Thursday, February 28, 2008

Too pretty to blog?

An oft-heard conversation in my house goes something like this:
“Mom, why did I only get one Thin Mint and Lara got two?”
“Because I like her better.”

Fortunately, my kids are wise enough to know that to accept this un-motherly, and of course untrue, explanation is to be spared an hour-long lecture on The Inherent Unfairness of Life or Life Is Not a Zero-Sum Game or, my favorite, From Each According to Ability To Each According to Need.

Too bad that I am not the parent of the 18-year-old girls escorted off a Southwest Airlines flight who claim that they were just too pretty to fly. Had I been on the receiving end of such a lame defense I would have gleefully launched into my Pretty Is As Pretty Does speech, which would be great fun since it’s not one I get to use very often.

When I was in college at CU-Boulder, I thought I was rather attractive. Unfortunately for me, most of the girls there were more than rather attractive. I would occasionally go to a college bar hoping to catch the eye of a handsome fraternity boy. I would stand with good posture, trying to project an enigmatic alluring presence, hoping that someone would sense my intelligence, robust wit, and deep compassion for humanity. Well, it never happened. Not once. Finally tiring of plodding along a dead-end road, I decided to change my tack and give it one more try. I positioned myself near a table of 8 Sig Eps, reached into the depths of my being, and let rip an ear-shattering near-heroic burp. Eight heads turned my way. Chairs were pulled out, beers were purchased, and fraternity men jockeyed to be the one who’d take me home to meet the folks. Cosmic confirmation of Pretty is as Pretty Does had been attained.

What, say you, does this have to do with the poorly-mothered girls on the plane? In the twenty years since my stint in Boulder, my understanding of human nature has expanded beyond the Panhellenic membership base. Growing up I remember being unsettled by the apostle Paul’s words To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. This seemed disingenuous to me, an outright manipulation to attain a specific goal. But I think I’ve figured out what Paul meant, and modern-day evangelists would do well to take note.

Life isn’t always about me. In fact, life is rarely about me. Or you. It is about figuring out who everyone else is, and what matters to them. It’s about showing empathy and understanding, not forcing one’s opinion or will on someone else. My parents laugh when they meet someone who knows me, because the descriptions of what I am are so varied. Sophisticated and polite. Boisterous and raunchy. Well-read and articulate. Creative and unpredictable. Conservative. Liberal. Jock. Freak. Certainly all elements of my personality. But if I’ve properly assessed who these people –or even organizations — are, then also a reflection of them. Persuasion, cooperation, effectiveness, even friendship, require common ground. Emotional intelligence is necessary to figure out where that common ground lies.

The pretty girls, if they were thirsty and in need of a bathroom, should have better assessed the situation, the timing of their requests, and the duties of the flight attendants. If they had, their tray tables would likely have been overflowing with water and snack pretzels, and a flight attendant would have extracted the bathroom dweller on their behalf. Too pretty to fly? No, too self-absorbed and emotionally-retarded to fly.

Fortunately for my kids, this entire speech has been reduced to meaningful eye contact, one arched eyebrow, and a quiet snap behind my back. This isn’t about you. Reassess. Adjust to the situation. Or you’ll be getting no Thin Mints at all.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Shedding light on Wal-Mart's mission

I had the pleasure of seeing Ray Bracy, Senior VP of Wal-Mart, speak last night at CC. I hardly know where to begin, so convinced am I that Wal-Mart truly is making people’s lives better by saving them money.

I’ll focus on Wal-Mart’s contribution to the eco-sustainability movement. Recently, the company vowed to make the new high-efficiency fluorescent light bulbs available to their customer base at an affordable price (they are usually about six times the cost of incandescent bulbs). They succeeded wildly in their endeavor, selling 150 million of them in the past year. In case you don’t know much about these amazing new light bulbs — so fantastic that the Bush administration, at Wal-Mart’s urging I’m sure, have enacted a law making the manufacture or sale of incandescent bulbs illegal in the near future — here are just a few of the wonders of compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs):

* CFLs create an unpleasant and unnatural bluish glare. Deal with it!
* CFLs may cause interference to radios, televisions, wireless telephones/computers, and remote controls; avoid placing this product near these devices. Piece of cake!
* CFLs don’t work well (or sometimes at all) in very cold weather, so operation of porch lights and outdoor security lights in northern states may be erratic in wintertime. Big whoop!
* If a CFL is turned on and off frequently, its energy efficiency drops and its highly-touted life expectancy decreases. Re-train your children to leave the lights on!
* Most CFLs can’t be used with dimmer switches or timers. Who needs romance?
* CFLs won’t fit in many existing lighting fixtures. Back to Wal-Mart!
* CFLs may smoke or smolder, but they probably won’t catch fire. Phew!
If you do encounter a smoldering bulb, don’t worry. Simply follow Energy Star’s (a government program encouraging energy conservation) recommendations:

“If you have a product that does begin to smoke or smolder, immediately shut off the power to the CFL and, once it has cooled, remove it from the light socket. Then, send us e-mail…to alert us of this incident. Please include the product manufacturer’s name and model information that is included on the CFL base and if possible an electronic photo. Also please tell us how the CFL was used – open or enclosed light fixture; indoors or outdoors; base orientation – up, down or sideways. Then visit the manufacturer’s web site to find customer service contact information to inform them of the early failure.” Easy ’nuff!

*CFLs contain mercury, which is poisonous. If the unthinkable happens and the fragile tube breaks, worry not. Just follow the EPAs recommendations for clean up:

To avoid inhaling mercury vapors if a bulb does break, the EPA advises opening a window as soon as possible and leaving the room for at least 15 minutes before starting to clean. Once you start:

• Never allow children or pregnant women near the spill area.

• Always wear rubber gloves; you should never touch mercury with your bare hands.

• Remove all metal jewelry, which might attract mercury magnetically.

• If the bulb breaks on hard flooring, use a piece of stiff paper to scoop up the broken glass and powder. Avoid using a broom that could stir up dust.

• Damp mop hard surfaces to pick up any remaining dust.

• If the bulb breaks on carpeting, use sticky tape to pick up the powder, dust and smaller pieces of glass. Vacuuming could disturb the dust and pose an inhalation risk.

• Afterwards, shine a flashlight to double check the area for missed spots.

• Seal all the rags, paper and tape, as well as the light bulb remains, in a plastic bag. Double bag it, and dispose at a household hazardous waste site. See for one in your neighborhood.

• Wash your hands well and leave the room.

• Leave the window open and turn on a fan to air out the room for at least 24 to 48 hours.

• If you’ve touched mercury or are concerned about your exposure, call the Poison Control Center at 800-222-1222.

Oh, and if you’ve spilled the mercury on a rug, roll it up and place it on the front lawn. Call the EPA and they will come pick it up. Thank you, thank you, EPA!

And heartfelt thanks to Ray Bracy and Wal-Mart for making our lives, and the environment, better by saving us money!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Cancer Cartel at work again

I don’t know how many of you are women’s basketball fans, but just in case you missed last weekend’s action, most of the top-ranked college teams played their games bedecked from head to toe in pink uniforms, compliments of Nike. The Think Pink initiative is a global, unified effort of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) to raise breast cancer awareness on the court, across campuses, in communities and beyond. More than 800 universities participated in some capacity in the event which happened to coincide with ESPN’s ‘February Frenzy’ of games. Fans of the game were encouraged to don pink in support of the cause.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve seen a typical women’s basketball fan, but I can assure you that pink is not her favorite color. However, like the rest of us, she’s always willing to do her part in the fight against breast cancer.

During last week’s action, in addition to the play-by-play reminder of breast cancer, fans were repeatedly encouraged to give generously to the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund. We were told that we must band together to stop this ruthless killer of women. Yes, we surely surely must.

My question is why didn’t Nike just write a big check to the fund and be done with it? We could’ve actually WATCHED the Rutgers-Tennessee game, a rematch of last year’s NCAA final; the fund would have its money; more “research” could be done; big Pharma and their minion-surgeons could have their pin money; big Food could keep fucking with the food supply so that these fundraisers will always be necessary. And Nike will be at the ready to supply gear for each of them, swoosh color negotiable.

Even more importantly, more women would be convinced to cough up money for an annual mammogram, more biopsies of benign tissue would be done and, in the process, even more of them would get cancer from the large, very unnatural and unhealthy, doses of radiation they regularly receive. I mean, let’s forget that one of the world’s foremost authorities on radiation, John W. Gofman, (MD, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Molecular Biology at UC-Berkeley–no hack, this guy), estimates that 75% of breast cancer cases could be prevented by avoiding exposure to the ionizing radiation of mammography and x-rays. I'm sure the number would be even higher if our mainstream healthcare professionals knew anything about health.

The Think Pink campaign sounds like a win-win for everyone. Except, of course, the women who are supposedly benefiting by thinking pink.


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Ralph Nader enters the fray! Yay!


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Can I bum a neurotransmitter?

I recently read a mean-spirited and narrow- minded post which blamed chemical imbalances in Hollywood, mental disorders if you prefer, on substance abuse. I agree that there is a strong link between the two; in the case of bipolar disorder, the correlation is astounding. Nearly 70% of those afflicted use drugs or alcohol as self-medication. But which came first, the disorder or the substance abuse? The chicken or the egg?

Lots of research shows a connection between bipolar disorder and creativity. Beethoven, Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, even Kurt Cobain, suffered from the condition. Doesn’t it make some sense that, because Hollywood is full of creatives, there might be a greater population of bipolars? That said, the incessant partying and easy access to drugs by Hollywood’s young elites may both trigger the manifestation of bipolar disorder, and then provide some relief from it.

Because bipolar disorder is complicated, let me talk about a simpler and more widespread addiction–nicotine. Not only are the Hollywoods abusers of drugs and alcohol, they smoke like chimneys and slurp energy drinks like camels at a watering hole. Aniston, Pitt, Jolie, Hilton, Richie, Spears, Affleck, Damon, even Julia Roberts, are chain smokers. We know that nicotine is highly addictive. But why? And why is it not true for social smokers, who have a couple cigarettes, maybe even daily, but don’t get addicted? The addictive sorts likely possessed a different brain chemistry from the get-go.

Our brains are a tangled mess of neurons that make connections, fire impulses and respond to neurotransmitters at all times. What we perceive as emotion is largely chemical in nature. Dopamine, adrenaline, serotonin, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and melatonin regulate mood, emotion, concentration and creativity. Dopamine is one of the feel-good neurotransmitters. Certain situations trigger a dopamine response–a belly laugh, a big hug, or great sex to name a few. But because the brain likes to keep itself in a nice steady state, pretty soon the kill-joy neurotransmitter, monoamine oxidase b (MAOb), enters the mix to step on (re-uptake) the happy buzz.

Look at these brain scans. The top scan shows the amount of MAOb in the brain a few seconds after a happy dopamine moment. The brain is positively flooded with this stingy little chemical, racing in to mop up the dopamine and jealously guard it until another thrill wrests it from its greedy grasp.

The bottom scan shows the brain of a smoker in the aftermath of a happy moment. The dopamine lift stretches on and on, like an elastic ribbon of elation, not only allowing the positive feelings to continue, but also allowing the brain greater connectivity, thus, more focus, more creativity, greater sensitivity to the world at hand. To go one step further, if the brain’s steady state is unbalanced to begin with–as in a depressed person who has a paucity of key neurotransmitters–a morning cigarette and cup of caffeine positively impacts brain chemistry, and helps them feel like most of us do naturally.

This is self-medication. And self-medication is often counterintuitive. Do you know what they give hyperactive children to calm them down and help them focus? Speed! Alcohol is a known depressant. But to a depressed person, it has the opposite effect. It elevates mood and improves brain connectivity.

I agree that Big Pharma does not care a whit about Britney Spear’s mental state. Their main goal is profit, and many of the drugs that they push are over-prescribed, too expensive, and downright detrimental. But don’t dismiss the need to balance brain chemistry in the war on substance abuse–caffeine, nicotine, and Red Bull included. Without addressing root causes, it’s a war doomed to continued failure.

Some of the information in this post came through my friend, Jacques, at BlaBlaBlawBlawg: A Mysteriously Enchanted Evening with Dopamine-Soaked Truffles.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Consumers to the very end

If you've ever watched Six Feet Under, you have a sense of what happens to the body prior to a conventional funeral and burial. If this is an indignity that you are willing to suffer, and a price tag that you are willing to bear, so be it.

But consider for a moment the environmental impact of the typical funerary send-off.

After the funeral service, the body is sealed inside a metal casket or lacquered wooden coffin lined with plush satin and adorned with gleaming brass accessories. This is then lowered into a concrete vault and buried. The reinforced concrete tomb is covered with a ton of dirt, and planted with non-native grass which is kept artificially green with pesticide and weed killer.

A ten-acre tract of cemetery ground hides enough coffin wood to construct more than 40 homes, and contains nearly a thousand tons of casket steel and another twenty thousand tons of concrete.

Formaldehyde, the primary ingredient in embalming fluids and a known carcinogen, is another concern. Nearly a million gallons of embalming fluid are buried every year in North America, some of which eventually leaches out and runs into surrounding soil and groundwater.

Above ground, the local cemetery looks peaceful and pastoral. But below the surface it serves, to all intents and purposes, as a landfill of hazardous wastes and non-biodegradable materials. An affront to nature, to be sure.

A modern natural burial, wherein the body is returned to the earth to decompose naturally and be recycled into new life, is an environmentally sustainable alternative to existing funeral practices. The body is prepared for burial without chemical preservatives and is buried in a simple shroud or biodegradable casket that might be made from locally harvested wood, wicker or even recycled paper.

A completed natural burial preserve is a green place with trees, grasses, and wildflowers, which in turn bring birds and other wildlife to the area. It is a living memorial and leaves a legacy of care for those of us who respect the earth and understand our connection to it.

What could be more organic than to become a part of nature? Death does, after all, complete the circle of life. I find it comforting to know that my body will someday enrich the soil and allow living things to flourish. Maybe a molecule of mine will end up in a berry eaten by a bird. More likely, I'll be in a nut eaten by a manic squirrel.


Friday, February 15, 2008

The Genetic Purity Kennel Club Dog Show

The 132nd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show aired this week, much to my excitement and sheer delight. Broadcast from Madison Square Garden, the competition is the height of absurdity, but plenty of hilarious fun. In case you’ve never watched, dozens of dogs, broken into categories such as sporting, terrier, herding, or toy are placed, one by one, on a table draped with fine linens and examined by a stern-looking woman wearing a full-length silk dupioni skirt and fitted cropped jacket, pearls and heels. She dramatically pulls back the lips of each show dog to inspect the teeth and gums, checks the body position, runs her hands up and down the pooch’s torso to assess bone structure, lifts the tail for reasons unknown, and then grunts her assent.

The handler then puts the dog to the ground and somberly run-walks it in front of the bedecked judging panel. This is the best part of the circus. The women handlers are middle-aged, wearing knee-length skirts and sensible shoes and are usually a bit frumpy. The male handlers, in great contrast, are young cute men wearing Armani suits. The spectacle never fails to make me laugh hysterically, even to the point of falling from my chair.

One of the more interesting things in the show is the commentary about the history of the various purebred dogs: where they originated and what their use was in bygone days. Dogs were domesticated generally not as pets, but as herders, hunters, workers, or for the amusement of the royal and wealthy.

There are 400 million domesticated dogs around the globe. Scientists looking into canine DNA have postulated that all dogs descended from gray wolves in East Asia about 15,000 years ago, and came to the New World across the Bering Straight with human nomads. Analysis of ancient canine skeletons from Alaska to Peru shows a genetic link to the Old World gray wolf. However, the DNA of modern New World dogs shows no evidence of Old World wolf genes, likely because European colonists brought their own hybrid dogs and systematically discouraged breeding of Native American dogs. Even the Mexican hairless dog, thought to have developed in the Americas nearly 2,000 years ago, possesses mostly European DNA.

Hybridization to develop new breeds began merely 500 years ago, and has resulted in the widely-divergent pure breeds we see today. This targeted breeding continues and each year another specimen or two is added to the American Kennel Club’s canine A-list. This year it is the French Beauceron and the Swedish Vallhund. As in human inbreeding, notably the royal families of Europe who have close blood ties which are strengthened by noble intermarriage, incestually-bred organisms are more likely to manifest genetic imperfections and problematic temperaments. Still, the lure of genetic purity remains.

A recent study reported in Science magazine found that dogs are perhaps the most perceptive species when it comes to recognizing and interpreting human behavior. A 15,000-year friendship between man and animal has engendered this symbiotic bond. Watching the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, with its products of purposeful breeding, had me wondering about man’s relationship with dogs in other parts of the world. Do they pamper, exercise, feed and water their dogs like we do? Are dogs beloved family members or communal property tended by all? What types of dogs have arisen when natural selection and breeding are allowed to reign?

On your travels, take note of the dogs. Are they skinny and neglected or, as in Peru, seemingly well-tended but running free? I was recently in Playa del Carmen walking along Fifth Avenue and noticed dogs of every shape and size, well-behaved and non-threatening, but seemingly never attached to an owner, let alone a leash. Try also to find out the dogs’ names. Rover, Spot, and Fido? Or are they named like the show pups: Roundtown Mercedes Of Maryscot, Cookieland Seasyde Hollyberry, or Jangio’s Ringo Starr Kurlkrek?

Below is a picture of a dog that was sitting at my feet in a cafe in Aguas Calientas, near Machu Picchu. If you are so inclined, take pictures of street dogs in your travels, or even dogs with owners, and send them to me. I will do the same on my upcoming trips to Argentina and Chile. I’d love to amass a collection of pictures and stories of dogs around the globe. There will be no trophies or prize money awarded. This will be purely for fun.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Lighting the fire within

Certain words are tossed around in casual conversation without ever being clearly defined and, in the process, take on a distorted meaning or are ignored altogether. For me, one is holistic. To my mind, this word has been co-opted by New Age metaphysical sorts and healing arts practitioners. But, in reality, there couldn't be a better word to describe many of the noble causes to which we all subscribe--going green, healthy living, even liberal arts education.

Let me start with a definition. Holism: the theory that living matter or reality is made up of organic or unified wholes that are greater than the simple sum of their parts. Basically our American patchwork approach to problem solving, be it national health, poverty, education, the environment or foreign policy, is destined to fail because we don't address root causes and global realities, nor do we provide holistic solutions.

Most Americans exist completely apart from the natural order. We live in artificial dwellings, are transported by artificial means and "nourished" by artificial foods. We wear high heels, mask all body odors, prepare meals in toxic cookware, wrap our bodies in synthetic materials. We pop pills to feel better and lose ourselves in electronic black holes to assuage boredom. Many of us live lives of isolation, like lone wolves, instead of in community with our fellow human beings.

Some of the more visionary among us provide suggestions for improvement. No more plastic bags! Wear hemp clothing! Eat organic! Bike to work! Use crystals to deodorize! Give free hugs! Such solutions are mere band-aids on a gaping wound. They are unable to stem the flow of blood, but they somehow make us feel better.

My children are learning about the benefits of recycling. Period. I think the conversation should be expanded. Instead of taking our cans to the curb, why not vow never again to drink anything that comes in a can? Or, even better, any beverage besides water. Let's teach our kids that canned and bottled beverages are inherently unhealthy for the body, as well as detrimental to the environment. With a more holistic approach, the need to recycle would become less urgent, and the children would be better educated and healthier.

A holistic solution to energy conservation and national obesity can be found in the home thermostat. Many of us have turned down the heat to conserve energy. Good for the planet, no question. From a more holistic perspective, is it natural for man to live in a tightly climate-controlled environment? It isn’t. But our bodies have adapted to this artificial reality over time and we feel impelled to preserve it. So while we may turn down the thermostat, we bundle ourselves up to maintain the status quo.

I like to keep my house cool, about 60 degrees. I wear t-shirts and drink ice water and my little kids, with barely an ounce of body fat amongst them, play in their underwear, completely inured to the cold.

Remember that human beings are not dependent on the environment to determine body temperature. It is set biologically and will be maintained naturally in nearly all situations. If the outside temperature is hot, we perspire and our metabolism slows down so our bodies don't overheat. This makes us feel sluggish; hence, the lazy summer day and dog days of summer weather characterizations. If the outer temperature is cooler, the body maintains heat by increasing the rate of metabolism to convert fat to energy. We build a fire within. Not only do we get warmer, we get thinner and more energetic to boot! Over time our metabolic rates are reset at a higher level, and we no longer feel the cold. We are warmed by our own energy source, not by a polyester sweatshirt.

Think about what it means to live naturally, like cavemen. Get familiar with the workings of the body. Ponder what the planet was before man imposed his artificial intelligence upon it. Then attempt to conform to that which is natural wherever you can. What is good for the body will be good for the mind and the spirit, and likely the environment as well.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Body habitus

My son, David, had a band concert last night. There is a performance at least once a week which I don’t mention, so please indulge me here. This one was notable for several reasons. First, it was held at Roy J. Wasson High School, my alma mater. The last time I was in the auditorium, more than 25 years ago, it was for a pep rally.

Second, this was an all-city event, both the jazz and concert bands, and David played first chair (trumpet) in both.

Third, the concert had enough significance that both sets of grandparents attended.

After the show, my parents and Dave’s parents chatted amiably, sharing grandchildren in common, though no longer marital ties. This is when I noticed that I, at 5-foot-7 with shoes on, seemed taller than all four of them. While neither family is blessed with the genes of giants, I don’t recall ever being the family’s Amazon. Thus, I can only assume that they are shrinking. All of them.

Certainly gravity compresses the spine and wreaks general havoc on the body over time. But questionable posture is not only for the aging. We’ve all seen children, and especially teenagers, with stooped shoulders, drooping heads, swayed backs, jutting stomachs that have nothing to do with body fat.

My unsolicited practical advice–begin to work on posture. Remember that bones are just bones. The muscles and our efforts largely determine how the body looks and functions.

Women, because we are the childbearers, are configured differently than men in the lower spine. We’re more easily able to sway our backs and jut out our butts so that we don’t fall over carrying the pregnancy load. But unless pregnant, a swayed back is not good posture. The ideal position of the lower spine is found when the hips are slightly tucked under.

Try this: with your usual stance, stand at the bottom of a flight of stairs. Take one foot and place it on the first step with your weight equally distributed between both feet. Pull your abdominal muscles inward. This is the ideal position for the lower spine. Try to mindfully maintain this slightly tucked position throughout the day.

Now the upper back. Usually when told to sit up straight we pull our shoulders back and push our chests out using our upper back muscles. This isn’t very effective, is impossible to maintain, and doesn’t address the underlying physiology. A better way to correct posture is to straighten and lengthen the spine.

Try this: stand with your hips tucked under as above and slowly push the top of your head up toward the ceiling as far as you comfortably can. To do it correctly I pull the hair at the back of the part, where cowlicks are often found, straight up. You should be able to feel your head aligning and your spine elongating. If you are doing it properly you’ll feel your core, the band of muscles around the body’s center, engage. Now gently push your shoulders down. You’ll feel the rhomboids in the middle of the back engage. Notice that your shoulders are no longer hunched forward.

This is proper posture and should be consciously maintained. Difficult at first, but easier as the muscles lengthen and strengthen, and you become more accustomed to paying attention to your body position.

You can often tell a dancer by the way she looks. It’s not the size of the body, nor the manner of dress that tells us her avocation. It’s her posture. It’s the way she mindfully inhabits her body. She radiates a certain presence, and is able to show her dancer’s heart in her physical being.

We need to remember that we, too, are the masters of our physical domains. We have much control over our appearance and our health. Consciously inhabit your body. Make it a reflection of the inner person, the essential you. Confident, strong, aware, well-tended, loved.


Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Lenten reflection

Love is impatient, love is unkind. It is full of envy and braggadocio. It is arrogant. It is rude. It is self-seeking and easily angered; it keeps a detailed record of wrongs. Love delights in evil and ignores truth.
It never protects, never trusts, never hopes, never perseveres.
Love ever fails.

Obviously I need some fresh air. Too much dust. Too many ashes.

Pollyanna is hiding.