Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ask Your Doctor

Does anybody still watch the network news programs? If you do, you might get the impression that the news is making us sick. Of the 30 minutes allotted to the evening newscasts, only about 20 minutes is actually used to tell us what’s going on in the world. The rest is commercials, and almost half of them are for medicines or dietary supplements.

Look at the list of advertisers for this Monday’s CBS Evening News:

Campbells Soup
Alka-Seltzer Plus
Lipitor (prescription cholesterol drug)
Toy Story
Prevacid (prescription acid reducer)
Vesicare (prescription drug for overactive bladder)
Zegerid (prescription heartburn drug)
Discover Credit Card
Boost (nutritional drink)
a negative political ad
Enbrel (prescription drug for rheumatoid arthritis)
GoLean cereal
Geico insurance
Crest toothpaste
Secret deodorant
Phillips colon health
Early Show promo

That’s 18 commercials in a 30 minute broadcast. No wonder you were left with the feeling that you really didn’t get much news. Instead you were invited to try some of Campbell’s ridiculously over-salted soup after which you had a choice of anti-acid treatments. If the negative political ads are giving you a headache, down some Alka-Seltzer. You could rent Toy Story and take some Vesicare to sit through all 90 minutes without wetting your pants. Chug a little Boost to make up for what the soup lacked and follow it up with some Phillips colon health in lieu of vegetables. Don’t forget the Lipitor to wash away the cholesterol. And if sitting around all day watching TV and taking drugs has left your joints stiff, ask your doctor if Enbrel is right for you.

Apparently the folks who watch ABC News are a little healthier. Only one third of their 19 commercials were for medicines or nutritional supplements. On the other hand, the ABC viewers must be plagued by mice. They received not one, but two, ads for Ortho mouse traps. They also had that alleged eye doctor, the one whose glow-in-the-dark contact lens make her look like an alien, pushing prescription eye drops.

Some advertisers take no chances; they flog their pills on all three networks. Prevacid, for example. The prescription medicine ads are strange. While we see active, healthy people enjoying a happy family life, we hear warnings about all the horrendous things that might happen if you take the pills. Stop taking this stuff if you have sudden changes of vision, rapid pulse and sweating, confusion, depression, thoughts of suicide. Don’t drive or operate machinery. Sometimes this medication can result in death. Call your doctor immediately if this happens to you.

The newest drug ads don’t even tell you the name of the product. They just list some symptoms which most people experience from time to time – low energy, loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy, decreased sexual performance, etc. Then they give you a website to visit. In this case it’s “Is it Low-T” .com. Even the web site is secretive about who is sponsoring the campaign. You have to read the fine print in the privacy statement to discover that it is Slovay Pharmaceuticals, a division of an international chemical group which is now part of Abbott Labs. The product is most likely Androgel, a topical gel used to boost testosterone in men.

Another such ad urged viewers to go to (good luck remembering that one) to learn more about the connection between heart disease and stroke. No product or sponsor is mentioned. At least this website does have the logo of the corporate sponsor, Boehringer-Ingelheim, another multi-national conglomerate which, in addition to vaccines for horses, cattle, and pigs, makes Pradax which is supposed to help prevent strokes, presumably in people.

Most of the pharmaceutical ads end by telling you to ask your doctor if the product is right for you. Some of the web sites are even more helpful – they list discussion points you should use when you talk to your doctor. Imagine if you actually followed this advice. From just one week of watching the nightly news you could be armed with a list of dozens of drugs and the rationale as to why you need each. Any reasonably compliant doctor should give you an entire pad filled with new prescriptions.

But after a week’s worth of watching the news, you still wouldn’t know much about what’s happening in the world.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Today I finally told my ex that I forgive him. More than a year after our breakup he emailed me to tell me how sorry he was about the way it ended and he asked me to forgive him. I had been carrying my anger and disappointment throughout that entire year. The bitter side of me wanted him to suffer longer but the sensible side won out. It was time to let it go. It was time to move on with my life and if he needed my forgiveness to move on with his, then why not give it to him?

But in forgiveness also comes humility. One can’t truly forgive another without admitting that some, perhaps much, of the blame lies within himself. My ex said some pretty nasty things to me when we broke up. They hurt me deeply. But the truth is that I was the one hurting myself. Because it wasn’t what he said that hurt. It wasn’t even the fact that our relationship was ending. It was the realization that I had been living in a fantasy.

I wanted so much to be in love. I wanted the security of knowing that I would not spend my life alone. I wanted someone to share my dreams with and someone for whom I could act as a safe harbor. I wanted these things so badly that I was willing to overlook every obvious sign that the relationship I was in was not the relationship I wanted it to be. When it ended, those illusions were shattered. I was hurt and angry but not surprised. The rational side of me knew all along that it wasn’t going to work.

Well, that’s all in the past now. I have let go of my anger and perhaps even my disappointment. No relationship is all bad or all good. I still have fond memories of many wonderful times with a man who was, on his good days, friendly, fun, charming, affectionate and very attractive. I had a preview of how wonderful life could be with the right person. I learned how I could change some of my behavior to be a better partner.

Maybe some day I will meet someone new and have another chance to get it right. Maybe not. But I will always have the memories of the happy times I spent with my ex while the rest fades into the confusion of my past. Forgiving him has allowed me to forgive myself. That has made this bitter old queen a little less bitter and a little less old today than yesterday.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Writing Workshops

Eighteen months ago I started writing a novel. At the time, I didn’t think of myself as a writer and I had never seriously thought about writing anything for publication, certainly nothing as ambitious as a novel. But the idea for a story just came to me out of the blue one day and I felt a compulsion to get it down in words. So I started to write.
Early in the process I signed up for a class at the New York Writer’s Workshop. It was my first writing class since high school and I was a little intimidated. Several times over the next ten weeks we were required to submit 10 to 15 pages of a work in progress for critique by our fellow classmates. The first time I had to read my work out loud my voice was cracking from nervousness. I wasn’t just afraid of the criticisms I would get for my writing, but I was also revealing more of myself than most of my friends know. It was very personal.
My work was well received and I got a lot of compliments as well as constructive suggestions and observations. I was surprised by how much time and effort my classmates spent reviewing my submissions in advance and preparing notes for discussion in class. It was exhilarating and I attacked my novel with confidence that not only would I finish it, but it would get published.
As soon as time permitted, I signed up for a second workshop which was taught by a very successful novelist. The structure of this course was different. We submitted only three page samples and our classmates did not see them in advance. It was a large class and there was very little time for feedback. The instructor urged me to change the point of view and the voice that I was writing in. I had actually considered that before, but had decided that it wouldn’t work. But she was a published author and I was just a guy trying to write. So I switched gears. That meant discarding most of the sixty pages I had written so far and starting over. I wasn’t convinced that changing the voice of the story teller was the right thing to do. I wasn’t convinced that it was wrong either. I got lost. I got overwhelmed. I quite writing the novel.
That’s when I decided to start writing this blog. I was hooked on writing. I knew that I wanted to be a writer. I still wanted to write that novel but I just wasn’t ready to do it. So in order to keep writing, and to keep the consistency of writing regularly, I became a blogger.
Apart from my self-imposed deadline of a new article every Wednesday (and I haven’t missed once since I started last January), writing a blog is easy. My articles are short. I’m not sure if that’s because I have a short attention span, or because my reader’s do. I can write about whatever I want. There is no continuity between one article and the next. Some of them are little more than rambling rants but a few of them have turned out quite good, in my somewhat biased opinion.
Enough time has passed that I felt ready to take yet another workshop. So tomorrow I submit my first assignment for class review. We were given the opening and closing words and told to fill in a four page story between them. I decided to write from the point of view of a 40 year old heterosexual man lamenting his breakup with a sophisticated woman. I guess just writing from my own experience wasn’t a big enough challenge.
I don’t know how well this first assignment will be received, but it’s alright if it gets torn to shreds. It’s only a writing assignment, not a segment of an epic best-selling novel. We will be required to do a writing project every week for the next 8 weeks. I don’t know if I will have the energy, or creativity, to do this blog as well but I feel that it is important that I do. Time will tell.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Tax Time

It’s tax time. I have procrastinated as long as possible and now I am down to the last few days before I must submit my federal and state income taxes. But tax day is in April, you say. Not really. That’s just the deadline for submitting your request for an automatic six month extension. October 15 is the real deadline.

Of course there is no extension for submitting any money you might owe. I sent the IRS and the state of New York each a large check last spring. I don’t resent paying my fair share. What I resent is filling out the damn forms. It takes the better part of two days to gather all the information and submit the returns.

The instructions are incomprehensible. Enter the amount on line 38A onto line 16 of Schedule H. Subtract from line 15. If the result is negative enter it on line 38 of the worksheet on page 76 of the instruction book. Enter it as a positive number. If line 38 is more than line 34, enter it on line 39 or else enter zero. My eyes glass over.

I heard an IRS agent say in a TV interview that compliance with the tax code is “razor thin.” I think what he meant is that most people are very close to throwing the whole mess into the trash can and telling the government where to get off.  When intelligent citizens, people with advanced degrees even, can not understand the hundreds of pages of instructions for filling out the forms there is something seriously wrong.

So why don’t I just do what most people do and hire an expert to file for me? Never! I refuse to allow the government to force me to support the tax preparation industry – a multi-million dollar industry that lobbies very hard against tax simplification. H&R Block and their cronies are a special interest group that buys our elected representatives with big bucks. Why should I support that kind of conspiracy?

No, I’ll slog my way through this as I always do. I’ll try my best to make sense of it. I’ll report what I think I’m supposed to report and ignore what doesn’t seem relevant or what is so bewildering that I couldn’t possibly comply with it even if I wanted to. If I screw it up, let them figure it out. In the end I always get a refund. Most of the time my tax is less than what it probably costs them to process.

About that razor thin compliance: the big stick that the IRS holds over our heads is the dreaded audit. I was audited a few years ago for allegedly failing to report some interest income. I dutifully sent them more money while my appeal waddled slowly through the system. Six months later they admitted that they had made an error. I had indeed reported the income and I even did it on the right line of the correct form. They refunded my money with interest.

Time is precious. What a shame to waste so much of it on this nonsense.