Friday, December 20, 2013

Back in the USA: Flamingos, Spanish, drugstores

At a wildlife refuge for water birds and injured animals, Coral Springs, Fla. Even with all the development, Florida still manages to preserve some pockets of natural paradise.
Coming back to the USA after time abroad is always something of a shock. I am struck by the abundance and the size of everything. We have so much natural parkland and so many parking lots. So much freedom to roam and so many freeways.

I welcome the rule of law, but I cringe at the materialistic excess.

The motor vehicles are super sized. I used to yearn to drive a tiny Mini Cooper or Mazda Miata. Now I would fear that my sporty model would be crushed by a tailgating Cadillac Escalade or a text-distracted driver of a Ford Expedition. At the very least, monster SUVs block the signs ahead and make you miss your exit.

Cindy and I in Miami Beach
The people who drive these beasts are often super-sized as well, especially when compared with the people of China, where we had just lived for two years. Food is pushed on us here from every direction -- TV, radio, billboards, drive-throughs. Eat, eat, eat! And make it fast!

Florida U.S.A.

For about four months, since returning from China in July, I have been working in Florida on a consulting project for my old employer, American City Business Journals. We have been developing a newsletter for Hispanic business people, The Latin Business Journal. It's in beta at the moment, almost ready for prime time.

I had never lived in Florida, so I was struck by a couple of things. Miami proper is practically a part of Latin America, and you need to speak Spanish there. A business magazine based in Chile recently ranked Miami as the best city for doing business in Latin America. Chileans consider it part of Latin America.

Customers at the Gamboa barbershop in Little Havana are
draped in the flag of Cuba. All the signs for the shop depict
a boxer, so it presumably has a tie to Yuriorkis Gamboa, the
Guantanamo Cyclone, who won an Olympic gold medal for
Cuba in 2004 in the flyweight division and later defected to the U.S. 
It was also a surprise to find that Floridians seem to loathe being out in the heat and sunshine. They keep their cars, homes and restaurants cooled to the low 60s. I needed a jacket indoors most of the time.

Alligator in the Everglades.
Nature preserved

Florida was and still is something of a natural paradise. Even with 18 million people crammed into the livable areas along the coasts, the country abounds with exotic birds, flowers and plants not seen anywhere else. Threatened all, but still amazing to see.

From the air, you can see the devastation caused over the decades by the draining of the Everglades by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for agriculture and development. But now the Corps is reversing the process in an attempt to restore the natural habitat.

Still, people and nature are in conflict everywhere. The victims are often birds and other animals in collisions  with cars, boats and buildings. Cindy and I visited a nature center that specializes in nursing the victims back to health as well as providing breeding areas for aquatic birds.

The roar

There we saw the flamingos above. I also took an airboat ride into the Everglades where we saw the alligator pictured here. The Everglades are beautiful, but it was hard to ignore the irony of visiting nature in a 24-passenger airboat whose two Cadillac engines produce a deafening roar that startles birds into flight.

I enjoy snorkeling but did not venture down to the Keys at any time. I had been dazzled in the 1970s when I did  snorkeling and scuba in the Keys with my brother, particularly at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo and off of Key West.  But when I returned around 2000 with my son, I was disappointed to see the coral dying in many places. The fish were not as abundant. Pollution and overfishing were to blame, I was told.

A drugstore near you

It was also hard not to notice in Florida (and also in Ohio and Georgia) how drugstores seem to be popping up on every corner. In my old neighborhood in Lakewood, Ohio, a church and a venerable retail block were leveled to be replaced by a giant CVS and a Walgreen's pharmacy with convenient drive-through windows.

CVS has 68,000 retail pharmacies and Walgreen's has 8,100 compared with about 18,000 McDonald's restaurants in the U.S.  One of my latest obsessions is finding news and research that illustrate how drug companies are imitating fast-food chains in inciting us to consume their products.

It seems as if every person in America is taking prescription drugs for chronic conditions, basically a formula for enriching pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies.

My brother Dan (at left, below), who is 67, may be one of the few Americans of his age who is not taking any prescription drugs. He doesn't smoke, has an occasional drink, drives an 18-wheeler for a living and goes to church regularly. He doesn't worry much.

Dan and I after hiking up Stone Mountain, Ga.
  • Drug companies spent $27 billion on marketing in 2012, and more than half of that went to market directly to physicians. The total spending is down but still amounts to $90 a year for every man, woman and child in the U.S. 
  • The psychologist who did most to publicize attention deficit syndrome in children -- A.D.H.D. -- believes physicians are over diagnosing the condition and overprescribing the drugs to children as if it were an epidemic. Fifteen percent of high schoolers are diagnosed with the disorder. He calls the excesses "preposterous." Sales of these types of drugs, such as Adderall, totaled almost $9 billion last year, and now drug companies are focusing their marketing campaigns on the adult market.  
  • About 16 to 20 million Americans are taking statins, a drug to reduce cholesterol. 
This is not to mention the muscle relaxers, anxiety reducers, sleeping pills and pain-killers that help people deal with the stress in their lives.

For those without health insurance, the feel-good drugs that relieve stress are often illegal. 

We are crazy for pills in this culture, so drugs are a huge business. Drug dealers, legal and illegal, are on every corner. 


  1. Nicely done and well said, Jim. Despite what we say about our society's vaunted mobility -- social, economic and geographic -- the U.S. census suggests that Americans have moved around steadily less every year since 1948. And especially in the past several decades, our ability to move upward socially and economically has been more limited at least in part by wealth disparity. We need to get out more, if for no other reason than to see ourselves and the world from different and wider perspectives.

  2. Jim, the income disparity you talk about troubles me very much as well. Going away from the U.S. for extended periods has helped me see it more clearly. Its great strengths and its weaknesses as well.