Sunday, September 30, 2012

Finding Balance With Coffee and French Fries, Finding Joy Outside of your Comfort Zone ---and Goodbye to Arthur Sulzberger



You know when you wake up at 9:47 thinking it’s 7 am, it was a late night. That means that drinking coffee becomes a late-morning experience, rather than an early-morning, the birds-are-chirping and I’m chipper experience.

Today’s coffee feels a little different because of last night’s pub food.  While the idea of drinking coffee all day long is normal, the idea of eating fries for me is a once-in-a-while experience. Last night I ate fries, drank half a pint of cider and danced to rock and roll at a bar in Middlesex. It was very interesting and lots of fun. There was no coffee---and no skim milk. So it was a paradigm shift, but the band, Road to Ruin----was amazing. Seriously, it was impossible not to dance. Until the wee hours.

Back to the pub food….We’re basically talking chicken wings, soda, and french fries, except in my quest to be healthy and eat clean, I ordered tilapia—which was literally doused in butter. Overall, the food was cooked well and the service was impeccable. And by midnight, when I had been dancing with my friends all night in my black Yoanna Baraschi dress and my structured Ugg knee highs, who cared that I ate a few fries anyway? Once in a while, you have to let go.

The good news is that assuming you are living an overall healthy lifestyle and you have an occasional night out at a pub, drinking coffee can help tip the balance in your favor.  In a 14-year study of more than 400,000 coffee drinkers, published in the New England Journal of Medicine  in May 2012, men who drank 2 to 6 cups of coffee were 10% less likely to die during the study period, and women were 15% less likely to die, assuming that they also drank between two to six cups of coffee. Researchers implicated the 1,000 plus compounds found in coffee as the life-enhancers, though scientists still cannot clearly say exactly which components convey which benefits.

When I finally sat down with my first cup of coffee today (Starbucks Anniversary Blend brewed in a Gevalia), I read with great interest about Arthur Ochs Sulzberger (1926-2012), who died yesterday.  He not only expanded the NYT during his tenure---which included periods of noteworthy financial distress, but he also stood up to bullies who wanted to curtail coverage of Vietnam and widely supported journalistic freedom and excellence. Under his 30 year “reign” the paper won 31 Pullitzer prizes. Today, I drink coffee in his honor.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Drinking Coffee—An Epicurean Pleasure and a Source of Chronic Pain Relief…and my Response to the New Weeping Woman at MOMA



While dining at the 2nd Floor CafĂ© at MOMA today, I took an Epicurean delight in my chickpea/fennel salad, replete with beets and a side of focaccia, paired with a delicately brewed skim latte. Contrary to popular belief, Epicurus (b. 341 bc) was not a glutton. There were ugly rumors that Epicurus had to vomit twice a day because he ate so much, and that he would go into sexual frenzies during which time, he would write lewd letters. Not true at all.  In fact, he espoused happiness based on simple pleasures. According to Alain de Botton, writing in “Consolations of Philosophy,” Epicurus’s perception of happiness was based on several basic things: freedom from pain, friendship, freedom, and thought---meaning the possibility of thinking things through, analyzing them and discussing with others. Epicurus cultivated a group of friends, who along with him, preferred water to wine; who enjoyed long walks, and conversation. He once said, “Luxurious foods and drinks in no way produce freedom from harm and a healthy condition in the flesh.

 In many ways, drinking coffee fulfills the Epicurean ideal. It is a straightforward, natural, health-inducing agent that gives rise to energy and good conversation. But, now there’s new information that suggests that coffee fulfills another Epicurean ideal: It relieves pain.  In a study published in January 2012 in BMC Research Notes, 48 subjects, including 22 with chronic neck and shoulder pain, were evaluated to see how coffee consumption would affect their experience of pain during computer-based office work. Forty percent (19 people) drank coffee about an hour before the study, which lasted 90 minutes.

Coffee drinkers experienced significantly less pain than non-coffee drinkers. For example, when it came to pain intensity in the neck and shoulders, coffee-drinkers experience a pain level of 41 (on a scale of 1 to 100), compared with 55 for non-coffee-drinkers.

I was alone at MOMA on this day, because I felt I desperately needed the solitude. I had spent the morning walking around---about 75 blocks altogether---and decided to drop in for the sole purpose of viewing Picasso’s “Weeping Woman” print---a new acquisition.  Though she is clearly a feminine being, her grotesquely enlarged fingers, rotting teeth and misshapen eyes bulging in their sockets give the weeping woman a monstrous appearance.  Looking at this picture, it did not seem to me that Picasso was conveying an ugly woman, rather he was showing us an emotionally distraught woman.  Presumably this was the case, and the “ugliness” of the woman in question was indeed a function of distorted emotions.

Sometimes life is very challenging, and though coffee is not always a cure-all, indeed a cup of coffee can ease psychological distress---and as we have discovered, physical distress as well.


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Is Gene Conklin Drinking Coffee in Heaven?


In March 2012, my friend Gene Conklin died in his mid-40’s of cancer. His cancer was a direct result of 9-11 exposure at the site of the World Trade Center, where he and his girlfriend were spending the morning. He was part of the World Trade Center Health Registry. When Gene and I were in college together in Middlebury, Vermont, we spent lots of days and nights drinking coffee---lots and lots of coffee. We were hyped up on learning new things and being politically left wing. In fact, I often called him “Comrade Conklin” and he called me “Comrade Gray.” We were surrounded by lots of agitprop posters—a type of random kitschy artifact that I glommed onto as a Russian major. We listened to folk rock, hip hop, trip house and bits of Bach here and there.

Time passed and we got older.  We were both indelibly affected by 9-11. He more so than I, we would later discover. For me, 9-11 made me aware of my own mortality and that of my then-boyfriend, now husband, whose office was right smack-dab in the middle of the financial district. We decided to start a family and grow up, finally.

Gene’s experience was different, as he explained to me more nine years later in a facebook message, which I am sharing with you now:
9-11-01 = Exposure to the toxic cloud of carcinogenic debris from the WTC (standing about 2 blocks away)
10-13-01 = first sign of cancer noticed by me as I am leaving from a "going-away party" but which I misinterpreted as a muscle pull
10-14-01 = moved with my then gf from Brooklyn Heights, NYC to Pittsfield, MA in the Berkshires. Upon arrival, I worked renovating an office space as an independent contractor for a few months and started to become incredibly fatigued each day.
01-09-02 = diagnosed with testicular cancer which was spreading to my lymph nodes and beyond at the time. I speculate that I breathed in a massive amount of asbestos fibers on 9-11-01 as well, which explains my loss of lung capacity, but this has never been confirmed or denied. (It requires a special kind of x-ray examiner to determine this sort of damage) I have a great deal of knowledge about asbestosis and mesothelioma cancers because the law firm I worked for in NYC was the foremost litigator of these claims in the entire USA.
01-09-02 to 05-01-02 --- underwent a rigorous chemotherapy regimen
06-01-02 --- moved to North Adams, MA, just up the road 20 miles from Pittsfield, MA
06-01-02 until the present time - various health maladies but no recurrence of cancer yet.
Prior to 9-11 I had never had any serious health problems. I am a currently enrolled member of NYC sponsored, The World Trade Center Health Registry.

Gene was a political pundit—a true revolutionary---whose political commentary and analysis was worthy of publication in the New Yorker or any other high quality publication. He understood statistics, history and the sociology of politics. He reviled injustice, racism and hypocrisy. He was a singer/songwriter and a top-notch writer. His lack of ongoing commentary is a screaming absence on facebook---as many of his friends and family will attest.

Gene and I were slated to see each other after a 20-year break in April 2010 in North Adams, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires---the place where he ended up spending the last years of his life---and a place that my family has been vacationing for many years, and where my grandmother spent many happy summers as a child. We were surprised by yet another aspect of our shared history. We were planning on having coffee. However, I received a note from him on facebook with the title, “Worst Timing Ever!” He could not make it, he explained, because he had become very ill again. He had been cancer free for 8 years and was not feeling well at all. In fact, he had been rehospitalized.  

The thing that I should have done is brought the coffee to him in the hospital, and I believe that he would have allowed it if I just pushed hard enough.  Being there would have mattered---a fact brought home to me by a recent review of Christopher Hitchens’ “Mortality.” Hitchens, a stalwart and pugnaciously brilliant nonbeliever, wrote: “Another element of my memoir-the stupendous importance of love, friendship and solidarity—has been made immensely more vivid to me by my recent experience. I can’t hope to convey the full effect of the embraces and avowals, but I can perhaps offer a crumb of counsel. If there is anybody known to you who might benefit from a letter or visit, do not on any account postpone the writing or making of it.”

I wish I had read these words a long time ago. I would have found Gene and come running—coffee in hand---to see him at least one more time. Rest in peace, Gene Conklin.