Tag Archives: recovery

Surgeon general report: ‘Addiction is not a character flaw’

In what may be his last significant act as President Barack Obama’s surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy released a report calling for a major cultural shift in the way Americans view drug and alcohol addiction.

The report, “Facing Addiction in America,” details the toll addiction takes on the nation — 78 people die each day from an opioid overdose; 20 million have a substance use disorder — and explains how brain science offers hope for recovery. While its findings have been reported elsewhere, including by other federal agencies, the report seeks to inspire action and sway public opinion in the style of the 1964 surgeon general’s landmark report on smoking.

With President-elect Donald Trump taking office, it’s uncertain whether access to addiction treatment will improve or deteriorate. Trump and the Republican-led Congress are pledging to repeal and replace the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which made addiction treatment an essential health benefit.

In an interview this week, Murthy said he hasn’t spoken to Trump but looks forward to working with his administration to save lives with expanded access to treatment.

“We have made progress,” Murthy said. “How do we keep that progress going? A key part is making sure people have insurance coverage.”

The Associated Press reviewed the report ahead of its official release. Here’s a look at what’s in it and some early reaction:

 

MEDICATION MYTHS

The surgeon general’s report refutes abstinence-only philosophies as unscientific and supports medications such as buprenorphine and methadone that are used to treat opioid addition. That may annoy supporters of traditional 12-step programs who see medications as substituting one addiction for another.

Medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction can take time. “One study suggested that individuals who receive MAT for fewer than 3 years are more likely to relapse than those who are in treatment for 3 or more years,” the report states.

 

TV-STYLE INTERVENTIONS

Staged interventions, like those depicted on TV, may backfire. Planned surprise confrontations “have not been demonstrated to be an effective way to engage people in treatment,” the report says. The trouble with the approach? According to the surgeon general’s report, it can heighten resistance and attack the self-worth of the addict.

 

ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935 because mainstream medicine wasn’t treating alcohol disorders. That started a legacy of separating addiction treatment from the rest of medicine.

The report makes room for AA and other recovery support services, noting they don’t require health insurance and are free, but it also says they “are not the same as treatment and have only recently been included as part of the health care system.”

AA gets praise for adaptability. American Indians, for instance, have incorporated Native spirituality and allowed families to attend meetings. Research shows AA to be “an effective recovery resource,” the report concludes.

 

HIGHER ALCOHOL TAXES

Alcohol tax policies get a nod in a section on evidence-based prevention: “Higher alcohol taxes have also been shown to reduce alcohol consumption.” Other policies suggested by research include limiting the density of stores selling alcohol, banning Sunday sales and holding bars liable for serving minors.

 

WHAT ABOUT MARIJUANA?

The report suggests learning from alcohol and tobacco policies to find out what works to minimize harm as marijuana becomes legal.

Voters in eight states have approved adult use of recreational marijuana and more than two dozen states have medical marijuana laws. The report cites “a growing body of research” suggesting marijuana’s chemicals can help with “pain, nausea, epilepsy, obesity, wasting disease, addiction, autoimmune disorders, and other conditions.”

Murthy supports easing existing barriers to marijuana studies, but said that he’s worried the legalization movement is moving faster than research. “Marijuana is in fact addictive,” he said.

 

NOT A MORAL FAILING

Addiction is a chronic illness, not a character flaw or a moral failing, the report says. Stigma and shame have kept people from seeking help and weakened public investment.

Murthy issues a call to action in the preface: “How we respond to this crisis is a moral test for America. Are we a nation willing to take on an epidemic that is causing great human suffering and economic loss?”

 

RED STATE-BLUE STATE ISSUE

Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, co-sponsor of bipartisan legislation passed this year that creates grants to expand treatment programs, said he hopes the report raises awareness.

“We have to change the way we talk about addiction and break the stigma to help more Americans suffering from this disease get the treatment and recovery they need,” Portman said.

Addiction should be a bipartisan issue, said Democratic former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, an addiction treatment advocate.

“This affects all of America, but it really affects the Trump voter,” Kennedy said. Red states such as West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky have the highest overdose rates, Kennedy said. Enforcing laws that require insurers to cover addiction treatment will be a test of Trump’s “promise to put average Americans ahead of corporate interests,” said Kennedy.

Eau Claire-area artists turn felled ash trees into artwork

When Tim Brudnicki looks at the stacks of milled ash wood drying in a shed on his rural Caryville property, he sees more than the blond-colored hard surfaces adorned with swirled orange-brown lines that make up the wood’s grain.

He also envisions tabletops and headboards and other furniture he will create from wood he is giving a second life.

Tim Brudnicki, the owner of Eau Claire Woodworks, is one of three regional artisans taking part in an effort to turn some of the 300 or so healthy ash trees the city of Eau Claire is proactively cutting each year into attractive and useful furniture and works of art.

Previously, that wood has been churned into mulch or turned into pulpwood. But now, thanks to a partnership involving the city of Eau Claire, a Madison-based entity seeking to reuse downed urban trees and local artisans such as Brudnicki, those ash trees that lined many city boulevards are being used for other purposes.

“This is a great way of finding better uses for this wood that was otherwise going to a lesser purpose,” he said.

The idea for turning felled ash trees into locally produced furniture and art has its roots in the city’s management of its public ash tree population. As the emerald ash borer, a green beetle that infests and destroys ash tree populations, surfaced in recent years in the Northeast and spread to the Midwest, city forestry officials decided to thin the 7,000 ash trees on boulevards, parks and other public lands in an effort to slow the damage.

Four years ago the city began felling ash trees on public property. As city forester Todd Chwala watched one ash after another come down, he hoped there was a better use for them than being ground into wood chips or used for pulpwood.

Chwala and other city officials met in summer of 2014 to determine how to accomplish that goal. They enlisted the assistance of Leadership Eau Claire, a leadership training program operated by the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce.

The group took on the project and ultimately contacted Wisconsin Urban Wood, a Madison nonprofit organization that promotes using wood produced by urban forestry operations and believes that such wood can be used for such purposes as lumber, furniture and works of art. The organization agreed to work as a conduit between the city and artisans such as Brudnicki who want to use the ash trees.

and artisans such as Brudnicki who want to use the ash trees.

Cut ash trees are piled at the former brush site along Jeffers Road. The three artisans currently working in conjunction with Wisconsin Urban Wood — Brudnicki; Julie McFadden, who owns Eco Urban Timber of Eau Claire; and J.R. Salzman, who owns Salzman Custom Sawing near Downsville _ choose from the logs at the site. They don’t pay for the wood but are responsible for hauling it to the locations where it will be dried and milled before they turn it into products.

Matthew Staudenmaier, city forestry division supervisor, said the urban wood renewal program makes sense in that it turns a waste product into items of value while adding to Eau Claire’s arts scene.

“These people are finding lots of uses for that same wood before was viewed as waste,” he said.

***

Brudnicki approached a stack of ash drying at his property and pointed to one thick slab, noting its twisting, prominent grain. A longtime carpenter in the Milwaukee area before moving five years ago to rural Eau Claire with his wife and two children, he said he hadn’t previously worked with ash and has been surprised at its hard nature and attractive appearance.

“It looks and acts a lot like oak,” Brudnicki said. “It can be difficult to work with too because of the twists and turns of the grain. A lot of people don’t like that in a wood. They like straight grain because it’s easier to work with. But this grain is what gives this wood its character. It’s what allows me to give some of these pieces an artistic flair.”

Brudnicki is doing just that with the pieces of ash he has procured. Nick Meyer, the publisher of Volume One who is one of the owners of the Oxbow Hotel, commissioned Brudnicki to create much of the furniture, everything from bed headboards to end tables to the front desk, for the hotel currently under construction.

Brudnicki is making most of those items from reclaimed ash. He noted how the wood’s distinctive coloration makes its swirled grain stand out and how the knots and burls in the wood help form artistic curves he can work with.

“For me, that’s where the artistic beauty of this wood is,” he said.

Meyer was attracted to Brudnicki’s craftsmanship after he began selling items at the Local Store, which Meyer owns, and he subsequently hired him to make furniture for the hotel. The ash trees are a great fit for the hotel, where the aim is to give patrons an authentic Eau Claire feel, Meyer said.

“We really want to make Eau Claire be a big part of this hotel, and this is a very direct way to do that, to take trees that were growing in this place and turn them into our furniture,” Meyer said.

***

McFadden praised the ash reuse effort, saying it feels good as an artisan to extend the lives of the felled trees rather than see them go to waste.

“It’s wonderful. It’s giving this wood a new home, and that is a really good thing,” said McFadden, who in addition to building her business works at Chippewa Valley Technical College as a software development teacher and a grant manager.

McFadden’s business was born from the ash tree reuse effort. She was part of the 2013-14 Leadership Eau Claire team that initially discussed the idea, and she later attended a training seminar in Spring Green designed to help attendees learn how to reuse urban wood. Many of her products combine wood, light and etching in creative ways.

“My business really sprang from this urban wood idea, so it has special meaning to me,” McFadden said, noting she hopes to continue to grow her business and turn more ash into products people can enjoy.

Brudnicki has growth plans too. He hopes to create one line of his business specifically dedicated to reusing urban wood.

He recalled a trip shortly after he moved here and started his business to a gallery in the Pepin County community of Stockholm. He had created two new tables that included a hollowed-out section inlaid with pebbles designed to impart the idea of a flowing river. His business was struggling at the time, and he doubted whether the objects would sell. Moments after he arrived at the gallery a woman bought both works, giving him confidence that maybe his business would survive after all.

Now, thanks in part to the urban ash project, he said, his business is thriving.

“I am so fortunate, and this program has been what I needed to take my business to the next level,” Brudnicki said. “This is a way to give these trees new life, and it feels good to be a part of that.”

10 years after Katrina, the new New Orleans has left many old residents behind

Talking about New Orleans a decade after Hurricane Katrina, people here often reach for the biblical, describing an economic and cultural resurrection.

Helped by billions in recovery money, buoyed by volunteers and driven by the grit of its own citizens, the city is enjoying a resurgence. Reforms from schools to policing to community engagement and water management are in progress, buttressing people against the next monster storm.

But in the same breath, people also point to the many left behind. This `New’ New Orleans is whiter and more expensive, and blacks still suffer society’s ills disproportionately, especially in the chronically neglected Lower 9th Ward, a bastion of black home ownership before the floodwalls failed.

“A lot of folks say things are so much better, the economy is so improved, and other people are going to say it is so much worse,” said Allison Plyer at The Data Center, a think tank in the city. “And both those realities are true.”

Katrina swamped 80 percent of New Orleans with polluted water up to 20 feet deep. More than 1,500 from Louisiana died, the National Hurricane Center reported a year later. Hospitals and police were overwhelmed. The economy shut down. Survivors felt abandoned. Many evacuees didn’t return.

It seemed like a death blow for a city already suffering from crime, racism, poverty, corruption and neglect. New Orleans is a national treasure, where African-American, French, Spanish and Caribbean traditions had mixed for nearly three centuries. Could the people who create its unique forms of music, food and fun survive such devastation? Could they thrive?

“We’re still standing,” said Jannis Moody, a young black woman enjoying a free concert featuring the Rebirth Brass Band. “What’s clear” is that the people of New Orleans “are a resilient people.”

Signs of renaissance abound:

The city has recovered nearly 80 percent of its pre-storm population. Most public schools are being run as private charters, and the graduation rate has jumped, although criticism abounds. The old Charity Hospital, a first and last resort for the uninsured, has been replaced by a gleaming new University Medical Center.

Louis Armstrong Airport, where thousands tried to flee in August 2005, now handles more passengers than before Katrina. There are more restaurants. New businesses open 64 percent faster than the national average. Sales revenue this year is up.

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bought a French Quarter mansion and built new housing, part of a wave of up to 40,000 new residents, Tulane professor Richard Campanella estimates. Countless “YURPS” (young urban renewal professionals) and millennials followed the recovery and insurance money to what seemed like a “kind of undiscovered bohemia,” he said.

At Launch Pad, a co-working space meant to foster community, co-founder Chris Schultz said the storm “catalyzed people who stuck around to really care about the city.”

“The city has changed and ultimately we needed to change,” said New Orleans native Brooke Boudreaux, operating manager at the iconic Circle Food grocery near Treme, a neighborhood that calls itself “the Birthplace of Jazz.”

Once catering almost exclusively to black customers, the flooded grocery finally reopened last year, responding to an influx of Hispanics and whites by adding tamales and organic produce to New Orleans staples like Camellia red beans.

The Industrial Canal cleaves the Lower 9th Ward apart from all this. Eighty-year-old Oralee Fields calls it “the wilderness” as she looks out from her porch in frustration at the vegetation overtaking her street. “I had nice neighbors. We all grew up together, children walking home together from school.”

Massive piles of garbage and homes ruined by toxic mold are gone. What remains in the Lower 9th is an emptiness. Brad Pitt’s “Make it Right” houses, community gardens and a new $20.5 million community center attest to hard-fought progress. But only one school has reopened, and few stores.

Generations of home ownership worked against the Lower 9th, because many lacked the flood insurance mortgage lenders require, said Sierra Club activist Darryl Malek-Wiley. Reconstruction money matched pre-Katrina market values that didn’t cover rebuilding. A protracted debate over whether to abandon the Lower 9th as livable space slowed recovery.

The city’s black population is down from two-thirds before Katrina to about 60 percent. Those who remain earn half the income of white households. Thirty-nine percent of children remain in poverty.

“When Katrina hit, you got to see the real New Orleans, people who were trapped at the Superdome and the Convention Center – 99 percent poor, black. We don’t have anyone who seems to know how to fix that problem,” said Wayne Baquet, who owns Lil Dizzy’s Cafe in Treme.

With cheap rentals largely destroyed, rents skyrocketed by 43 percent. Public housing projects were demolished and replaced with lower-density housing. Thousands of families remain on a waiting list for subsidized housing. Many workers face longer commutes.

“The quality of the housing is definitely not worth the price that they’re charging now,” said Adrian Brown, a chef in the French Quarter who moved outside the city center.

New Orleans capitalized on “the power and the spirit of the comeback,” said Michael Hecht of Greater New Orleans Inc., but most of the disaster relief and philanthropy has come and gone. He says the next ten years will likely be harder than the first.

At the Rebirth concert, an upbeat crowd enjoyed a lush summer evening, with kids playing and couples swaying as the Mississippi lapped at the levee.

“You’re not going to recover from the impact of Katrina and be the same,” concertgoer Torrie Jakes said. “Do I mourn the loss of that New Orleans? Yes, but do I like the new parts of New Orleans? Yes, I do.”

Galano Club helps LGBT people get sober

Every alcoholic and addict hits bottom differently.

For some, it might be breaking a family heirloom piece of china due to shakiness from cocaine. For someone else, it might be killing someone during a drunken blackout.

But for all alcoholics and addicts, the bottom is that moment they realize that their drinking or addictive behavior has taken control of their lives. Only then can the process of recovery begin — a lifelong process that requires a lot of support.

Since 1973, LGBT Milwaukeeans and visitors to the city have found the support they need at the Galano Club, currently located at 7210 W. Greenfield Ave. in downtown West Allis. The club hosts meetings for a variety of 12-step programs and is paid for by voluntary dues, contributions and fundraisers. It also provides socializing opportunities and group events. Straight people, of course, are welcome at the meetings, which are for anyone with a genuine desire to get clean and sober.

The club also has meetings that support people who are involved with someone struggling with addiction (Al-Anon) and a recovery book club, Pages of Healing. In the latter, people read books such as Co-Dependent No More to help them heal from addictive relationships and other harmful behaviors. 

“I think that many times people don’t know that help is available for improving your own sanity when dealing with a loved one who is an addict,” says Raymond K-K, a charter member of the club and former board member who’s been clean and sober for 30 years. (Members of 12-step programs remain anonymous in the press by not using their last names.)

Raymond has seen membership and participation ebb and flow over the years. Currently about 160 people are regularly involved with the club. Over the years, Raymond has witnessed varying trends in addiction, from cocaine to crack to meth to heroin.

Some of the meetings hosted at Galano focus on alcohol, others on narcotic substances and others on behavior, such as sex addiction. But all follow the same 12-step format and principles, which is based on peer support from other alcoholics and addicts.

Recovery is a deeply personal journey that involves sharing one’s innermost thoughts and private experiences. No one in recovery can afford to hold back. For those reasons, many LGBT people feel safer with a group such as Galano Club, which was founded by and exists for them. Before Galano Club came along, 12-step programs in Milwaukee that were welcoming of LGBT members were coded using the numbers 94 as their last two digits for identification. 

Despite the enormous gains in visibility and social acceptance LGBT people have experienced since 1973, a lot of people still feel more comfortable being out and open around people like them. Many of them also feel as if other LGBT people understand issues that are unique to them, so they don’t have to explain aspects of their lives that are familiar to people who have lived in the same culture and shared many of the same kinds of experiences. 

“As a member of the LGBT community, the Galano Club is a great place to get into recovery because you’re not afraid to talk about things that relate to your personal life,” says Deb S., who’s been sober for 20 years. “It’s safe within those rooms. There’s that community feeling.”

For Deb, like many other LGBT people, struggles with sexual identity helped fuel her drinking. Numbing herself with alcohol helped her cope with the nascent realization that she’s a lesbian. 

“When I first discovered my sexuality, I wasn’t accepting of myself and I drank a ton,” Deb says. “It was a (way) to avoid who I was. I thought it helped relieve some of those (negative) feelings. No, it wasn’t the answer I was looking for — not one bit.”

Twenty years ago, when Deb was coming out, socializing in bars was an LGBT tradition. That’s changed as society has grown more inclusive. Now LGBT people feel free to socialize in the world at large.

But alcohol is a traditional way of socializing in all of America, and having a non-drinking community of LGBT people to associate with — a community such as Galano offers — is vital to helping people like Deb stay sober, she says. 

“I need to put myself in situations that support my sobriety, like hanging around with people who aren’t using and are having a good time without drinking,” says Raymond K-K. “Going out to dinner after a meeting, going on road trips with other people who are sober helps me stay sober.”

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence says that nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population — 18 million people — abuse alcohol. Statistics also show that 100,000 Americans die each year of alcohol-related causes and that driving under the influence is a factor in nearly half of the nation’s highway deaths.

In the LGBT community, the numbers are even scarier. Studies have found that LGBT people abuse alcohol at three times the rate of heterosexuals. 

Raymond K-K says that being LGBT is not the only risk factor for becoming alcoholic or addicted. Socioeconomic factors also play a large role, as do aging, racism and other characteristics.

But no matter what their race, age or sexual orientation, all addicts have one thing in common.

According to 12-step philosophy, Raymond K-K says, “When you’re dealing with somebody who’s chemically dependent, there’s these two specific things that are different from people who just abuse chemicals or just get drunk now and then. (Addicts) have this obsession of the mind and an ‘allergy’ of the body. Something happens different to a person who’s an alcoholic or an addict when they use.”

Raymond K-K believes that “there’s a genetic predisposition that’s clearly marked. You can’t separate far from the DNA of another addict.”

Coping with addiction is a lifelong battle, according to 12-step programs. There’s a saying among alcoholics that “one drink is too many and a thousand not enough.” If an addict starts drinking or using again, no matter how long he or she has been sober or clean, it’s the beginning of an inevitable spiral back into what Raymond calls the “horror” of active addiction.

The first of the 12 steps is accepting “powerlessness” over one’s addiction. That powerlessness never goes away.

“I’m 30 years sober and I still need this program,” Raymond says. “I need to continue to use this program. It’s not just like I go to it to help others. This really helps me. Without it I am selfish, I am that rude person on the telephone, I am self-centered. This helps me to live differently.”

For more about the Galano Club, visit galanoclub.org.

Census: No sign of economic rebound for many in U.S.

Even as the economy shows signs of improvement and poverty levels off, new U.S. census data suggests the gains are halting and uneven. Depending on education, race, income and even marriage, not all segments of the population are seeing an economic turnaround.

Poverty is on the rise in single-mother families. More people are falling into the lowest-income group. And after earlier signs of increased mobility, fewer people are moving as homeownership declined for a fifth straight year.

“We’re in a selective recovery,” said William H. Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer who analyzed the numbers.

The annual U.S. survey of socioeconomic indicators covers all of last year, representing the third year of a postrecession rebound.

The figures, released on Sept. 19, also show a slightly faster pace of growth in the foreign-born population, which increased to 40.8 million, or 13 percent of the U.S. Last year’s immigration increase of 440,000 people was a reversal of a 2011 dip in the influx, when many Mexicans already in the U.S. opted to return home.

Many of the newer immigrants are now higher-skilled workers from Asian countries such as China and India. The number of immigrants in the U.S. with less than a high school diploma, who make up the bulk of the total foreign-born population, fell slightly in 2012 to 10.8 million. Immigrants with bachelor’s degrees or higher rose by more than 4 percent to 9.8 million.

In all, 21 states saw declines last year in their Hispanic foreign-born population, led by New Mexico, Illinois and Georgia.

The number of Americans in poverty remained largely unchanged at a record 46.5 million. Single-mother families in poverty increased for the fourth straight year to 4.1 million, or 41.5 percent, coinciding with longer-term trends of declining marriage and out-of-wedlock births. Many of these mothers are low income with low education. The share of married-couple families in poverty remained unchanged at 2.1 million, or 8.7 percent.

By race or ethnicity, a growing proportion of poor children are Hispanic, a record 37 percent of the total. Whites make up 30 percent, blacks 26 percent.

Nearly 2.2 million children were poor in California last year, the most of any state, but the child poverty rate was highest in Mississippi, where more than 1 in 3 children was poor. Nationwide, child poverty stood at 21.8 percent, unchanged from the previous year.

“Stubbornly high child poverty rates in the wake of the Great Recession suggest we have not yet turned the corner three years after its official end,” said Marybeth Mattingly, director of research on vulnerable families at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute.

The numbers also reflect widening economic inequality, an issue President Barack Obama has pledged would be a top priority of his administration to address. Upward mobility in the U.S. has been hurt by a tight job market and the longer-term disappearance of midskill jobs due to globalization and automation.

The new census data shows that lower-income households are a steadily increasing share of the population, while middle- to higher-income groups shrank or were flat.

In 2012, households earning less than $24,999 made up 24.4 percent of total households, up from 21.7 percent four years earlier. The share of households earning $50,000 to $99,999 slipped from 31.2 percent to 29.9 percent. Top-income households making more than $200,000 dipped less, from 5 percent to 4.6 percent over that period.

The still-weak economy also meant fewer household moves in 2012.

After showing signs of increased migration in 2011, fewer Americans were on the move, many because of few job opportunities or the inability to buy a home.

U.S. migration fell by 0.2 percent in 2012 after edging up the previous year. While the number of longer-distance moves remained steady at 2.3 percent, moves within a county edged lower to 9 percent, particularly among young adults 18-34.

Demographers say that suggests eroding career opportunities and a diminished ability to buy a home. Young adults typically make long-distance moves to seek a new career, while those who make local moves often do so when buying a home.

Homeownership declined for the fifth year in the row to 63.9 percent.

“Many Americans continue to think that a rising tide lifts all boats,” said Sheldon Danziger, a University of Michigan economist. “But the bad news is that given the way economic growth trickles down now, the number of poor and disadvantaged will remain high unless we do more to help those in need.”

With poverty remaining high, food stamp use continued to climb. Roughly 15.8 million, or 13.6 percent of U.S. households, received food stamps, the highest level on record. Just over half of these households, or 52 percent, were below poverty and 44 percent had one or more people with a disability.

By state, Oregon led the nation in food stamp use at 20.1 percent, or 1 in 5, due in part to generous state provisions that expand food stamp eligibility to families. Oregon was followed by more rural or more economically hard-hit states, including Mississippi, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan and Tennessee. Wyoming had the fewest households on food stamps, at 7 percent.

In 45 states and the District of Columbia, poverty rates remained steady at high levels. Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation, was one of just three states posting increases, from 22.6 percent to 24.2 percent. California and New Hampshire were the others.

In Minnesota and Texas, the percentage of people in poverty declined.

Among the 25 largest metropolitan areas, the Washington, D.C., area had the highest median household income in 2012 at $88,233, followed by the San Francisco and Boston metro areas. The Tampa-St. Petersburg metro area had the lowest median house income at $44,402.

The official poverty level is based on a government calculation that includes only income before tax deductions. It excludes noncash government aid such as food stamps. Counting food stamps would have boosted 4 million people, lowering the U.S. poverty rate to 13.7 percent.

Healing the divisions in postelection America

APPOMATTOX, Va. – Baine’s Books sits in the heart of this historic village, a Main Street institution where townspeople gather for coffee and conversation and, every Thursday after sundown, an open mic night that draws performers from near and far with guitars and banjos in hand, bluegrass and blues on their lips.

Talk of church and school, and most certainly music, almost always takes precedence at Baine’s. But we’ve stopped in at election time, and Lib Elder is at a corner table tucking into a chicken pot pie, an Obama-Biden button pinned to her blouse right next to her heart.

She knows without asking why a reporter has come to this corner of southern Virginia to write about an election that divided America among so many lines.

Red or blue. Left or right. Big government or small. Tea party or Occupy. Ninety-nine percent or one. Employed or out-of-work. Black or white or brown.

This is, after all, “where our nation reunited,” said Elder, her voice tinged with slight sarcasm as she quotes the slogan adorning every sign into the town where, on Palm Sunday 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, marking the beginning of the end of the Civil War.

It’s a nice idea, that a place could symbolize peace and harmony and, even, healing after what was inarguably the most divisive time in our nation’s history.

It’s just not something that Elder finds particularly authentic after another cutthroat election year across these “united” states.

The acrimony is still too fresh and far too raw. There was the family member, related by marriage, who accused Elder of “hating” her country because she had sent him a fundraising email for Barack Obama; Elder mistakenly believed he was a Democrat. And the white teenagers at the Appomattox Railroad Festival who saw her Obama button and jeered: “You know he’s black, don’t you?”

Peace and harmony? Elder, for one, doesn’t see them. Not in Appomattox. Not in America. Not even now that Election 2012 is behind us at last.

“I think we are much more divided,” said Elder, who heard similar concerns when she made get-out-the-vote calls during the campaign. “It’s not that people hate the election. … They just hate everybody screaming all the time. It’s harder to hear anything, the louder you get.”

And these days, she added: “Everybody’s voice is louder.”

It’s a familiar election-year narrative, that Americans – not just the candidates, not just the parties, not just the pundits who shriek at us from partisan programming – but everyday Americans themselves are divided by an ever-widening gulf. We see it in the narrow margin separating winner from loser on Nov. 6.

Exit polling also seems only to reaffirm these chasms. On one side we have women, the poor, people of color, urbanites, young voters and non-churchgoers. On the other we have men, those who are rich and white, rural Americans, senior citizens and those who attend church regularly.

Said Republican strategist and CNN commentator Alex Castellanos as he visibly agonized over this on election night: The country, “right now, it is split into pieces.”

But is all of this an every-four-year phenomenon that goes away when the yard signs come down and the Facebook tirades finally end, or at least subside? Can we do as our leaders do? Debate with fingers thrust in each other’s faces, tearing one another apart, and then shake hands, return to our corners and somehow attempt to live and work together once more?

In this slice of Virginia – a literal battlefield turned electoral battleground – there are those who are no longer sure.

They, like Elder, sense that something has changed. That the much-discussed polarization of this election will live on long past it, in ways depicted by more than a mark on a ballot.

Friendships may wilt, suggested local lawyer Michael Brickhill, as some “fade out of social circles that you no longer feel comfortable with … if there are strong differences of opinion.”

He recalled a business dinner in California not long ago in which the group agreed not to invite a guy who’d been ranting about the election.

“They were really, really afraid that he would not be able to relate on the common ground that we had formed,” which had nothing to do with politics, Brickhill said.

Others may be hesitant to, at least publicly, brand themselves by party identity, said Bryan Baine, a former composition instructor who now owns the bookstore in Appomattox.

“Why wouldn’t you be increasingly reluctant to put that label on yourself if it means this whole bunch over here is going to make assumptions about you or that whole bunch is going to make assumptions about you just because you said you were a Republican or Democrat?” he said.

Young and old, black and white, Republican or Democrat, so many in the area found accord on the notion of discord – even if the lens through which they viewed this division was filtered by their own unique perspectives and experiences.

Madeline Abbitt, a lobbyist who works in Richmond but lives in Appomattox County, sees polarization as a rural vs. urban issue. “I could look at the people in my condo unit (in Richmond) and I bet out of about 300 people, two might know what a deer is,” she said, only half-joking about those who likely oppose hunting and groups such as the National Rifle Association. “And you get out here, and you may know two or three people who know a gay couple.”

Joe Day, the African-American chair of the Appomattox County Democratic Committee, views America’s differences through the prism of race. He recalls the slurs scrawled across Obama signs in 2008 and finds little progress in race relations four years later, even with the president’s re-election.

“It’s still racism,” said Day, bemoaning the percentage of black teens in detention centers and a lack of black faces in city jobs. “Mr. Obama might be the first black president and we might’ve seen history. But there’s no unity in America.”

Jan Greene, visiting the Appomattox Court House National Historic Park on her way to a convention of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, sees parallels between what divided us in the 1800s and today. “I think especially in the South we are still very resentful of big government,” said Greene, who lives in Bradenton, Fla. “Washington has taken over more and more aspects of our lives.” Still, she added, “The South doesn’t have the strength to rise again.”

Brickhill, the lawyer, lives in nearby Lynchburg, Va., home to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church. Before the election, The Lynchburg Ledger newspaper published a column called “Can a Christian Vote for a Mormon?” – making the case for why those in the local Christian community could vote for Mitt Romney for president, even if a “Mormon would be unacceptable” in any leadership position in a Christian church.

Brickhill finds his community polarized along religious lines, certainly, but also “politically, socially, socio-economically. We’re polarized by our affinity for local collegiate teams. It’s either Virginia or Virginia Tech, and we are on the dividing line here.”

Perhaps these deep divisions have always been there, stemming from long-ago wounds that never mended or stereotypes formed via our peers or our parents or the place we call home.

Perhaps we just feel more divided because, as Elder suggested, we are more exposed to our dissimilarities in this very loud Facebook, Twitter, anonymous-online-comment-driven world, where everyone seems more emboldened to point out our many differences no matter the consequences.

And yet there are consequences, and so the question begs asking: Where is the line between a polarized America that is productive, and one that is destructive?

Among the many lines dividing us, where and when do we draw this one in the sand?

“Democracy is not about achieving agreement. It’s about figuring out how to live together when we don’t agree,” said social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who penned a pre-election column in The New York Times dishearteningly titled: “Look How Far We’ve Come Apart.”

Haidt is among those who believe that polarization itself isn’t a bad thing. “The competition between ideas can be healthy,” he noted, “or it can turn toxic.”

Unfortunately all signs before this election were pointing toward toxic. He cited a few studies, including research showing that Congress is more ideologically polarized than at any time since the end of the Civil War, a downward spiral that began with the cultural wars of the 1960s and 1970s during which the Democrats became “the party of civil rights” and the Republicans aligned themselves with the religious right.

Of course it’s tempting to write that off as a Washington problem among the so-called political “elites.” Not so. Everyday Americans feel more hostility and dislike toward those from the opposite party than at any time since the American National Election Studies began polling on the subject in the 1970s.

And these feelings go beyond where one side or the other comes down on any particular issue.

“Politics has become a litmus test now for all kinds of things,” said Shanto Iyengar, a political scientist at Stanford whose research on polarization finds the lines blurring between political differences and how one chooses to relate on a personal level.

Take online dating: “People don’t say anything about politics,” he said, because “you’re risking turning off a whole bunch of people.” Or consider cross-party marriages. Analyzing polling data, Iyengar found that whereas in 1960 about 5 percent of Americans would be upset if their child married someone from the other party, in 2010 that rose to nearly 40 percent.

“Fifty years ago when people were asked that question they just laughed …‘Why would I care about the party politics of my future son-in-law?’

“But today,” he said, “they care.”

This plays out every day in communities big and small across America, in myriad ways that remind us that division doesn’t end when the polls close on Election Day.

In Montana, Helena resident John Driscoll was so taken aback by a truck driver’s reaction to his Obama bumper sticker that he wrote a letter about it to a local newspaper. Driscoll had pulled over with a flat tire, and the truck driver stopped to assist but then admitted: “If I’d known you were Obama people I wouldn’t have stopped.” Later, at a tire repair shop, another man stared at the sticker – and then at Driscoll – and sniffed, “You can’t be serious.”

“It’s those kinds of things that tell you something, I guess,” Driscoll, a former Democratic legislator in Montana, said in an interview. “People are generally very respectful of each other and I think they still are, but not so much that I didn’t want to write that letter.”

In his book, “The Big Sort,” author Bill Bishop reveals how and why Americans have segregated themselves geographically, economically, religiously, socially and, yes, politically into like-minded communities. In one example, he writes about a Texas Republican who was ostracized from an Internet listserv in a liberal Austin neighborhood after he recommended a candidate for the board of the local community college.

“Within the day, the newsgroup reacted in a way that wasn’t as much ideological as biological,” wrote Bishop. This man “wasn’t just someone to be argued against. For the protection of the group, he needed to be isolated, sealed off, and expelled.”

“Politics,” said Bishop, “has become more about belonging to a tribe than it is about policy. And people will do almost anything to remain in their tribe.”

After all, he added: “How do you compromise on your identity?”

Pennsylvania librarian Roz Warren explored that very idea in a column she wrote this election year for a women’s website, revisiting the moment she discovered that her now daughter-in-law was a Republican. The lifelong Democrat found herself not only questioning how she’d raised her son – “loving a Republican was the one thing our son could have done to profoundly shock both his parents,” Warren wrote – but re-examining her own attachment to political identity and the perhaps skewed importance it had in her life.

Of course, Warren said in an interview, what matters far more than her daughter-in-law’s political preference is her heart – and her love for Warren’s son.

Besides, her son has now informed her, both he and his wife consider themselves independents.

“I feel very optimistic about the fact that the next generation perceives itself as independents … the focus being on, ‘Let’s you and I talk about issues that matter to us and not identify ourselves as Democrats and Republicans’ … with all the baggage that that entails,” she said. “Perhaps there is some hope.”

Just outside of the town of Appomattox, past the rolling hills where American once fought American, is the monument that gives this community its place in history. National Park Service Ranger Ernie Price’s office window looks out over the house where Lee and Grant arrived at the terms of surrender.

Price understands clearly the relevance between what divided Americans then and now: The many questions over government’s role in our lives, and ongoing disputes over racial inequality and freedom and individual rights over the greater good of the nation.

He also sees lessons that today’s leaders might take from what happened at Appomattox in 1865, in the cordiality exhibited by the two generals, and the compromises they were able to reach. In the respect bestowed by one-time enemies when each army saluted the other as the rebel troops laid down their arms before their Union adversaries.

“Just days before these guys were shooting at each other,” he noted.

The metaphor can hardly be missed.

Within hours of this election, Romney and Obama and Republican and Democratic leaders in Washington were talking about unity and compromise, about promising to do their part to find bipartisan solutions to the many problems facing the nation. But only time will tell whether our long-standing gridlock ends with some sort of deal and a collective salute.

In the meantime, what of the rest of us? Can we, too, if not erase our many lines in the sand find reason enough to cross over them every now and again?

Some see that as unlikely, fearing the animosity that has been growing across parties and among people these past years will only worsen over the next four.

Bryan Baine isn’t one of those.

There were no Romney or Obama signs gracing the windows and walls this election year at his bookstore on Main Street. Rather, his shelves are filled with books by Rachel Maddow, host on left-leaning MSNBC, and Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor. There’s a memoir by former Republican President George W. Bush, and biographies of Bob Dylan.

Baine knows how most in town might label him politically, but he prefers nowadays to just not say one way or the other – or even talk politics with his neighbor-customers.

“There so much I’d rather talk to you about. What music you listen to. What your family’s like. What literature you read. Those are much more interesting to me than who you vote for or what you think about abortion or gay marriage or whatever the hot button issue is,” he said. “In small towns we have to live with each other, and I think most of us are able to look at the person who has a different position and still move on.”

His Thursday open mic nights are the perfect example. “You’ll be sitting there and there’ll be people that you can peg as pretty conservative or as a hippie, and one might be playing bass and one’s playing mandolin.

“Democrats and Republicans. Together,” he said. “Just not talking politics.”