Friday, April 26, 2013

Paradoxical Musings from a Coffee Lover/Medical Writer (Generic Coffee & a Breast Cancer-Coffee Update)

Spring break is a special ritual for many families, including mine. Often, it means a chance to travel, a bit of sun, and the perfect chance to combine leisurely fun with purpose.  We look forward to it all year long. Last year, we basically stayed home because my husband had a major work project. The previous year, we went to Paris—when my youngest was only four months old. This year, we went to Washington, D.C. and to Virginia. It was a great trip. We stayed in decent, but not super- fancy, hotels and had an absolute blast, once we got past the initial drama of not being able to check into our first hotel in Dupont Circle due to plumbing problems.

At Hotel Harrington on 11th and E in D.C., we were literally only a few walkable blocks away from the Smithsonian Museums, the Supreme Court and the Metro. We woke up early every day and packed in quite a bit---the zoo, the National Museum of Natural History, the Supreme Court, the Museum of American History, even D.C. Coast—an exceptionally good restaurant on 14th and K.  I needed coffee just as much on my vacation as I do in every-day life.

The Adventure of Coffee in Terra Incognita

One of my favorite things about traveling is the adventure of getting coffee. During the day, I got coffee at various places---Starbucks, Pret a Manger, various museum cafeterias---but at night and early in the morning, I was basically on my own. The coffee options seemed grim, compared with my which-gourmet-coffee-am-I-going-to-drink-today lifestyle (one of the few areas I actually splurge!).

But I am flexible. This is what I know about myself: I must have morning coffee before leaving wherever I happened to sleep the night before. In our D.C. hotel, which had a decidedly Eurochic-meets-faded-70’s-glory aura, there was no coffeemaker in our room when we arrived. (Ugh!!!) When I requested a “coffee maker” for our room, which was otherwise fairly well appointed, the front deck sent up an electronic water boiler and several packs of instant Maxwell House. Still, it was coffee. It had caffeine, and we had a fridge to store skim milk. It would be sufficient to get me up and out.

                So after several days of purposeful discussions with our children about civil rights, the difference between moths and butterflies, the merits of duck versus salmon as an entrĂ©e,  neoclassical architecture and the mating habits of middle-aged pandas, we decamped for a more leisurely, playful mini-vacation (a vacation within a vacation). We landed in a nice, comfy, standard faire Comfort Inn on the highway in Woodbridge, Virginia. It cost much less than our hotel in D.C., but there was a coffee maker in the room---and the coffee was delicious. Not only that, but downstairs there was coffee EVERYWHERE, with sweet, little white standard-issue ceramic mugs. You could literally grab a cup of coffee whenever you went to the pool, the hot tub or decided to hang out in the “library” or the front-lobby computer suite. Pleasant all around.

Coffee and Breast Cancer-a Relevant Update

                Some of my favorite moments from this last spring break involve watching my children marvel at butterflies in the Butterfly Pavilion at the NMNH, watching the shock of recognition in my daughter’s eyes when we showed her Thurgood Marshall’s Portrait in the front hall of the Supreme Court, drinking a leftover latte in bed in our hotel room while watching CNN---and drinking hotel coffee by the side of a hot tub, watching my 2-year-old frolic in her swim ring, while my 10-year-old practiced diving. 

                Now, perhaps this is a leap, but it makes sense to me---and I hope it will to you too. When I watch my children play and I marvel at the terrific investment of raising children, I often think about my own mortality.  Like many women, I worry about breast cancer---especially considering that my own mother died in her forties from this terrifying disease (which we are now learning is more than one disease, with variations and nuances that make it more complex than we originally thought).

                New data from researchers in Sweden at Lund University shows a positive association between coffee and preventing breast cancer recurrence in survivors.  In a placebo-controlled study of 600 breast cancer survivors, 300 received Tamoxifen, an estrogen-blocker used to prevent recurrence.  Among those women, higher levels of coffee consumption (at least 2 cups a day) was linked to a lower risk of their breast cancer recurring. They literally had half the risk, compared with non-coffee drinkers.

                What’s the link? Though it’s not entirely clear, the Swedish researchers hypothesize that coffee somehow “activates” Tamoxifen and makes it work more efficiently. Or it could be something about the wallop of antioxidants and chlorogenic acids that come with each cup of coffee. Regardless, it’s good news.

                Another important takeaway: Sometimes, coffee is just coffee, but it can still be good. Live happily today---and drink coffee!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

There are Moments When You Must Wait for Coffee---Just as People Wait for Justice

There are many interesting things to know about the Supreme Court. Any good docent will tell you that it was built in 1935, when Justice Taft insisted that the Supreme Court should have its own building---after 146  years of residing in various locations (including the Capital Building). 

What is difficult to capture in words, however, is the ineffable sense of majesty of this building. The power of inclusive democracy, with all of its gravity and rigorous discipline.

This is where Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka was argued in 1954---the case which would eventually officially desegregate education, and change our lives forever. The karma of that decision and that energy lives in that building. You feel it like a strong breeze when you walk in, enter the front hall and see the portrait of Thurgood Marshall (the lawyer who argued the case and later became the first African-American justice.) With Chief Justice Warren at the helm, the court decided unanimously on May 17, 1954 that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Architect Cass Gilbert designed the building in perfect harmony with the surrounding landscape using a classical Corinthian architectural style. It is the perfect setting for the serious judicial work that goes on here---of the 10,000 cases requested each year, 80 are heard. It is a great privilege to have a case heard at the Supreme Court.

While visiting Washington, D.C., we had the chance to visit the Supreme Court---a short walk from our hotel. The day was temperate, but somewhat sad, happening just two days after the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Cherry blossoms bloomed all around us as we walked down Pennsylvania Avenue resolute in our determination to stand in line so that we could attend an oral argument in the Great Hall. (Court was in session!) We had not had anything to eat or drink—including coffee. We were determined to get through security and hear the arguments. Coffee and food had to wait.

I went through the morning elated, but without coffee. As I sat in the Great Hall, my eyes filled with tears when I saw Justice Ginsburg, Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kagan sitting next to their male colleagues. The proceedings reflected that unique quality of judicial forbearance and spirited innovative determination to find the truth of the matter—based on principle, but willing to set precedent. All of this---and no coffee!

So later, when we had finally sat through the arguments, we went to the cafeteria, where we had a lovely lunch---including dark roast coffee. It was a low-key and healthy lunch---rice bowls, coffee, yogurt, salad---and we felt incredibly nourished intellectually and nutritionally.

The coffee was so invigorating that I literally felt as if I could spend the day touring museums. We stayed at the court for another hour, watching a film and hearing a lecture, and left feeling lucky to be Americans in 2013.

The takeaway on the coffee situation on the Federal Mall: There is no Starbucks, but there is always coffee---and it’s often good.