Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Presidents' Day: Washington Rules; Lincoln Loses

Yesterday, as workers and people who like to check their snail-mail know, was President's Day.  Or was it?  Is this a trick question about the placement of the apostrophe after the final "s"?  Isn't Presidents' Day an amalgam for the two presidents we used to celebrate separately: Abraham Lincoln and George Washington?

I drove by my local elementary school, and on its signboard since last week was: February 21, Happy Birthday, Washington!  When you search "Presidents' Day" on Wikipedia, you're re-directed to Washington's Birthday.  The website whitehouse.gov has info on the presidents, and even a slideshow; if you search "Presidents' Day," you get 4,644 results, but about the holiday--nada.

Turns out I've been making a common mistake. There's no Presidents' Day, and it's not a snub to Lincoln, nor is it an indiscriminate salute to all presidents, no matter their competence or favor.  Seems "Presidents' Day" is more of a commercial invention to lure shoppers on their day off.

Apparently, states have the option to observe federal holidays or not, and some chose to have a separate birthday celebration for Abraham Lincoln, as well as George Washington. When I was a kid in California, we got February 12 and 22 off school, to celebrate Lincoln and Washington, respectively, on their birthdays.  OK, it's true that Washington was born on February 11, 1732, because at his birth, the Julian calendar was used. When the colonies switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, his birthday became February 22.

In any case, seeds for the demise of recognition for individual presidents were sown with the 1968 Uniform Holidays Bill, which stationed most federal holidays on Mondays.  Washington kept his day, but because it became the third Monday in February, it could never be his actual birthday, the 22nd.

Lincoln? Well, he never had a federal holiday, anyway.  And when Martin Luther King provided Americans a day off in January, his fate was sealed.  Workers now had MLK day in January, Washington's Birthday in February, spring vacation in March, Easter in April, Memorial Day in May...

So Monday was officially Washington's birthday, according to the federal calendar.  I'm happy with that, because he was indeed "the father of our country," and never had his own children to fete him.  A new USA Today poll shows Americans have short memories when it comes to presidential achievements.  Asked "Who do you regard as as the greatest United States president?" respondents named Ronald Reagan by a significant margin (19%) followed by Abraham Lincoln (14%), Bill Clinton (13%), John F. Kennedy (11%) and George Washington (10%). Clinton's huge popularity is astonishing to me, given that he was impeached, but perhaps most surprising was that Barack Obama, after just two controversial years in office, garnered 7th place, with 5%.

All presidents are not equally worthy of honor, and I'm confident that historians have a better vantage than the public.  Americans could use some history lessons, as well as better skill at evaluating leaders' accomplishments. But I'm relieved that Monday's holiday still commemorates one man, and that he is deserving of reverence as well as department-store sales.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

New Dietary Guidelines: Hailed, Hackneyed and--a Cause of Obesity?

Big praise everywhere for the brand-new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, just released by the US Departments of Agriculture and Health. But why?

Apparently, previous guidelines had tip-toed on eggshells so as not to offend well-subsidized farmers and interest groups.  Fast food corporations pay good money in taxes, so the Feds didn't want to suggest that Supersized Fries should feed three, or that the Colonel quit serving chick wings you have to blot with paper towels to eat.

The Guidelines come out every five years by law, and the last one, in 2005, had very similar recommendations, just in less directive language. We've all been hammered with this same nutritional info since the first report in 1980. Every kid who's ever taken Health in junior high school has been tested on it.  Anyone who walks down a supermarket aisle gets a refresher course: "Now, with more fiber!" reads a label.  "And here's a great way to get those five servings of fruits and veggies!" chirps some food guru on a flat-screen TV in the produce section or over the check-out stand.

Let's see, do we want the margarine with the trans-fats or without??  The boastful red ZERO on the tub assures us no grams of that nasty heart-clogger lurk inside.

The problem is that despite redundant emphasis on less sweet and processed food, more fruits and veggies, more fiber and whole grains, less soda and salt--you know the drill--Americans have just gotten fatter.  Frankly, the statistics on obesity are a bit different from what we're led to believe, and I'll discuss them momentarily, but the result of the Feds' urging us to watch our dietary consumption is the opposite of their aim.  Knowledge and ubiquitous publicity about "shoulds" of nutrition have only brought a chunkier population. At the conclusion of this post, I'll tell you why.

In any case, with Michelle Obama adopting obesity-remediation as her personal campaign, we're sure to hear more...and more about it. Let's move!

Obesity stats: First off, a major caveat that the Centers for Disease Control uses the measure of BMI, "body mass index," which is notoriously crude, but all we've got. Every few years, statisticians of the NHANES program of the National Center for Health Statistics go out and take measurements on a sample using consistent methods, and classify subjects into three categories of heft, "overweight," "obese," and "extremely obese."

Now, here's the interesting thing: For adults over age 20, the "overweight," (BMI between 25 and 30) percentage of the population has stayed consistent for 50 years.  It was 31.5% in 1960-62, and 32.3 at the next measurement, 1971-4, compared to the latest figures from 2007-8 when 33.6% were overweight.  In 2005-6, "overweight" subjects were 32.2%, a tenth of a percentage LOWER than the figure for 1971-74.

The situation for the category called "obese," (BMI between 30 and 40) expanded from 13.4% at the 1960-62 first measurement to 15% in 1980. But then--at the next measurement (1988-94), there was a jump to 23.2%. And by the following measure, 1999-2000, the "obese" category swelled to 30.9%. That's a one-hundred-percent increase in just ten years! If people continued ballooning at the same pace, we'd expect to see 60% of the population "obese" by 2010--what a thought!

But there's a different outcome. Let me quote Katherine M. Flegal, et. al, a foremost researcher on obesity trends, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, (January 20, 2010—Vol 303, No. 3, page 235):

"In 2007-2008, the prevalence of obesity was 32.2% among adult men and 35.5% among adult women. The increases in the prevalence of obesity previously observed do not appear to be continuing at the same rate over the past 10 years, particularly for women and possibly for men."

Finally, stats regarding the "extremely obese" (BMI more than 40) are downright scary. In 1962, just .9% of the population--less than one percent--fell into that category. By 1976-80, the percentage was up to 1.4%. At the next measurement, 1988-94, the percentage doubled, to 3.0; by 2000 it was 5.0, and by 2005-6, it was 6.2%. The latest (2008) numbers show a slight drop, to 6.0%. The percentage of "extremely obese" mushroomed five hundred percent from 1962.

Why do I go through all these figures? Because they show that in the 20 years between 1980 and 2000, the rate of obesity skyrocketed. But it varied little before and after that period. Curious.

Do we blame those twenty years of thickening on McDonald's (which already had 1,000 restaurants by 1968) and fast food? On companies that added thousands of products to store shelves to answer working women's demand for convenience? On sloth encouraged by TV and the new lure of computer games? Or...could it be due to a virus (adenovirus 36)?  Hard to tell.

And do you believe it's education that suddenly stopped that steep climb in obesity a decade ago?

The authors of the 112 pages of the current "Dietary Guidelines"  (really only 59 pages of written content before all the appendices) would have us think so. Their recommendations are written in such lofty, vague, sweeping, academic and sometimes, hysterically funny prose as to render them flaccid.  And of course, the document recommends lots more government studies and commissions and interventions and regulations and education efforts as the way to shrink the citizenry. And inflate the budget.

Then, in a final chapter, the Guidelines acknowledge:
Although more consumer education is needed on achieving calorie balance, meeting nutrient needs, and staying physically active, information alone does not lead to behavior change.

Yes, that's right. You can lead a kid to water, but you can't make him drink (if there's soda handy), as the barage of healthy-eating information over the last thirty years has demonstrated.  Additional commissions and partnerships and studies likely won't work to reduce us either, if propping fan mags featuring skinny movie stars right where you buy your food can't inspire purchasers to slim down.  Shoppers ingest the magazine's cheesecake photos as they're loading their Haagen Dazs onto the conveyor belt.

Every market contains vegetables, a far wider variety of them than when I was growing up, including microwave-ready pouches you just nuke for five minutes and fork into.  Just about everyone has access to healthy food as well as the simply satisfying kind, the neck-up tranquilizers that offer rewarding crunches to salve frustration, or creamy smoothness to comfort.  Anybody can put on tennis shoes and go for a jog, or a walk, or climb the stairs in the building--they just don't.  The Guidelines are likely useless, but okay, if they mean there will be less junk in junk food, great.

I believe, however, that the Guidelines and experts telling Americans what they should eat and do are actually causing obesity, because they teach us to not trust our own instincts, to detach from our natural signals of hunger and satiation, and to override the internal mechanism that tells us what it is our bodies need right then.

If we could stop saying that sugar and ice cream are "bad" and celery and apples are "good," we just might clear the way to understand what our naturally thin grandparents did:  you eat when you're hungry, eat what pleases you, and move on to other activities when comfortably sated.  If it were possible to respect our individual likes and dislikes and toss out pyramids that once were squares, perhaps we could be at peace enough to relax about food and get on with actually developing our talents and minds and accomplishments.

One of the most humorous parts of the Dietary Guidelines is a silly diagram (6:1) of all the influences on people's eating and exercise habits.  Using colored ovals and arcs, we get a list of everything a bunch of people could brainstorm, including religion, community design and safety, food service and retail establishments, body image.  The one influence on what we eat that was completely absent from the 24 items packed into 4 sub categories was--body cues.  Hunger.

In other words, the authors of the august Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 believe eating choices are completely determined by factors external to the body consuming the food.

Certainly, the choice of particular foods that might satisfy one's body needs is shaped by factors like the cuisine of his family, or what's available.  But what's behind the idea of, say, "I feel like having a hamburger" versus "feeling like" having any other item on the menu?  The Dietary Guidelines would have us disregard the natural messages that tell us what we need nutritionally in favor of chewing some tasteless whole-grain lump, or even a tasty whole-grain lump that wasn't what our bodies needed at that moment.

I realize I'm going against the grain, but the Guidelines' emphasis on distinguishing bad from good foods turns attention from the primary source of food choices, which should be the body's communication of its needs, rather than a Federal Department or even the First Lady.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"Just Go With It" flick better titled "Don't Go To It"

There is absolutely nothing redeeming about "Just Go With It," the Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler flick I wasted my evening on tonight.  It's one of those movies where the more you think about it, the more you hate it.  Unless you're a drooling guy who wants to see Brooklyn Decker emerging slo-mo from the surf in a little bikini, or a buff Jennifer Aniston likewise clad.  Nicole Kidman plays Aniston's college rival, and you get to see her wiggling in a grass skirt with coconut bra in one of the most contrived and trite "hula contests"  ever hosted by a plaid-jacketed elderly MC.

In the most far-fetched and thinly-related remake of "Cactus Flower," the 1969 Goldie Hawn film for which she won both Golden Globe and Academy Awards, "Just Go With It" inserts outrageous set-ups to get the kind of laughs you feel guilty emitting.  The plot involves a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon (Sandler) who gets girls sans expectations by pretending he's married, and in order to snag one on a more permanent basis becomes embroiled in a series of lies that find his office manager (Aniston) playing his estranged wife, and her two children, theirs.  Sandler's new 23-year-old girlfriend (Decker), his breaking-up family and a tagalong cousin who poses as Aniston's sheep-importer boyfriend coincidentally named Dolph Lundgren (Nick Swardson) all go to Hawaii, to humor one of the kids, whose fondest wish is to swim with the dolphins. Of course, in forming that desire, the child forgot he can't swim.

Logical lags like that one fly faster than the tasteless comments, which are ubiquitous and obnoxious.  Though the plastic surgeon starts off the movie in a flashback showing his early life with an objectionably enormous Jewish nose, apparently imperfect rhinoplasty turned his schnozz into that of Adam Sandler. And in a final scene, we see he neglected to use his medical specialty to assist the overgrown probosces of the rest of his family.

The wild and disgusting scenes just keep coming.  Try these: The cousin performs the Heimlich Maneuver to help a comatose sheep cough up a dog toy at a Hawaiian restaurant; the fractured family walks in a slow-motion scene through a parking lot where a child appears out of nowhere to angrily splash a large soda onto his pregnant mom's ready-to-drop belly; Aniston and Sandler carry on about her lunch date and she takes a call from the suitor--in the examining room while they dab and pinch anesthetic cream onto the uneven breasts of a woman whose implant internally exploded.

The plot goes exactly where you expect it to, but in so doing throws in the obligatory find-out-he's-gay sidelight (clue: the guy can pick up a coconut with his buttocks), two unbearable, never remotely real kids, a blithe attitude toward money and materialism, and a bleached-blond girlfriend so bimbo-esque she'll nod to anything.  There's something to offend everybody.

It took me two minutes to turn to my husband and plead, "get me outta here." Unfortunately, he had to stay, and I didn't feel like walking home, but at least my facial muscles got a workout from all that cringing.  Spare yours, however, since "Just Go With It" is better titled with the warning, "Don't Go To It."  Oooooh, what a bomb.

Friday, February 4, 2011

I Was an Unwilling "Tiger Mother"

My fave radio host presently has author Amy Chua as a guest on his show, discussing her smash discussion-provoker Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  He made a "confession" that he feels guilty for allowing his/our daughters (not to mention our son) to quit their piano lessons before "becoming all they could be."

I'm here to tell you: Easy for him to say.

Our eldest child, who my classical-music expert husband assumed bubbled with untapped musical genius, was started on piano lessons at age 4.  Her teacher used traditional methods, simple songs that needed practice, practice, practice.  Every day except the Sabbath.

Did my husband sit next to said daughter during her practice? Not once.  Her mother (that would be me) was assigned that task.

This daughter is a classic first-born, naturally eager to please.  Her greatest goal was to earn praise from her Baba and me, and she cheerfully complied with every request.  At age 20 months, for example, my dear politically-involved husband thought it would be cute to train her to provide specific answers to questions.  This was 1988.  The question posed to the chubby toddler was, "Who do you think will win the upcoming Republican primary?"  The sage little girl lit up: "Bush!"  Approving smiles and nods all around. Throw her a fish.

Back to piano.  Child X, who I'm sure prefers to remain nameless, began her piano lessons, sitting next to the friendly young woman teacher who taught her scales she could barely reach.  She got sweetly titled little songs, like "The Swing" meant to sneak in scales under the guise of melody.  At the end of each session, she'd come home with six or seven songs and the admonishment that it was important she practice every day.

Trouble was, when it was time to practice, little X couldn't be found.  "X!  X!!" I'd call, looking in every room in the house.  Where could she be?  Pretty soon she learned not to choose the closet again.

Once seated next to me on the piano bench, her sweet little legs dangling below, I'd have her proceed through the practice, as written out by the nice teacher.  The scales, reading the notes, singing the song and then playing it.  I'm MOMMY!  I do fun things with you, X!  Why then were you doing everything you could to distract in order to keep from actually playing?

I cajoled. I played games. I offered rewards.  I made rhymes. I colored beautiful charts on which she earned sparkly stars. I made her a sticker book that she got to choose stickers for at the end of each practice.  Because little X wanted so much to please me, she was stuck between a rock and a hard place.  I did not tell her to stand in the cold. I did probably mention 'no dessert,' but I'm quite sure I didn't embarrass or shame her.  We stayed there at the piano and eventually she practiced. The half-hour allocated for practice stretched.  She hated every moment, and after awhile, I realized that I did, too.

But we didn't stop.  I told my husband about our otherwise compliant daughter's reluctance.  And he didn't care. She must continue.

On the playground, my darling daughter skipped and played and laughed, but on the piano bench she performed acrobatics I never knew a small child could do.  She would sit on the bench and lean backward, in a demonstration of amazing abdominal-muscle strength, her head leaning so far she nearly formed a Cheerio around the bench.  I had a heck of a time getting her to straighten up and play the next ditty, "Up and Down the Street."

Sometimes she'd sit, back straight with fingers poised over the keyboard, and suddenly slip her torso down between the bench and the base of our upright piano, effectively disappearing onto the floor.  She'd need to go to the bathroom, a lot. She needed a drink. She leaned back and slipped down and flattened herself against the piano bench and found all sorts of interesting things out the window.

Nearly a year went by, and Darling X had her first recital.  She was so nervous she was shaking.  She found a new hiding place, this time in the yard, and we nearly missed the event.  At the recital, bone-china teacups were set out, and little petits four beckoned with pastel sugary-frosting, an irresistible draw for a nearly-five-year-old.  But Sweet X didn't even notice.  She was looking for another closet.

She quaked while awaiting her turn to play, and ended up flawlessly performing her three songs.  The smiles and congratulations from her warm and encouraging teacher were ignored as she asked to leave.

I discussed Child X's dislike for the lessons and practicing with her teacher.  The teacher replied that darling X was doing well, and progressing, and it was better to ingrain practicing as a normal part of her life so she could make the most of her talent.  How the teacher evaluated the potential of a four-year-old whose greatest feat was completing "The Pretty Little House" was beyond me, but I felt duly chastised for doubting the enormous potential of my budding prodigy.  It must be my own laziness or incapability to motivate at issue here.  After all, little X was pleasant at her piano lessons, and did exactly as told.

Of course, the teacher never saw X when she was Rubber Girl.

I told my husband nearly every day about my frustration trying to inspire Sweet X to practice, and to make her musical education fun.  "I don't want her to quit now," he replied.  "She needs to keep going another year."

He might as well have clicked the cell door shut behind me, and thrown away the key.

Which he did three MORE times.  Our daughter completed four years of piano lessons, from age 4 to age 8. She went to two more recitals, after which I asked the teacher if, please, X might be spared from performing.

At our ongoing practicing battles, I made up unlimited little rhymes and codes and sing-song reminders, and she immediately "forgot" them.  I repeated them.  To this day, I remember some of them, and when they pop up, and I mention "do you remember....?" to my now 24-year-old non-piano-playing daughter... she does.

Two waffles and an egg. There, I said it--that was my response to her refusal to hold her hands above the keys as if enclosing an egg.  She kept saying it was "too awful, too awful!" so I morphed it into "two waffles and an egg," as she rightly corrects me about this memory.  But still, whenever I encounter waffles and egg, it all comes back: my darling, wonderful, normally-cheerful daughter using her considerable intellect not to absorb musical theory but to change the subject and twist her little frame so her head would be as far from the keyboard as possible.

I begged, begged  my husband, after four years of torture, to let daughter X stop her piano lessons.  Again he was against it, and wanted her to "learn persistence."  It only takes tenacity, after all, and you can accomplish anything.  There are no failures, there's only lack of effort.


I finally stopped acquiescing to his insistence.  Our daughter was definitely brilliant, but by Golly, if she was ever to become a virtuoso, she'd have to do it without me coming up with breakfast-food teasers.

The piano teacher was astonished. Puzzled. I don't know why, because I'd regularly told her of X's resistance.  Maybe she was shocked because never before had any of her progressing students quit. Or maybe because never had my complaints led to anything--we always returned for our weekly lesson, and obedient little X had made progress.  Well, no more.

There were some benefits from this four-year ordeal.  Not in terms of X's musical education. She retained very little of what she'd so painstaking (my pain) practiced.  But I learned how to play the piano.  Not very well, because I never practiced, but I could read music, and learned a passel of little songs and even a few easy classical pieces.

We still have the piano booklets inside our piano bench.  The pages are yellowed, but the stars pasted atop each one still shine.  I'm not going to take them out because nowadays, looking at mementos of my children's childhoods makes me sad rather than warm and fuzzy inside.  This is the first year I'm an empty-nester, and my house seems just too quiet, without my son's ukulele, the "b-l-l-i-n-g!" of instant messaging, and, way back in the echoes of my memory, the halting scales of "The Swing."

Amy Chua, you've got a great book and deserve your success.  I've defended you to my friends, who just read the headlines and sub-heads and didn't see that you provided a warmly loving and laughing home to two supremely lucky daughters.  But I'm no Tiger Mother.   I'm Jewish, and believe me, there are plenty of Jewish mothers far more Chinese than I was with my little X.  No, it's me--I haven't got the mettle, the moxie, the fortitude to stick it out.

And ya know what?  Everything worked out just fine.

P.S. the photo above is not my darling little X.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Hoop, Hoop, Hooray

I've turned my smiling face to the shiny-tape-wrapped hula hoop that awaits me in the corner, an antidote to the dreary, overcast, frigid days of winter.

My pile of yet-to-be-read newspaper is diminishing now that my hubby is out of town, allowing me some time to sit with a cinnamon-spiked hot chocolate and all the juicy news I've missed over the last month.  Most of the headlines are stressful, but a little piece in the New York Times from December 5 brightened the skies.  In it, Guy Trebay, whose prose usually bring snickerous giggles anyway, describes the wiggly-jiggly artistry of LA's Philo Hagen, maven of Hooping.org, whose YouTube video shows a repressed office worker liberated by a chance-encountered ring that, to the snappy strains of Quentin Harris' "Gotta Do," transforms him to ever-more-amazing hoop-feats as he strips to his "tightie-whities in Downtown L.A."

The message:  The world may look depressing. Your body may not be perfect. But all the externals can't stop an indomitable spirit from rotating around it all--true to self and joyful in the celebration of what you do have.

Gotta go gyrate.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Egypt: Rebellion to Where?

I'm signed up to take a trip to Egypt this spring as a tourist.  While I highly doubt I'm likely to see the pyramids and sphinx as scheduled, along with the rest of the world, I am indeed a spectator watching its history unfold.

The Egyptian protests appear to be a revolution with no "there there" as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, because it's more about casting out than heralding in.  Reading accounts of the relatively peaceful protests brings only a cascade of questions about an array of possibilities--some frightening.  How this will turn out may be more how this will turn over, a rolling and rumbling of changes and resistance with ultimately little hope that the root of the rebellion is foreseeably fixable.

That root, from what I can tell, reverts to issues of unemployment and underemployment.  With Egyptian joblessness at least 12% according to the International Monetary Fund, and with college-educated Egyptian youth apparently 10 times as likely to be unemployed as those with merely a grammar-school education, frustration and energy--which might have spurred innovation and entrepreneurial ventures in a different culture--were stifled and thus became the source of present demand for change. Any change. Get the old out and the new in.

The problem is that "the new" isn't known, isn't decided; there's no consensus and no direction--just that President Hosni Mubarak must go, preferably now.  But what then?

A culture clash foments the brew. Women's rights, efforts to abolish female circumcision, and movement beyond Islamic preoccupation with the past conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood's sectarian interests--despite their claim to want a pluralistic government. And protesters don't seem placated by the presence of Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei as the face of a calmly transitioned regime. Will Egypt move to an egalitarian, less elitist, democratic future, or will religious pressure and the traditional power of the police help a military-dominated variant of Mubarak's leadership slip in?

As a psychologist, I've worked with troubled marriages, and find it worrisome when partners run from, but have no to.  Coverage of the protests by Fox News included several comments by participants like a teacher who after 22 years earns $70 monthly, and a 30-year-old bus driver forced to share his lunch and run errands for police.  They want more opportunities for financial success and independence. But the protesters cry merely, "Leave! Leave!" directed to Mubarak, who hangs in effigy over Tahrir Square in Cairo.  Interviews I read find few involved offering means to achieve their goals, or suggestions for leadership.  Without shared aims, the region teeters.

That effigy of Mubarak hanging from a traffic light in Tahrir Square, by the way, bears a Star of David.  Egypt's peace treaty with Israel has allowed stability and growth; anything that threatens it brings plenty to fear, not only for Israel but for the hopes and dreams of the teacher and bus driver in Tahrir Square.  As George Gilder wrote in his book The Israel Test, nations who resent and envy Israel flail while those who emulate its economic industry succeed.

We spectators watch the action in Egypt nervously. But observant Jews remember every day God's role in Egyptian history, and so perhaps there's more going on than we can readily observe.