To the Public Health Graduates of 2016

Dear graduates,

I am very, very jealous of all of you, in a good way. You are graduating and starting your professional careers in public health at a very exciting and challenging time. From Zika in the Americas to Yellow Fever in Africa, to MERS in the Middle East, and the refugees in Europe… Believe me when I tell you that you have your work cut out for you, and you should be terribly excited.

Here’s the thing, though. You’ve been in public health for a while now. You have influenced public health as students, or in the lives you led before you became students. This is simply the culmination of a training period in your lives where I hope you gained the skills you’ll need to keep all us moving forward into the future. Some of you will lead agencies and organizations into solving some very tough problems. Others will continue the work started by generations of public health workers whose time came and went, and the work continues. And others will venture into other disciplines — like medicine or nursing — but you will take this public health training with you and make it part of your day-to-day lives at work and at home.

I bet that you don’t see the world the same way you did just a few months or years ago, when you first became students in any of the disciplines within public health. Knowing that there are so many challenges, and just as many answers to those challenges, kind of changes you and the way you see things around you. The homeless man with tuberculosis is not a bum to you. He is the result of a set of systems gone awry. A person dying from AIDS is not a sexual deviant or someone who is paying some price for their actions. They are the result of a world full of indifference and divisiveness.

Your vision is now clearer and your focus is sharp as a tack.

But let’s get back to my jealousy. That jealousy comes from seeing all of the young faces among you when I walk the halls of the school or when I meet some of you at conferences and get-togethers. So many of you have no clue what you want to do with your lives, and that’s okay. You know that you want to help people better their lives in one way or another, and that’s a good foundation on which to build your life. Marriage, family, and all those other things will come in due time. Right now, it’s your time. Grab all the bulls in your life by the horns and enjoy the ride.

And, to those of you who are, like me, a little more “seasoned” and entered public health a little bit later in your life, I’m still just as happy for you and proud to call you a colleague. The wealth of experience you’ll bring into the profession — or maybe you already have brought it — will guide young and old around you to also make things better. You know that work-life balance is possible, and there will be plenty of “younglings” looking up to you for guidance.

Finally, I want to tell you that you need to forget your grades right now, right this instant. You have the degree. You’re golden. It’s done. And forget what school you got it from, too. Again, you have the degree. You studied the details and regurgitated the knowledge. It’s time to start accumulating the wisdom, and it will come to you regardless of your past grades or where you went to school. It will come in the daily work you do within public health, from the people you’ll meet, the places you’ll go, the people you’ll help.

You’re already heroes, so enjoy the ride. Just know that you will stumble, you will fall, but, in the end, you will join everyone in the sun. In the end, you and I and the plethora of dedicated public health workers around the world will achieve wonders. I’m sure of it.

Congratulations, and godspeed.

The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio Must Not Proceed

Here is some very thoughtful commentary from Dr. Amir Attaran published in Harvard Public Health Review.

http://harvardpublichealthreview.org/off-the-podium-why-rios-2016-olympic-games-must-not-proceed/

Here’s the clincher from that opinion article:

“Which leads to a simple question: But for the Games, would anyone recommend sending an extra half a million visitors into Brazil right now? Of course not: mass migration into the heart of an outbreak is a public health no-brainer. And given the choice between accelerating a dangerous new disease or not—for it is impossible that Games will slow Zika down—the answer should be a no-brainer for the Olympic organizers too. Putting sentimentality aside, clearly the Rio 2016 Games must not proceed.”

I agree. Either Zika in South America and the Caribbean is a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, in which case the games must not proceed… Or it isn’t. It is, and the games should not be carried out because the danger is real of the virus being taken back home by athletes and visitors.

Lincoln Marathon and Half Marathon. Done.

This last weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting my brother in Lincoln, Nebraska, as we finished a months-long plan to run the Lincoln Marathon. (I would run the half. He would run the full marathon.) Mom and my little sister came along to cheer us on, so I got to see them as well. My brother and his girlfriend (who is a lovely young woman, by the way) hosted me in their apartment.

It was nice to see them all.

Alright, so the day was very gloomy. There was a lot of rain along the way, from heavy mist to a quick-but-intense downpour. My brother lined up to run in the 8-minute mile group while I lined up at the very back of the pack, where I always line up. That way, I will always be catching up to people, especially the walkers.

It took a good half hour for me to get to the starting line, but, once I got there, I started running at a good clip (about 12-minute miles, which is fast for me) for the first half mile. Then I slowed down to a jog/walk. I would repeat this until mile number ten. That was my strategy. I wasn’t going to run myself out the whole way. I was there for fun.

Except that mile number nine had a big hill in it, and the road was a little worn out. So I managed to twist my left ankle a bit. From there to mile 11, I walked more than I jogged. It was around that time that my brother’s girlfriend notified us via instant messenger that he was a couple of miles away from finishing, so I decided to turn on the afterburners. I ended up finishing strong.

The course was nice and flat for most of the time, except between miles nine and eleven. Then it’s a big of an upward push, which, at that distance, you feel like it’s more inclined than it really is. The rain and the low temperatures actually helped a little bit by keeping us cool. If it were a little bit warmer, and just as humid, it would have been intolerable to run this race.

All in all, it was a good run. I’m very proud of my brother for achieving his first full marathon, and I’m proud of myself for finishing really strong… Even if I did end up waking up that night with an intense pain in my foot which may or may not be a stress fracture. (I’ll heal soon enough.)

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Story of a thesis (Part IV)

In the first part of this series, I told you about Baltimore and the challenges facing the Charmed City. The second part was all about the available data, and what those data told us, which is a lot. In the third part, I told you the story of some kids and how their social network was peppered with victims of violence (not just gun violence). In this part, the next to the last part, I want to tell you about who is doing what for Baltimore.

First, an aside. I held the thesis proposal seminar last week, and it went really well. The proposal seminar is something that we need to do before we go full-on into oral exams (departmental and school-wide). It’s an opportunity to refine the proposal a little bit more and get some questions from students and faculty. Let me tell you, there were a lot of questions. (Most of them were good questions. A couple were things I’d show later in the slides.) So I’m at the stage where I’m refining the proposal a little bit, just tweaks here and there. Then I’ll meet with some professors, some advisors, some mentors, and then move into the exams. I’ll keep you all updated, of course.

(I’ll also post audio of the presentation in a future “Talking Tuesday” podcast episode.)

So who is doing what for Baltimore? This question is as complex as any in this whole endeavor because, frankly, there is a lot of money in doing something — anything — for the City. From violence prevention to nutrition, to parenting and other topics, there is a lot to go around for whatever individual and organization who wants to take on the task of doing it. I’m going to break down the groups into four categories: Religious, Private, Public, and Mixed. But I’m also going to mix them into those categories without going program-by-program and making this a thesis dissertation all of its own.

RELIGIOUS

There is no doubt that religion and religious organizations play a big role in the fabric of Baltimore’s society. This is because of the ethnic make up of the city as well as its history. In almost every neighborhood, you have a church or religious organization of some kind, and many of them are trying to improve the neighborhoods around them.

In fact, during the Freddie Gray unrest (or riot), it was religious leaders who went out to the neighborhood where there was most trouble and made a stand against the violence that was taking place. They then participated in discussions with the members of their churches to work on healing the city. This work continues still today.

A lot of the work that religious organizations undertake when it comes to violence is to bring everyone together in their faith and show more inclusion. There are also a lot of rallies, get-togethers, and prayer groups. You could say that some of their work is evidence-based, but not a whole lot of it. That said, there is plenty of evidence that feeling like you’re part of a bigger group — and that the bigger group accepts you — makes you less likely to get into trouble with or within that group.

If only all gang members went to church on Sundays and volunteered with said churches.

PRIVATE

Private organizations are a little harder to pin down because they can be made up of one person or only a few people. The bigger ones are easier to identify and understand what they’re doing, what their goals are, and how they evaluate themselves. It’s the little ones that I’m going to have trouble in finding and evaluating.

As I stated above, there is money for you if you want to do something for Baltimore. That is part of the reason why people make up their own non-profit or join a bigger one. It can be akin to a job, and you get the perk of doing something for your community while you’re at it. Yes, it lends itself to some abuse, but I have a belief that people are generally good. (I’m an optimist.) Of course, a lot of people have a personal stake in wanting to make Baltimore better. Who among us wants to live in a war zone?

There are also the people and organizations who take a personal approach to preventing violence in Baltimore. They have lost someone to violence or have been victims themselves. Subjectively, I think these organizations are the most driven of the bunch. They have a deep-seeded sense of wanting to make things better, and that sense is at an organizational level… It’s in their DNA, so to speak.

PUBLIC

The third group of organizations are the public ones, most of them spearheaded by the local or state governments. These organizations are, in my opinion, the most accountable ones. If you’re a church, you don’t really have to be accountable to anyone. If you’re your own group, maybe you’re accountable to the IRS on all the donations to it. But if you’re part of the government, you’re accountable to the citizenry and the politicians. Believe me, they don’t like to be embarrassed.

Let me tell you a story…

Safe Streets” is a program run by the Baltimore City Health Department. The purpose of the program is to send outreach workers into parts of the community in order to “interrupt” situations which could escalate to violence. In order to do this, the program uses ex-offenders and former gang members, people who know the streets and the players in those streets. These outreach workers then guide those they come into contact with toward drug rehab programs, mental health services, and other forms of assistance.

The program is a good one from the point of view of how it should operate. It has even been evaluated and found to be successful in reducing violence in the areas where it operates. There is even some effort to expand it to other parts of Baltimore. However, in July of 2015, several outreach workers at one of the sites were arrested and found to have guns and drugs with them (on their person) and in the Safe Streets office where they were supposed to be working:

“Two of those arrested are members of the Baltimore City Health Department’s Safe Streets Program. The program uses outreach workers, including past offenders, to go into the community to help to reduce violence. Police said they also arrested six other people in addition to the two Safe Streets workers at the 2200 block of E. Monument Street. The Safe Street workers were identified as Ricky Evans and Sherri Jordan. Most of them charged with drug possession after heroin and guns were discovered during a search which started with a 911 call for an armed robbery report early Monday morning. During the robbery investigation, police found a vehicle they were looking for parked outside the Safe Streets office. Police said three men came out of the building and went back inside and ran up the steps. Police said they ordered everyone outside and during searches of the building found handguns, ammunition, heroin and drug paraphernalia.”

This was a big black eye for the City of Baltimore and for the health department in particular. Right in the middle of a huge increase in gun violence, the very people entrusted to do something about it were part of the problem. The Safe Streets office where they were arrested was closed for a while and has recently re-opened with increased scrutiny of outreach workers and more oversight of their overall functions.

What would have been the outcome if this would have been a religious or private organization?

MIXED

Finally, we have the mixed groups. These are the groups made up of different kinds of people who are accountable to — or paid by — different types of organizations. You may have a partnership between a church and the City, or between a private organization and a church… Or between all of them.

These are also tricky to understand because the different kinds of people within them have different expectations or standards to meet. For example, a city worker may be sent to work with a church with the expectation that they just do a job, while the bigger expectation of slowing violence around the church would be up to the church itself. Know what I mean?

THE THIRD AIM

To recap: My first thesis aim will be to look at the individual and neighborhood characteristics of Baltimore and how these explain the variance in gun violence counts around the city. In essence, how do poverty, education, drug use/abuse, and/or gang membership explain why one neighborhood sees 15 homicides and 30 shootings while another sees none (and others see numbers in between)?

The second thesis aim is to map out the social network of homicide victims through the use of different sources of data and to understand these maps. As was seen in Chicago, do small social networks in Baltimore account for a lot of the violence? And where in the social network do homicide victims fall? Are they on the periphery looking in, or are they surrounded by other people at risk, other victims, and/or other perpetrators?

The third aim is to take inventory of who is doing what in Baltimore and see if they intervene on the factors identified in the first two aims. For example, if aim #1 identifies that a lot of the counts of shootings and homicides is explained by low levels of high school education, are the programs in place that are trying to deal with gun violence intervening so that kids stay in school? Are they then making sure that high school graduates find a meaningful job after high school if another big predictor of shootings is unemployment?

I’m not going to fully and completely evaluate every single program. Rather, I plan to take inventory of them, of answering the question, “Who is doing what for Baltimore?” So a bigger version of this blog post is what I’m envisioning.

ONE LAST THING

I was planning on doing a fifth entry into this series, but I think that it’s going to have to wait. I might write it as a stand-alone blog post on why strategies for intervention need to follow the evidence not only because it’s a good idea (and good policy) but because there really is no sense to just “going with your gut” on such an important issue. (Although, I’m a big fan of going with your gut on things. Some of my biggest accomplishments have been complete flukes.) So look for that in the future. For right now, I think these four posts have framed what I want to do… I hope they’ve framed it for you too.

Why hasn’t anyone told me about Social Strain Theory?

One of the questions that I see a lot in the social media postings from the Baltimore City Police Department is “Why?” Many people ask why one person would kill another, or they ask why anyone would kill a child. Then along come the trolls and write a stupid answer to what is a legit question. The trolls will write that the offender is less-than-human in one way or another, comes from a broken home, or that they did what they did because of their race or ethnicity. A flame war then ensues and nothing gets answered.

As I was driving home today, I was listening to a psychiatrist being interviewed on the radio about the way that the United States fails with regard to juvenile justice. Dr. Pickens didn’t say much that I had not already heard as I’ve been doing research for the thesis. The brains of young people are not “fully cooked” until they’re young adults, so treating them like adults when it comes to prosecution and prison doesn’t really work very well. The worst thing you can do to them is shove them in solitary confinement and expect that to be some form of moment of learning.

Then the host and Dr. Pickens mentioned something that I had not heard about before. Although I kind of suspected that this model of criminality has been at work in Baltimore, I hadn’t really given it any kind of thought. I’m talking about Social Strain Theory. The short version is that, if a person is being strained by institutional and cultural forces out of their control, they don’t have any other way of doing something about their situation than to break the law.

With regards to Baltimore, if a young person is convinced that the police are not there to help them but to get them in trouble, they may not go to the police if something is stolen from them. Instead, they take the matter into their own hands and do something criminal like grab a gun and go and confront whoever wronged them. Similarly, if enough abuses happen, the person may just lash out in a criminal way. This is what was seen in April during the unrest when young people lashed out against property (for the most part), causing a lot of damage in the span of about 72 very tense hours.

This was something very important that I need to keep in mind as I continue to put this whole thing together. We can go to young people and tell them that X or Y increases their risk of victimization. We can then tell them that Z or W protects them from being victims. But how to we address institutional/structural problems that land these kids in jail, where the rest of their lives, on the average and in the long run, is then put on a path to victimization? What do you tell the rioting kid once the riot is over?

I always end up having more questions than answers, but I’m glad I heard this today on the radio. It gave me the answers I need right now.

 

It was worth it just to learn some sleight of hand

A common scam that we had been warned about was people walking up to you on the streets of Rome and offering you something seemingly for free. They would give you some spiel about the item — usually a flower — and then pretend that it was free. Seconds later, they would turn around and ask for money for the item. If you didn’t give them money, they would make a big deal about it and claim that you were not paying for something you were buying.

Three days into our trip to Italy, a large man approached me on the street. He was wearing a multi-colored hat similar to the ones you see on the typical Jamaican man. He raised his hand for a high-five while asking where I was from. “Don’t,” I said as I raised a finger to his face. The look on his face went from a big, bright smile to one of disgust. He turned around and kept walking the other way.

Yeah, I felt like a jerk, but it was for a good reason.

Two days earlier, my wife and I took an evening stroll near the Colosseum. As we were looking at some ruins, a Black man approached us. He had a big smile on his face as he shook my hand. “Where are you from?” he asked.
“Mexico,” I said. I half expected him to think that I only spoke Spanish and walk away.
“Oh, my father lives in Mexico City,” he said, keeping his smile. He then looked at my wife. “Where are you from?” he asked her.
“America,” my wife answered.
“Oh, my father lives in California,” he said.

My “spidey sense” began broadcasting.

He started giving us a spiel about how he was from Senegal, a refugee, and he was trying to make a living in Rome. As he gave us this spiel, he put some bracelets on my wrist and then repeated the procedure with my wife. He asked us if we had any children, to which we said no. He then said that the bracelets were good luck charms for having children, and that we could keep them as tokens of his good wishes for us. The bracelets were little bead bracelets around an elastic band, with the beads yellow, red, green and black.

We smiled, thanked him, and started walking away.

Seconds later, he caught up to us again. “My wife is pregnant,” he said. “She’s having a baby and we’re having a party for her. Can you give me something for the baby?” he asked. We looked at each other, then at him.
“No, sorry,” I said. “I don’t have any cash on me,” I explained.

He glared at us and demanded we give him back the bracelets, so we did. He then walked away to look for the next unsuspecting tourist.

I don’t know how much of his story was true. I don’t know if he was a refugee from Africa or an immigrant from Jamaica. I don’t know anything about him, but I did wonder why he did what he did. The way things are in Europe with regards to immigrants, it wouldn’t surprise me if he really had no opportunities for making money other than to sell/scam on the street. We’d see other young Black men on the streets of other cities selling items on the street or, as the man on the third day did, trying to play the same game as the guy on the first day did.

In Venice, young Black men just stood at corners with hats held in front of them. I wanted to know their story, because Venice is not a cheap city to live in or even visit. I wondered how they got there. Where they offered work and then abandoned? Were they on their way deeper into Europe? Did they commute in for the cash and then go back to the mainland at the end of the day? I’ll never know.

After we returned home, my wife was doing the laundry when she noticed that there was something in my pants pocket. She pulled it out:

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Sucker!

She looked at me and I smiled. Hey, I wasn’t leaving Rome without a souvenir.

“A fake Jamaican took every last dime with that scam / It was worth it just to learn some sleight of hand.” – Modest Mouse, Float On

Don’t click on the comments

You’ve probably heard of internet trolls if you’ve been on the internet for any amount of time. These are people who make it their mission in life to post comments (or other content) with the intention of getting a reaction out of others. Sometimes the comments seem innocent enough, like someone who is “just asking questions.”

I see this all the time with the anti-vaccine crowd. When it has been explained to them over and over again that we rely on herd immunity to protect children who cannot be vaccinated, they ask, “Why is my unvaccinated child a danger to your vaccinated child.” This leads to a series of comments about how vaccines are not 100% effective, which leads the troll to burn a straw man and shift the conversation to how vaccines must be 100% poison because they’re not 100% effective. And don’t even get them started discussing the fact that vaccines are not 100% safe.

Other times, the commenters are authentically “unhinged”, in every sense of the word. They post inflammatory comments that range from plain, old xenophobia to outright racism. It’s almost as if Donald Trump himself has taken to the comment section. Nowhere is this more true than in the comments section of the Baltimore Sun. If someone is killed or shot, the trolls show up in force and blame the violence on everything from “Libtards” to “monkeys.” And we all know what they’re trying to say by writing “monkeys.” (They’re not talking about White people.)

Then there are other comments that you shouldn’t click, the ones that break your heart.

The other day, the Baltimore City Police Department posted on their Facebook page an update on the stabbing murder of a 19 year-old. In the comments of that post was the comment from a man who wrote that the victim was his son.

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I couldn’t help myself. So I clicked on his profile. In it the father posted a picture of his son along with a message:

“I swear I can’t believe I’m writing this. No parent should. R.I.P. my lil Asshole! God I will never be able to call you that again. You still had the best years of your life ahead of you. I truly loved you. You’re my oldest son. Now I will never see you grow into the man I know you were capable of becoming.R.I.P.”

He also “tagged” his son on the message, so I was able to click on the son’s page… Which absolutely broke my heart.

In the son’s Facebook page, I read several messages from someone who seems to be his wife, writing in his name. She mentions the things you’d expect from someone who loses a partner. She also mentions that they’re expecting a child. (There was going to be a baby shower soon, too.) And the latest message is that there will be a candlelight vigil for him at the spot where he was stabbed.

It took me about 15 minutes to get a hold of my mind and slow it down. I started thinking about the loss that his life will bring not only for his family but for the city as a whole. Nineteen years old is very, very young, with plenty of chances of turning his life around. (He seems to have been in trouble recently, but that’s neither here nor there.)

I also got to thinking about my thesis and how it was going to impact people I’ll never know. But that is for another day. For now, I can only recommend that you don’t click on the comments of a news article, or even on social media, unless it’s your own social media account, or your blog, or a blog you trust. Some people are out to get a reaction out of you, while others will get a reaction out of you inadvertently.

A few will break your heart.

Rest In Peace, Victim Number 5

Back in November of 2013, the Baltimore Police Department had a raid where they arrested a large group of members of Baltimore’s “Black Guerilla Family” gang. One of those arrested somehow managed to escape with handcuffs on and was being sought by the Baltimore Police Department shortly after the escape.

The news article about the escape mentioned that three of those being arrested that day “have addresses listed in the 400 block of Pittman Pl.”

On January 7, the fifth homicide of 2016 in Baltimore was reported to have happened in the 300 block of East Lanvale Street, after police were called for shots fired at the 400 block of Pittman Place. The victim was a 25 year old Black man by the name of Tavon Lee. As you can see from the reports of what happened at that raid in 2013 and the Twitter message from the Baltimore Police Department in 2013, there is good evidence that the two are the same person, that Tavon Lee is “number five” for 2016. Continue reading

2015: The Year in Review

People do this thing where they review the year and they tell you all about how it went. I’d like to do that, but I’m just going to stick to pointing out to you the blog posts I of mine that I think you should read to catch up on all that went on in 2015 in my world. Because, seriously, what else are you going to do?

In January, I tried to compare guns to swimming pools and the ammosexuals showed up in force to defend the guns. Because guns need defending, apparently. I also took part in the yearly ritual of having to defend the influenza vaccine, even if it has a really bad effectiveness record. Also, the folks at ESPN said good-bye to Stuart Scott.

In February, I told you about the people who will be inspired by the things you do, whether you know it or not. Then I told you about how people make a living cleaning up after you, and they deserve your complete respect. And I also told you about Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland talking about the heroin epidemic in Maryland and wondered if he was going to do something about it. (Here we are in December, and it’s mostly the local governments doing something.)

March came around, and I explained to you why I needed my superhero stories to be a little less dark and a little bit brighter. It’s depressing when they try to make superhero movies and television shows as dark as possible in order to attract viewers. Speaking of attracting viewers, PBS re-aired “The Vaccine War” and asked some people to spread the word on social media. I refused to do so because — and I’ve told you this before — the vaccine “controversy” is settled. Vaccines save lives and they do not cause autism. And, speaking of autism, autism awareness day came and went and there were plenty of “awareness” activities all over the place. So I asked you if we were not aware of autism and proposed, like many have done, that we move into a phase of action about autism.

For April, I was having a hard time in a course that I was taking, and it made me think of the two kinds of epidemiologists that exist out there in the big, bad world. In fact, it is that disconnect between public health professionals and policymakers that led to the situation in Indiana where an HIV/AIDS epidemic hit. While those were big mistakes made in Indiana, I also told you about the mistakes I’ve made.

In May, just as I was about to embark on a trip to Colombia, I ended my job at an urgent care center where I was doing lab work and some patient triage. That same month, my wife and I took a trip to San Francisco and ran into some anti-GMO activists doing a lot of protesting. They probably think that vaccines cause autism, or that coffee causes pancreatic cancer.

Between June and July, I traveled to Colombia and got to see how public health is done in a different country. Let me tell you, they do public health very well. I also got to go to a small zoo and take some pictures. I will never forget that experience, and I will never forget the heat. THE HEAT!

Come August, it was time for me to re-visit my thesis intentions after some of the professors almost had a heart attack at the proposed thesis (henceforth “Thesis 1.0”) and what I wanted to do. So I started looking at Baltimore homicide data and coming up with some ideas. As I dug deeper, I was appalled at the statements from the Housing Secretary in Maryland about the causes of lead poisoning in children. And, when the health commissioner in Baltimore invited a quack to gain national attention, I had a little bit of heartburn.

When I tried to tell you about the hacking of an anti-vaccine group on Facebook, this in September, the anti-vaxxers had an aneurysm, looked me up online, and posted my personal information on another Facebook page. That led to some weird phone calls, especially from one dude who kept calling me “sir” in between insults and threats of violence if I ever went to Texas. I didn’t go to Texas. I went to Minneapolis, instead. I was there for a meeting on new ways to do epidemiology, and I came away from it very impressed.

October brought with it one of the most astounding bits of anti-vaccine foolishness I’ve read in a while. A self-proclaimed naturopath wrote a blog post about letting her children live through whooping cough because, well, vaccines are the Devil’s urine or something. This was worse, way worse, than the aunt suing her nephew over an injury caused by the nephew jumping to greet her.

Oh, yeah, my wife and I ran (walked, jogged) a half marathon, too.

For November, I kept it light with a story of me microwaving a human blood product, but then I went the serious route by reminding us that we have forgotten about the Holocaust and by taking another look at homicides in Baltimore this year. I also reminisced about the good old days when teaching children involved more than standardized tests. Today’s kids have it too easy.

Finally, in December, there were some thoughts on death and dying, and I sat on the 9th floor of the School of Public Health wondering what would happen to Baltimore after the first trial in the Freddie Gray case ended. Just for kicks, I threw in a post about the adversarial people in my life, people who just want to be adversarial for no good reason.

So that’s 2015 in the blog world. I hope you enjoyed reading it half as much as I enjoyed writing it.

And, for 2016, let’s remember the words of Pope Francis and (continue to) be troublemakers.

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“Make trouble!”

The people who just want to be adversarial

As I was growing up, I had a cousin who was born a couple of weeks after I was. Our relationship was a good one growing up, but I noticed something about him early on. He was always being adversarial towards me, and the worst example came at the most inopportune time. We were at a military checkpoint in Mexico when a soldier asked me what I did for a living. I told the soldier that I was a medical technologist. “Nah-ah,” my cousin countered, “you’re not.” The soldier looked at me in confusion. I had to explain to him that I had just graduated from school. As we drove away, my cousin said to me that I couldn’t say I was a medical technologist until I worked as one.

That was the worst example, but there are plenty of others that are not as dangerous but hundreds of times more annoying. That’s the reason why I blocked him on social media. It didn’t matter what I posted, he would find a way to comment something in opposition to what I wrote. He’d always chalk it up to “just kidding,” but it was annoying, and I put a stop to it.

Now, my wife is the one dealing with an adversarial relative. She has a cousin who is of the more “conservative” persuasion. My wife is more “liberal.” And they’ve been butting heads over political and non-political things on Facebook for a while now. But the latest round of disagreement made me want to do a face-palm.

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Sometimes two palms are not enough.

Yes, yes… I’m biased. In 99% of arguments, I’m going to side with my wife. Heck, I might even side with her that extra 1% of the time she’s not exactly correct. But hear me out…

As it turns out, the Pennsylvania legislature is looking at a bill that would require people to be “eligible” to buy a handgun. My wife posted the link to a news story about it on Facebook and her cousin was, as usual, quick to be adversarial:

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“That’s bullshit,” he wrote. “Better not go anywhere. A right does not need a license.”

Out of all the comments he’s made recently — some of which Professor Reuben Gaines has engaged him on — this one was the best (or worst, depending on how you look at it). I know her cousin. I’ve met him at family gatherings. He’s not really as dumb as some of his comments make him out to be. Like my cousin, this cousin just wants to be adversarial, in my opinion.

The truth is that all of the rights given to us by the Constitution have limits. Local, state and federal laws can and have been passed in order to limit our rights. As a constitutional expert explains:

“In only one place in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights is there a provision that flatly bars the government from regulating one of the protected rights. That is in the First Amendment, declaring that “Congress shall make no law respecting” the rights listed in that Amendment. The “right to keep and bear arms” is not one of those rights; it is contained in the Second Amendment.

Over the time since 1791, when the Bill if Rights was ratified, the Supreme Court has given its blessing to an entire governing edifice that regulates First Amendment rights: the laws of libel and defamation, limits on publishing secret military strategy, regulation of “obscene” and “indecent” expression, and limits on “hate speech.” Famously, the court has said that one has no right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Even the right to worship freely sometimes is curbed by laws that regulate conduct that has religious meaning.”

So that’s the best answer that I have for “Mike,” but I’m not going to get into it. He and my wife are adults, and I’ve seen her play mind games enough to know that she will deal with him nicely, as she has dealt with other adversaries.

As much as I love to play mind games with the most dangerous of prey — humans — there are times when you just have to recognize that someone is being adversarial because that’s all they have to provide to a conversation. It’s either their way of gaining attention that they don’t get in other ways, or their way to show you that they are smarter than you… Because the best way to say show intelligence is to say “nah-ah” and kick you in the shin.

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It’s not even fair sometimes how easily one can dispatch with birdbrains.

So consider the source when someone tries to bait you into an argument, or when someone feels that uncontrollable urge to just oppose you at every opportunity. If they do it out of habit, ignore them and move on to the discussions that will enrich your life, or will help enrich the lives of others. It’s something that has taken me a lot of time to learn, but I am happier and less stressed now that I’ve learned it.

On the other hand, if you’re bored and feel like playing a mind game, go ahead and friend my wife on Facebook so you can get to meet “Mike.”