Sunday, January 31, 2010

Caught in the Web

I know I'm not alone in having addictive tendencies. Who among us can eat just one potato chip or a single peanut? Who doesn't have some weakness, maybe for chocolate, or worse, for cigarettes or alcohol? If you're a regular reader of this blog, you known I'm hooked on a fairly benign substance, maple almond granola. But this weekend I've experienced a relapse into another kind of addiction. If you were a fly on my wall, you would have seen that I've once again been caught in the web of Spider Solitaire.

It all began innocently enough a couple of years ago. I wandered into E.'s home office, where I saw him playing a card game online. "It's on your computer, too," he told me. I'm a slow study, but I gradually learned the rules and worked my way up from easy game difficulty, using one suit, to medium difficulty, involving two suits (I never made it to the highest level, in which all four suits are in play). I found it hard to stop. If I played a game and lost (a frequent occurrence), I felt compelled to keep playing until I won a hand. Then I raised the ante for myself. Not only did I want to win, but I wanted to win with a better score than I'd achieved before.

The more games I won and the higher my winning score, the harder it was to better that score. I became obsessed with playing until I achieved my best-ever score. Unlike E., who was able to enjoy an occasional game, I couldn't walk away. Only the most urgent requirements of daily living—eating, sleeping, walking the dog—could drag me away from the computer. I was caught in the grip of a mindless addiction.

Finally, I gave myself a goal. If I could reach a particular score, higher than I'd yet achieved, I promised myself I would stop, for good. E. didn't believe I could stop. He offered to remove the game program from my computer. I politely declined, then not so politely. I was a mad woman.

Finally, after a few weeks, I achieved the score I'd set as a goal for myself and I actually stopped. I felt incredible relief. I had my life back. I resumed reading the New York Times. I got into an exercise routine. I spent more time playing with Cosmo. All went well for quite a while.

Several days ago, though, I had a few minutes to fill before going out on an errand. I remembered Spider Solitaire. It was still there on my computer, its gossamer web beckoning. I had just enough time for one game. I opened the program, heard the familiar sound effects as the cards were dealt. I played and lost, not surprising since I was out of practice. After the one game, I was able easily to leave the computer and head on my way.

That was then. This is three days later. As soon as I returned home from my errand, I resumed playing. I've been playing every spare moment since. I haven't been able to stop until this blog threw me a lifeline and pulled me away from the spider's lair. Like an AA novice just starting out on the twelve steps, I admit that I am powerless over my addition to Spider Solitaire. I haven't started a new game since I began writing this entry. I hope to keep it that way. One day at a time.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Avatar, More or Less

Today, I saw Avatar in IMAX 3D. Before the movie even started, I was blown away by the 3D previews. Watching a clip from a documentary about the Hubble Telescope, I almost felt as if I were walking in space. So, I had high hopes for Avatar. This 3D thing, I thought, is going to be even more amazing than I expected.

Actually, it turned out to be less than amazing. At first, I felt keenly aware of the extra dimension. The images seemed more immediate, more enveloping. But gradually, I stopped noticing the 3D-ness. The action seemed perhaps a bit closer to me, but other than that, I stopped being aware of anything different from a regular film. It's a phenomenon I've encountered before—the first time I saw a color television; the first time I watched a large-screen tv; the first time I saw a program in HDTV. All those technological advances were astounding until I got used to them, which took about fifteen minutes, the same amount of time it took me to acclimate to the 3D experience of Avatar.

Still, Avatar's special effects are spectacular. The mind-boggling detail and beauty of the fictional world, Pandora, is more than worth the price of admission. And some of the attributes of the Na'vi, the humanoid inhabitants  of Pandora, are delightfully creative— I particularly liked the tendrils that emanate from the long Na'vi braids and link to similar tendrils in horse- and bird-like creatures, enabling the Na'vi to tame and ride them. The Na'vi themselves are gorgeous, with golden feline eyes, blue skin, and the sleekest of physiques. All in all, I found the depiction of the sci fi world more wonderful than I expected.

The story, however, is less than original and the script makes even Sigourney Weaver (the iconic Ellen Ripley in the Alien films) seem pretty lame. As critics have said, if you've seen Dances With Wolves, you basically know the story, although setting the action among an alien race in a fictional world allows for a different twist on the ending. Given that Dances With Wolves came out twenty years ago, perhaps Avatar's creator, James Cameron, can be forgiven for re-telling an age-old story to a new generation.

While this may not seem like a rave review, I urge you to see Avatar, in 3D IMAX if possible. I trust you'll find it a dazzling adventure for your senses, if not the most thought-provoking experience for your mind.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Rorschach Test

When I was (briefly) a graduate student at Columbia University's Teachers College, in the fall of 1971, I took a course in film. My professor had a favorite aphorism—"Every act of communication is a Rorschach test." To illustrate the phenomenon, he used a then newly-released film, Millhouse: A White Comedy, a documentary about President Nixon's political career from 1946 through his election as President in 1968 (the title is based on Nixon's middle name, Milhous). People who hated Nixon, my professor said, thought the film presented a brilliant satiric expose of the President's foibles, while those who liked and supported Nixon felt that it showcased the President's greatness.

In a Rorschach test, the subject finds in neutral inkblots those images that reflect his or her personality and beliefs. In reacting to various types of communication, my professor believed that, as with the Rorschach, people find what they're predisposed to find. This view leads to the rather bleak conclusion that it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to change people's minds by a single act of communication. Case in point—last night's State of the Union address.

If you read the "reviews" of the speech in today's papers, bearing my professor's aphorism in mind, it's almost comical to see the reactions of various individuals. Everything divides along party and ideological lines. In The New Republic, Jonathan Chait opines that "Obama effectively projected his personality, often to the detriment of the opposition," and concludes that "[s]temming the Democratic panic was the primary task of this speech. We’ll soon see if it succeeded. I’d bet that it did." Fred Barnes, of The Weekly Standard, begs to differ. He writes that "Obama delivered the least fresh State of the Union address I’ve ever heard . . . filled with old ideas, campaign cliches, and frequent use of [the] personal pronoun, 'I.'"

To be fair, some reviews and editorials were more nuanced. People do try to be objective. But can they actually succeed? I have no wish to weigh in here with my own take on the speech. But, though I try mightily to be fair and to listen to politicians with an open mind, I suspect I'm as likely as anyone to let my political and personal biases affect my reaction. Still, over the years, my awareness of the Rorschach effect has at least made me conscious of the danger and caused me to struggle against it. Seemingly, awareness of bias is the first step toward overcoming it. Let's hope.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Selling my parents' Florida condo has been a long haul. It started with the pain of cleaning up the apartment after my mother died last June and my father moved to residential care. Then my sisters and I had to confront the agony of the Miami real estate market. The prospects for a quick sale appeared bleak. We weren't expecting miracles.

Our realtor, while realistic, was surprisingly enthusiastic. One reason—we were selling the unit furnished and she loved my parents' taste. She convinced us that buyers would feel the same way and that we should price the apartment accordingly. We decided it was worth a try. We could always lower the price if it didn't sell in a month or two.

All the while, maintenance costs had to be paid. During the next several months, we had exactly one nibble, which didn't pan out. We lowered the price. Still no interest. An air conditioner drain broke and water began leaking into the bathroom ceiling. When we had it repaired, the air conditioning serviceman warned us that the entire system was old and could fail at any time. By then, we'd lowered the price still further and were asking substantially below what my parents' paid for the condo less than two years earlier.

At its bargain-basement price, the apartment began to attract some interest and, finally, we received and accepted an offer. After what seemed an eternity but in fact was only about a month, we closed on the apartment yesterday. I'm happy that my father will actually receive some proceeds from the sale and relieved to have finally achieved closure on an unhappy chapter in my parents' life. While my mother always intended to repaint and re-carpet, her health never permitted her to undertake those projects. But with a little TLC and my parents' nice furniture, the condo could be a lovely home for the new owners.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Extraordinary Measures, or Not

I love my dog, Cosmo, and because I love him, I don't want him to suffer. As he's gotten older, he's developed various ailments, though surprisingly few for his advanced age of twelve—a seizure disorder, bad knees, ears prone to infection. Lately, he's added another complaint to his roster, pancreatitis. So far, he's only had a few mild episodes, months apart and lasting less than 24 hours. But today, I was confronted with a classic medical dilemma—whether the treatment recommended would be worse than the disease itself.

Here's what happened—I had an appointment with Cosmo's new vet (see my earlier post, "Vetting the Vet") to check Cosmo's blood. Cosmo had required an increase in seizure medication eight weeks earlier and the tests were intended to make sure his liver was still functioning well at the higher dose. As luck would have it, the day before the appointment, Cosmo showed signs of digestive distress. He woke us up in the morning by throwing up, then acted listless and weak. He didn't seem to be in pain, just tired and lacking in energy. I didn't offer him food since I wanted his stomach to settle down, and in any case he seemed uninteresting in eating, but he drank some water and seemed to be resting comfortably.

He had a quiet day and by evening seemed much better. The next morning, when I saw the vet, I described the symptoms. I was feeling slightly guilty, since earlier tests had revealed that Cosmo's blood had a high fat content, which can bring on attacks of pancreatitis. I had attempted to switch him to a low-fat dog food, but when Cosmo didn't like it, I relented and gave him his regular food. After all, I reasoned, food is one of the great pleasures of Cosmo's life. I didn't want to deprive him of enjoying his meals.

I confessed this to the vet, who didn't seem overly concerned, or maybe he wasn't really listening. He took Cosmo's blood and promised to let me know the results as soon as he received them. When he called first thing this morning, he sounded alarmed. Cosmo's amylase and lipase levels were high, he said, suggestive of pancreatitis. Cosmo really needed to be hospitalized, where he could be placed on IV fluids and nutrients. Further, the vet felt Cosmo needed an ultrasound to confirm the diagnosis and told me Cosmo should not be fed for four days, in order to give his pancreas a rest. This was a lot for me to take in, especially before I'd had my morning coffee.

It was also a lot to contemplate in terms of cost. I had just spent an astronomical amount the prior day on the office visit and blood tests. Now, I would be out thousands of dollars for hospitalization and ultrasound testing. More importantly, though, I thought the experience would probably kill Cosmo. He's old, he's fragile, he doesn't like us to leave him. To hospitalize him, unless it were absolutely necessary, seemed like cruel and unusual punishment.

I expressed my reservations to the vet. He urged me at the very least to refrain from feeding Cosmo for two days and to bring him in for a subcutaneous injection of fluids. I said I'd think about that. Then, like the obsessive researcher that I am, I began checking the Internet.

What I found is not that the vet made incorrect suggestions, but rather that his treatment plan comprised a one-size-fits-all draconian remedy, more appropriate for a dog with an acute case of pancreatitis than Cosmo, with his much milder version. IV fluids would be indicated if a dog were seriously dehydrated, which Cosmo was not. Refraining from feeding might be necessary if symptoms continued, but Cosmo's symptoms had abated after twelve hours. An ultrasound is a good tool for diagnosing pancreatitis, but since I'm going to proceed on the assumption that Cosmo did have a mild attack of pancreatitis, I don't really need a test to confirm that. 

I don't regret the expensive blood tests. They made it clear that I should do everything reasonably possible to lower the amount of fat in Cosmo's diet. But the measures proposed by the vet seem out of proportion to Cosmo's actual situation. And to make matters even more complicated, my Internet research revealed that while withholding food has long been the standard of practice in treating pancreatitis, newer information suggests that once the dog is interested in eating, frequent small portions of low-fat food should be offered. So the advice to starve Cosmo for several days may have been outdated.

Worst of all, I find myself suspicious of my vet's motives. He stood to make a lot of money if I allowed him to treat Cosmo as he originally advised. For now, I plan to limit Cosmo to the lowest-fat foods possible and watch him carefully. I want to do everything I can to keep him happy and healthy, and to make sure he doesn't suffer. Hopefully, extraordinary measures won't be necessary.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Hard Times

On my daily walks, I pass a little hotel set right on Biscayne Bay. The hotel has always had a bit of an "island" feel, like something out of a Jimmy Buffet song, with a thatch-roofed restaurant and a funky but charming vibe. Lately, though, the hotel has become not so much funky as run-down and distinctly lacking in charm.

Like many establishments, the hotel is suffering due to the current economic downturn, compounded by the fact that a new, inexperienced owner purchased it at a high price just before the economy tanked and is now struggling to keep things going. I'm sorry that business has fallen off, but I'm especially sad to see the property deteriorating before my eyes. I understand that with limited funds, major improvements are out of the question. But I wonder why the staff hasn't been instructed to take care of minor problems expeditiously. At the restaurant, a torn shade dangles forlornly. Outdoor decks, which once provided lovely spots for enjoying the view, remain unswept, with rotting seagrapes dotting their wooden flooring. And by the sandy beach, lounge chairs desperately need repair or replacement.

This afternoon, I passed a broken umbrella, laid unceremoniously on its side, and a light fixture drooping dangerously, its wires exposed. Both have been there for days, a depressing testament to poor management, but also to hard times.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Television Worth Watching

Television has long been regarded as a mostly low-brow form of entertainment. But while there's still a lot of bad television, a quiet revolution has occurred, fueled by cable networks like HBO and Showtime, as well as by the willingness of talented actors to work on the small screen. Not only does television now feature many excellent programs; I would argue that a well-made television series has the capacity to develop its story and characters more effectively than a two-hour film.

Until George Clooney crossed over to become a movie star after playing a leading role in ER, the long-running NBC drama, television actors almost never went on to successful film or stage careers. And leading film and stage actors rarely deigned to appear on television (other than the late-night talk shows). To do so would have jeopardized their reputations.

All that has changed. Now, actors who gain a television following are sought after for film roles. And film celebrities often choose to appear on television, both in single episodes of ongoing series and as the stars in series. Take Damages, the terrific FX drama series that will start its third season on Monday. With Glenn Close as the Machiavellian law firm head, the show is hard to resist. Television also attracts great writers these days, so the dialogue is sharp and savvy and the plot twists are clever. William Hurt signed on as a regular character during the second season, adding his talent to a roster that includes Ted Danson and Rose Byrne.

HBO has created notable television dramas—The Sopranos, The Wire, and Six-Feet Under, to name a few. E. and I are currently hooked on Big Love, which follows the lives of a polygamous Mormon family. We missed the first couple of seasons, so we rented them on Netflix. After an enjoyable marathon of viewing, we've caught up and can now watch Season Four on a weekly basis. I find it particularly entertaining to go the Netflix route and watch an entire season over a condensed period of time. That way, I can really immerse myself in the story and can follow the characters as they grow and change. But now that Season Four has started, I'm too impatient to wait for the entire season to be available, so I'll have to take my Big Love in small weekly doses.

For a long-running series to keep its audience, the characters really do have to develop and the plot has to remain interesting. Not long ago, I wrote about Battlestar Galactica on this blog. While I did enjoy the series for a while, ultimately I found the characters too predictable and the plots too contrived, so I stopped watching. So far, I haven't tired of Big Love, with its appealing mix of over-the-top characters (two of whom are played by Bruce Dern and Mary Kay Place) and everyday concerns that don't seem all that far from my own.

I can't help but reflect that, as the quality of at least some television programming has improved, the fortunes of American theater seem to be declining. Perhaps the two phenomena aren't completely disconnected. Given the money in television and film, it's reasonable to believe that many talented actors, writers, and directors opt for those media, rather than engage in the struggle to make a go of it in the theater.

I used to fantasize that if Beethoven had been born into my generation, he would have become a rock star rather than a classical musician. In the same vein, I imagine that if the great stage actress, Sarah Bernhardt, were around today, she might be playing the President in the Fox television series, 24, a role that actually went to Cherry Jones, an actress who made her name on the stage but has since become famous worldwide for her portrayal of President Allison Taylor.

I should end by mentioning that even Public Television, which in recent years has seemed more focused on fundraising than first-rate television, has revitalized its Masterpiece Theatre, renaming it simply Masterpiece. Tonight, PBS begins airing a new version of Jane Austen's "Emma," which has received rave reviews. So, stop reading this and go check out your local television listings. You might actually find something worth watching.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Sugar and Spice and Everything . . . Chocolate!

On the theory that it's never too early for chocolate, a friend and I decided to spend this morning at the annual Chocolate Festival at Fairchild Garden, Coral Gables' wonderful botanic garden. The Festival's theme related only indirectly to the Garden's main mission of preserving tropical plants (chocolate is derived, after all, from the cacao plant), but Fairchild provided a lovely setting for savoring chocolates and other delicacies.

Once again, South Florida surprised me with the variety and sophistication of its offerings. Local purveyors displayed fine chocolates, many featuring whimsical designs and unique flavor combinations. An array of non-chocolate products was also on hand, from organic breads and crackers to aromatic teas and spices. Different national foods were for sale as well—Ecuadoran chocolate bars came packaged in colorful cloth cases that could later be used for glasses; Mexican churros beckoned; and Hungarian cinnamon rolls, prepared on site, filled the air with their intoxicating aroma. 

There was only one drawback for me—it turns out that it can be too early for chocolate. Although free samples were available at virtually every booth, I found I had no appetite for chocolate at 10:30 in the morning. From past experience, I knew the price of indulging would most likely be a sugar headache, which quelled my urge to consume. My friend had no such qualms, however, so I had the vicarious pleasure of watching her enjoy everything from organic cold-pressed chocolate (who knew?) to chocolate a l'orange to a chocolate maple truffle.

I did take cards from all the nearby chocolate shops, so I can purchase their chocolates and enjoy them when the time is right—maybe in the evening, with a nice cup of decaf coffee.

Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Over the Bounding Main

Looking out my window on a warm January day in Miami, I can see many little sailboats scudding along the waters of Biscayne Bay. Most are sunfish or similar craft. There's a brisk breeze, perfect for catching the wind in the sails, perfect for enjoying the sun and the water, perfect for focusing the mind on the physical task of sailing.

It all sounds so idyllic, exactly the kind of activity I'd love to pursue. If only I didn't get dreadfully seasick. My tendency toward motion sickness is so severe that I only have to think about being on a sailboat to become queasy. Even the experience of motion in an IMAX film is enough to bring on waves of nausea. When driving on curvy roads, I'm prone to carsickness. And reading in a car or bus is out of the question.

Boats are the worst, though. Even cruise ships pose a threat to my equilibrium. Some people find big ships so stable that they don't have a problem. But after my son returned from a Caribbean cruise on a 2000-passenger ship during calm seas, he cautioned me not to believe people when they tell me I wouldn't notice the motion. "Those ships move, Mom," he said. His warning was enough to make me rule out cruising as a vacation option.

I have enjoyed a few experiences on boats. I loved rowing and canoeing as a teenager. During college, I spent a summer at a girls camp in Maine teaching water-skiing. The job required that I drive a little Boston Whaler motorboat. At first I was fearful, both of the responsibility of towing children behind me and of possible motion sickness, but I wound up reveling in the thrust of the outboard motor as the Whaler sliced through the glassy surface of the lake. The steady motion of the motorboat didn't cause the nausea produced by the gentle wave motion on a sailboat, and the smooth lake waters posed little problem even when I stopped the boat to help the skiers. In the ocean, however, it's a different story. Once, when I was ten, my father took me deep sea fishing. I was fine while the boat was powering its way out to sea, but once the engine was turned off, I quickly succumbed to stomach distress.

I've tried sea bands and Dramamine, to minimal effect, and even experimented at home with a scopolamine patch, but I didn't like the way it made me feel. I guess I'm a landlubber for life. If anybody has a surefire treatment for motion sickness, please let me know. Meanwhile, I'll enjoy watching the boats sail by from my vantage point on dry solid land.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Death at Sea

Tarpon, one of the species killed during Florida's cold snap

For several days this month, it was uncommonly cold in Florida. The national news featured interviews with citrus growers who voiced concern about hard freezes and the implications for their crops, but little was reported about an even more serious calamity taking place offshore—thousands of fish were dying of the cold.

During brief cold snaps, fish that can't survive water temperatures below 50 degrees usually head for deeper water, where temperatures are more moderate. This time, though, the frigid weather persisted for longer than usual and a strong northerly wind pushed cold water into the deeper channels and canals, preventing susceptible fish from escaping the cold.

In an article in the Miami Herald, Jerry Ault, professor of marine biology and fisheries at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School, called the situation "[a]mazingly scary. It's hard to get a grip on the number of mortalities," he said, "but the effects will be felt for years to come."

It's frightening to contemplate how much havoc a relatively brief and minor change in temperature can wreak on the environment. It's chastening to recall that while fish all around me were expiring, I was complaining because friends and family who visited during the cold spell couldn't enjoy the normal pleasures of Florida—swimming, sunning, and dining al fresco. And ultimately, it's sobering to realize how little control we humans have over the forces of nature.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bushmaster Phobia

I spent this morning walking through the mangroves on Key Biscayne until I reached a deserted beach with gorgeous views of Miami. I was accompanied by friends who had just returned from a trip to Peru, where their explorations ranged from the Amazon rain forest to the mountainous region of Machu Picchu. At Machu Picchu and in the nearby Incan city of Cuzco, the main hazard they faced was altitude sickness. But in the rain forest, the danger came from snakes.

There are a number of venomous snakes in the Peruvian rain forest, but according to my friends' guide, the most virulent among them is the bushmaster, the largest pit viper in the world. The guide said that a bite from a bushmaster would result in almost instant death. In fact, he said, his father had died from such a bite.

Picture yourself walking through the rain forest, having such a conversation. Would you feel a tad anxious? Then imagine how you might react if you asked the guide how the bushmaster attacks its victims and he told you, as he told my friends, that it strikes from a tree limb above as the victim passes underneath. The guide joked to our friends, "That's why I always go first." Small comfort.

I'm not normally fearful of snakes. I've held non-venomous snakes and enjoyed their cool dry skin as they twined themselves around my arm. Like most people, though, I have a healthy respect for poisonous snakes. But the bushmaster seems to be in a league of its own—striking without warning, its bite almost invariably fatal.

Bushmasters have become increasingly rare as their habitat shrinks. My friends saw nary a poisonous snake during their time in the Amazon, let alone a bushmaster. They enjoyed their rain forest experience immensely. I found it fascinating to hear about and I'm looking forward to seeing their photos. But that's about as close as I want to get to Peru's rain forest. Worrier that I am, if a snake didn't get me I'd probably keel over from anxiety alone.

The bushmaster is now high on my list of reptiles to avoid. Closer to home, of course, I worry about alligators. As we made our way back from the beach alongside the wetlands where the mangroves grow, I kept an eye out for any hungry gators that might be lurking nearby. At least they don't hang out in trees.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Here and There

I may be in Florida this January, but for the past few days I've virtually been in Massachusetts. I'm obsessed with the special Senatorial election in the Bay State and have been following events avidly. While I couldn't literally attend the Scott Brown or Martha Coakley rallies yesterday, I did manage to see and hear the action through the wonders of modern technology.

This obviously doesn't come as a great revelation—with streaming video on the Internet, email, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and webcams, the world has become ever more accessible. Twenty-somethings understandably take this for granted, but I continue to be astounded by my ever-increasing ability to be there while I'm still here.

Just since 2005, when I began dividing my time between Boston and Miami, the ability to remain connected has grown exponentially. Early on, I discovered that I could listen live online to WBUR, Boston's public radio station. It was both eerie and satisfying to hear the Boston weather update—rain changing to sleet, high in the mid-thirties—while looking out my window at Biscayne Bay. However, most of the Boston radio stations didn't offer the "listen live" feature back in 2005, so I wasn't able to get the local sports talk on WEEI or hear Margery Eagan and Jim Braude discuss local issues on WTKK. As for television, while the local network affiliates had websites, their video feeds were terrible to non-existent.

All that has changed. Starting with NECN, the New England cable news channel, videos have improved dramatically. Yesterday, I was able to access the same political news reports seen in Boston not only from NECN, but also from the Boston ABC, NBC, and CBS affiliates. And most of the Boston radio stations now offer free "listen live" options. If I want to hear Howie Carr talk with listeners on WRKO, I can do that. Ditto for Dan Rea on WBZ.

Online news aggregators have also helped put news about the election at my fingertips. At RealClearPolitics, I get immediate access to articles about the contest from news sources all over the country, plus a link to the latest poll results.

At the rate things are going, it won't be long before 3D technology allows me to attend campaign events virtually and feel as if I'm right in the middle of the crowd. For now, though, I'm happy I can watch reporters dishing out local stories there in Boston from a thousand miles away here in Miami.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Crying All the Way to the Bank

I have it from a reliable source, Deadline Hollywood (run by the redoubtable Nikki Finke, subject of a July 2009 profile in the New York Times) that Conan O'Brien will receive $40 million in a settlement with NBC, allowing him to leave the network and go to another broadcaster, where he can compete with Jay Leno in the late night spot. And here I've been feeling kind of sorry for O'Brien, whose dream of hosting The Tonight Show has been cut short after a measly seven months.

In focusing on the infantile public conduct of the dispute by seemingly all sides (including the clueless NBC execs—see "Executive Leaps to Leno's Defense," in last Thursday's New York Times), I'd somehow forgotten about the big bucks involved here. The amounts are truly staggering. These guys make a lot of money. No wonder Leno owns a gazillion cars and reportedly drives a different one to work each day. Take that, you fans slogging to work through sleet and snow on public transportation. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

As for O'Brien, the trauma of moving to Los Angeles from New York City to assume his Tonight Show hosting duties was softened by the purchase of a Brentwood mansion for $10.5 million. In an Open Letter to the "People of Earth," O'Brien at least had the grace to acknowledge that "[f]or 17 years, I've been getting paid to do what I love most and, in a world with real problems, I've been absurdly lucky." Yes, Conan, you have.
Speaking of absurdity, you may wonder why I watch late night television. Usually, I don't. But the temptation to see these overpaid guys slug it out in public this past week got the better of me. I found it compelling and (I confess) amusing to watch grown men take shots at one another, especially since this was only television and not real life. Of course, our elected leaders would never behave like this . . .

Friday, January 15, 2010

Time for Bloggers Anonymous?

You know that old saying about alcoholics falling off the wagon? They can be rolling along quite nicely, then slip off the wagon just once, and it's downhill from there. Turns out a person can fall off the blogging wagon, too.

Last Thursday, January 7th, my son, Alex, was visiting. That morning, we drove to Coconut Creek, about an hour north of Miami,  to spend some time with my aunt and uncle. By the time we returned home, it was late afternoon and I still had to walk Cosmo, shop, and cook dinner. When I'm only cooking for E. and myself, I can get away with throwing something together or even a "fend for yourself" supper, but this was Alex's last evening with us and I felt the motherly urge to cook him a decent meal.

By the time I shopped, prepared the meal, and we ate it, I was pooped. Even though E., as always, took care of the cleanup, I felt that I just didn't have a blog in me. So, I decided to skip what had become a daily ritual (except for Saturday, my blog day of rest). After all, I reasoned, writing my blog shouldn't feel like onerous homework. Rather, I should enjoy it as a regular practice that, like meditation, could expand my consciousness and enrich my life. I told myself I would resume writing the next day.

Friday came and went. Alex returned to New York. Somehow, I failed to find time for my blog. I decided I would skip Saturday as usual, but promised myself I'd get back to writing on Sunday. By then, friends from Boston had arrived in town. On Sunday, they joined us and other friends for lunch and a concert. When I returned home, stimulated by the concert but dejected over the Patriots' loss in the playoffs (which had occurred while we listened to Grieg and Mozart), emails awaited, the Sunday Times Crossword beckoned, and several new Netflix tempted me.

I rationalized that the break from writing would give new ideas a chance to gestate. I convinced myself I  enjoyed having extra time available to spend on my breast cancer website and other projects. But I was deluding myself. The truth is that the person who gets the most out of my blog is me. So, why would I persist in not writing it for more than a week?

I don't have a good answer, only the observation that such perverse behavior seems part of the human condition. It's certainly part of my makeup. Sometimes, though, people who fall off the wagon manage to pick themselves up, get back on, and stay there. Hopefully, I'll be one of those. If so, you'll be the first to know.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Something Big to Worry About

While I'm busy worrying about small things, like arriving at the airport on time, E. usually focuses on the big concerns—asteroids, sunspots, and the like. Maybe he's got the right idea. Perhaps the reason I'm so anxious about the small things is that I don't spend enough time worrying about the true catastrophes that could befall the human race.

One big worry industrial nations face is our dwindling supply of oil. But with electric battery technology developing at a rapid pace, we soon may not have to depend on oil as a fuel source. Instead, we'll need lithium, a rare metal that's an essential ingredient in the lithium-ion batteries used to power electric vehicles.

The current issue of Technology Review features a fascinating and alarming photo essay on the subject, entitled "The Lithium Rush." The problem is this—the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat, is located in southwest Bolivia and contains 50 to 70% of the world's lithium reserves. This potentially gives Bolivia a tremendous amount of power to control a vital source of energy. Bolivia's current government, under the leadership of leftist President Evo Morales, intends to retain control of the lithium reserves and could use them for its political ends.

So, just as the West emerges from its dependence on Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich nations, we may find ourselves beholden to a landlocked South American country with a government hostile toward the United States.

Another day, another worry. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Prevention Fatigue

It's exhausting trying to stay healthy. There's a vast amount of conflicting advice about preventing various illnesses. Prevent one thing and you're likely to cause another.

Take alcohol. Is it life threatening or life extending? That seems to depend on whether, if you're a woman, you're more worried about breast cancer or heart disease, since recent studies strongly indicate that as few as a couple of drinks a week can increase the risk of breast cancer, while other studies show that drinking moderately can prevent heart disease. To further complicate matters, there are studies that suggest the effect of alcohol on breast cancer risk may be offset by folic acid. But how much folic acid? There's evidence that too much folic acid can be carcinogenic. Beware.

Then there's the weight issue. Many believe, and studies support, the claim that it's unhealthy to be overweight. But how overweight? Apparently, being too thin isn't good either, at least when it comes to osteoporosis—thin women are most at risk. So, what's a girl to do? Should I gain weight to protect my bones or keep the weight off to prevent various diseases, including diabetes?

Speaking of diabetes, the latest news is that coffee can help prevent it. But before you up your intake, consider that coffee is bad for reflux. And if you like sugar in your coffee, that opens up a whole other area of concern. Sugar seems bad for us in so many ways, including increasing the risk of diabetes, yet it tastes so good. But trying to prevent diabetes by resorting to artificial sweeteners isn't necessarily a good choice, either. Ever since warnings years ago about a link between saccharin and cancer, I've felt uneasy sweetening my food with anything other than sugar or honey.

It's exhausting scrubbing each lettuce leaf in the hope of avoiding ecoli. It's tiring reading labels to make sure there are no trans fats or other bad ingredients in my food. And it's downright soporific keeping track of all the latest studies in order to know what preventive action to take next.

My prescription—enjoy an occasional glass of wine, take a little folic acid, have that mug of coffee in the morning, and indulge in an occasional cookie or slice of cake. Above all, don't feel guilty about not being perfect. Easier said than done.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Wood Chips

Yesterday, as I stepped on the elevator in my building, I smelled the faint odor of wood chips. Suddenly, I was ten years old and in my house on suburban Long Island, watching my pet hamster run on his wheel. That quickly, a whiff of wood chips brought me back fifty years to remind me of my small furry pet.

A fascinating chain of associations can occur when an odor connects in our brain to some long-ago memory. The scent of wood chips in the air evoked the memory of holding my hamster in my hands and the sensation of his gentle nibbles at my finger tips. I remembered cleaning out his cage and putting in fresh wood chips. And I vividly recalled carrying the cute little rodent down the street to my friend's house to show him to her mother, who shrieked in fright and leaped onto her piano bench with impressive agility.

What I can't remember is the hamster's name, if he ever had one, or exactly what happened to him. I do recall that he escaped from his cage and that I searched for him high and low. I don't believe I ever found him, dead or alive. But apparently, after all these years, his memory still spins around in my brain, much as I imagine him eternally spinning his wheel in his wood-chip-scented cage in the rec room of my split level house on Long Island.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

What I'm Resolving Not to Do in the New Year

I promise not to make any resolutions, New Year's or otherwise. For me, resolving to do something ensures that it will never get done, or not for long anyway. This applies to big things and small, trivial and profound.

If I promise myself I'll be a kinder human being, after a few days of holding back every negative thought, I'm bound to explode at some minor infraction by Cosmo, E., or even a perfect stranger. If I make a more specific resolution, like a pledge to go to the gym three days a week, the first time I slip off the exercise wagon I'm done for, never to return again.

You get the picture—attempting to accomplish things via sheer will power doesn't do the trick. Taking things one day at a time seems to work better. So I offer this short blog entry without resolving that I'll write another one tomorrow. I'll just take each day as it comes.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A Very Short History of a Very Short History

Coral Gables City Hall
I always thought of South Florida as a place that worships the new—sleek new buildings, fancy new cars, new gated communities. And I thought of the people who live in South Florida as old—retirees wanting to spend their "golden" years in the sunshine state. Since I began spending time in Miami, though, I've been pleasantly surprised to find myself living in a vibrant part of the state with no more retirees than other parts of the country. And I've been struck by the pride that residents take in preserving their history.

Just to the north of Miami, in Broward and Palm Beach Counties, older people do make up a larger proportion of the population. But the demographic of Miami-Dade County  resembles that of other metropolitan areas—families, young professionals, empty nesters, retirees, and college students. The number of local colleges and universities has also surprised me. I knew about the University of Miami, in Coral Gables, but I had never heard of Florida International University before moving here. Nor did I know about Miami Dade College, which educates 170,000 students on eight campuses, making it the largest institution of higher education in the United States.

Until the twentieth century, little development took place in Florida. Large-scale building started in Coral Gables during the 1920s and in Miami Beach during the 1930s. I hadn't expected people to cherish buildings erected so recently, but I was wrong. The very lack of a long history seems to have made those places with any historical significance all the more important to residents.

My first revelation was South Beach, where preservation efforts in the 1980s led to restoration of the marvelous Art Deco and Streamline Moderne architecture that make the neighborhood distinctive. Since then, I've grown to love Coral Gables, known to its residents as the City Beautiful, which was developed during the land boom of the 1920s by a local entrepreneur, George Merrick. The Gables' achitecture is almost entirely Mediterranean Revival Style and the character of the community is rigorously safeguarded by its Historical Resources Department.

In Miami-Dade County, where so much is so new, residents take their history surprisingly seriously and work hard to preserve it. The effort not only creates a sense of connection to Florida's past but provides the area with beautiful and interesting neighborhoods.

N.B. Before the arrival of Europeans, the Tequesta Indians inhabited the area now known as Miami-Dade for a thousand years.