A blog about nothing.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

SOMETHING NEW, PLEASE



A friend sent me a video of a "holistic doctor" promoting her "30-day detoxification plan." My friend wanted to know what I thought of the ten-minute clip. I try to abide by the "if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all" philosophy, but I wasn't speaking to the author so I loosened my tongue. In truth I couldn't get past the first 2 minutes. The video was amateurish and unedited and the "expert" threw around as many buzzwords as she could, thinking if she stuffed her sentences with "wellness" and "detox" and "adrenal support" and "affinity for the liver" the whole would somehow make sense. It didn't. Or if there was a message, the one I got was "this is derivative nonsense I've seen dozens of times before, only usually it is done with better lighting." Derivative. Yes, derivative. But the author is not wholly to blame. Human nature is at fault. Others have had success with wellness plans and detox strategies, so why not her? You can't fault her for trying, but the effort was a failure.

How much of the stuff we encounter in life is derivative? Most. I have harped on this before. The only original metaphysical writings came down to us from India thousands of years ago, slightly modified and tailored to suit cultures and subsequent centuries, and given new names. But the message of oneness, of love, of our nature as spirit, is basically unchanged. It's the same in health. There aren't many witty ways to say "eat your fruits and vegetables." So we get new-fangled and say that "lemons have an affinity for the liver" which is nonsense. I studied chemistry and affinity is a term that is never used, and certainly not about lemons, which only have an affinity for making your teeth gritty.

In fact the whole notion of eating foods to detoxify is nonsense. No foods support the detoxification process. It goes on in normal liver and kidneys no matter what. Some foods have fewer toxic residues (pesticides, fertilizers) so they reduce the burden of these chemicals on the body, which can then devote its energies to riding itself of the toxins in other foods you may eat when you're feeling weak or get tired of munching kale. The same thing with acid/alkaline, and probiotics, and fiber supplements, which the expert in question was also touting as part of her plan. It's nonsense. Yes pineapple has bromelain, but you shouldn't emphasize this fruit over other fruits on the merits of one compound alone. The fruits that don't have this hard-to-pronounce enzyme are high in other nutrients. 

Eat a well-balanced diet of raw and lightly-cooked plant foods and you have little need for supplements. This is what I explain in my book The Paradigm Diet. It was written a few years back and we live in a fast-paced, ever-changing world, but the facts stand. Unlike fads. So avoid the 30-day plan and whoever is pushing it on you. 

At a recent family gathering my uncle suggested I volunteer my time to war veterans. He probably chose the military because he himself is a former cadet. I said as a matter of fact I did volunteer once, not at the Veteran's Hospital but at the leukemia ward at UCLA. They directed me to a rigorous application process involving cover letter, resume, references and interviews in addition to background check. It was as though I were applying to become US President. Christ! I just wanted to spend a couple hours a week hanging out with those less-fortunate, being the sunlight of their day. Why all the loopholes? Was it just to verify I'm not some serial killer or child molester? What happened to the days when business was conducted with a hand-shake? I'm a medical doctor. Shouldn't that get me in? I'm kidding. I'm averse to special treatment. It makes me feel privileged and in a world with so much suffering that just won't do. And even if I were so fortunate as to be accepted as volunteer I wouldn't even get to choose my own hours. Jeez. If I wanted to go to jail I'd just commit a crime. My uncle said the problem lay in the institution. A Trojan, he said I should have applied to USC. Ha, ha...

Another time I used the website VolunteerMatch to get connected with someone in the area that might benefit from my skills and services, however vague and nondescript these are. I got paired with a small-business owner on the other side of town. The first thing she asked was whether I was available to help her set up and break down a booth at a wellness fair she was scheduled to attend the following weekend. I get it. You want me to help you promote your line of herbal supplements and skin-care products, help you make money, for free. We all need something in life, lady. But you've got to spend money to make money. I'll take $35 an hour and consider that a discount. This ain't charity. I never heard back. No wonder more people don't give of their time. Too many hurdles. Which is why I'm content to be.

In his book Revolution (which I'm thoroughly enjoying - it's laugh out loud funny and you should read it), British comedian and modern messiah Russell Brand mentions an experiment conducted in Washington to determine whether just being (in this case a group of meditators sitting cross-legged in a room chanting a mantra and, I don't know, maybe radiating peace?) had any wider effect than whatever benefit it brought the meditators. Would the peace reach others? Would the chants influence surrounding criminals? And indeed, over the course of the two-month experiment, crime in the surrounding city fell by nearly 25 percent. Let's hear it for being!

And yet I still write. Because being creative is also nice. But starting now I will commit to being original. No more archaic references (I'll miss you, Maharshi), no more name-dropping (I got you in though, Mr. Brand). Whatever I write will be stamped by personal experience. Thoughts, words, deeds with which I am intimately familiar. Empirical evidence through and through. Yes reading somebody else's fancy quote and being impacted by it is a form of experience, but how much more "peak" to come up with that quote or have the experience the quote encapsulates on one's own! That's for me. When discussing your own life, where is the need to reference authorities? You ARE the authority!

Because we have to cease this wholesale borrowing at some point, so why not now? No more bringing the past into the present. The pattern is well-worn. Why not let's try something new. The "same ole situation" is a great song but it's about time we change our tune. However it remains to be seen if there is anything new left under the sun. Sorry. Nothing new under the sun is a well-worn figure of speech. This originality business is sure gonna take some getting used to. You may not be hearing from me for a while.


Friday, May 13, 2016

THE BEST-KEPT SECRET


The Swiss psychiatrist and father of analytical psychology Carl Jung (1875-1961) observed that virtually all of his patients aged 40 or older had as the root of their mental disequilibrium the pressing fear of death. This is called mortal fear, which can seize a person at any time (though it becomes more common the older, and therefore closer to death, you are) and hold you paralyzed in its grasp as you contemplate the reality that there will come a day that you will no longer be around.

You will die. At least your body will. As well as your mind, since the mental and physical are inextricably linked. But the mind cannot bear the thought of its own demise. It insists on living forever. And so anti-aging is all the rage, as pseudo-experts preach the gospel of immortality on earth. Before this, the mind invented the notion of reincarnation, to buy itself more time in future lives where you will be a king or a celebrity, of course! Never mind the fact that nobody I've ever met has any reliable recollection of having lived before, and those that do believe in former lives generally believe that in the past they were somebody of influence and power. I wonder who were all the janitors and plebeians of the world if everybody walked around as sultan or sultana? 

The truth is that the mind is an extension of consciousness, which is immortal because it is timeless, existing in an ever-present now. And so in a way we are right in the belief that we will live forever, just not the way we think. Your body will perish, and your personality with it. So don't wait in earnest for some afterlife in heaven. Usually it's the Christians who insist on the existence of the pearly gates (and are confident that they will get to pass through). Never mind that Christ himself declared that "the kingdom of heaven is within you," which leaves no room for doubt. Indeed heaven can be a place on Earth, we just haven't proved Belinda Carlisle right, but there's still time. It may seem hopeless, what with income inequality and global warming, corporate greed and international strife. But I for one haven't given up. And even if I did what would it matter. Life's just a dream and if utopia does come, if the Golden Age visits Earth, I won't be around to witness it, unless it happens by say 2050. But this me, this Adam guy, who is at the age to mortally fear death himself, isn't who I really am. Me, the mind, isn't I. The I that unites us all is one and the same. Oneness is the true reality. And when you identify with this Oneness rather than with one of the many that through the cosmic illusion It has spawned, you realize that there is no birth no death, not for the I. The I never dies. The I is all that is!

But we are caught up in the mind, and so people find the thought of their nonexistence intolerable. To you I say: When you cease exist - that is, when your mind has dissolved back into the cosmic consciousness - "you" (your ego-based personality) will no longer be around to find the notion of your non-existence so intolerable. The good thing about the merging into oblivion, as the atheists and Buddhists see it, is there is no mind to think these unhappy thoughts. And aren't most thoughts just that?

The scriptures tell us that death is long sleep and sleep is short death. Shouldn't this maxim be all the proof we require? After all, it accords with personal experience. From the great nothingness suddenly there you are, with your first memories around the age of 2 or 3, and no memory of how you got here. And unto this thou shalt return. What's there to be afraid about? Of all the pleasures in life, what can compare to a night of uninterrupted sleep? I have yet to meet a person who doesn't welcome dreamless slumber with open arms. If they could open their arms, but they can't due to the fact of their unconsciousness. One of the most exquisite pleasures in life is to have slept well. Here's a question. If you could do one and only one thing constantly for the rest of eternity, what would you choose? Would you eat your favorite food (chocolate, pizza, etc) all day every day for all time, if you could do so without feeling full or getting fat? How about having sex with an endless series of partners and a constant erection (I say erection rather than moist vagina because we all know that sex is more of a guy's idea of a good time - if you're a girl and it's yours, hit me up; or else I'll take you shopping, thank goodness for stereotypes) - would sex or shopping or hanging with me be your idea of a great way to spend forever?  None of the above? Okay, then. I'm with you.

Because I for one would choose deep sleep. Think of it. When you're sound asleep you are outside space and time, and therefore in contact with your eternal nature. Sure there is the pesky fact that "you" aren't there to enjoy snoozing per se, since the mind is also asleep. But you are not the mind anyway, so we're good. And without a mind and a body, there are no thoughts or worries, nothing that must be done. Even loads of sex or an unlimited pass to the smorgasbord of your choice would get tiresome after a while. But in sleep, you're ever at ease. When you think that death is like sleep, only longer (although length is irrelevant, since you exist outside of time) then to welcome it is a no-brainer. 

Death is life's best kept secret! But because the mind is naturally xenophobic, which is why after a certain age many kids instinctively avoid strangers (and if more kids did then fewer would find their faces on the back of milk cartons - do they still do that?), we grow up to cling desperately to our frail bodies and petty concerns and entertain this mortal fear for the unknown. But you do know death. You experience it every night. And you wake up thankful for not having needed to pee. Having identified completely with the mind and its physical shell, we grow terrified of its demise. But I say good riddance. And may you rest in peace while still alive. If like me this is your idea of a grand ole time, I have faith that you will.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

THIS ONE'S ON ME


Many of the world's religions share common themes and stories. For example, Christianity holds that God sent Jesus Christ to Earth to spread the message of eternal life. In John 3:16 it says, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." 


Not to be outdone, Catholics take it step further. Jesus Christ willingly sacrificed himself on the cross for the redemption of human sins, they say, on behalf of all humanity. Specifically it was original sin he atoned for, the OG of all transgressions, in which Adam following Eve's prodding disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden and ate from the Tree of Good and Evil. The battle of the sexes is eons old. 
In the Bhagavad-Gita, considered by many to be the Hindu bible, we have a version of Christ called an Avatar, who visits the Earth from age to age. Krishna was one such Avatar who lived 5,000 years ago. He tells his disciple: "Whenever there is a decline of righteousness and unrighteousness is on the increase, I manifest myself. For the protection of the good, for the destruction of the wicked, and for the establishment of righteousness, I come into being from age to age."
Now this begs a question. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, couldn't the Creator make the world in such a way that humans were righteous and free of sin without His having to intercede? This seems reasonable. Unless, like Woody Allen, the Maker writes a part in the divine drama for Him to play, as God-man, specifically because he enjoys interacting with His creation, and maybe performing a miracle or two. Surely such a thing is within the realm of possibility. If we are all divine manifestations, rays of the Divine Light, the Avatar may be an expression of the Universal Luminescence seen through a high-powered magnifying glass. I can envision such a thing. One can only hope God is a better actor than Mr. Allen.
What was Christ's message? It was love. In Matthew 22: 36-40 a disciple asks Jesus to name the "greatest commandment in the Law." Jesus replies: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
So, Love. The message of the Hindu Avatars is the same. Sai Baba, believed by millions to be one such Avatar, said repeatedly that the purpose of all of creation is the expression of love. God was lonely, needing an object in order to express His love. But God is all that is, and Love requires a recipient. So God created the delusion of the "other" in order to be both giver and receiver of the love that is His nature. But the delusion, which the Hindu's refer to as maya, is so strong that transcending it takes an act of grace, an infusion of divine love so great as to awaken our deepest powers of devotion. Imagine if you will the magician Harry Houdini who locks himself in a safe as part of his greatest trick only to forget the combination or throw away the key. Yikes! If you can "break the chains of love," as it were, cut the ties that bind, love merges into Love, giver and receiver are revealed to be one and the same. And God - pure, infinite, unconditional Love - is fully realized. This is the purpose of life, but it also begs a question.
If the aim of creation is love, why is there so much fighting and hatred and animosity? Love is really only a small factor in the worldly equation. Shouldn't everybody be walking around all lovey-dovey, holding hands and staring up at the clouds glassy-eyed like a bunch of hippies? Should we all just grow our hair and join a commune? But the truth is wherever you turn, you see love. Even fighting and hatred and animosity have as their root love gone awry. We don't get our way, our love is unrequited, we are jilted, used, abused, met with ingratitude and frustration, and we raise a cry. 
Love has so many expressions that it is often overused or misused as a blanket term. Attachment, attraction, infatuation are all called love. The feelings of parents for their kids. The feeling of kinship among friends. The pleasure one gets through a sense of possession is called love though it would be more accurate to call the feelings you have for your car or new home "satisfaction." And the yearning to reach truth, to know God, to contact the divine within you and let it flow from you like an inexhaustible spring, this is what really deserves the holy word of Love, if you listen to the Masters.
This Love conquers all. It is only when misdirected, becoming allegiance to a cause (as in fascism) or adherence to one particular doctrine over the rest (even the Christians had their Crusades) that love resembles hate and becomes destructive. The message of Hinduism, like that of the Gospels, is love. Love all, serve all. Feel that love which knows no boundaries, which cures hate, saves you from torment and despair. See through the eyes of unconditional love and heal the world. And be healed yourself.
Now I think I understand the whole nature of the cosmos and this divine drama, in a nutshell. Or at least I feel it. I just hope nobody else has to die so that others may believe. RIP Christ and Krishna. I am with you in my heart. Hopefully righteousness will prevail and soon, so that you won't need to revisit the Earth. But if you do, be sure to give me a buzz. How cool it'd be to say I had drinks with Jesus. I wonder who should buy, him or me. Doesn't matter, 'cause water's free.

Until then, I have a lot of playing to do. Listen carefully to the words, but disregard the part about cigarettes - after all it was 1980:



Wednesday, May 11, 2016

SYNERGY



A vicious circle is a sequence of reciprocal cause and effect in which two or more elements intensify and aggravate each other, leading inexorably to a worsening of the situation. This is also known as a vicious cycle. An example is obesity, which involves an interplay of diet and exercise. When a person gains weight, it is usually due to an increase in caloric intake through the consumption of calorie-rich foods, especially high-fat animal protein and refined carbohydrates. This person may or may not be a regular exerciser, but gaining weight in the form of fat makes working out less enjoyable. Obese individuals complain of joint pains - indeed a risk factor for osteoarthritis is weight gain - and the lowered ratio of muscle to fat can weaken a person, causing him/her to shirk the weights. Also, since fat is pretty inert as far as cells of the body go, you get a decrease in your resting metabolic rate, so you burn fewer calories throughout the day than someone with more muscle. So you become less active, which causes you to gain more weight. The time you used to spend exercising is now spent enjoying more food, making you even heavier. Finally, obesity results. This is a simplified version of a multi-factorial phenomenon, but you get the drift.


Obesity is defined as carrying an extra third of your normal weight in the form of fat. So an obese person standing 5'10'' tall would weigh 200 or more lbs, which is 133% above a normal weight for that height, or 150 lbs. Of course many bodybuilders and professional athletes carry a lot of extra muscle and if evaluated solely on the basis of their weight men like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime as well as The Rock not to mention many NFL players would be considered obese, but the low waist-to-hip ratio and the high proportion of muscle counterbalance the health risks of carrying extra poundage. This would be the opposite of a vicious circle. An example of synergy. But only roughly.

A similar phenomenon - that is, another vicious circle - is seen in depression. You become depressed through habits that have a negative effect on your mood and then your depression causes you to indulge in these habits all the more as a coping mechanism, only it backfires, making you feel sadder still. Say you drink a lot of alcohol and eat junk food and don't exercise. You may live this way because you are depressed and don't feel like doing anything but numbing the pain while you kill yourself slowly, or this may be just how you choose to live your life, like many 20-somethings, like me a decade or so ago. And since alcohol is a CNS depressant you'll feel pretty down if you keep the habit up. But even the most optimistic, cheerful person feels blue now and again. But the difference between this person and the melancholic is that (s)he knows how to manage moods, and to maintain lifestyle habits conducive to uplifting the spirits. 

So here is a checklist for you to review. Make each habit a part of your daily life and enjoy peace and equanimity.

First, a plant-centered diet. Because plant eaters report better moods than flesh consumers. 

Next, exercise on most days. Because working out also improves mood, especially if done outdoors, and in the sun. 

Supplement with vitamin D, which you can also get from the sun. Vitamin D intake is positively correlated with mood, with higher levels associated with happiness. 

Make sure to get adequate sleep. Seven or 8 hours a night plus a 30-minute nap is optimal for most, though you may require more, especially if you have low body fat. Practice good hygiene, which means reserving the bed for sleep and sex only, and keeping artificial light sources like smart-phones, TV and iPods out of your bedroom. A natural soporific is to take deep breaths and count down from 10.

Evaluate your relationships and occupation. Your daily pursuits should be a source of fulfillment. They should require care and attention but not drain you of your energy. Look for satisfaction. Because only when you are in good spirits can you satisfy. 

Finally, be aware. Watch your thoughts. Catch negative thought patterns before they manifest as bad moods and bad feelings. This takes a while to do. When you were a kid maybe you had a babysitter. Well, sit with yourself. Twenty minutes a day twice a day. Quiet time. Just to be. I guarantee that you'll feel better. And since the recipe for a better mood will also keep you thin, we can call it killing two birds and be done for the day. No more vicious circles for you. Now that is synergy.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

JUST NOISE



Life is a quest for immortality. Each of us desires to live forever. Most of us attempt to live on through our children. That is, by perpetuating the species we believe we achieve a stake in immorality. Reproduction has served us fairly well so far. Life began on Earth with the single-celled organism 3.8 billion years ago; and the human species, so far the pinnacle of animal life, has managed to stick around some 200,000 years, with no end in sight.

But reproduction is in essence an animal act, since all creatures breed. In this way the beasts are like their betters, seeking to live forever. And so procreation occurs everywhere, as the old gives way to the new. Even within your own body, cells are renewed and replaced, though the individual (you) remains ostensibly the same - just like the species - however you may mature and age. That's why you go by the same name, whether you're a toddler in diapers, a dapper gentleman in a tux, or a geriatrician wearing Depends; and humans have been humans for centuries of centuries despite how different we used to look once upon a time in Africa. Damned dirty apes indeed.


We find this desire to live forever in the pursuit of knowledge too. We learn facts and concepts and in so doing we replace old memories with new ones. It is the same in the arts and sciences. We pursue excellence as a way to become famous and immortal. We know that the memory of our greatness, should we achieve it, will live forever. Even though the great one himself (artist, scientist, statesman) won't be there to enjoy the glory. Prince the musician performed dozens of amazing hits and touched the lives of millions of people worldwide. He will inspire generations of artists as long as transmissible data can keep his music alive. But what does this matter to the man himself, who is no longer around to witness the continued effect he has had on his listeners. Posthumous is just a fancy word for dead.

If in a dream you create an amazing invention which changes life as we know it - I wonder if there even is such a thing; all the traditional go-tos (cars, smartphones, plastic) are proving at least at times to be more trouble than they're worth - but assuming there is such a world-saving invention, like the cure for all cancers, or the remedy for global warming, and you are its creator, you'd be pretty confident that your name will be immortalized. At least in the dream. Because once you wake up, what does all that fame matter? What matters even the dream? It doesn't. Not a wit nor a jot. Or it does as much as, say, a game of Monopoly. It's only the playing of the game that counts, only the living of the life whether awake or asleep. 

Someone once said that genius is sterile. And while it is true that a few great artists, such as Dali and Balzac, never had any children, there are many greats who made breeding a virtual vocation. The composer JS Bach, who lived in the 1700s and is still the darling of the LA Philharmonic, sired 20 kids. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy had a few, too. 

But whether or not you have a hand in overpopulating the Earth, or whether your artistic/scholastic endeavors bear fruit, know this: you are already immortal. Should you never attain greatness, never perpetuate your family name through a new generation of offspring, this fact remains true. Your nature is timeless. 

Always ask yourself who you were before you were born. All religions have as their basis a belief in the One, the Absolute, the Eternal. Think of yourself as this One become the individual, rather than the individual at death merging back into spirit. Taking this approach makes it easier to bear a loved one's loss. Rather than say "mom died" say "the One who played mom has now merged back into Itself." It takes a while to get used to. This is how new languages are born. And it's easier than Esperanto.

Your life didn't begin at birth. This (your present existence) is merely one of infinite manifestations of spirit, and you (this spirit, this Eternal Absolute) takes part in each variation. Natural selection has guided our species' evolution. The "great trick" that so fascinated Charles Darwin requires just three basic components. A noise source to generate an array of solutions to a problem. A competitive ecosystem in which organisms interact and "solve" the problem of survival. And a storage system to save correct solutions for future use. In other words, spontaneous mutations, an external environment (nature), and a nucleotide sequence to pass down the advantages. 

So mutations are a good thing, as far as variation and survival are concerned. This is why mutations occur, why DNA repair enzymes are not perfect. But too many mutations, or mutations which do not produce favorable characteristics, are to the individual's detriment, and harm fitness. If these mutations occurred species wide then the entire human race could go extinct. Cancer is an example of a mutation that leads to an effect unfavorable to the individual. Unregulated cellular proliferation can cause organ failure and death. But most cancers strike the older person, who has passed through the reproductive window and replaced himself with one or more copies in the form of kids, with the help of a mate of course. We haven't evolved out of needing our other half, as the Greeks described. And most cancers do not effect the germ-line DNA so they are not passed down to the offspring. The funny thing is that the cancer cell is immortal. Unlike the other cells of the body, each with its own end date, the cancerous lesion lives forever. So it is through mutation that the organism gains the age-old aim of immortality - but at the expense of its own existence. How's that for a thank you? And parents think their kids are an energy suck! So if immortality is the aim, it seems better not to strive. Society hasn't taken the hint.

My father was recently diagnosed with a myeloproliferative disorder. This is a type of cancer of the bone marrow, causing it to produce too many blood cells. The result can be either bleeding and clotting or both, which if untreated can be life threatening. My dad learned of an association between coal ash and his condition (polycythemia vera, or PCV). It turns out that coal ash is high in a type of compound known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The specific genetic mutation involved in PCV (JAK2 on chromosome 9) has been linked to PAH exposure, though these hydrocarbons are associated with other types of cancer, and there are many other environmental sources of PAHs, which are pretty ubiquitous. Specifically, PAHs are formed during the incomplete burning of coal, oil, gas, wood, garbage, or other organic substances, such as tobacco and charbroiled meat. 


PAHs enter the environment mostly as releases to air from volcanoes, forest fires, residential wood burning, and exhaust from automobiles and trucks. The technology used by the waste-coal power plant in question (which is in Pennsylvania) results in higher levels of PAH than other technologies, which seems to explain the cluster of PCV cases in the area. There are also many of these power plants in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia. None are in California.

Since PAHs are the products of exhaust from automobiles and trucks as well as cigarette smoke and asphalt roads, not to mention cooking food at high temperatures, especially grilling/charring meat, my dad's history of smoking and eating red meat probably contributed more to his condition than waste-coal or even those steel mills he lived by as a kid in Ohio. There is no known cluster of PCV in the vicinity of steel plants, and my dad was diagnosed decades after he moved to California. So PAHs as products of coal burning probably did cause his genetic mutation, though his exposure to these chemicals was in large measure due to city living. Things like vehicle exhaust with a little help from those good ole habits of yore (meat and tobacco), which he has thankfully long-since kicked. A few PAHs are used in medicines and to make dyes, plastics, and pesticides. There is no getting around them it seems.

We evolved a system of DNA repair designed to produce enough mutations to ensure variability without taking out a large swath of the population. But this is precisely what cancer does. It seems our repair mechanisms are not keeping up with the changing environment. But maybe myeloproliferative disease and other cancers are nature's cure for overpopulation. I just hope she (Mother Nature) spares my parents for a bit longer. And me. But don't we all?

Of course if we lived more simply, drove less, took less medication, gave up plastic altogether, there'd be fewer PAHs around. Which means less cancer. And probably fewer people too. But until that time comes, and whether or not cancer is in your life, it helps to remember your ultimate reality, that you are eternal. Never forget this and pass it to your kids along with novel genes, such as the one for red hair, which is one mutation most of us know and I particularly love, especially in my little cousin Braden. These and other mutations help make the world such a colorful place.

Monday, May 9, 2016

ON SELF-STIMULATION



How's this for irony: I recently wrote a short piece extolling the virtues of masturbation, either with or without pornography, and by the end of the book I had decided to take a break from the habit myself - possibly for good. In the two weeks it took me to compose PORN! I watched a fair amount of explicit films, pleasured myself more than usual, and called it research. How else to really get to know the material than to dive in "head" first? Of course like most guys my age I have decades of practice in the art of self-stimulation. But in the course of my research I learned a lot about the age-old habit I didn't know before.

For example, the vast majority of kids discover their genitals and the pleasure they can bring by age 6. I didn't touch myself until aged 10. That my sexual awakening coincided with the onset of puberty is common to most young men. Many boys and girls masturbate by the age of 13. But there are those who do not discover the pleasures inherent in self-stimulation until they are in their 30s, and they often regret all the lost time. There are even a few percent in every poll that say they've never made themselves orgasm. Impossible though this may seem. It's like resisting a persistent itch. Almost everyone eventually scratches. Most develop quite a love affair with themselves, as I did from 13 to 30. A little alone time in the bathroom, the applied science of manual dexterity, the benefit of an erotic image or two, and - voila! - the crazed monkey of sexual desire stays in its cage rather than make you run out and hump a random's leg.

Men tend to masturbate more than women. A recent study conducted by the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior found that around one third of women in their twenties had not masturbated in the last year, while around 85 percent of guys that age had. Put another way, girls are twice as likely not to masturbate as guys. And guys masturbate more often, with 20 percent of twenty-year-olds doing it more than four times per week, compared to only around 5 percent of same-aged females. So an average guy is four times as likely as his girlfriend to masturbate more often than not. Many sex experts believe that if women masturbated as much as men, they'd be more sexually satisfied. 

The more often men ejaculate between the ages of 20 and 50, the less likely they are to suffer prostate cancer later in life. Especially if you ejaculate once daily in your 20s, which makes you a third less likely to get the disease when you're old. Frequent ejaculation may help flush out carcinogens that build up when seminal fluid remains in the prostatic ducts. A search on the Web reveals tons of claims about masturbation, from the reasonable - self-stimulating as much as 3 to 5 times per week manages premature ejaculation, helps prevent erectile dysfunction, improves sperm motility and increases sexual stamina - to the bizarre, like reducing nasal congestion. Who thought cleaning one's pipes meant those pipes? Ejaculation may help manage stress and depression through the release of the feel-good hormone oxytocin. It can bolster your immunity and improve your mood, though not always. And since the endorphins released in ejaculation are a natural pain-reliever, the excuse "I can't I have a headache" can be answered with "you can and you should." 

I also learned a lot about the physiology of ejaculation. For example I learned (or relearned what I had studied in med school) that spermatogenesis (the synthesis of sperm) occurs continuously throughout a guy's reproductive life, from puberty until senescence and often until a man's dying day: the world's oldest dad fathered a son at the age of 96. The testes produce 128 million sperm per day and sperm require 64 days to mature. The average guy typically ejaculates between 2 and 5 milliliters of semen, which is on average about a teaspoon. In each ml there are normally about 100 million sperm, so each "load" contains roughly 350 million haploid cells ready to penetrate an egg. If only a third as many sperm (128 million) mature per day as are in the average-sized load, the risk of depleting your stores by daily ejaculation seems to be a real one. But the continuous production ensures that it is impossible to fully exhaust yourself. Tomorrow is a new day, and new "baby batter" gets made.

Ninety percent of the volume of semen is composed of the combined secretions of the male accessory sex glands (prostate gland, seminal vesicles). These secretions reduce the acidity of the vagina and contain nutrients and sugars to feed the little swimmers. Which wankers needn't worry about because the gritters are going nowhere except down the drain. Sperm itself comprises only about 10 percent of semen. Of course temporary reductions will occur if you ejaculate several times per day, which is not uncommon for teenagers. But come often enough and you shoot blanks,  as a high school friend used to say. When the concentration falls below 20 million sperm per milliliter there can be trouble getting a girl pregnant. This is why, when evaluating a guy's semen, a fertility clinic will ask that he abstain from ejaculation for a few days to get an accurate assessment of baseline. A few days' time-out is a good thing now and then. As your load's size increases, the pleasure does too. 

As ejaculate sperm don't survive long at all, from a few minutes in masturbation to a few hours in a woman's vagina. If the little swimmers make their way into your steady's fallopian tube, however, they can thrive for several days in the warm, moist, non-acidic environment. If allowed to remain in the testicles, that is to say if you do not ejaculate, sperm live for a little over two months. After about 75 days, they die and are reabsorbed by the body. This sounds like a case of use them or lose them, though your body is able to recycle the cellular components in sperm for reuse in making new sperm and other cells.

Some schools view ejaculation as depleting one’s life force and thereby explain the fact that women (who unlike men do not lose their seed with orgasm but only once a month, with menstruation) outlive men by over five years. But if this theory held any water, women would die once they hit 50 and had depleted their supply of ova. And as Madonna and many other soon-to-be seniors are here to attest, it's not all about the ovaries. So I'm not convinced that more frequent ejaculation makes a person weaker or diminishes longevity. A few hundred million sperm may seem like an awful lot of cells to lose each day or however often you have sex or self-stimulate. But your body has 30 trillion cells. Each cell type, be it kidney or liver or blood or sperm, has its specific lifespan, after which it gets replaced. Red blood cells, for example, live 120 days before they are recycled. Some white cells only live 3 or 4 days. The cells lining your stomach live less than a week, as do the epithelial cells of your intestines. So whether you ejaculate or not, your body loses hundreds of millions of cells every day, and there is nothing you can do about it. Death is part of life. If the loss of a bunch of cells meant draining your life force, it would be a struggle to get through the next hour. But it's not (hopefully), because the body releases 180-million new red blood cells into the circulation every hour. The same happens with sperm cells, which are just another cell type, however uniquely-shaped. 

I've tested this theory, training for and competing in marathons while ejaculating thrice weekly and other times while abstaining from sex and masturbation altogether. My weekly mileage was the same (about 60 or 70 miles per week) and my finish times were exactly the same: 2 hours, 49 minutes. In fact, some weeks I have run more when masturbating more, though this may be some sort of compensatory behavior, as is the case with the night prowler who after a bender makes himself get out of bed and slog through five miles. (True confession.) Also, I haven't seen any difference in my literary output or mood whether I masturbate or have sex or keep it in my pants. And self-experiments are the ones I trust the most. Even the guilt I still sometimes struggle with after masturbating does not mean that the habit is somehow bad. I feel guilty when I take a day off from exercising, though I know my body needs the extra rest and I always feel extra energy the following morning. I blame the nuns, who told us premarital sex was a sin, and this included self-stimulation.

Even so, abstaining from sex can’t hurt and might extend your life, albeit one in which you are alone and asexual, which to some is not a life worth living. But browse Internet discussions about masturbation and you hear the same story repeated in endless renditions: abstaining from ejaculation is a worthy endeavor. It can bring mental clarity, increased energy and even enliven one's romantic relationship. Even a few days or weeks is enough to replenish stores and hit the refresh button on your mojo. If you're alone that means taking a spanking holiday. If you're in a relationship, your gal needs to be on board. To convince her, you can offer her the services of your tongue. 

But really, even taking a masturbation vacation is just another form of novelty. It replaces the novel sex scenes you are prohibiting yourself from viewing for however many days or weeks and all the while you feel a sense of accomplishment, a refreshing euphoria. Finally something new! But beware the rebound. After going a year without sex or much masturbation I found myself tossing off a couple times a day for an entire month. I wasn't exercising due to injury, so this low-grade physical exertion doubled as my work-out for the day. Life seeks balance and after self-imposed celibacy I was experiencing the other extreme.

And of course masturbation is the most effective method of contraception that also happens to be STD free. But the words of one urologist gave me pause. The optimal amount of masturbation, says this expert, is the frequency in which wet dreams occur. Since many men don't have a wet dream but once in a decade, there seems to be little physiological need for ejaculation if you're not making babies. Other than because it feels good. Which is also the reason we eat meat and snort coke, so pleasure may not be the best criterion to go by as far as health goes. When I took that 8-month spanking holiday I didn't have a nocturnal emission for several months. Which is an argument for masturbating three times a year at most, rather than as many times in a day, as many do.

There is some evidence that too much ejaculation can cause lingering physiological changes. When men ejaculated an average of 2.4 times per day for 10 days, their sperm output remained low for nearly half a year.  Many men are now recording unwanted symptoms post-ejaculation. One psychiatrist noted that the neurochemical changes after orgasm mimic those observed in depression and anxiety. Which may mean that in today's porn-heavy environment the emphasis on coming so often could be churning out a generation of basket cases. But pornstar Peter North, who has appeared in over 2500 adult films, ejaculating probably three times in each, not to mention in whatever social life he has on the side, still looks pretty sharp. At 58, he hardly has any gray hair, is taut and sinewy, and in interviews he always seems to be smiling - although looks can be deceiving. For every argument there is a counter-argument. Too much or not enough of a good thing seems to be the million dollar question. To answer it, you must submit yourself to the test. In the laboratory of life, conduct your own experiment of one and share the results with whoever cares to listen. Be prepared that few will, because even in these liberating times choking the chicken is still a sensitive subject for most.

At this point I've abstained from masturbation for exactly one month and will remain celibate (synonyms include continent and chaste - the 3 Cs) at least until I have a wet dream, however long it takes. I even allow for the possibility that masturbation may go the way of alcohol, which for years had been a daily habit of mine which these days I hardly ever enjoy. And wouldn't this be fitting? There are five physical vices, or non-essential sense pleasures, if you will: masturbation, alcohol, meat, tobacco and drugs. I started masturbating regularly at the age of 12, started drinking occasionally in high school, smoking cigarettes around high school graduation, eating meat in college, and partaking of all manner of drugs from my mid 20s to mid 30s. I have given up each habit in reverse order. My drug use ended first, probably because it was relatively short-lived and hadn't the time to gather as much momentum and become "such a part of me" as, say, masturbation. The last time I snorted cocaine was just after I graduated medical school at 35 in March, 2008. I gave up meat and dairy a year later after my first year of residency. Stopped smoking cigars in 2011 and gave up alcohol starting in 2013. Ejaculating would therefore be next and last on the list of past-times to permanently eliminate from my life. And now seems to be as good a time as ever. Which I suppose means having no more sex either. For someone who doesn't like to be tied down, lifelong chastity is a bit of a commitment. But I have had more than my share of kicks. And holidays needn't always involve an ocean view. There's Kardashian's back-side too, if you're into that sort of thing. But I like my honeys lean.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

21ST CENTURY GENTLEMAN


In the film Big Lebowski, the protagonist, known simply as the Dude, is asked what makes a man. Is it a "life of achievement, challenges met, competitors bested, obstacles overcome?" Is it "being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost?" Is that what makes a man?

In his quite entertaining and sorely under-purchased book on being a man, TIME's columnist Joel Stein describes a series of adventures which he hopes will adequately prepare him to be the father of a son. He fights former UFC champion Randy Couture, repairs things, performs obstacles with the military, and other stuff we often associate with manliness, at least conventionally. Towards the end of his tale Stein writes that "being a man is about the sacrifices we make every moment by not surrendering to childishness: going to work, being faithful, telling the truth when the truth is ugly, taking care of others." That's what being a man is. But Stein is joking. He actually does associate manliness with fighting, shooting things, and playing sports. 

We can forgive him because he's funny and you should read his book. But before you do let's seriously examine the topic for ourselves. The man that I was raised to believe in and wished to become was the "strong, silent type," the guy who didn't complain, who would "grin and bear it" when the going got tough. Much of this was my father's doing. That's how he was raised himself. When I'd complain about a teacher or a coach or some teenage obligation I thought pointless, my dad would hold up his hand and rubbing his thumb against his ring finger he'd say "Know what this is? The world's smallest violin playing just for you." As if to stay stop feeling sorry for yourself and get 'er done. 

But my dad was generally not very happy himself. He had black moods. He'd sulk. He was often irritable, when he wasn't preoccupied. Often I'd tell him about my day and get the distinct feeling he wasn't listening to me. He had a lot on his mind. My mom says a lot of his grumpiness was due to the stress of being a lawyer, and the anxieties of caring for his family. I never verified this, because dad didn't like to talk about his day, and he'd never complain. Essentially he was living for his wife and kids, getting up early to get us to school, breaking his back at the office to give us the best life he could manage, replete with healthy meals, college preparatory schools, nice cars, and toys to match whatever hobby it was that week. Now that I'm all grown up my dad likes to reminisce about those times when I was in my early teens and I'd call him after midnight to come pick me up from my friend's house/the movies/a party. He'd awaken from deep sleep and tear himself out of bed and stagger to the door in a haze, dreading every step. As I remember it he never seemed to mind fetching me. The car ride was just really quiet. And in not letting me in, maybe my dad was a lot like other dads, both then and now. 

Parents live for their kids. There's a lady that lives on my street and I watch her come and go with her two young children in tow sometimes as many as several times a day. I think of all the dental appointments, pediatrician visits, sports and camps and musical lessons that my mother took me and my brothers to, and to the local pizzeria afterwards for a large pie when we were especially well-behaved, and I imagine this lady is doing the same. Just to a different pizza place, because Mario's closed some time ago. Because most of what a mom or a dad does each day, weekends included, is done for the sake of the kids. They chauffeur us and our friends around, help us with our homework, serve as impromptu coaches and counselors, not to mention cooks and maids and breadwinners. And all those presents! 

Really, a parent is a slave to his or her seed. And I think many parents would say that the job is rewarding, at least enough to justify doing it. But the message that fathers and teachers convey to kids is precisely the message Stein didn't learn in his travels and adventures. Go to work, be faithful, take care of others. But what about the individual? What about ourselves? If I am overworked and unhappy providing for a child who grows up to become overworked and unhappy providing for my grandchild, all we get is a lot of unhappiness. If paying it forward leaves you in debt in the satisfaction department, it's probably best to play a different game. It would be better for the human race to go extinct than for parents to do what they don't want to do as they raise kids do to the same. I say, don't. 

Find what it is that you love and do it as often as you can. If having kids will require you to do more of what you love than you would like, or force you into a line of work that you deplore, then reconsider becoming a parent. Not too long ago the actor Alec Baldwin told David Letterman that having a child at 57 means he will need to work till he's at least 75. He didn't seem to mind this. I don't think I'd mind being Alec Baldwin. The winner of numerous Emmys, Golden Globes and other awards must love what he does, expletive-filled rants aside. The man even got to star in Beetlejuice, lucky bastard. On accepting his induction into the 2016 Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, Chicago founding member Lee Loughnane thanked his three ex-wives for assuring that he'll need to play music for money for the rest of his life. He seemed okay with this. Understandable because he's one helluva trumpet player. Unlike him, I haven't found anything that I really like doing and do well enough to be paid handsomely. Or maybe I'm just not that easy to please.

It's Mother's Day tomorrow and family and friends are assembling at my brother's house with their respective uteruses. I really don't relish these get-togethers. Every year it's basically the same people, the same food, the same or similar setting, the same conversations. It's all nice, but nice is sometimes a bit of a drag. To think if I had a kid I'd have at least one additional annual event to celebrate (in the form of a birthday), not to mention all those gifts! So much convention is unappealing to me. If it's not the same for you, then be my guest. Perhaps you already have. If so, congrats. My love to the kids. But don't break your back being a mom/dad. Do what you love, and if you get too stressed or anxious, for God's sake say something. Stop will do. Let your family in on your stress. It may save your life, and your marriage. Learn from my father's mistake.

If we stopped being slaves to convention, asked for help for a change, put a fresh spin on all the tired engagements and material effects and aimless distractions that have become part and parcel of modern family life, even I may give child-rearing a try. Until then, I'm happy to be my own best friend. And to enjoy my nights of uninterrupted shut-eye.

In response to his interviewer's question, the Dude jokes that a pair of testicles are what really makes a man. I know some women who'd disagree.

Friday, May 6, 2016

THE ROYAL PAIN


Midway through the first year of my medical residency I hit a snag. Colorado Novembers are cold, and I was feeling down. Seasonal affective disorder is real, I'm here to announce. Also, I have always had a penchant for flouting authority, and during my month in the newborn nursery (the place where babies are made) I decided not to wear scrubs like the other residents. My recalcitrance was not merely for its own sake. Rather, I had clinic in the afternoon and changing into slacks and a dress shirt during my 30-minute lunch/commute to the other side of town was just too much of a hassle. Besides, I wasn't delivering these babies. I was just changing their diapers and sometimes circumcising them, and the little peckers hardly bleed. Of course my reluctance to go along with the program was reflected in my evaluation. That and the fact that I didn't show up once or twice for overnight call. I'm just not a night person. And really with two other pediatric residents I was merely a third wheel. Or is the phrase "fifth"? Anyway, my waywardness ensued, because there are many ways to say insubordination.

In my 12-hour shifts at the hospital the following month I played the part of lackey, as all interns do. It was my job to fulfill all the whims of my upperclassmen and attendings. Get a hepatitis panel on this patient with fatigue who has heart disease. Why not? Of  course it will come back negative, and never mind the $500 the test costs taxpayers, just do it. My attendings wouldn't order me specifically to do these things. They'd just suggest it aloud, as if to the wind, and the implication was that I was supposed to carry it out. I sometimes didn't and got docked again. And so it was that on the morning of December 18th I got called into the program director's office. Where was the spring in my step? Dr. Burke wanted to know. "I'm just not doing anything for these patients," I replied. What good was it to add a third anti-hypertensive to the two that Patient X was not taking anyway, out of laziness or lack of funds. We all know that heart disease and diabetes are diet-related, so shouldn't the focus be on preventing these conditions rather than throwing drugs at them? Even more irksome, I had no idea how to effectively treat the most common ailments. I can't tell you how many patients came in because of pain. Neck pain. Low back pain. Wrist pain. Some just wanted me to refill their Vicodin script. But others hadn't resorted to pain meds yet. And so I started them along the path. I once sent a patient home with these ungainly wrist splints because I thought she might have carpal tunnel syndrome. What an inconvenience for her! And how useless! But with fewer side effects than Percocet, so there's at least that. In many cases I was so nonplussed that I'd throw some of the softer drugs at these run of the mill conditions, knowing full well that Advil can cause stomach ulcers and kidney problems. But what else was I to do, shrug my shoulders and say I cannot help you?

The program director broke it down for me. "My mentor once told me that of all the patients he treated, he had helped a third, harmed a third, and done nothing for a third. And this was after a distinguished career as head of the hospital." I replied that it would have been better for his patients if said physician never practiced medicine. Because without his meddling, the patients he harmed would have fallen into the other two categories: they'd either have gotten better on their own or just remained the same. This did get a laugh. As it turned out December 18th was the day my brother passed away, eight years earlier. I seek out the symbolic, so it was also the day I died as a doctor. Just gave up. It was either change the system, which I couldn't do, or let the system change me, which I was unwilling to have happen. I never wanted to be the pill-pusher type, get them in get them out, harm a third and do nothing for a third and hope the third I help somehow make up for it. Nevertheless I stuck it out the academic year, but come August I packed my things and it was out of Dodge, er, Denver. 

And I almost never look back, except to preface what I am about to say, which is that doctors, though trained to diagnose and manage life-threatening conditions, are ill-suited to treat those common ailments which may not kill you but are so uncomfortable as to make you almost wish you were dead. And treatment is never as effective as prevention anyway. Your best bet is to prevent heart disease and diabetes and cancer from ever happening (with diet and exercise) rather than manage these conditions when you have them. As for pain, which is a huge bane on society, it is best to take matters into your own hands, literally. Touch yourself. This is never more the case than with neck pain. A family member recently developed a kink in her neck. She was coloring her hair and keeping her hands above her head and at an awkward angle for so long excessively strained her muscles. It got so bad she couldn't look to the side except by rotating at the hip. I told her that I could relate, because I had experienced intractable neck pain for years. It was during my medical training that the first signs of what would become a chronic condition appeared. Initially it was just an occasional twinge in the morning, as if I had slept funny. In class I sat in the front corner, so I'd have to crane my neck to look at the black board. The pain worsened. In clinical training I had a really hard-nosed attending who kept us so on edge that my neck pain became a daily inconvenience, my cross to bear, but after the rotation ended it went away, so I chalked it up to stress. 

In residency the pain returned and some mornings turning my head was so uncomfortable that I had a hard time backing my car out of the driveway. It got to the point that a simple set of push-ups was often enough to bring on a spasm, which ran from my shoulder blade to the back of my head and around to my temple and even involved the muscles between my shoulders, not to mention my deltoid and upper arm. Sometimes the headache was a migraine-type. So I did what I told my patients to do: I took anti-inflammatories. To no avail. There is a reason the expression evolved. "A pain in the neck" represents a real nuisance, something that is with you wherever you go. There are few things as bad as a pain in the neck, whether literal or not. When you have neck pain, it's all you can think about. Not the patients you need to see, and the orders you need to write - some mornings I had to travel several flights of stairs and examine as many as 12 patients before 9 am, "in the snow and uphill both ways," as they say - or even whether or not to wear scrubs. You become monomaniacal, obsessed with the aching, squirrely type pain and wishing it will "just get off my back!" And with the weather so cold you are even grumpier and so you flout authority all the more. 

But I did go in for an X-ray and ultrasound, which came back negative. The sports medicine doctors were just as nonplussed as I had been with my patients in clinic. Here I was in excruciating pain that was as intractable as it was incapacitating, much like myself. And all they could do for me was shrug and say keep taking Advil. This was what I'd tell my patients, so I was getting a taste of my own medicine, figuratively. And it's a bitter pill, literally. Because when you're on the receiving end of a royal a$$ f*&king, you don't take it lightly. Of course my shoulder hurt too much to be up in arms.

It was only after leaving medicine that I discovered the most common cause of neck pain, which is muscle strain. The strain arises most often in the shoulders, involving the trapezius muscles. But it also can plague the levator scapulae (the muscle involved in turning your head to the side), the scalenes (accessory muscles of breathing lying in the front of your neck) as well as the supraspinatus and other rotator cuff muscles. With the aid of a massage tool and my fingers, and with an anatomy book open in front of me, I spent about six weeks massaging every muscle in my body. What a way to get to know oneself. Full-body masturbation. I also had to become very mindful of things like my posture, aggravating activities like working the mouse or persistently turning my head in one direction, as well as sleep positions. It's funny. Most associate mindfulness with sitting cross-legged and chanting some mantra with a group of other tree-huggers, but the real meditation begins when you get up and go about your day. You must bring this awareness with you wherever you go. Really inhabit your body. Effective pain relief is won no other way.

It took two years to finally overcome my condition, and during this time I felt like a guy cursed with an imaginary monkey astride my shoulders. But this story has a happy ending. I am now pain-free, pretty much. So, good for me. But I often think back to all those patients I treated for migraines in the ER by throwing strong sedative drugs at them, and all those poor people in clinic to whom I could only prescribe ibuprofen, which is available over the counter anyway. If only I knew then what I have learned since and what conventional medicine fails to teach!

Which is why I say to you: Take it from a patient whom the doctor couldn't help, who was also that doctor. Do it yourself. The cure to many of life's ills lies in your reliable hands.



The martial artist Ronda Rousey famously said that pain is just information. It is, and if you heed your body's warnings, it can be very useful. Your body is trying to communicate with you, and lacking a tongue of its own it does so in the form of nerve signals, which convey "ouch." Don't mask the pain with meds. After a while you'll only wind up like Prince, God rest him. Listen to your body. Touch the spots that hurt. Your hands are magic. Cease aggravating efforts. Get to know the nature of your symptoms. Doctors are trained to ask patients a group of questions called the Sacred Seven, which help get a handle on a condition. These questions are 1. Quality of pain; 2. Quantity of pain (on a scale of 1-10, 10 being pain that makes you cry); 3. Timing (Onset, Frequency, Duration), 4. Location; 5. Associated symptoms; 6. Aggravating Factors; 7. Alleviating Factors. 

Doctors never asked me these questions. Many med students leave them behind once class lets out and rely on the quick fix which drugs are believed to provide, and sometimes do but with gnarly side effects. Had a doctor asked, I'd have replied that the pain was a dull aching sort on the right side of my neck but also involving my right shoulder and head, always around a 5 on the pain scale but as high as an 8 or 9 when I'd aggravate it (usually with resistance exercise); the pain came on gradually starting in medical school as a weekly occurrence and at the time of residency had progressed to an everyday reality, associated with difficulty elevating my arm and not alleviated by Advil, and which at its worst could last for a couple days before letting up a little and remaining a constant pain in my neck. A royal pain, as they say. 

These simple questions, which you should ask yourself, go very far in uncovering the nature of any ailment. And as I learned, the answers to these questions are often more effective than fancy imaging tests to arrive at the correct diagnosis. Which for me was muscle strain. A fancy term for which is trigger points. I had simply stressed my muscles for long enough (starting as a teenage baseball player throwing the ball farther and harder than I should have, then continuing the stress with arm wrestling and heavy weight training and competitive swimming) till finally my muscles (the dominant side, not coincidentally) locked up and required intensive care to restore function - provided I cease aggravating them. Which meant cutting down on repetitive motions, like masturbating. Because vigorously rubbing yourself ten minutes a day every day for decades with the same arm takes its toll. So I started self-stimulating with the left hand. Sometimes I've even abstained entirely, like this past month, which is another topic altogether.

My point is: If you are plagued by pain, you can at most be your own doctor and at least complement the efforts of your physician to make you feel yourself again. Good luck. There is still a place for physicians. Only a doctor can rule out other causes for pain such as vitamin deficiency and pinched nerves, but my advice is to target most common causes first, and this would be muscle strain. This goes also for SAD or other depressive conditions. Like pain, your mood is your body's way of telling you something. Get sun. Supplement with vitamin D. Exercise, preferably outdoors. Minimize consumption of animal products. If your job or relationship is a source of dissatisfaction, determine whether an exit strategy is required. You may need to get out of Dodge yourself, especially if it snows. Because artificial light therapy doesn't really work, don't you know.

Like pain, your mood can guide you back into the light of living authentically. Provided that you make appropriate adjustments, and minimal if any use of medication. Here's to drug-free and pain-free living.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

DO IT YOURSELF


I recently took part in a discussion about food, which I enjoy almost as much as eating food, which is a lot - if the food is well-prepared. Which is what this piece is about, if I can just get past this paragraph.

While swapping our favorite dishes I asked a friend whether he likes to cook. "I used to," he replied. "But I no longer have the time." This friend is a successful business owner, so his reply seems justified. Or does it? 

The line dividing self-sufficiency on one side and dependency on the other is not etched in stone. And it seems to meander steadily in the direction of dependency the farther we go in life, as we climb both the ladder of success as well as that of age. Indeed we start out completely dependent on our guardians. We require our parents or their surrogates to feed us, bathe us, clothe us and coddle us. As we emerge from the toddler stage we grow more independent. We are able to brush our teeth, make our beds and tie our shoelaces. The more enterprising venture into food preparation, even if this means merely spreading peanut butter and jelly between two pieces of bread and mashing them together. By college even the biggest mama's boy is at least able to microwave ramen. 

A mark of coming up in the world seems to be how much of life's basic necessities we can pay others to do for us. We take our cars in to be washed. We hire maids to clean our houses, nannies to raise our kids. We go in for mani pedis. There are dentists and hairdressers and secretaries, not to mention accountants and dog walkers and masseurs. Some even have personal assistants to do their grocery shopping and buy their clothes and run their errands. The friend in question often hires a personal chef when he entertains to make vegan meals for his guests. But only on occasion. He is not yet at the level of Prince, who had a live-in cook make him food on demand. His famous last meal, something involving kale and beets, was found in the refrigerator, untouched. I'm sure this is no reflection on the chef's talents, only that with a stomach full of pills our beloved artist wasn't all that hungry.

Jimmy Kimmel once interviewed Tom Cruise and asked him about his morning routine. "Well I get out of bed and brush my teeth," said the star. To which Kimmel jokingly replied, "You mean you don't have an army of attendants to do that for you?" Because there are things that even the richest and most successful still insist on doing for themselves. Brushing teeth and washing pits and wiping butts are among these. "What, do you want me to do hold your dick for you?" is funny because it's the last straw. That is, we attend to our own toilet until we become incontinent, at which point we are dropped off at a geriatric facility and cared for by strangers. How demeaning! Though some dementia sufferers are so confused they can't even recognize their own relatives, at which point everyone becomes a stranger. Many of these patients are happy most of the time. What does this say? You can be like my Chinese neighbors. The Chinese are famous for their multi-generational homes. Often the grandparents and even great grandparents share a roof with their children and their children's children. Mr. and Mrs. Chang have their aged matriarch at home with them, and a nurse who comes every day, weekends included, to care for her. I bet grandma longs for the day when she could spoon herself her own ramen, let alone make it. 

Which brings me to my point. Where along the spectrum of self-sufficiency do you reside? Which of life's basic necessities do you perform for yourself, and which do you outsource to others?

When I was a young lad my family had a live-in housekeeper, to assist my mom, who was a stay-at-home housewife, with things like cleaning and cooking. Mom would do the grocery shopping, often with us in tow. But it was often Thelma, and after her Chloe, who would pack our lunches and make our dinner, with my mom's input and cooperation. Chloe would make french fries, mom would steam the broccoli and bake the lasagna. All I had to do was make my bed. Being relatively chore-free meant I could focus my energies almost exclusively on sports and school. And I did really well in both areas, because I didn't have to think about what to make for dinner or when to do my laundry. When homework was done and practice over, I could turn my attention to the girlies, and an active social life represented the third S in my adolescent repertoire. Ah, the halcyon days!

When I started college I was in for a rude awakening. Our maid moved back to Guatemala, my mom started working full-time, and so my brothers and I were left to fend for ourselves. My room wasn't going to clean itself, nor my underwear wash itself, nor my dinner cook itself. I was suddenly in charge of fulfilling these basic necessities and initially I struggled. Because I was also a student who waited tables and enjoyed mammoth weight-lifting sessions at the gym, so I was sore all the time. Luckily the learning curve was steep. One word: bleach. Great for laundry, great for tile grime, great even for carpet stains. Pour bleach on pretty much anything and it will disappear. Including the lining of my stomach, when I accidentally ingested some. Cooking was a habit slow to develop, and so I outsourced it for my entire twenties. Subway foot long sandwiches were a mainstay, as were seven-layer burritos from Taco Bell. The food court at UCLA had a great Panda Express with eggplant to die for and spicy noodles that still make my mouth water. Sure, I got good at boiling pasta and scrambling eggs, even making sandwiches - after all I called myself a bodybuilder and for the muscle-head such spartan meals are de regueur  - but my culinary expertise pretty much stopped at steamed broccoli.

It wasn't until I hit my 30s that I began making all my own meals. All that restaurant fare made me feel real sluggish, and no longer an iron monger I noticed a spare tire developing around my middle. Besides, eating out is not easy on the wallet. The same ingredients that go into a Baja Fresh burrito, which costs $7.00, can be had for a pittance at the store. Initially I'd just snack all day on fruit and nuts and pick up a big dinner at El Pollo Loco, effectively cutting my food bill in half, but I was so famished come the evening that I'd overindulge in those tasty sides, and there's only so much macaroni and cheese and gravy drenched mashed potatoes you can eat without blimping out. In medical school I prepared my own lunch and dinner out of necessity. There were hardly any restaurants on the island I inhabited for 2 years. By then I was in the habit of playing chef. Because no matter how busy you are, you can always find time to open a can of beans and mix it with some tinned peas. A favorite staple of mine. Preparation time: as fast as you can work the opener.

I once went over a year without patronizing a restaurant. I mentioned this to a family friend and he was stupefied because he eats out every day. And this is a different friend than the one I mentioned above, but maybe he's not unlike you. Now, after a dozen years of almost exclusively making my own food, when I do consume fare that others have prepared I feel hung over the next day. Even the healthiest-seeming food almost always has hidden ingredients that make the stickler cringe. My palate is so pure I find that even my own mother, who raised me to love whatever she makes, overly salts lentils and douses kale in olive oil. I am more sensitive to this than I was as a teenager because I have become accustomed to my own seasoning methods, which are sparing. And the excuse for eating overly-cooked, overly-sauced foods you grew up on falls flat. I ate cheese pizza most every week until my early thirties, but in the seven years since becoming vegan I have eaten it only once and don't miss it at all. Taste buds after all have a very short life span of about 10 days. 

Suffice it to say that of all the things you can do for yourself, cooking is one of the most important. Making your own meals is really just as crucial as eating them, if a lifetime of health is your goal, as well as washboard abs. So keep food preparation on the side of brushing teeth and tying shoe laces and wiping your fanny. It is one of the things about which you should say, "I got this." And if you do, you'll be wiping your fanny less, due to stool that is less greasy. Unless like my mom you go heavy on the oil.