea of the pill that he became blind to its power. After years of repeated appointments with little progress, his patients were finally happy, and he was overjoyed. “It’s like a miracle from heaven,” they’d tell their friends.  They can go back to work, walk without a cane, and play with their grandchildren again.  But soon they would become tolerant and ask for a higher dose, and Hurwitz became as addicted to prescribing OxyContin as they were to taking it.  He started to ignore signs that his patients were abusing the drug.  When a nurse would point an addict out, he claimed they still felt chronic pain, so who was he to deny them relief?  If a patient ran out of pills before their prescription ended, Hurwitz would assume the patient was developing a tolerance and increased their dosage.  After two of his patients overdosed and died, the DEA opened an investigation. His abundance of patients taking abnormally large doses led them to shut his practice down.  Soon after the medical board revoked his license, and eventually he went to jail.

Even after losing everything, including his marriage and career, he still thought OxyContin was the answer for chronic pain.  When they interviewed his ex-patients, ones who were lucky enough to have recovered from their habit, they all regretted their addiction and understood how needing the pills had made them suffer more.  Hurwitz showed remorse for the people who had died, but was unwilling to assume any blame. He was sad that people had taken the drug incorrectly, mostly because it ruined the chance for others to use it for relief.  In his post jail interviews, he still did not feel that large doses, extended use, or increasing tolerance had anything to do with creating epidemic addiction. He shows we can be greedy with excellent motives, and what’s scary is that will blind us all the same.

Closer to the White Witch in this story is Purdue Pharma.  In the early 90’s they were still a small company, whose primary product was a painkiller called MS Contin given mainly to dying cancer patients. It was profitable, but the patent was about to expire, and with it’s limited market it wouldn’t be able to compete with its generic versions. The company needed something new to keep them afloat, preferably something with a bigger market so they wouldn’t be in the same position ten years later. OxyContin, was their answer and chronic pain patients would be their market.  Soon enough, its popularity turned them into superstars, and opioids became a billion dollar a year industry in just a few years.  Today their reach is global, and the Sackler family who owns the brand, is the 16th richest in the nation according to Forbes.

It’s unclear what their original intention was other than trying to stay in business. Did they create their product to help people or did they know they had found a way to legalize heroin? Probably the truth is somewhere in between.  By 2000, people began to realize that OxyContin actually was addictive, and started filing lawsuits.  In 2007 The U.S. Attorney General’s office took up the case, and Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to criminal   ‘misbranding’, for mislabeling theb drug, fraudulently promoting it, and marketing for an unapproved use.  They paid $635 million dollars in fines to stay out of jail, which was the biggest pemalty at the time, but has lost its meaning compared to the $35 billion in revenue that ; earned from OxyContin to date.  Several other affected places have successfully filed for damages since, including Kentucky, New York, Ohio, West Virginia and Canada.  Most recently the town of Everett, Washington has filed a new lawsuit, this time claiming the company purposely fueled the black market in order to increase profits.  

Why did it take almost a decade for Purdue to admit their guilt or do anything about it? Could they really not see that their product was destructive? Their actions have created a state of unending winter without Christmas for large chunks of our country, just like in Narnia. As satisfying as it would be to see every CEO responsible in jail, it’s difficult to judge where the distinction between evil intention and ignorance lies.  The CEO’s themselves were so caught up in the success of their product, it’s possible they didn’t understand the long term consequences of their actions.  Even once the effects became undeniable, they were still too blinded by profits to admit the pill was causing problems.  29 claims for damages were fought off before a single case was settled.  With bank accounts growing into the billions, their morals became more polluted than those addicted to the drug they were selling.

When Peter confesses that he was partially to blame for Edmund’s actions, Aslan doesn’t deny it.  The contributing sin is in my soul as much as it is that of addicts, over-prescribing doctors and Purdue Pharma’s.  Living with four little boys helps me see how deeply embedded in our human nature greed is.  Every day begins a new challenge to shepherd them through their desires, trying to teach them to see others needs before their own, and to be content with what they already have.  Everything else, from their friends to our junk mail, teaches them they need more: more activities, brains, ambition, muscles, toys, fun, food, gifts and then also more money, to pay for it all.

In the aftermath of OxyContin we find ourselves like Edmund, standing alone in a frigid castle, desperate for hope and lamenting the greed of our actions.  Heroin addicts may receive the worst of our scorn, but those that can find recovery are the most blessed, for they’ll have seen their sin clearly enough to be freed from it.  Unfortunately, the epidemic of greed pushes us to behave like headstrong teenagers.  We suffer the consequences for a while, but when they’ve run their course, we’ve learned nothing.  If freedom is to be found, we must see our problem as clearly as an addict at rock-bottom, with an awareness of the disasters we’re causing, humility to admit our imperfection, and acceptance of contentment with our reality.

After Purdue Pharma was convicted, their profits and the rates of pill abuse continued to increase for 3 more years.  Even with the landmark court case, opioids were not a top news story in 2007, or listed in the top 10 headlines for any year before or after.  Most headlines were about elections and their related issues, the war on terrorism, sports or celebrity gossip.  The housing crisis and the ensuing recession have been a top story almost every year since 2008 because of the mayhem it caused, but opioids have devastated almost as many.  It’s estimated that 7 million have struggled with dependency since the release of OxyContin, many cases resulting in death.  On the surface this seems about equal to recession unemployment or foreclosures, but the statistic grows exponentially when we realize that addiction is a family problem.  For every dependent person counted, there are several more suffering the consequences, like kids in foster care, babies in withdrawal, and/or relatives spending a fortune on their loved ones in rehab.

After such a traumatic experience, you would think we would make an elaborate effort to keep history from repeating.  Some progress has been made; OxyContin now has a tamper resistant coating, and databases have been formed to track prescriptions and prevent abuse.  Doctors now have strict guidelines for prescribing opioids for chronic pain. Rates of abuse have leveled off, but at the same time so have profits.  Instead of being satisfied with the money that’s been made, there is now a global campaign for OxyContin, using the same misleading and aggressive marketing techniques that proved so successful in the U.S. In a terrifying quote from a promotional video, the company claims, “We’re only just getting started.” 

After we finished our trip to Narnia, the boys and I read The Blessing Cup by Patricia Polacco.  It tells the true story of a poor Russian Jewish family that had been gifted a beautiful  tea set for their wedding.  The set came with a note saying, “Anyone who drinks from this will have blessings from God. They will never know a day of hunger. Their lives will always have flavor. They will know love and joy and they will never be poor.” The mom pours the family tea in it every week, while reciting the blessing, and pointing out all the ways it has come true. Though they are meager peasants, fleeing persecution, fighting off pneumonia and living as refugees, they believe her.  The persecution has given life flavor in the form of crazy stories and new friends who help them along the way.  They may not have always had enough to eat, but they were never hungry for love.  They may not have had sufficient money to provide for their needs and yet they were still rich in family, even in through the three generations the tradition continued after the first blessing was recited.  

May we, as individuals and a culture, have that blessing too, that we can preserve one another for generations. Let us be so full of contentment and thanksgiving that we could clearly see the temptation set before us.  The heroin epidemic probably won’t be a catalyst for lasting change. History would indicate that it won’t, since our policies created this same exact problem when heroin was released by Bayer Pharmaceutical in the early 1900’s.  But it might, and we should pray that it will.  For now, our power against the greed is in choice as individuals to be satisfied, and our ability to teach our kids, friends, and neighbors to do the same.  May these values be the heritage we cherish above all, not ease, fortune, power or fame.

“Dreamland”: Parenting Lessons From a Drug Epidemic

When we moved to the Shenandoah, I heard neighbors complaining about heroin, how they were disgusted about finding needles around the playground, and watching drug deals take place in parking lots.  I’d heard that heroin was popular again, but I greatly underestimated the extent of the epidemic, especially in Appalachia.  My own kids found a few needles in places that were supposed to preserved for their innocence and for community, and I couldn’t get my head around how this had become such a problem. When I was growing up, I was terrified by heroin.  Mostly it was the needles, ‘Trainspotting’ and that scene in ‘Pulp Fiction’ that made me never want to go near it; even in my teenage arrogance I respected its deadly power.  My stupidity about trying different substances always stopped at heroin because people said it would kill me, and I actually believed them.  I couldn’t understand how the generation following me could not see through its thin veneer of bliss to understand these same things, especially to the point where heroin use has become an epidemic.

The book Dreamland:The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones helps people who didn’t personally witness opiate use escalate around our country understand how it happened.  What sets this book apart is that in addition to the facts and stories that fed into the epidemic, he also theorizes about the cultural trends that made us susceptible.  It’s a pretty depressing read for parents, but these theories offer important insight about what we teach our kids. We may not be able to help directly with helping people fight their addiction, but parents are on the frontline of making cultural changes to prevent it. What has happened makes it’s clear that our part is more than just warning about the dangers of drug use. We have great influence in teaching and modeling to our kids what is valuable and what is not, and maybe in this way we can help reverse the trend.

Definite Lessons

Be aware of what’s in a pill bottle.   Do your research on what a doctor prescribes your child,  especially if something is possibly habit forming. Even if big pharma or your doctor tells you an opioid, benzo or amphetamine is not addictive, that it has a special time release formula or some other mechanism to keep people from abusing it, take it with caution and lots of education.  Assume that it is still is addictive, because that’s the nature of these drugs.  

Shame intensifies the problem. In Portsmouth Ohio, the city that Quinones identifies as ‘ground zero’ of the epidemic, parents didn’t speak out about what was happening because they were embarrassed. They were trying to navigate things they knew nothing about: rehabs, prison systems, probation, but silently, without help.  They were too ashamed to ask for it, which was silly, because their friends and neighbors were going through the exact same things, but also silently and no one knew.  It took 10 years before a parent in town was able to speak up about it, and form a support group.  If one good thing comes from the opiate epidemic, it’s that there’s a light shining into the hidden worlds of middle and upper class addiction. Because it’s heroin, you can’t just send a kid to rehab silently and expect when they return, life will go back to normal.  Heroin is not just bad behavior at parties and DUI’s, it’s cops, multiple stints in jail, and ambulances in front of your house. You have to have help to support a person through recovery; knowledge and honesty from a community are essential. And since addicts are overdosing more often than people are dying in car crashes, there is no longer time for any parent to shame or be ashamed.

Possible Influences

Kids had their own rooms. Because of our increased affluence and the real estate boom, many kids had their own rooms, which was less common in previous generations.  Kids said that their room was the perfect sanctuary to get high in, away from the cops, nosy neighbors, tattling siblings and any other person who could tell their parents what they were doing.  

And their own cars.  Having a car gave suburban teens easy access to drugs.  You call a number, like you’re ordering pizza, you drive somewhere and meet another driver, and exchange money for drugs. Quinones mentions that the cars also had the added benefit of becoming a place to live when the parents wised up, and kicked their kids out of the house.  

Sports.  I hate to mess with something that has become sacred to so many people. I’m not denying that athletics can be beneficial for children, but that it can be overdone. Quinones noticed that in the middle and upper class communities he was studying youth athletics had been elevated to the point where the problems began outweighing the benefits.  After interviewing an addict in one upper-middle class town he said,  

“It was a place of gleaming mansions, but he felt no sense that education was of value in providing choices for life, much less a love of learning. These kids’ futures were assured. So sports were what mattered. Dads would brag to friends about their sons’ athletic exploits, then berate their boys for poor play, urging greater sacrifice. From the athletic director down to parents and teachers they heard, ‘you need good grades so you can play…’”(291)

Quinones saw that sports were becoming a gateway to opiate abuse because of the pressure and the injuries.  Because of how important sports had become, kids were playing year round starting in early elementary school, and were then more likely to have chronic injuries by the time they reached high school.  And because of the pressure to succeed, they were encouraged to play through their injuries and ignore their pain. They were often prescribed painkillers just so they could finish a season and Quinones noticed that the local football star was quietly becoming the face of teenage opioid abuse. Medicating injuries has always been done, but with oxycodone being prescribed for chronic pain, many sports teams, (and football especially since the players are prone to injury) were developing their own addictions.

Philosophical Questions

What are the consequences  of isolation?  The book is named for the community pool in Portsmouth, Ohio, where generations of kids would hang out all day every day over the summer, surrounded by their neighbors and elders.  It closed in the early 90’s because people began installing their own pools, tucked away neatly in their backyards. People stopped meeting their neighbors and letting their kids roam the streets until dinnertime.  The lack of neighborhood made it easier to hide a drug addiction, away from the watchful eyes and accountability of the community.  Quinones sees this as a metaphor, because it wasn’t just Dreamland that closed, people everywhere started staying in their homes and becoming more isolated. Closed doors made it easier for people to pretend they were perfect, which fueled secrecy and shame about all of their hidden defects.

What happens when we have too much stuff? Maybe not so coincidentally, the peak business years of pill mills coincided with the boom and bust of the housing market.  Quinones theorized that our increasing consumerism created a culture that was fertile for an opiate epidemic.  Unfortunately, parenting has not been immune to this, and the increase in teenage heroin addiction shows the consequence. In an interview with a man running a rehab clinic, the man explained,

“‘Spoiled rich kid syndrome’ seeped into America’s middle classes. Parents shielded their kids from complications and hardships, and praised them for minor accomplishments-all as they had less time for their kids….’You have a lot of kids who have everything and look good, but they don’t have any self-esteem. And you put an opiate addiction in the middle of that?’” (p.293)

Is it possible that minimalism could be an antidote to rampant drug use?  If we wanted less and were satisfied more would we still crave chemicals to fill the gap? Thanks to ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ we can see that spoiling children is detrimental to their behavior, but maybe we don’t understand that the gravity of the consequence goes far beyond the warnings given by the Oompa Loompas.

What do we lose when we stop accepting pain as part of life? Our culture has also become less tolerant of pain, not just chronic pain, but any pain.  People started getting oxy prescriptions for things Tylenol would normally take care of.  Quinones said,

“In heroin addicts I had seen the debasement that comes from the loss of free will and enslavement to what amounts to an idea: permanent pleasure, numbness, and the avoidance of pain. But man’s decay has always begun as soon as he has it all, and is free of friction, pain, and the deprivation that temper his behavior.” (p.37)

This idea has also trickled into parenting, because we can’t handle watching our children feel pain, physical or emotional. The man Quinones interviewed from the rehab clinic thought that parents today are making recovery even more difficult than usual.  He believed there was a simultaneous epidemic of parents addicted to rescuing their children, and that their kids maturity was stunted because of it.  He had seen too many parents enable addictions by rushing to their kids aid with money, food and shelter when they should’ve been capable of providing it for themselves. People do this because its been their habit since birth, every time a child cries from a scraped knee or because someone was mean to them, we jump to their aid.  He warned, “I tell parents it’s real important to say no, but say no way back when they’re young.” (p.293)

I think most people have heard this before, but have not thought about it in this context.  Whose pain are we really medicating when we come to our children’s rescue, and could the consequences not only lead to irresponsibility, but also to early death? Is it possible to walk the line of being compassionate toward our children without enabling them, starting when they’re still young?

I wish I could offer you a parenting guide, and not just a book review. My kids are still in elementary school and unaware that heroin is even a thing.  I have no credentials other than being able to keep four boys from destroying a house, but I know there’s no sure way to keep kids from trying drugs.  I also know enough about addiction to know that the blame never lies in one place, or on one parent’s shoulders.  The book also reflects that the epidemic has many influences that are far beyond parental control.  There are many kids who had their own rooms, drove their own cars, played sports year round, had lots of stuff, and grew up to be healthy adults. Just as there are kids who grew up with none of these privileges that are still battling addiction.  The influences above are not ways to place blame on the last generation of parents, only cultural observations that the book brings to light with the hope that history might stop repeating itself.

Although you could never place the blame all on one influence, I do think the epidemic shows that it’s important to have conversations about the long term consequences of parenting trends. What do you think of his warnings? Have you seen these things enable addiction? Will you debate the consequences with your friends? I know it’s not a great conversation starter, but we owe it to the parents who have suffered already- to respect the education they earned, and the pain they have endured.