Monday, December 17, 2012

Déjà vu

"We were the first human beings who would never see anything for the first time. We stare at the wonders of the world, dull-eyed, underwhelmed. Mona Lisa, the Pyramids, the Empire State Building....I can't recall a single amazing thing I have seen firsthand that I didn't immediately reference to a movie or TV show. A f*****commercial. You know the awful singsong of the blasé: Seeeeeen it. I've literally seen it all, and the worst thing is: The secondhand experience is always better. The image is crisper, the view is keener, the camera angle and the soundtrack manipulate my emotions in a way reality can't anymore. I don't know that we are actually human at this point, those of us who are like most of us, who grew up with TV and movies and now the Internet. If we are betrayed, we know the words to say; when a loved one dies we know the words to say. If we want to play the stud or the smart-ass or the fool, we know the words to say. We are all working from the same dog-eared script.
   It's a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless Automat of characters.
   And if all of us are play-acting, there can be no such thing as a soul mate, because we don't have genuine souls....." (Flynn, pp. 72-3)

This is an excerpt from the best selling murder/mystery, psychological thriller "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn.  The author's insight into the souls of her characters (and their dysfunctional marriage in our arguably dysfunctional society) makes a terrific read.  It is somehow light and dark at the same time. A witty, absorbing journey through the minds of a husband and wife who move from New York City to Missouri.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Eat, Pray, Love, Marry

I actually enjoyed "the sequel" to "Eat, Pray, Love" more than the original. Once again, fraught with emotional turmoil Gilbert writes her way through her crises. However, in this book, she has aged and become more mature--if not, still terrified of marriage. The book is called "Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage."

Her comments on love and desire are interesting. "The Buddha taught that all suffering is rooted in desire. Don't we all know this to be true? Any of us who have ever desired something and then didn't get it (or worse, got it and subsequently lost it) know full well the suffering of which the Buddha spoke.....As soon as you want somebody-really want him-it is as though you have taken a surgical needle and sutured your happiness to the skin of the other person...." (Gilbert, 96)

As she pursued the history of marriage in an attempt to make peace with it, she mentioned the "Dads and Cads theory." Women prefer to settle down and marry monogamous, dependable men men who are likely to be good fathers. When women are looking for an affair, they seek the "cad" the sinfully good looking but morally inept types. Either way, evolutionary biology wins. If the "cad" fathers her child she produces good looking children, who /have an increased likelihood of wooing mating partners and passing down their genes. If the "dad" fathers her child she has a dependable help mate to raise the child. And if the cad fathers the child, and the dad raises it, life still goes on.

I had read of the "Dads and Cads" theory, but had not known the catchy slogan. Apparently when women are ovulating (most fertile) they seek the bad boys (ie, the cad) but when women are not ovulating the "dad"-making men are more appealing. There is even an adjacent theory that extends to women on oral contraception. Their bodies think they are pregnant, so their hormones tell them to seek a "dad" style mate. I even read one article once, that advised women contemplating marriage to avoid hormonal manipulation (ie. oral contraceptives) to see if they were still attracted to him without modern pharmacology. Cynical, but interesting views on marriage in these studies and in the book (which I found more interesting than the book that launched the movie).

For more reading on "Dads and Cads" see below:
photo from

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Where We Belong: Adoption and the Meaning of Family

I like non-fiction. I love fiction, and Emily Griffin's reads are great chic-lit! "Where We Belong" is about a NYC woman who opens her apartment door to find the daughter that she gave up for adoption.  The yuppie woman and her estranged biological daughters journey to and through each other is an entertaining yet provocative read.

At one point the daughter says she grew up with all the cliche, such as:: "Never forget for a single minute, you didn't grow under my heart but in it." She pays attention to the media: the celebrities who adopt, and the ones who were adopted. Here she notes celebrities who were adopted themselves" "Steve Jobs, two presidents, including Bill Clinton..two first ladies, Faith Hill AND Tim McGraw (who happened to also be married- how cool is that?), Darryl McDaniels from Run-DMC and as my mother sometimes pointed out, Moses and Jesus." (Griffin, p. 44)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Can Botox make you Happy?

A fascinating study on depressed people who had their frowning muscles paralyzed with botulinum toxin (botox) showed that it made them happier. Physically unable to use their frowning muscles, they lived the adage: which came first the chicken or the egg? Does sadness come from the frown or does the frown come from sadness?

We have all heard that people with a positive attitude fare better in life, health, and love. Now, there may be cosmetic assistance available to those who need help maintaining that positive attitude. The findings were originally published in The Journal of Psychiatric Research and reported in Scientific American Mind (Sep/Oct 2012). The placebo group had a 9 percent decrease in depressive symptoms, the Botox injected group had a 47 percent decrease in depressive symptoms.

If you physically couldn't frown you might be a happier person. Imagine what would happen if you actually smiled. Kenny Rogers may have something after all. Smile, be happy, and have a great day!

Making the Periodic Table Interesting?

Can the Periodic Table, that we studied in high school chemistry class be made interesting? Maybe if the author of "The Disappearing Spoon" was your high school teacher! Unfortunately, Sam Kean was not my high school teacher, as he is closer to my own age.

The element with the most colorful history on the periodic table, quite literally according to the author, was antimony. "Nebuchadnezzar, the king who built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in the sixth century BC, used a noxious antimony-lead paint to paint his walls yellow. Not coinicidentally, he soon went mad, sleeping outdoors in the fields and eating grass like an ox.....Antimony pills also won fame as laxatives. Unlike modern pills, these hard antimony pills didn't dissolve in the intestines, and the pills were considered so valuable that people rooted through fecal matter to retrieve them. Some lucky families even passed down laxatives from father to son. Perhaps fro this reason, antimony found heavy work as a medicine, although it's actually toxic. Mozart probably died from taking too much to combat a severe fever. " (Kean, p. 22)

The woman who discovered that nuclei have shells and that electrons behave in a manner to reach a "stable" number was a scientist who was permitted to hang around science only because of her chemistry professor husband. It wasn't until after her Nobel prize that a university finally offered her a paying job. Even then a San Diego newspaper greeted her big day with the headline "S.D. Mother Wins Nobel Prize." (Kean, p. 31)

Fighting the virus carried by Man's best friend

Man's best friend the dog, is the most common carrier of history's most dreaded virus: rabies. Although very few deaths occur from rabies in the US thanks to post-exposure vaccination, fifty thousand people die worldwide from this horrid disease. A raging and innovative virus, it does not travel through the bloodstream (where it might be detected by our immune systems) but travels slowly but surely through the nervous system to drive us quite literally crazy before death.

The preventative vaccination of our dog population has not prevented rabies in the US but given us the proverbial buffer between this disease and the human population. In the US raccoons and bats are still common culprits that serve as a vector between the virus and our vulnerable nervous systems. Humans are considered an accidental exposure in this disease as we, personally, rarely spread it to others before our demise if we are infected. A rabid, sharp toothed creature on the other hand does a much better job at keeping the virus alive--infecting many before it dies a grisly death.

Many of the most lethal diseases are zoonotic, they originate in animals and then cross from species to species. Measles came from a disease in cattle, influenza from pigs, smallpox from rodents, the plague and typhus from the rat. "With most zoonotic leaps in disease, animal contact is the spark, but urbanization is the bone-dry tinder" (Wasik and Murphy, 71)

As an emergency nurse, I gave many doses of post-exposure rabies vaccine. Yes, I knew that the disease was brutal and always fatal. (Since I last administered the vaccine, some rare people have survived with the help of modern medicine) I did not fully appreciate the bravery that Louis Pasteur (he, of the pasteurization fame) and his assistants as they risked their lives, literally, to obtain serum from the jaws of salivating rabid dogs to make the vaccine. It is said they kept a gun handy, so that if one of the three was bit, his friend/assistant could shoot him quickly before the disease ravaged him mad. A virus too small for the scientist to see under the microscope--yet he was convinced he could make a vaccine for this unseen killer. The lives that Frenchman has saved!

After the news release of the news (at the turn of the 20th century) that there was a vaccine for this dreaded disease, three American boys in New Jersey were bit by a rabid dog. The news of their plight was in the newspapers, to be facing certain death when a vaccine was across the ocean. Many readers sent in money that enabled the boys to journey to Monsieur Pasteur's lab to be cured. Am I jaded in wondering if the public would be able to mount such a campaign to effect a cure for three such American youth today?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

You've Come a Long Way Baby! Or Have You?

Tantalizing bits from this book on human DNA include:

1) "...humans have ten times more microorganisms feasting inside us than we do cells" (Kean, p. 301)
2) "The name HUMAN Genome Project even became something of a misnomer, because it turned out that 8 percent of our genome isn't human at all: a quarter billion of our base pairs are old virus genes. Human genes actually make up less that 2 percent of our total DNA, so by this measure we're four times more virus than human." (Kean, p. 302)
3)  Zipf's law: "It says that the most common word in a language appears roughly twice as often as the second most common word, roughly three times as often as the third most common, a hundred times more common than the hudrendth most common, and so on. In English, THE accounts for 7 percent of words, OF about half that, AND a third of that, all way down to obscurities like grawlix...These distributions hold just as true for modern Hindi, Spanish, or Russian." Zipf's law can be applied to music, city population ranks, income distributions, mass extinctions, earthquake magnitudes, the ratios of colors in painting...." (Kean 163)
4)  Creationism vs. Evolution? A lot of the greatest work in genetics has been done by those in religious orders. Mendel of biological fame (the Mendelian laws of inheritance) was a monk and the Dominican
nun, Sister Miriam M. Stimson was a pioneer in DNA research in the 1940s and 1950s. "Women
at the time usually had to relinquish their careers upon marrying, while unmarried women (like Franklin) provoked suspicion....Catholic sisters, meanwhile, respectably unmarried and living in church run     convents, had the financial support and independence to   pursue science." (Kean, pp. 201-3)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Time and Age

"It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age; when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others."
--p.88, "The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

A fascinating read if you are trying to create a successful business, promote an idea, stop smoking, prevent a deadly epidemic, or simply understand why the Kardashians or Facebook is popular. How does one get to a "tipping point" where something that just touches a few people, ends up touching a huge number of people? If you were ever curious this is the book for you!

I had heard of the 80/20 principle but did not know it applied to so many things. This is the idea economists refer to when they say that 20 percent of a workforce does 80 percent of the workload. Or as Gladwell extended it: 80 percent of crimes are committed by 20 percent of the criminal element, 20 percent of motorists cause 80 percent of accidents, 20 percent of people consume 80 percent of all beer. (Gladwell, 48)

Speaking of people who do all the work...old Paul Revere had a helper...someone who rode the other direction and covered the same amount of territory to tell people the British were coming. William Dawes, however was not as charismatic and his word of mouth epidemic did not spread. Why was Paul Revere so incredibly successful with mobilizing the revolutionaries while William Dawes mobilized no one? What makes a person charismatic? How do word of mouth epidemics get started? How does something like "Silly Bands" (animal shaped rubber bands) become a huge business? Gladwell will entertain you as he explains the science of epidemiology of social fads as well as medical epidemics.

Killing Lincoln

Killing Lincoln----a murder mystery it is not, or so one would think. We all know that Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford's theater and died soon after. So how do Martin Dugard and Bill O'Reilly keep readers engrossed in the story knowing how it will end? They do this quite ably by explaining the circumstances and seemingly non related tangential events that all culminated in this horrifying event.

Where was our sixteenth president's bodyguard when John Wilkes Booth snuck into his theater box? The man was shirking his duties and drinking ale next door. John Parker, this never-do-well bodyguard did not have a good reputation, but was still hired to guard the president. Mary Todd Lincoln even wrote the letter that exempted him from serving in the military (enabling him to stay on the force protecting her husband.) Somehow he was acquitted of charges of dereliction of duty. John Parker showed up the morning after the assassination at the police station with a known prostitute. (The Secret Service appears to have had an early history of agents that enjoyed their company.)

The writers point out many of the great ironies of history. John Wilkes Booth's lover was also interested in Lincoln's own son. The bed that Lincoln was carried to and died upon had often been rented by his murderer. John Wilkes Booth slept in that bed just three weeks before the dying president's long, broken body was laid across it to die. These and other ironies enable the authors to engross the readers in a tale that has a sadly known outcome.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Breasts: A natural and Unnatural History

Breasts: Why do we have them?
             Why do men like them?
             Why do babies like them?
             What size do babies like? What size do men like?
             What state is the home of the boob job?

Curiosities in the book:
1. The inventor of the Barbie doll was a breast cancer patient, she designed and promoted some of the first prosthesis for masectomy patients. Hmm, this from the inventor of a doll that has "proportions
that only one in 100,000 women ..compared to Ken's bod, which is found in one in 50 men." (as determined by the researchers at the University of South Australia)
2. Babies only need a breast the size of "half an eggshell."
3. Between 5-10 MILLION women are walking around with
breast implants.
4. Breast milk has "endocannabinoids" in it "note the root CANNABIS in there. These substances which cause the munchies, probably play a role in enticing infants to eat...but make the infant feel full... formula lacks these compounds, and formula fed babies have
a notoriously higher caloric intake...why we have a childhood
obesity epidemic."

Breasts, boobs, boobies. Whatever you want to call them, we all have them. Women have more pronounced ones that provide a vital function: feeding our young. No matter how pronounced yours are, you probably love someone with developed functional breasts. This book is not just about the disease of the breast which is becoming all too common. It is an uplifting (hah!), eye-opening, and at times humorous look at breasts. It also is an alarming account of the interplay between the environment and humans, who are mammals (no matter how technological or cerebral we may be.)

Ironically it may be male breasts that answer the question: what chemicals cause cancer? A cluster of men plagued with breast cancer has been found in Camp Lejeune, home of the Marine Corps. Former marines, and sons of marines are coming down with breast cancer (rare in men). "The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten" is a website for such men that tracks the progress of the investigation into the contaminated drinking water which they drank while in service to their country (or while their fathers were serving.) The author of the book discusses the chemicals that contaminated two of the wells that provided "the most contaminated public drinking supply ever discovered in the United States." (Williams, p. 463) The picture of the proud shirtless marine saluting while sporting a masectomy is heart wrenching. (Williams, p. 458) More on the plight of these men can be found at the afore mentioned website:

"At its heart, Breasts is an environmental history of a body part. It is the story of how are breasts went from being honed by the environment to being harmed by it. It is part biology, part anthropology, and part medical journalism...the book's publication marks the fiftieth anniversary...of the first silicone implant surgery in Houston, Texas, in a woman who really just wanted and ear tuck." (Williams, 127-8) Silicone was an industrial compound for lubricating machinery and insulating air craft engines. After WWII in "American occupied Japan, another, less orthodox use was found for silicone. Drums of the stuff, needed for cooling transformers went turned up in the breasts of Japanese prostitutes" (Williams, 130) Injecting it randomly into the breast was a bad idea as it hardened like the caulk it was. In 1962 a woman wanting an ear tuck received the first silicone (in a bag) boob job in exchange for volunteering. More cosmetic boob jobs are still performed in Texas than anywhere else in the US!

Of particular note is the function of breasts. (No, they are not just about attracting men...for which numerous studies cited prove they are quite effective in this task.) Breast feeding provides infants with many nutrients that formula can not even begin to duplicate. An incredibly responsive organ,a woman's mammary glands even cater to the age, size, and sex of her infant in formulating the milk. It is amazing that antibodies produced by the mother protect the infant. Having provided two infants with this food I was particularly delighted at the health benefits that breast fed infants receive. I was less thrilled to learn that "mothers who breast-feed for a year also siphon off to their infants 90% of PFCs" that were absorbed from Scotchguard, Teflon....and dioxins, and PCBs....Dolphins have it particularly bad and their first born bear a particularly hard burden of inheritance. Even polar bears, as isolated as they are, are not immune and are passing along such carcinogens to their young. (Apparently, non breast fed kids catch up in exposure levels within two years so I can stop feeling guilty, but no less worried about the environment around us.)

The author is fair and balanced and reminds the reader that although the breast functions as a "sentinel" organ highlighting the damage done to the environment, and by the environment that this is a long term problem. Over half the world has the emergent short term problem of a lack of clean drinking water resulting in a huge number of children not living past the age of five. Toxins may lead to death long term, but pathogens lead to a much sooner demise. It does put things in perspective, but after reading this book you won't look at your sofa cushions or your water bottle in quite the same way again.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"

I was mesmerized by this biography of a woman who has touched most of our modern lives, Henrietta Lacks. If you have ever used a cosmetic or taken a medication you are probably indebted to this woman who died a tragic death at the age of just thirty-one. Cells taken from her cancerous tumor were the ones used to determine the most basic essence of human life, the number of chromosomes in our DNA chains.

Taken as part of a biopsy, before informed consent, Henrietta Lacks' cells populate so many laboratories that "one scientist estimates that if you could pile all Hela (the acronym for her cells)cells ever grown onto a scale, they'd weigh more than 50 million metric tons-an inconceivable number, given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing." (Skloot, p. 21) Most cells in culture grew across a glass surface, slowly. She unknowingly participated in a study on cervical cancer headed by Richard Telinde..."like many doctors of his era, TeLinde often used patients from the public wards for research, usually without their knowledge. Many scientists believed that since patients were treated for free in public wards, it was fair to use them as research subjects, as a form of payment." (Skloot, p. 49) Henrietta Lack's cancerous cells grew in suspension stupendously well and would be the basis for mass production of human cell cultures.

Her cells' influence on the eradication of polio, and treatment of disease and production of medications is awesome and extensive and makes interesting reading. Her biographer details these contributions while concurrently describing Henrietta's children's lack of access to medical care. Medical care that today was hugely benefited by their mother's tragic disease and death.

Henrietta's cells helped bring "informed consent" to US health care, but not until the 1960s. A cancer researcher had been directing the injection of her cancerous cells into unknowing patients (causing malignancies so that he could measure their growth rate) for over a decade before three young Jewish doctors refused to inject these cells into twenty-two patients at the Jewish Chronic disease clinic in Brooklyn...scarily similar to the actions of Nazi doctors just sixteen years earlier.(Skloots, p. 157)  It wasn't until late in the 1960s before this prompted the National Institute of Health to require that for a study to qualify for funding-- the study had to be approved by "independent bodies made up of professionals and lapeople of diverse races, classes, and backgrounds...including detailed informed consent." (Skloot, p. 162) Shockingly, it was such a common practice that the researching physician received just a one year "probation" on his medical license!

Various case studies of companies profiting hugely from unknowing patients provides fodder for thought on the ethical, moral and legal ramifications of the tissue samples we so readily provide at our doctor's office. One recent abuse, cited in the book, was a hospital collecting placenta samples routinely at deliveries so that if they were sued for malpractice they could defend themselves on the grounds it was a genetic condition instead. A thought provoking read in an increasingly litigious society.

Friday, April 27, 2012

"Come Home"

I enjoy women's fiction and Lisa Scottoline takes the genre to a deeper level. In this novel she poses the question: can you you stop loving someone just because they are out of your life? I agree with the author's conclusion; that you do not stop loving those just because they are not in your daily life any longer.

The main character of this book is a pediatrician who is living a busy, happy, fulfilled life when her past comes crashing back at her. She survived a divorce and suffered through the alienation of her ex-husband's children whom she had loved as her own. When that ex-husband dies under mysterious circumstances the issue of what it means to be a mother becomes a major issue in her crazy life.

Do we ever "unlove" someone we previously loved? A great question investigated with Scottoline's customary aplomb. One can see why Lisa Scottoline is a leader in women's fiction.  My favorite quote from the book is " a mother is only as happy as her happiest child." A mother's love, definition of family, and the eternity of love are powerful themes in this great read.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

The author of "Seabiscuit" superbly tells of story of an Olympic runner who survived internment in a horrifying Japanese POW camp. He started life as a bit of a hellion, until his brother got him interested in running. He went to the Olympics in Berlin and from there his life was on a collision course with the evil that man can inflict upon his fellow man.

He got shot down in the Pacific theater and he and two others survived adrift, with almost no rations, longer than anyone else in the world had to that point. It was his misfortune to finally hit land occupied by the Japanese. From there his luck went from bad to worse.

His story is inspiring and uplifting even in spite of all the horrific events he endured. He reaffirms what I have heard from every ex-POW I ever had the privilege to hear speak or to meet. They endured through torture and deprivation not because of a love of life for themselves but for the following reasons: a love of country, a love for their fellow man, and a love of God.

The first former POW I ever met was a speaker at a church youth group in 1983. He survived years in Vietnamese prison camps and it strengthened his love of all three: country, fellow soldier and God. I was surprised that after returning home to a post Vietnam world that he chose to stay in the service. One would think that he would have gotten as far away as quickly as he could. Perhaps it was because the general public was so anti-military at the time, that he chose to stay in the service to be with those who understood all he had sacrificed; instead of managing a hardware store somewhere in Maintown, USA.

In 1987, when I was out at Ft. Sam Houston, TX my grandmother insisted I call upon a former colleague and friend of my deceased grandfather. I was just a young second lieutenant and I felt awkward calling a general officer and introducing myself. I was so glad I did however, he and his wife were charming and hospitable hosts. He survived the Bataan Death March. In the 1980s he was suffering from many medical issues that were a direct result of his internment as a POW. Powerful stuff for a young Army nurse to hear, and it certainly provided meaning to the job.

Some stories stay with you because they are so true and so powerful. The truly powerful lives are not ones that are led for one's own glory, but for others. Louie Zamperini returned to the States and after more hardship served as a guide for at-risk youth, which is what he perceived himself to be before his life got formed. An inspiring story about an inspiring man.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Last Call

Income tax was instituted by the prohibitionists because prior to that time, 71 percent of our country's revenue came from taxes on alcohol. (Yes, we even fought wars with just this income: the Revolution, the War of 1812 and even the Civil War.) The 18th Amendment prohibited alcohol, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution repealed it. But new taxes never go away, and the income tax was here to stay.

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent portrays America and its love/hate relationship with alcohol. Okrent reminds us that the Puritans loved their alcohol. John Winthrop's ship arriving into Massachussetts in 1630 had "more than ten thousand gallons of wine in its hold and carried three times as much beer as water."  (Okrent, p.7)  Our country was founded by lovers of a good drink apparently!

Speaking of founders of our country, George Washington attributed his first unsuccessful run for political office due to a lack of drink. He had run for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses at the age of 24. On his next attempt at the same office he provided his voters with an average of half of a gallon of rum, punch, or hard cider---"he floated into office" (Okrent, p.47) It was not illegal to cover your voters saloon bill.

Not just our heroic forefathers were tied to drink. Even the iconic folklore hero Johnny Appleseed was involved in supplying America's thirst. "In rural Ohio and Indiana the seed scattered by John Chapman-"Johnny Appleseed"' produced apples that were inedible but, when fermented, very drinkable. Virtually every homestead in America had an orchard from which literally thousands of gallons of cider were made every year." (Okrent, p.8)

As our country prospered, our menfolk continued to frequent the saloons. Being an addictive substance, some of our men spent the bulk of their wages in the saloon, while their families suffered. The Prohibitionists allied with the Suffragist movement and women got the right to vote, and alcohol was prohibited. The aforementioned income tax took the place of the alcohol taxes. The country, now including women voters, repealed the 18th Amendment. The income tax was here to stay however. Just like a person who likes his booze too much, the USA becomes dependent on every new instituted tax...even if it overindulges.

As you pay your income taxes this year, at least do so with my favorite alcoholic drink recipe, the  Chocolate Martini!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Soldier Dogs: Saving Lives and Capturing Bad Guys

    Cairo, a dog--specifically a Beligian Malinois, was probably the last dog Osama Bin Laden ever saw. If he even had a chance to see this soldier dog, as a stealthy Special Forces operation took him down. I had missed this news item last year but read of this dog, and other amazing dogs assisting all branches of the Armed Forces in  Soldier Dog: The Untold Story of America's Canine Heroes by Maria Goodavage.
    Dogs have been accompanying soldiers since war began. During the American Revolution at the Batttle of Gemantown in October 1777, a little terrier was found between American and British lines. He was wearing a collar that identified him as belonging to the British general, General Howe. George Washington, called a cease fire and returned the dog to the enemy general, with a note attached to his collar. "Howe was so impressed by Washington's honor that he began to take a more compassionate view of the colonists, and eventually resigned his post." (Goodavage, 224)
    The author of this amazing book shares so many fascinating stories and facts of amazing military war dogs. Dogs have provided more than just companionship to soldiers in the field. Their amazing noses (some 10,000 to 100,000 times more sensitive than our own) are instrumental in detecting the horrific IED explosive devices that are unfortunately all too common in war zones. The US Armed Forces deploy many dogs who have saved countless lives with their special skill sets. There are even CTD dogs, that can detect not only the explosive but follow the trail of the scent left by the insurgent (up to four days old) and actually identify the insurgent that placed the explosive! Amazing! 
   The dog's fellow soldiers, particularly their handlers, have a deep respect for what these dogs accomplish. Unfortunately with all the budget cuts, the war dog training programs are in danger of being cut. How can that be, when one dog detecting an explosive saves so many human lives? After Vietnam these military working dogs were left behind, these days there is an adoption program for these heroic dogs to live out their retirement days on a couch in a loving home. Dogs are considered equipment by the military, but to the soldiers whose lives they save on a daily basis they are considered fellow soldiers in arms.
   Dogs and their handlers have died, and even been targeted by insurgents, while performing their life saving missions. They have saved so many civilian and military lives doing their job for the love of their handler and the opportunity to play with a Kong toy or tennis ball after they find their quarry. Handlers will shave their dogs front paws while in the field, because they will work themselves to the point of death from heat stroke. The dog will be carried to shelter and  life saving IV fluids started by their handlers. 114 degree working conditions on burned paws while wearing a fur coat is not a walk in the park.
   The stress of war is not just felt on the humans. Dogs, too, can suffer from PTSD . Some breeds suffer disproportionately, ie. labrador retrievers. It is estimated 5-15 percent of dogs suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. The breed that was involved in the Special Forces raid on Bin Laden is less prone to suffering from PTSD, and this and German shepherds have formed the bulk of the dogs that are patrolling (not just sniffing, as other breeds). Countless human lives saved by man's best friend; clearly mankind has gotten the better end of the relationship.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Hunger Games

The movie has been released based on the best selling book by Suzanne Collins. I always try to read the book before seeing the movie, and this is supposed to be a good one. So, I figured I would pick up the book prior to this week's release of the movie. I had first heard of the books a year ago but the story line put me off. Who would want to read about starving teens forced to fight? I read the first book, "The Hunger Games" and the following two books within forty eight hours.

This powerful mix of familiar themes makes quick reading for a wide range of audiences. There is familiar coliseum style fighting (to the death sponsored by a corrupt government) as in "The Running Man" movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The heroine of the book is a strong 15 year old female, and there is a love triangle as in the "Twilight" series. Reality show programming, and the jaded, well fed, couch sitting American public oblivious to the world's problems is a deeper theme. All put together, it just works superbly well in the hands of author Suzanne Collins.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Homeless to Harvard

The injustice we do to people when we label them, even while well intentioned is harmful. Before I return this book to it’s owner I must commend the author on her story and her life. Liz Murray is the author of Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and my Journey from Homeless to Harvard, a story of a harrowing childhood in a home plagued with mental illness and drug abuse. She became literally homeless and a student who was truant, defiant, and lost. She pulled herself up by her proverbial bootstraps after the death of her mother, enrolled in an alternative school (while still homeless) and was accepted to Harvard in spite of all this and more. The teachers at the alternative school inspired her but gave no slack (knowing nothing of her living conditions); while several teachers at her prior high school who did know some of her trials and tribulations felt sorry for her and nudged her along.

She said that when she was labeled as truant or a disciplinary problem “I saw failure in their eyes, then I was one….capable, then I was capable.” Even well intentioned teachers who “saw me as a victim-despite (her) good intentions-that’s what I believed about myself, too.” (p. 286) She dropped out of high school in her sophomore year while being labeled a victim, after nursing her mother through her last dying days. She returned to school, homeless, and overcame so much.

She did not let the label, victim of unfortunate circumstances, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. She graduated from Harvard in 2009 and today is a motivational speaker and runs a company that helps others fulfill their destinies. A truly amazing story of a truly amazing woman.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Confessions of a Surgeon

Confessions of a Surgeon is a book best read at home, not as a gift in a get well basket for any recovering family members or friends. An eye-opening read of health care systems (past and present) and the flaws that exist due to surgeons being human and health care systems being systems. The road to becoming a surgeon is a long and painful one resulting in a God-like complex in many a surgeon.  This surgeon defends his kingdom while shedding light on the problems inherent in such deification.

Your insurance company, your hospital, and your government know more about the skills of a surgeon than you will know in the present system. All of these bodies tabulate figures on outcomes because bad outcomes cost more money. The likelihood of success of one's surgeon would be desirable for a patient to know going into a prospective surgery, but this data is not available to the general public.  (This information is provided quarterly to all surgeons, however.) The best advice the author can give is to ask your prospective surgeon what his/her complication rate is on the procedure you require (and then hope to compare it with the national average for the same, if you can obtain such a figure.)

Surgeons being human, there are good ones and bad ones. Nice ones and mean ones. Lucky ones and unlucky ones. They all worked very hard to get where they are today.  But you probably don't want the brand new one, or the one who all of his/her colleagues know should have retired ten years ago. And remember, the ones with crappy bedside manner may have the best technique in the world. 

This author does not want to see increased regulation of his practice, and is an unabashed old school kind of guy. A bit of a male chauvinist brought up in the residency days of working with no sleep for days on end he has little patience for the next batch of surgeons coming up the ranks. But as he points out with burn-out being so high from the rigors of the job one can only hope that they are quick learners as more surgical services are needed for an aging population. You can pick your surgeon to the best of your ability for your elective surgery. But in the middle of the night when an emergency requires surgical intervention it is a crapshoot .  Whomever is on call will provide your services to the best of their ability, with the best equipment provided to them by the hospital (and allowed by the insurance company), with whatever sleep they managed to get before your procedure.

 An interesting read for any persons involved in health care as an occupation or as a prospective patient. The reader will appreciate surgeons more for what they have endured and endure on a daily basis. The reader will also wish for a more transparent system to provide for the safety of the general population after reading some of the stories contained within these pages.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Michelangelo's Pieta

I just finished reading Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy, a biographical novel of the life and works of Michelangelo. Despite the enormity of his work in the Sistine Chapel his sculpture of the Pieta is the one I look forward to seeing the most this coming summer. A sculptor at heart, he was forced to paint to make ends meet per Stone's biography. 

This work was completed when he was just 24 years old. It was not his first Madonna figure. The author does the sculptor justice as he describes the challenges of sculpting the Mother of Jesus. When he was describing the sculptor's thought processes he writes:

"Could so important a task, the most important assigned to any human since Moses, have been forced upon Mary without her knowledge and consent?...And if she did have freedom of choice, would she be likely to exercise it?...Once she accepted, must she carry the burden from that moment until the day that her child was crucified?...Was ever mortal woman cast in so pain-fraught a dilemma?" (Stone, 139)

I have read another biography by Irving Stone, The President's Lady. This was not as quick of a read--as the political climate of ancient Rome was more complex than that of early American history. Michelangelo was subject to the whims and machinations of more than five popes through his lifetime. So much more beauty could have come from this great artist if not for the battles these Popes created within Italy, the papacy, Florence, and in Michelangelo's life in particular. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Fed Up: Rick Perry

Today Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas, gave up his presidential aspirations and is returning to the good people of Texas. Although not eloquently written, his assertion that Americans are "Fed UP: Our Fight to Save America from Washington" is clearer than his debate performances. I admittedly liked him on paper before I ever heard him open his mouth (I do prefer a Commander in Chief with prior military experience.) His ghost writer wasn't on the dais with him in the debates, unfortunately. When he retires from public office I do not expect to the governor on the lecture circuit!

In case you missed the book the premise is that Americans are best served by local government. Since your local legislator is more apt to listen to you and your legislator in Washington is too far removed from American life. Whether Democrat or Republican I think we can all agree on that. Beyond that, the book feeds the Inner Tea Partier within you...if you have one.

I thought the most intriguing part of the book was the following:
"We can all still be proud Americans while acknowledging that we simple do not agree on many fundamental issues. We are a diverse people-incapable of being governed from a faraway capital by people who do not share our values. Recognizing this fact is critical to the preservation of a free state. Federalism enables us to live united as a nation, with a federal government that is focused on our national security and that has specific enumerated powers, while we live in states with like-minded people who share our values and beliefs. Crucial to understanding federalismin modern-day America is the concept of mobility, or the "ability to vote with your feet." If you don't support the death penalty and citizens packing a pistol, don't come to Texas. If you don't like medicinal marijuana and gay marriage, don't move to California." (p. 13)

I know Pennsylvanians are viewed as clinging to their guns and religion, but he is pure Texan, isn't he? Unapologetically, pure Texan. He does come across as a Texan first, an American second: even if you concede that the Federal government often encroaches on state's rights. A difficult platform to run on for the president of the fifty states in the United States of America.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Dogs Understand Fairness

  • Anyone who has ever given one dog two biscuits and another dog only one, intuitively understands that dogs understand injustice. Horowitz cites an experiment that proves this "dogs who see another dog getting a reward for doing an act-shaking a paw on command-but who do not themselves get rewarded for the same act eventually refuse to shake anymore. (No rewarded dog was moved by the clear injustice of the situation to share his earned bounty with his unlucky partner, though..." (Horowitz, 204) Dogs get fairness.
It is not fair that we can't understand what our dogs are thinking, our beloved silent companions. This author makes light of her statement that a dog's tail has never been studied thoroughly as a communication tool. She does however attempt to rectify this omission. The body language of dogs is studied and interpreted so that you too, can understand what your dog is trying to tell you.

If only we understood their nonverbal clues as well as they understood ours. Through the natural selection of dogs from wolves our furry friends have literally made a living off of interpreting our nonverbal signals. If only we understood them as well as they understand us. Reading this book will put you one step closer to understanding what Fido is experiencing and saying to you.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Virtual situps? Apparently imaginary exercising really works

Imagine my delight when I was reading a book on the adaptability of the human brain and stumbled across a study that proves that just imagining exercising increases the muscle tone in the imagined area! Yes, I laughed out loud, in public while reading.

The brain's wiring of our organs enabled participants who just imagined exercising a limb to become significantly stronger (by 22 percent). Of course the group that actually performed the exercise had muscle strength increases of 30 percent. But, wow! Who would have thought? The details on the study can be found here: but the explanation lies in " the motor neurons of the brain that program movements. During these imaginary contractions, the neurons responsible for string together sequences of insturctions for movements are activated and strengthened, resulting in increased strength when the muscles are contracted." (Doidge, p. 204)

Norman Doidge, MD wrote "The Brain that Changes Itself". There are many audiences for this book: health care professionals, educators, significant others of persons afflicted with stroke, OCD, amputation...or those interested in maintaining their optimal brain function. Written in an easy to read format he brings new light to the adage "use it or lose it." The studies on amputation were fascinating. He of course cited the mirror box experiment that has helped so many amputees with phantom pain. He explains why some amputees have increased sensation to other body areas because of the way the brain is wired. (Some male leg amputees, not complaining of suffering from leg pain as they now feel the orgasm not just in the area wired by male genitalia, but throughout the whole section of the brain that the leg once wired. These men are not complaining, one commented it was as if his genitalia was the size his leg had been!

Tantalizing as these tidbits are, the book is a fascinating read regarding stroke and OCD rehabilitation among other topics. These are the more sensationalized findings in a book with much to offer, to those who have "normal brains" as well as those with variations in pathology of the brain.

Friday, January 6, 2012

GOP hopeful and strong Black History proponent Newt Gingrich

The Daily Show, although hysterically funny, would have you believe that the GOP was dominated by white men mindful of only their own pasts and futures. I picked up Newt Gingrich’s book, The Battle of the Crater, not realizing he cowrote the book. I have read several other books on this Civil War battle, and this was by far the best of the lot. Whatever your political persuasion, after reading this book, one realizes the admiration he has for the one in four Civil War veterans who was black and the injustice historians (and Union leaders) perpetuated by overlooking their bravery. Newt Gingrich, a current presidential hopeful, can indeed write.

I read this book as if it was a popular fiction novel, quickly in less than two days. Admittedly, he and his co-author did use some fictional devices to tie the scenes together and move the plot along. Lincoln, a Republican, was facing re-election in a weary nation that was tired of his agenda. The war had been going on for three years, and the political infighting amongst the generals was hurting the Union’s chances for quelling the uprising before the election. Lincoln needed a big Union victory badly. If Union forces could capture Petersburg, the supply lines to Richmond would be cut, a near victory secured in battle and politics, and the Republican Lincoln would surely get re-elected.

Petersburg was the site of this epic battle which had great potential for the North, with a secret tunnel and planned explosion. Gingrich and Forstchen tell this sad tale powerfully. It went horribly awry for the Union forces. This battle could have ended the war sooner if not for the underutilization of units because of their race or the arrogance of Union Army commanders.

The former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, knows his subject matter and relays it well. Whether or not he helps determine the future of the U.S. or not remains to be seen. He certainly has a clear understanding of our past. Primary season looms ahead, will he be able to verbalize as clearly his visions of America’s future as clearly as he can write of our past history? Time will tell.

New Years Resolutions

New Years Resolutions, everyone has them. One of the most popular resolutions relates to personal fitness. Every year it seems this is on my list. The former surgeon general, C. Edward Koop said that fitness was a journey, not a destination. Goodness knows this is true. If fitness was an island, I have visited that destination but am forever seeking to get back there.

I have read so many interesting things lately. As my closest confidantes know, I am forever saying "I read somewhere....." This will be my log of things that strike me as intriguing that might be of interest to others.

With regards to jogging and running, my favorite read was in an old Runner's World magazine about a Kenyan fellow. This fellow had been told to become more physically active by his family doctor. He was ashamed to run during the daytime for fear his neighbors would see him. (I can identify with that!) He started running at night time and became an Olympic contestant in the marathon. His humble words, even in the face of such athletic prowess, struck a note with me: no matter what shape you are in the first 15 minutes sucks for everyone!