Monday, August 24, 2009

Dog Days of Summer

I recently read an article that said oxytocin levels almost double in people – and in dogs -- when humans talk to and stroke their dog friends. Beta endorphins and dopamine levels supposedly go up, too.

So, in the interest of science, Buddy and I are increasing our efforts to generate those feel-good chemicals. Oxytocin also is believed to be involved in social recognition, bonding and the formation of trust, as well as generosity.

More reasons to love dogs.

I haven’t always been a dog person. Buddy, the 18-pound Lhasa Apso pictured here, was the first dog in my life in over 30 years. He's king of our house now, but apparently that’s OK for the humans who live here, too. According to the article about Meg Daley Olmert’s book “Made for Each Other: The biology of the human-animal bond,” we feel better about ourselves if we have animals in our lives. I'll try to remember that when Buddy wakes me up at 5 a.m. by barking at the wind.

There have been a number of reports this summer that involve dogs and scientific research. My favorites were the studies that found not only are dogs smart, they're smarter than cats.

According to one report, the average dog is at least as smart as a human 2-year-old and can understand up to 250 words and gestures, do basic calculations, and count to 5. The research also shows a dog's social skills are at the teenage level. Having raised two teenagers, I can assure you a dog is far more sociable than a surly teenager who responds in monosyllables.

The research generating the most controversy among cat lovers was conducted by Dr. Britta Osthaus of England's Canterbury Christ Church University. She tested the ability of cats and dogs to retrieve unreachable food from under a plastic screen with three different scenarios: one string with a treat attached, two parallel strings with just one baited and two crossed strings with food attached to only one. All the cats could do the single string test, but none consistently chose the string with the treat when there were two strings to choose from – unlike the dogs. Cat lovers claim the felines just weren't motivated and don't care what people think but dogs are always trying to please humans. (That would come as a surprise to Husband No. 1 who is having a difficult time persuading Buddy to go outside for his evening constitutional as I write this.)

Whether you prefer canines or felines, you probably won't be shocked by the results of an Associated poll that found half of all American pet owners consider their pets as much a part of the family as any other member of the household while another 36 percent say their pet is a member of the family, but not a full member. Most also admit to feeding them human food, nearly half give them human names and a third let them sleep in their bed.

I do give Buddy human food and I suppose his name could be considered human. But I vowed I'd never let a dog sleep in our bed. Don't even try to guess how long that lasted.

But now that I know there are medical benefits from having the dog nearby so I can talk to him and pet him to increase our oxytocin levels, I don't feel quite so guilty about it.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Life in the Big City

I've spent the weekend in Washington, DC, returning No. 2 son to college and checking up on No. 1 who lives a few miles away, and it reminded me once again how much different life in the Big City is compared to mine.

I'm not just talking about the traffic or the bad drivers (more than half of them don't have driver's licenses or vehicles that have been inspected, according to my personal law enforcement expert), or the humongous modern buildings and millions of people. I'm talking about the creative innovations ... and hoping they'll someday reach New Hampshire.

For example, I had no idea that someone had invented an escalator for shopping carts. Does this make me a total rube? When No. 2 son and I embarked upon a last-minute outfit-the-dorm-room shopping expedition, we discovered the Target had two floors -- and 2 escalators for people and 2 for shopping carts. "We've got to go upstairs so we can try this," I exclaimed. Once again, No. 2 son gave me the look that reminds me he set my password as "crazy mom." I didn't care. It seemed very cool to someone who lives in town without an escalator of any kind. He agreed to accompany me, along with our shopping cart moving next to us, but drew the line on just-for-fun repeat trips.

(And, by the way, in case anyone is wondering, unlike last year's trip-to-college adventure, I did not bring the night light for his room -- although I certainly considered it. But I digress.)

Then there are the food innovations -- restaurants featuring food from nearly every country. Who knew there were so many varieties of Latin chicken? But the one place I'm most anxious to try features hot, handmade-dipped design-your-own donuts or you can order off the Fractured Prune's menu. Imagine varieties like Reese Cup® (peanut butter glaze, mini chocolate chips); Creamsicle (orange glaze, powdered sugar); Chocolate Covered Cherry: cherry glaze, mini chocolate chips Morning Buzz (mocha glaze, Oreo® cookie crumbs) and Strawberry Shortcake (strawberry glaze, graham cracker, powdered sugar). This is taking donuts to a whole new level. Who wouldn't appreciate a place with the motto -- "you create 'em, we make 'em"?

And, if you feel slightly ill after eating one of these confections, the Washington, DC, area is home to a number of walk-in medical clinics -- a concept yet to reach my part of the world. I was most intrigued by the MinuteClinics inside some of the CVS drugstores in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs (and about 22 other states). They're open seven days a week, employ nurse practitioners and physician assistants "trained to diagnose and treat common illnesses, minor injuries and skin conditions," and offer health screenings and vaccinations without appointments -- all at a cost of between $30 and $110 and "reimbursed by most insurance plans." So you can pick up some cough drops and a strep test in a single visit. Talk about convenience.

When I see innovations like these, it makes me wonder what will come next -- and about the creators of these concepts. It also makes me wonder why I'm not one of them. Maybe I need one of those designer donuts to inspire me. I'll let you know....

How about you? Spotted any innovations in your part of the world that might amaze and astound the rest of us?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

da Vinci and Me

I have been touched by da Vinci but the results weren’t exactly a work of art. Looking at the big picture, however, it was a masterpiece of technology.

The da Vinci I encountered was a machine. Actually, it’s a surgery system using robotic arms. Yes, a robot cut me open and I’m glad.

Basically, the da Vinci Surgical System consists of a computer console where the surgeon sits, a three-dimensional camera that is inserted into the body and a machine with robotic arms that the surgeon programs to make delicate and precise movements that mimic his or her movements at the console.

My ovaries were da Vinci's target, particularly one sporting an abnormal growth that already had refused to surrender to a local doctor trying to remove it with minimally invasive laproscopic surgery. Concerned the little bugger might be hiding something, he took pictures, stitched me back up and referred me to a cancer specialist at Lahey Clinic outside Boston. I arrived with my ovaries intact and three new holes in my belly – but, unfortunately, no jewelry to show for my trouble.

The Lahey doctors took one look at the photos and proclaimed me an excellent candidate for robotic surgery. I considered grabbing the photos and running out of the room. Then they said my body would be tilted quite a bit throughout the surgery. This sounded like an excellent opportunity to reverse the effects of gravity – rejuvenation without plastic surgery!

I still had a few doubts, though. “What happens if the machine breaks down?” I asked.

“We have an 800-number to call,” my surgeon said.

I laughed. She didn’t. Fortunately, it never came to that.

Named after Leonardo da Vinci, who is believed to have invented the first robot, the minimally invasive da Vinci surgery is just 10 years old. There are only 900 of the computer-enhanced da Vinci systems in use in the United States – proving once again that I was on the “cutting edge.” (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

The da Vinci Surgical System allows surgeons to perform complex procedures with micro-instruments that are inserted into the body through tiny incisions – most just one-third to three-fourths of an inch long. This dramatically reduces blood loss and recovery time, and minimizes the amount of pressure on other organs. Guided by the camera and computer, the robotic arms also allow surgeons to safely cut where they might not have been able to do so easily before. Think about your wrist: It can't be rotated 360 degrees to reach something – but the da Vinci’s tiny instruments can.

The system's robotic arms replicate the surgeon’s movements in real time. This means the surgeon cannot program it and then step out for a cup of coffee or a game of tennis. Nor can the machine override the surgeon’s orders (Hey, let’s cut out that pesky stomach, too -- snip, snip). And, unlike the help desks for U.S. computer companies – the process can’t be operated from remote locations like India or Pakistan where people with thick accents claim their name is Bob or Melissa.

My surgery lasted over three hours, but I was allowed to go home that night with five new incisions. Three were unbelievably small. Within two days, I was back on the treadmill, albeit walking extremely slowly. The surgeon proclaimed me non-cancerous and cleared me to drive within 10 days but said heavy housework and lifting was forbidden for at least a month. (After hearing the latter, Husband No. 1 questioned whether he should have accompanied me into the doctor’s office.) Within two weeks, I was back at work. My only complaint is that my time spent defying gravity apparently wasn’t enough to reverse sagging body parts or make me look younger.

What 800-number do I call to fix that?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The advice that got you where you are today...

I'm still recovering from a little medical adventure so I thought you might like to hear from this guy who shares a connection with Stephen King...

By Frank Cook (aka Husband No. 1)

“Be yourself.” Oh, com’on people. What kind of advice is that?

You hear it all the time. Going for a job interview? “Just be yourself.” Pitching an agent? “Just be yourself.” Going out on a date? “Just let her know who you really are – be yourself.”

Have you ever considered the possibility that “being yourself” is what got you unemployed, unpublished and unloved?

Let’s face it, if your Facebook bio says you work in a humdrum job and you live alone with your cat, are you really surprised you don’t have a lot of friends?

It could be time for you, and maybe all of us, to be someone else. And, I hate to point out, being someone else doesn’t pay half bad.

For instance, when Angelina Jolie played someone other than herself in “Wanted,” she got $15 million. When Reese Witherspoon played someone other than herself in “Four Christmases,” she got $14 million. And Katherine Heigl, when she plays Izzy on “Grey’s Anatomy,” she gets $225,000 per episode.

Trust me, nobody would pay those people a dime to just “be themselves.”

The people who tell you to “be yourself” are the people who figure that’s all your good at and you’ll never master being someone else.

There are something like 300 million people in this country so the odds of someone really appreciating someone just like you are pretty good, but the odds of ever meeting that person are also pretty bad.

What am I suggesting? Be someone else.

No, I don’t mean identity theft. (Though it was certainly profitable for the guy who got my credit card number.) And I don’t mean going to restaurants claiming to be Barack’s brother. (He lives in Kenya.) (Not that I’ve tried that.)

I mean creating a certain aura around yourself that could be viewed as being attractive. “Yourself,” but a little more polished. Like:

“What do you do, Frank?”

“I’m a writer.”

“That sounds interesting. What do you write?”

“Well, in fact, I use many of the same words Stephen King uses.”

See how much more interesting I am?

On the other hand, I could be wrong. As my first wife likes to point out, Tiger Woods makes $128 million per year to be “himself.” And LeBron James gets $40 million a year to be “himself.”

“Why don’t you trying making yourself more like ‘themselves’?” she suggests.

She clearly has an identity crisis.

Monday, August 3, 2009

All lights burning bright?

Award-winning Canadian folksinger-songwriter David Francey recently graced a stage in my town and prior to performing each song, he shared its backstory with the audience.

As a writer, I appreciated these tales as much as the songs they generated. I was especially intrigued by the background for “All Lights Burning Bright.” Francey told us it was inspired by his discovery that the same final entry was recorded in the Watch Log Book at the end of each shift on the huge vessels traveling the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway straddling the U.S.-Canadian border:"All navigation lights burning brightly."

Francey read the logs while sailing on one of the mammoth commercial ships after his wife wangled an invitation for him to spend a week onboard. When he asked a seaman why it was so important to note the status of the navigation lights, he was told it was because of their significance to safe voyages. No matter what else a ship might encounter during the journey– if its navigation lights are burning brightly, other ships can see the vessel and those onboard can see other nearby marine traffic, as well. This is especially critical in bad weather.

The phrase “all navigation lights burning brightly” also can be a metaphor for life, says Francey. I couldn’t agree more. We can choose to go through life with our “lights” on low, moderate, "all burning brightly" or somewhere in between.

What about you – are "All Lights Burning Bright" in your life -- bright enough that others know who you are, what you stand for and what you strive for? What about in your relationships at home, at work and in your community? Do you use your talents to the maximum? Do you sail on, all lights blazing, despite rough seas?

And when your journey finally concludes, will people be able to say that you had “all lights burning bright” to the end? I hope so. I think that would be a wonderful thing.

(If you’d like to read the words to Francey's song, click here and scroll down to the end of the page to find “All Lights Burning Bright.” If you'd like to see him sing it, accompanied by Craig Werth of Portsmouth!, click on the button below)