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Saturday, March 29, 2014

My Bout with Gout

A 1799 caricature of gout.

One of the perils of Paradise is an insect bite. Here in Vieques we have the usual suspects that are common to the North – mosquitoes, bees and wasps, spiders. But in the tropics we have some big-time chompers – tarantulas, scorpions and the fleet-footed Puerto Rican centipede that can approach a foot in length.

I have adverse reactions to stings and bites. On my fair Ukrainian skin, a mosquito bite welts… a fire ant’s acid attack can blister and itch for a week.

So when the big toe of my right foot began to swell and throb recently, my first thought was insect bite. 

But instead of dissipating after a day or two, the swelling increased and the pain worsened.

Now, my wife’s sister is a registered nurse. My wife believes that the tight DNA connection between siblings gives her as much right to dispense medical advice as her sister.

“Soak your foot in water as hot as you can take, and it will draw out the poison,” my wife ordered as she poured boiling water into the bucket we use to mop floors.

By the second day of this medieval torture (in addition to the painful toe, my entire foot was now scalded), I made an executive decision that this was no insect bite. I couldn’t bend my toe at all, and pressing it down against the floor caused stabbing pain.

“You probably broke your toe,” my wife said, changing her original diagnosis. “I myself once broke a toe by wearing bad sandals.”

It was Sunday, and the thought of seeking medical help the next day plunged me into deep depression.

Like a miracle, however, Monday morning brought improvement in the toe. Yay! It’s not a broken bone. No emergency room!

That evening, we went out to dinner with our neighbors – who both happen to be retired doctors.

In the car, I mentioned my toe trouble – as casual chit-chat, not as a try for free medical advice.

Suddenly the two doctors morphed. They were two kids drawn to my troubled toe as if it were a piece of candy.

Mr. Doctor, a pediatric urology surgeon, said, “Could be gout.”

I laughed. I knew gout to be the “disease of kings" or "rich man's disease."

Mrs. Doctor, an anesthesiologist, agreed with her husband and recommended I spray Benadryl on the toe.

Mr. Doctor challenged his wife: “Really? Do you think topical application would have value?”

So there I was, enjoying a toe consult by two prominent medicos … in the car … on a dark Vieques road.

“I’ll come over in the morning to look at your toe,” Mrs. Doctor offered.

But in the morning, it was her husband who sneaked over to our house and made me show my toe. 

Gout is a recurring ailment, so in an effort to forestall future flare-ups, I turned to the Internet for information. Here’s what I learned.

Gout’s been around forever. Hippocrates in 400 B. C. wrote about it -- noting its absence in eunuchs and premenopausal women.

Gout is acute inflammatory arthritis resulting in a red, tender, swollen joint. The joint at the base of the big toe is affected in half the cases. The elevated level of uric acid in the blood that causes gout is also responsible for kidney stones.

Causes of the condition include the usual caloric culprits: not enough vitamin C, too much meat and seafood, overdoing alcohol and fructose -- and obesity.

In 1683, an English physician posited yet another cause:

“Gouty patients are, generally, either old men, or men who have so worn themselves out in youth as to have brought on premature old age -- of such dissolute habits none being more common than excessive indulgence in venery.”

If you have to look up the definition of venery, you obviously haven’t lived enough.

In my next blog, “Another Similarity”

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Chasing Dust

The film was shot in locations around the world on a budget of $50,000. 

When it opened in 1964, it played for an entire year in New York City. 

The movie’s poster became part of the Design Collection at New York’s Museum Of Modern Art. 

More than $30 million gross later, “The Endless Summer” is a classic.

The film is a simple documentary that follows two young surfers around the world in search of the perfect wave -- chasing the sun in a quest for perpetual summer.

Now, 50 years later, as one vacation season ends at Casa Cascadas in Vieques and another begins at The Sandpiper on Cape Cod, I ask why. Why are we so compelled as a species to seek sun, sand and surf?

Perhaps it’s because we image perpetual summer in both Eden, our first home, and in Paradise, our last.

But journeying to tropical climates is only part of the story.

International tourism surpassed the billion-person mark in 2012 … reached a record 1.87 billion last year, … and is forecast to grow more than four percent during 2014. By a wide margin, France is the most visited country on the planet -- hardly a tropical destination.

For a possible answer, I have to look back 2,300 years to Aristotle’s definition of happiness.

Aristotle, 384-322 B. C.

The philosopher enshrined happiness as the ultimate purpose of human existence.

We desire travel, vacation, leisure – you name it -- because we believe that these will make us happy.

Happiness is often conceived of as a subjective state of mind, as when we say we’re happy when we are enjoying a cold drink on a hot day, or when we get a promotion or a raise, or when our love is reciprocated.

For Aristotle, however, happiness is always an end in itself.

It is not something that can be gained or lost in a few hours, like pleasurable sensations.  Instead, it encompasses the totality of one’s life.

“One swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day,” he says.

Happiness is the ultimate value of our life, a measure of how well we have lived up to our full potential.

Happiness, in other words, cannot be achieved until the end of one’s life. It is a goal that continuously recedes before our grasp – like the horizon.

Here on the Los Chivos mountain where Casa Cascadas perches, the prevailing easterlies blow hard. So sweeping our courtyard clean amid the swirls and gusts is frustrating labor.

But the task helps me appreciate the ancient insight: Made of dust ourselves, we spend our days chasing dust.

In my next blog, "A Bout with Gout"

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Last Time Ever I Saw Your Face

Shirley, a woman of a certain age, has a heart attack and is rushed to the hospital, where she has a near-death experience and sees God.
She asks, “Is this it?”
“No,” God says. “You have another 30 years to live.”
Shirley figures that since she has so much time left, she may as well make the most of it. So she stays in the hospital and has a face-lift, a tummy tuck, breast enhancement – the works.
When she’s on her feet again, she leaves the hospital, starts to cross the street and is hit by an ambulance speeding to the emergency room entrance.
She arrives in Paradise and says to God, “I thought you said I had another 30 years?”

God takes a long, hard look at her and says, “Shirley, is that you? I didn’t recognize you!”

My daughter, Julie, suffers from a disorder few have heard of: face blindness.

The medical name is prosopagnosia. From the Greek prosopon, for face, and agnosia, for ignorance.

Prosopagnosics have difficulty recognizing people they’ve met in the past. Some can’t recognize their spouses and children. Some can’t even recognize themselves in a mirror.

When Julie worked as a background actor, she says, “I’d meet people in the morning and get friendly with them while shooting a scene. Then there would be a costume change….”

Julie couldn’t recognize other actors after a costume change.

And as a sales associate at an upscale retail outlet: “There was a customer I would spend hours with and she’d always spend a lot of money. But I never recognized her until I saw her credit card.”

Most prosopagnosics learn to distinguish people based on hairstyle, voice or body shape. Or they pretend to be lost in thought. Or they act friendly to everyone -- or to no one.

But some are unaware of their disorder -- because they’ve never recognized faces normally. Like my daughter, they don’t discover their face blindness until adulthood. 

Because of this, they may be misjudged as uppity.

Brad Pitt is one of these. The condition has caused him enough of a headache that he doesn't like going out.

"That's why I stay at home," he says. "You meet so many damned people. And then you meet 'em again."

Jane Goodall, famous for her pioneering studies of chimpanzees, suffers from prosopagnosia. For all we know, old Jane might have thought -- all those lonely years in the jungle -- that she was observing kangaroos.

Prosopagnosic Jane Goodall.

One person in 50 has the disorder. Not so rare at all. No therapies have demonstrated lasting improvements.

The condition is likely caused by a defect in a dominant gene. So if a parent has prosopagnosia, there’s a 50-50 chance the child has it.

If my daughter is a prosopagnosic, I might be the cause.

So many times, for instance, I’ve run into “strangers” who greet me by name … and I think, “I’ve never seen that person in my life.”

I have to ask myself … am I face blind? Or just too self-absorbed to notice anyone else?

I often forget a person’s name as soon as I’m introduced.

Again, I have to ask myself … is it prosopagnosia? Or am I playing a multiple-choice game of wondering if the person I’m introduced to:

a) Likes me

b) Is impressed with me

c) Envies me

d) Lusts after me

I hope my condition is just the forgetfulness that comes with advancing age. Otherwise I’ll have to learn to spell prosopagnosia. And say it, too.

In my next blog, “Chasing Dust”

Saturday, March 8, 2014

An Amazing, Awesome Blog

“You use the word ‘amazing’ to describe a goddamn sandwich at Wendy’s? What’s going to happen on your wedding day, or when your first child is born? How will you describe it? You already wasted ‘amazing’ on a fucking sandwich.”
Louis C. K.

How do you describe paradise?

All St. Paul could say was: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard …”

But when visitors to my Vieques B&B first look out at the expanse of Caribbean Sea before them, it might as well be a sandwich: Amazing!Awesome!

I hate to sound like a whiner, but the overuse of amazing and awesome is making me mad as hell.
“I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!”

Huffington Post Blogger Phillip Goldberg points out that the song "Amazing Grace" works because its composer experienced a transcendent experience. “Amazin' Mets” was an appropriate nickname because the original team was shockingly awful and because the 1969 squad stunned the world by winning the World Series.

But Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal is not amazing -- even though its commercials say it is.

What bothers me most? Amazing and awesome are indiscriminately applied by people who should know better – advertising copywriters.

These are the people who are supposed to understand that if everything is amazing, then nothing is amazing.
These are the people who are supposed to know that the root word, awe, carries connotations of fear and dread.
Mark Kennedy, a columnist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, writes:

“Our common usage of ‘awesome’ -- meaning extremely good -- paints a happy face on a word that was meant to convey something so daunting it might make you fall to your knees.”
But today, I get awesome instead of “thank you.”

In just a single hour of television watching, my wife – like a dutiful amanuensis – jotted down these product claims:

Weight Watchers
Centrum Vitamins
Party City
Tide Pods
Christian Mingle
Almond Breeze

GoGurt Squeeze Yogurt
HughesNet Gen4
Dunkin Donuts Coffee

Comcast reportedly poured some $170 million into the ad campaign for Xfinity – branding it "The Future of Awesome."

When Hooters launched its new campaign -- “Step Into Awesome” -- the CEO of the ad agency spewed out this doodah:

“The campaign arose from key insights brought on by consumer research and a brand vision developed with franchise partners … ”

C’mon! Hooters trades on the big breasts of waitresses – and everybody knows it!

Even prestigious periodicals have fallen victim.

Advertising Age, the industry’s version of Variety, printed this headline:

“Can BBDO Make Bud Light Advertising Awesome Again?”

And venerable old Readers Digest:

“13+ Amazing Uses for WD-40”

All of it cannot be amazing. All cannot be awesome. Instead, it’s all become nonsense.

But there’s nothing, really, that I can do about it beyond begging you, as Peter Finch did in the 1976 movie, Network, to “get up right now, go to your windows and stick your head out and yell 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!’”

Or I can just relax to the Beatles’ non-sensical but profound lyrics:

Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on brah
La la how the life goes on

In my next blog, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”