Thursday, August 06, 2009

In Case You Hadn't Already Figured This Out

If I were in the financial departments the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Institute on Aging, I’d ask for my money back. Specifically, I would want a refund on the money spent to find out that overweight people gain more weight when stressed out by work and financial pressures.

Come on -- all of you out there -- a show of hands? Who hadn't already figured this out? Who out there who struggles with weight problems hasn’t reached for the comfort of Ben and Jerry or a bag of chips or a bag or two of mint Milano cookies after a bad day?

And if spending money on this study (published in July’s American Journal of Epidemiology) put any of the employees at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation or the National Institute on Aging under financial pressure, they could see the results for themselves. No study necessary. End of story.

But wait…what is this? Another finding from the study? Ah. People without weight problems who were under the same financial or work stress didn’t reach for goodies and didn’t gain weight. And – surprise – while both men and women with weight problems ate more when under financial stress, overweight women also ate more from family pressures, unresolved conflicts, or feeling out of control of their lives.

Now, I’m not a scientist, but being a woman who has battled a small weight problem for most of my life (and for living immersed in American culture for the past…oh, let’s not mention how many years), I bet I can draw one big fat conclusion:

People who don’t have weight problems use outlets other than food to manage their stress.

Did everyone in the back row hear that? All right then, one more time, for the people in the cheap seats:

People who don't have weight problems use outlets other than food to manage their stress.

I'm sorry, but this kind of stuff just pisses me off. After years and years and God knows how much money spent doing these studies, scientists keep reaching the same kinds of conclusions. Sometimes these conclusions are used for good: weight-loss counselors and doctors have additional gold-standard double-blind study ammunition to help people who struggle with their weight better manage the stresses in their life so they're not automatically reaching for food as comfort. As the authors of the study suggest, “weight-loss programs should incorporate stress-reduction techniques as part of their plans to help people lose weight more successfully.”

But what really grinds my gears is when the conclusions are used to 1. Take advantage of people, like restaurants who “know their audience” and serve mega-portions of tasty, fattening treats, and food manufacturers who front-load their goodies with extra sugar, fat and salt; 2. Give people who have weight problems one more excuse for why the state of their bodies is no longer their responsibility.

And that kind of stuff just has to stop. Unfortunately, I can't do much about it personally except squeak my little voice and wave my little arms and try to tell all of you lovely people what's going on in the world of food science.

But maybe if enough of us do that, someone out there will get the message.

That we’re tired of people telling us why we’re overweight. I can't speak for everyone, but I would like to see more focus put on helping people deal with the stress of finances and work and every other load of crap on the crap pile. I would like to see some good science on stress management techniques that help people with weight problems reach for, say, a pair of sneakers instead of a pair of Hershey bars. And not just a list of things to do -- we all know what we should be doing, right? -- but concrete ways of staying with these new behaviors until they stick.

Who's with me? If you’re under stress and trying to lose weight, what techniques work for you? And for those of you out there who don't struggle with your weight? How do you unwind after a tough day?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Health-Care Reform Smackdowns!

To paraphrase President Obama, fixing our busted health care system isn’t going to be easy. Or quick. But in a twisted kind of way, it can be entertaining to watch. Sort of like professional wrestling. Or watching a NASCAR race for the crashes.

All signs point to the FDA as the first major casualty, and it can’t come soon enough for me. This poor excuse for a government agency (amid all other poor excuses for government agencies) looks like it’s going to be ripped in two. Because it can neither keep our food supply safe nor test and approve drugs adequately and in a timely fashion, the chorus is growing to create two agencies – one that handles our food supply and one that deals with medical products.

On the food side, the Tainted Peanut Butter Debacle pretty much sealed the deal for any kind of credibility the FDA may have over our food safety. It didn’t help that it came on the heels of contaminated spinach, lettuce, jalapenos, pet food and infant formulas.

And in their medical division, case after case keeps rolling in about corruption, either by pharmaceutical companies that did not perform adequate testing of their products or buried their bad press; or by researchers who planted glowing - albeit forged - studies in medical journals so they wouldn’t lose their funding. I’ve lost count of how many pharmaceutical companies are being sued in class-action suits about poorly studied medications that either caused deaths or serious injury.

For instance, the diabetes drug Avandia has been shown to increase people’s risks for heart attacks. Apparently, GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical company that makes the drug, knew about this for years before actually getting around to telling us. (Oops.) And several years ago, the FDA buckled under pressure from Congress to get Merck to pull its painkiller, Vioxx, from the market also for causing number of heart attacks among its users.

The FDA’s continual refrain is that they are understaffed and under-funded. But the food side is continually getting short shrift. According the Institute of Medicine, this year the FDA will spend $.73 on food safety for every dollar it spends on drugs. One expert said that an agency that [theoretically] assures the safety of complex, $3000-a-month biotech drugs should not also have to regulate $3 jars of peanut butter. But in straining to do both tasks, they have done neither very well.

Donald Trump would have fired them a long time ago.

So Barack Obama raised hopes of an agency divorce when he placed two public health specialists at the head of the agency and appointed an advisory group to study our ancient food safety laws.

If she were to be confirmed, Margaret Hamburg, former NYC Health Commissioner, would be the FDA commissioner. For her deputy, she has chosen Joshua Sharfstein, a prominent pediatrician and outspoken critic of children’s cold medicines.

According to an interview by the Associated Press, this combination of appointees prompted Peter Pitts, a former FDA official, to speculate that Hamburg would run the food safety division of the FDA and that Sharfstein would move over to run the medical side of the street.

Big Pharma executives couldn’t be more pleased at this possibility. They believe that peeling the medical division off from the FDA could speed up lagging drug approvals, which have become bogged down because of all of that pesky food safety stuff. They also believe that public outcry over food contamination (I know – what nerve we have to expect untainted food!) have made FDA officials even more hinky about drug approvals.

But pharmaceutical advocates are keeping their happy dances to themselves. “Every CEO that I know in health care is in favor of this, but none that value their share prices will go on the record for fear of retribution from the FDA,” said Steve Brozak, president of WPB securities, an investment brokerage focused on drug and biotech companies.

Other than to say that “the status quo is unacceptable,” pharmaceutical lobbyists would not comment on the possibility of a new drug agency. The FDA itself is keeping mum as well.

If the agency has irreconcilable differences and a divorce is granted, look for a big fight on Capitol Hill. It would mean our rejiggering of committees, which means power shifts and people who will not be so willing to give up their power. This should be good.

Of course, splitting the two agencies could backfire. Instead of one bogged down, under-funded and understaffed agencies, we could have two bogged down, under-funded and understaffed agencies.

But I hope not.

Next up on Saturday Night Wrestling is actually more of a stealth battle between the health-insurance industry and Congress.

And somebody has been reading Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.”

The health insurance industry made the opening gambit by appearing to offer a concession: they are willing to give up the practice of charging higher premiums for people with pre-existing conditions. But wait. This is not exactly a concession if you think about it. If Congress wants to run its own insurance plan, they would put themselves in competition with the health insurance agency. So why wouldn’t companies like Blue Cross want to make themselves look more attractive to consumers by looking like good guys for not charging your mother higher premiums because she has diabetes?

Congress? It’s your move.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Return of the Killer Brassiere

Some of you may remember last year’s unfortunate encounter with the Killer Brassiere.

Well, it’s back, and this time, it’s personal.

Once I recovered from the first attack, which resulted in a bruised rib and a bruised ego, I thought, “Nah, this couldn’t possibly happen a second time. Now that I know not to wear it to the chiropractor, why not put it on again? After all, it’s so…cute. Just sitting there so innocently in the bureau drawer, staring up at me with those twin cups, the underwires forcing them into a permanent smile. Aww, come on, it seemed to say. You’re tired of those other bras, aren’t you? After all, aren’t they a little…boring? Childish? Utilitarian? Like something a pioneer woman would make out of some scraps of muslin and hay? Or something you wore when you were eight and thinking that someday you’d have breasts worthy of something more grown up? And it’s only a matter of time before you backslide all the way to…dare I say it…going without? Come on. It’s the 21st century. The braless look went out of style along with ribbed bodysuits back in the ‘70s.

So, OK, I succumbed. And never gave it another thought until yesterday.

I was having some work done on my neck at the physical therapist’s. (In my world, “getting work done” means a manual adjustment, not a doctor manually injecting injectables beneath my skin to plump up anything that needed plumping.) Part of the treatment involves adjusting the vertebrae in my upper back. To do this in the softest and most effective way possible, I lie on the table face up, my PT puts a pillow over my chest, slips a vertically-rolled small towel beneath my back, and, after I’ve taken a deep breath and exhaled, he presses down on the pillow. I heard the usual noises of relief coming from my back: crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, cru…


That noise came from my breastbone.


If I remember correctly, that noise was coming from my mouth.

My PT asked me if I was OK, and I had to say, “No, I don’t think so.”

I told him what happened. He smiled. And then he laughed.

The killer brassiere rides off into the night…

Then, much as it hurt, I had to laugh, too.

He did the usual checks to make sure nothing was broken or whacked out of place. Bend this way. Bend that way. But no, it was just another $#@%!! brassiere-induced bone bruise, this time, on my sternum and upper ribs. (Wonder what code that would be on the insurance form? I can just imagine my insurance company’s customer service department in India calling the doctor: “What is this line item ‘BBB?’ I do not understand this ‘BBB.’)

And when it was determined that I would live, he set me up with an icepack and told me to take it easy the rest of the day. That I’d be fine in a couple of days.

Then he made me laugh again, the bastard. “It can’t hurt when I laugh, Tom!” I whined. “That’s my job!”

It also hurts when I talk. When I walk, when I turn over in bed, when I get dressed…but the talking thing really bugs me. That’s my job, too. Once again, I’m relegated to the keyboard instead of the microphone. Because, as you know, ain’t nothing gonna stop my words from flowing.

And the offending undergarment? I’ve exiled it to the bathroom towel rack. I haven’t yet decided its fate. Our culture’s common wisdom says that in the women’s rights movement, despite the icon of the burning bra, not a single foundation garment was set aflame.

I’m thinking of making this one the first. Anyone care to join me around the bonfire? I’ll bring the marshmallows.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

My First And Last Lap Dance

Some people have said that when women get to be “a certain age” they become invisible. However, I didn’t think they meant that I would literally disappear.

I had just finished taking my aqua jogging class at the local YMCA last Monday evening. Afterward, several of our class members, including the instructor, hit the hot tub. This tub is about as big as the average mall parking space, so it can seat quite a number of people comfortably. And since it was “prime time” at the Y, quite a number of people were sitting comfortably. It wasn’t packed to the gills, I mean, it could fit a good number of other tubbers before it reached some kind of health code limit, whatever that might be.

We were happily enjoying the heat and chattering on when a few more people came in. These were members of a local institution that houses developmentally disabled adults. A few days a week, they are brought by so they can swim or participate in other activities.

It might bother some people, but not me.

So a few of the guys lumbered down the hot tub stairs. There was plenty of room for them to take a seat along the benches. But one of them came over to my side of the tub and sat on me. Not just brushed up or bumped against my leg, or even slightly overlapped the outside of my thigh. But he literally sat right on top of me. And he had no awareness that I was not a bench but an actual human being. I know he can’t help it, but still. A man came into the hot tub and sat down right on top of me. I’m sure this happens to some people all the time, but not to me. I’m just not used to being furniture.

I sort of slithered out from under him and said, “Excuse me,” but his face registered nothing. After a minute or so, I left, and the women from my class followed right behind me. We exited like wet ducklings all in a row, walking down the corridor that leads to the women’s locker room. I knew that the woman closest to me had some experience with this population, so I said to her, “that guy sat on me.” She nodded, and said that she knew, and thought it best that we discreetly left before anything else happened.

When we all reach the door to the locker room, I told them about my experience as an inanimate object. The instructor turned to me with a big smile. “He gave you a lap dance!” she said. “Did you give him a tip?”

“Darn,” I said. “I left all my singles in my other bathing suit.”

Saturday, February 21, 2009

TV Commercials I Love To Hate

Honestly, if I hear that "free credit" commercial one more time, I swear I'm going to march down to that tacky fish and chips restaurant and yank the earring out of that faux pirate's ear. But, unfortunately, as far as the success of the television advertisement goes, this irritating- to-the-nth-degree waste of electricity has done its job. If you watch the Super Bowl, or any other major event, like the Oscars, you know that ad agencies trot out their best and brightest and most entertaining 30-second spots (sometimes they are going to 20s). The problem with many of those is that while the next morning you remember the commercial with the talking monkey or the half-naked supermodel or fill-in-the-name-of-the-hottest-sports-hero-who-hasn't-publicly-shamed-himself-yet-here. You remember that it made you laugh your butt off. But you don't remember the name of the advertiser. And there's a few hundred grand down the drain.

But as far as the irritation factor goes, this one has totally overshot the mark from brand retention to oh-my-God-if-I-see-that-thing-one-more-time-I'm-going-to-shoot-the-television. No matter how bad my finances get, if I lose everything in this economic downturn, I will never, never, for the rest of the days that I am conscious, even if I have any control from the great hereafter, I will not, nor will I allow anyone else I love, to get their credit reports here.

Avast ye, you stupid pirate. Consider this a shot across your bow. And by the way? Your parrot killed himself.

And like nearly everyone, those "Head-On" spots give me a headache. Apparently, this message has gotten to the manufacturers, because when was the last time you saw one of these teeth-grinding, upchuck-inducing spots on the air? I don't know if anyone has ever tried the product, but I have. I was writing a review of topical pain relievers. And my comments? "Head-On, apply directly to the forehead. Head-On, apply directly to the forehead. Head On, apply directly to the forehead every 15 minutes because that's how long it works."

Also, I really wish "Smilin' Bob" would put that thing back in his pants. He and his big shoes, massively powerful golf swing, and massively grateful wife in the Enzyte ads make me want to reach for a barf bag. Get a room, already. Someday I'm going to count the number of metaphors for male potency in that ad, just for my own amusement. At least the Viagra spots tell like it is. And the background music is better.

Those Snuggie ads give me the dry heaves, too. What the heck? Yes, now you, too, can stay warm and look like Alec Guinness in Star Wars or a Vatican priest at the same time! Hey, Obi-Wan, could you pass me the TV Guide?

While we're on commercials about products with cuddly-sounding names that begin with the letter S, I want to smack that woman in the Swiffer ads. Not as much the new ones where she's being courted by her mop and broom (apparently, these household appliances are having some sort of sexual identity problem), but the older ones when she was maniacally dancing about to Devo's "Whip It" and dusting her own and other people's homes. Perhaps she should go to counseling with the jilted cleaning supplies in the new spots. I'm sure they'll be very happy together, if those crazy kids can only out work their problems.

This might be only a local annoyance, but commercials running in the Northeast for Mohegan Sun not only make me want to tear out my eyes and run from the room screaming, they are so repellent that I'm sure that if I were a die-hard gambler with an addiction problem and a thousand bucks of lottery winnings searing a hole in my pocket, I would drive several hundred miles out of my way to lose my money somewhere else, just so I wouldn't have to patronize them. For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of viewing these little gems, they open with a bunch of idiotically smiling staff members dancing and singing to the spot's jingle, which is sung to the tune of - get this - Rick James' "Superfreak." Other spots feature similar gag-inducing songs from that time period, which many of us would assume rather forget.

For all that is good and holy, please, please I beg the agency that produced these monstrosities to burn every copy and delete the backups. Please. I'm sure that even Charlie Sheen or Jeremy Piven wouldn't go anywhere near this place. And you're making all of New England look bad.

No wonder the Patriots lost.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Strangest Things Always Happen at the Y

There’s something about meeting one of your literary heroes when you’re both naked that’s a little strange.

Let me back up a bit.

I took a swim at the Y this afternoon, my favorite time to go, when I practically get the whole pool to myself. After my usual flapping about (don’t know what else to call aqua-jogging, except, well, aqua-jogging…or the more well-known term, jogging in deep water while wearing a giant floatie around your waist), I marinated in the hot tub, avoiding eye contact with the other tubbers (often advisable because of some of the other people who use the pool in the afternoon, who usually want to tell me more than I want to know.)

Anyway, the sequence of events-flap, tub, shower, dress-was timed down to the last second, because from there I had a doctor’s appointment. It was at one of those offices where they have that snooty sign in the receptionist’s window (the kind that slide closed so you can’t hear that they’re talking about you) that if you are more than a minute late for your appointment you “may be rescheduled,” and if you’re a no-show, you’ll be charged a $25.00 fee. Come on. When has a doctor ever been on time for our appointment? Do you see me asking to be rescheduled? Do you see me asking for my co-payment back? No. I’m pacing around in a paper smock and bare feet. (Always a hit with the other people in the waiting room.)

So I’ve tubbed, I’ve showered, I rush into the dressing room, and there’s an older woman who is also wrapped in a towel. She’s having a chat with Fran, the wonderful, big-hearted woman who cleans the place, but I kind of look upon her as the housemother of the ladies’ locker room.

During this conversation, the woman says that she’s going to Hawaii to give a talk about her book.

“You wrote a book?” Fran asks, and my ears perk up. For those of you who don’t know me, I write books. Most of which are romantic comedies. All of which are unpublished.

“What kind?” I ask.

“It’s about end of life issues,” she says. She also says that she writes a column on personal health.

I tell her I do, too, and then I ask her name.

It’s Jane Brody. Holy freakin’ shit. I am at the Y with Jane Brody.

For those who don’t know, Jane Brody has authored many books about health and nutrition, and she is a pioneer in her field. One of her cookbooks (extremely well-worn) is sitting on my kitchen counter. And the column she writes is in the New York Times. And I’ve been reading her work for decades.

And…damn. I’m chatting away with Jane Brody and I’m supposed to be at the doctor’s office in five minutes.

And…she’s a lovely woman, and smart, and witty. And she says I should contact her publicist about promoting her book on my web site.

Why do you always run into famous people when you’re late for an appointment?

I don’t know. I guess it’s just one of life’s little jokes.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

What Can Brown Do For You?

I had to ship something last week, and stopped by the handy UPS store in town. The clerk was already waiting on a customer, who had, when I walked in, been chewing the clerk's ear off with a long, rambling story about what he was shipping and why he had to ship it, and why it had to be at its destination in a certain time frame and what would happen if it wasn't. I missed the beginning (damn, I hate when I miss the beginning!), but I'm sure it had something to do with what the guy had for breakfast and what color socks he was wearing.

Luckily the box I had to ship was very light.

When the guy finally reached his conclusion (I had tuned out somewhere between the package's destination and the consequences if not reached), the ever-patient clerk beckoned me forward.

After the door closed behind Mr. My-Wife-Probably-Doesn't-Listen-To-Me-Anymore, I said to the clerk, "You must hear a lot of interesting stories."

Yes, he said, he did.

I asked him what was the strangest thing he ever shipped. He smiled.

"Someone wanted to ship a body," he said.

I assumed it was a dead one. "Uh...the body? Or was it cremated?"

"Cremated," he said. "But we couldn't do it because we couldn't take the liability if it got lost."

"So Aunt Sylvia could be sitting around in some warehouse somewhere?"

He nodded. "There was also a human skull, once. A guy wanted it shipped to a museum."

(insert your own head joke here)

He also said someone wanted a Picasso shipped. And a frozen cat. And, he said, grinning like he was saving the best one for last, a turtle. A live one.

I wasn't sure why he thought this one was the most interesting. What I wanted was the back story on the frozen cat.

He didn't know. He just ships stuff; he doesn't ask why.

But I'm sure if that guy ahead of me was shipping a frozen cat, we would have known.