Monday, May 27, 2013

So Done With Medical Science

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published May 30, 2013] © 2013 

When I read recently that new studies suggest that there could be a connection between calcium supplements and heart disease, I officially gave up on medical science.  Sorry, science, it’s just over between us.

I mean, is there a more sacred cow in women’s health care than supplemental calcium?  A lot of other supplements have been hyped over the years – Tryptophan, Sam-e, Echinacea, Chondroitin – but the one indisputable, irrefutable, absolutely sacrosanct piece of advice for women was to take calcium.  Hormone replacement, cholesterol limits in egg yolks and shrimp, butter vs. margarine, all went in and out of style.  But not calcium.    
It was always the first question out of any primary care doctor’s mouth:  Are you taking calcium?  Really important for bone health unless you want to end up looking like a mobile end table in your 60’s. 

It’s not even that supplemental calcium might not be helping you.  It can be causing you harm.  I just can’t help having a giant snit about this.  If that’s true, what took medical research so long to figure it out?  I’ve been taking supplemental calcium for at least 30 years.  Aside from a big fat refund, I also want an extended warranty on my heart from you guys. 
Turns out, according to the new research, supplemental calcium can sock it to your heart in several possible ways.  One of them is not taking along with it enough magnesium and Vitamin D (the current darling of over-the-counter supplements – I’m predicting it will be found to cause dementia). Another is that the body can really only handle a certain amount of calcium at once and the rest can end up in your arteries causing atheroschlerosis and increasing the risk of heart disease. 

Nobody, of course, is saying that you don’t need calcium for your bones.  But this week’s prevailing medical wisdom is that to avoid getting too much calcium in your system, you’re only supposed to get it from your diet, preferably in the form of leafy greens and dairy.  So, ladies, flush those calcium supplements before they cause you to keel over from calcium excess in the middle of eating a blueberry yogurt.  (Of course, we can’t all flush them at once or there’s going to be a LOT of fish with heart disease.) 
If the calcium news weren’t bad enough, The New York Times reported on May 14 another new study that showed that sharply limiting sodium intake had no health benefits and, like calcium, could actually increase the risk of heart disease.  I am ordering an anchovy pizza RIGHT NOW.

For years before that, studies incontrovertibly showed that doing crossword puzzles every day made the aging brain stay agile.  Now the Wall Street Journal reports that all crossword puzzles do for your brain is make you better at crossword puzzles.
Personally, I think the National Institutes of Health just enjoy toying with us. 

I’ve become seriously suspicious.   For example, I remember reading all those studies showing that hormone replacement therapy was good.  If those studies were all flawed, how do we know the new ones about calcium and sodium and heart disease aren’t too?  Before I completely change my life again, they’re going to have to convince me. And let me just say, I’m going to be a really hard sell at this point. 
No, this volte face on calcium is a level of perfidy that cannot be countenanced.  You’ve crossed the line this time, microbiology nerds.  I’m done with you changing the rules! 

I’ve concluded that my husband, Olof, is right:  Medical science doesn’t really have a clue.  The good news, says Olof, is that you can pick what you want  to die from.  Neither of us are willing to die from liver since we don’t like liver.  But I’m willing to die from chocolate.  He’s willing to die from single malt Scotch. 
Fortunately for me, there are plenty of opportunities with chocolate to get enough calcium from one’s diet.  As a first step, I’m going to drastically up my intake of Ben and Jerry’s Fudge Brownie ice cream.  Strictly medicinal.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Arrivederci Rain

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published May 16, 2013] © 2013

When I first moved to San Diego, I was puzzled that people invited me out for coffee or lunch “if it’s not raining.”  Did restaurants and coffee shops in sunny places like San Diego close in inclement weather?  Efforts to get to the bottom of this were initially unsuccessful until it was finally explained to me why Southern Californians don’t go out in showery conditions:

It’s wet. 

San Diegans do not do wet.  We are used to dry.  Sometimes really dry.  As the joke goes, our four seasons are fire, earthquake, landslide, and drought.  But having such a cooperative climate does make the locals really testy when precipitation should interfere with one’s tee (or tea) time.  In fact that’s another piece of data I remember from a long-ago Chamber of Commerce brochure:  304 golfing days per year.  If one lives here long enough, one comes to feel that there is simply no excuse for meteorological conditions interfering with one’s plans the other 61 days either.

Besides San Diego, I’ve lived in the Northeast, in the Mid-west, on the equator, and in Scandinavia, all locales with no lack of rain.  The romance can go out of rain pretty fast in those places.  In fact, when we lived in Stockholm, I spent two whole summers exhorting Thor to stop with the precipitation already!  
Even so, the whole time we lived in Sweden, it caused us physical pain to waste water after so many years of living in drought-ridden San Diego. The hot water in our Stockholm apartment took five full minutes to come in (we think it was coming from Oslo) which meant leaving the shower running that long.  We had to stifle an urge to be filling up buckets to be used later for….tossing off our balcony onto the asphalt courtyard below?  

Meanwhile, in San Diego a rainy year (and this term would be exceedingly relative) might mean no water rationing come June (hah!), and the waiving of those truly annoying before ten a.m./after six  p.m. watering rules on one’s allotted watering days. 
I love it when it rains here.  One has whole malls to oneself.  In my view, nothing is nicer than an afternoon at home listening to a gentle plink on the roof. (It’s much nicer than the more ubiquitous sound of sea bird droppings hitting the skylights which is more in the splot family.)  

Of course, one of the reasons one can truly love rain here is that we get so little of it.  The storms come down from the Pacific Northwest, inflict watery mayhem on the entire west coast then take a sudden U-ey at L.A. and head out to Colorado.  It’s profoundly annoying.  San Diego has been stood up by more storms than anyone could count.
But none of this keeps the ever-optimistic local TV station’s Storm Watch team, lathered into a frenzy at the possibility of a tenth of an inch of rain, from dutifully standing on the beach at La Jolla Shores in their yellow slickers breathlessly predicting imminent doom while the waves in the background lap gently on the sand.  But, they swear, the rain really is coming!  And it could be catastrophic! They just look so earnest and hopeful, you want it to rain for no other reason than it would make them happy.  And for once, right.

Running out of things to say on the beach, where the storm winds have not so much ruffled a strand on the newscaster’s perfectly coiffed head, the news cast cuts to  live camera crews driving around Kearny Mesa where a zoom to the windshield reveals exactly three drops – proof that yes, it really IS (sort of) raining!  Cut to green blobs on the TV studio’s Doppler Radar screen which prove once and for all, that… that… somebody somewhere is getting some rain!  Just not us. 
When it last significantly rained on March 8 (I’m not counting the April 15 drizzle or even the “May miracle” showers on May 6), I felt a definite sadness knowing that San Diego’s Pray-for-Rain season was over and we probably wouldn’t see serious precipitation again until October – if then.  Once again, our rumored average 9.5 inch (more hah!) “rain year” rainfall fell short of the mark limping in at around six.

So let the water rationing and the humongo water bills begin.  And meanwhile, Thor, I take it all back.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

**Inga's Guide To Being a Mother-in-Law

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published May 9, 2013] © 2013 

I was thinking about writing a guide on how to be a good mother-in-law but truthfully it can all be summed up in two words:  “Shut. Up.” 
My long-time motto, to which I have, alas, faithfully failed to adhere, has always been “A closed mouth gathers no feet.”  As anyone who has read my column for a while might guess, letting an opinion go unvoiced is not my strong suit. 

But I really try hard with my two daughters-in-law who are truly the daughters I never had and whose good opinion is my utmost priority.  Having been a daughter-in-law twice myself, I vowed I would be a dream mother-in-law.  A friend of mine insists that’s an oxymoron.  But then, this is a woman whose bedroom sports a throw pillow averring “The only good in-law is a dead in-law.” 
I’ve learned a lot from both of my mothers-in-law (my second husband’s mother is still living).   

My first mother-in-law only ever referred to me in the third person, even when I was there, and preferably without conjunctions, as in:  “Ask The Shiksa she wants dessert.”  These in-laws escaped from Russia in the dead of night with the clothes on their backs, enduring incredible hardships in their new land all so that their son the doctor, their phoenix rising out of immigrant ashes, could marry…me?    SO not part of the plan. 
Ironically, with the passage of time (and the raising of two sons), I have tremendous empathy for her position.  Now that I have adult sons, I know I would be devastated if either of them married someone I truly thought was wrong for him, regardless of the reason.  I wish she were alive today so I could tell her.   (She’d still probably tell me to drop dead, but I’d feel better saying it.)

My current mother-in-law actually likes me.  And I adore her.  Although very fond of her son’s first wife, I think she wishes Olof and I had married the first time around. (So do my former in-laws.) 
The one thing I told both of my daughters-in-law from the get-go was that I was trying to learn their tastes so that if I got them a gift they didn’t like, they needed to say so. As a cautionary tale, I relayed the saga of a friend who, as a new bride, politely gushed over a hideous china tchotchke her mother-in-law gave her. She has continued to receive another one for every birthday and Christmas for the last 34 years.  Two years ago, her mother-in-law surprised her with a display case for them. 

Honestly, I knock myself out to stay on my daughters-in-law’s good sides, and fortunately they are such sweethearts that they make it easy for me.  But occasionally, despite my best efforts, I just screw it up.  When my tiny grandkids were down visiting a few months ago, I thought it would be really fun to take a bunch of cheapo on-sale hotdog buns down to our favorite sunset spot to feed the seagulls.  Now at the time, the sun was setting at around 5:00, so it was just before dinner.  Neither of my daughters-in-laws are food fanatics but they quite reasonably prefer to maximize the nutritional value of whatever they happen to be feeding their kids.  So as you might guess, not a lot of white bread.
But as soon as we got down to the sunset place and each kid had a bag of hotdog buns in hand, they started eating them instead of tearing off pieces for the birds.  (“Whoa! You don’t even have to chew this stuff!”)  Mom quickly confiscated the buns and handed them pieces to throw but these went into mouths just as quickly, despite admonishments to the contrary. I could see daughter-in-law’s jaw tightening.  This well-intentioned happy activity was tanking fast.  It was such a good idea!  Which so totally failed!  Kids were, of course, way too full of nutritionally-bankrupt processed flour product to eat dinner.  My daughter-in-law was totally nice about it.  But in my mind’s eye, I feared becoming fodder for her next dinner party. 

Sadly I know women who really don’t like their daughters-in-law and have even engaged in the ultimate mother-in-law act of aggression, i.e. sending the grandchildren drum sets for Christmas.  I’m going to continue to be phenomenally grateful that I ended up with the daughters-in-law that I did.  But next time:  whole wheat buns.  After dinner.

**A Hairy Experience in Washington, D.C.

Who knew it was so hard to get your hair done in downtown DC?  As soon as we learned we were coming to town for a wedding in April, I set about finding a place to have my hair styled for the event.  It seemed easy enough:  MapQuest allows you to search all sorts of services near your hotel, including hair salons.  I was rather hoping that either our hotel or a surrounding one had their own salon but calls to their concierges quickly shot down that idea. 

Fortunately, MapQuest provided two salon names within a few blocks of our hotel.  I called both and surprisingly got the same answers.  Yes, they did women’s hair.  And no, they did not do blow dries.  This did not seem possible.  Were they using a different term?  Blow jobs?  (Hopefully not.)  DC was a truly cosmopolitan area.  I reverted to my tried and true Sweden technique for overcoming language barriers:  simplify and describe.

“So,” I proceeded, “what I am looking for is someone to shampoo my hair and then take a hair dryer and a brush and dry my hair.  Do you have this service?”

“No,” came the reply.  “We only do wet sets.” 

Wet sets?  No clue.

“Well,” I said optimistically (they really were close to the hotel), “that might work.  Could you explain exactly what that is?”

The woman on the other end couldn’t imagine she was dealing with such an idiot. 

“We wash your hair, we set it in rollers, we sit you under a hair dryer, we let it dry,” she explained with some annoyance.  “Then we comb it out.” 

Uh-oh.  She had just described what for me would be the Helmet Hair Coif of Death.  My head would measure two feet across when they were done, teased into a lacquered mass that moved in a solid unit with my head and could also serve as a bullet proof cranial shield should I walk into a situation of inner city unrest. 

“So,” I persisted, “if someone wanted their hair dried with just a nice round brush that they brought themselves, would you consider doing that?” 


The third place was already starting to be a good hike from the hotel, but still do-able.  I don’t know DC at all but if I did, I might have realized that I was heading into the ‘hood.  But yes, they said, they did do women’s hair, and yes, they did do blow dries.  I explained that my hairstyle was very simple, just a “classic bob”.  I probably should have been worried that this was met with total silence.  But they didn’t say anything about wet sets.  So I booked an appointment for the day of the wedding.  If living in Sweden taught me anything, it was flexibility.  It’s just hair, I reminded myself, and it can ultimately be fixed.  There was no cut or color involved, so it wasn’t like I was daring them.

Our first morning in DC, I suggested that on our way to the Smithsonian that we might take a detour so I could check out my hair place for Saturday.  We did notice immediately that one direction from our hotel was fairly upscale and the other direction – that in which my salon was located – deteriorated rapidly.  By the time we got to the right street, it was hard not to notice that the buildings, which could be described as graffiti-esque, all had bars – some several sets of iron bars – on the windows.  My “salon” was no different. 

We stood outside looking at it. 

“This is not looking promising,” I said.  “But let’s go in and see.”

“Who’s ‘we’?” said my husband. “I’m staying here.”

As soon as I walked in – to the genuine surprise of the clientele, I might add – it was obvious that I was booked to have my hair done at a black inner city barber shop.  But they did have a sink in the corner where they did women’s hair.  I explained who I was and that I was hoping to see the stylist.  The barber, who was very nice by the way, explained that Sheneesha wasn’t in but he would tell her I came by.

It was clear I needed a different place.  But even the hotel had no good recommendations that weren’t several metro stops away.  And we were going to have limited time on Saturday with other plans before the wedding.  There definitely weren’t many (any?) basic services in the area of DC we were staying.  We’d tried to buy wine and flowers to bring to friends who were hosting us for dinner and there were no markets, drug stores, wine shops, or anything of the sort anywhere near us.   I briefly considered doing my own hair but those wimpy hotel hair dryers are no match for my hair which needs at least six hours to air dry and more than an hour with an industrial strength hair dryer, which I didn’t have.  And we were going to be out late every night and up early every day.  So I started making a list of what I should tell Sheneesha NOT to do.  No products.  Nothing oily.  NO TEASING.  No hair spray. 

The day before the appointment, I realized I needed to change the time slightly due to a change in our  plans.  So I called and when the barber answered, I asked to speak to Sheneesha.  Seconds later, an incredibly hostile voice came on the line.


If I’ve ever wanted to hang up on someone in my life, this might have been it. 

“Um,” I said, totally taken aback, “I need to change my appointment time for tomorrow.  Um, if that would be OK.”

The apologies were instantaneous and profuse.  She was so sorry, she said.  She thought I was a relative who was not supposed to “cawl me at mah work.”  And yes, she was happy to change the time.

Given that it was a Saturday, the place was fairly busy when I got there, with people waiting for one of the four barber chairs.   But Sheneesha, to her credit, was waiting for me.  No mention of her calling me a canine pejorative the day before, which was probably just as well.  We discussed what I wanted – low concept, I said:  Shampoo, blow dry, ends curled under.  It was important, I emphasized, that when we were done, my hair moved independently of my head.

One standard feature of salons is that they have scented shampoos, usually some nice botanical blend.  This shampoo, I’m afraid, smelled like undiluted Pine-Sol, obviously an in-house-brewed mix.  Honestly, the smell was so overwhelming I thought I would have an asthma attack.  Which would be amazing, since I don’t have asthma.  After she did the second shampoo with it, I started to get worried that my hair was going to smell like a toxic forest incident even after it was dry.  I would have my own Pine-Sol force field around me for the rest of the trip as people moved a safe distance from my head.  The problem, of course, was that I wouldn’t be able to move a safe distance from my head.  I asked Sheneesha if I could have an extra rinse.  Maybe two extra rinses, just to be safe.  My hair is very, um, shampoo-inhalant, I explained. 

Those extra rinses, however, came at a price.  Sheneesha didn’t have fingernails so much as she had talons of the type generally associated with deadly predators.  Those were some seriously long fingernails, the ends of which I would swear were filed into razor points.  The scabs on my head will heal eventually, of course, but asking for extra rinses definitely was a tradeoff, although she did try to respond to my requests to be a little more  gentle.  Because she was shredding my scalp from my skull. 

But on to the blow dry.  I have to say that everyone was very friendly to me, after an initial double take at seeing this very blond person walk in.  But they had a sense of humor.  When one the barber asked one new arrival what he wanted and he pointed to me and said, “Same as her.”  I was fascinated by the cuts the guys were getting – lots of shaved “cut outs” on the backs of their heads.  It’s pretty rare that I’m the only white person in a room and can only imagine what it is like for blacks to be the only black person in a room full of whites.  I started to have a certain warm fuzzy feeling that I used to have in Stockholm when I found myself in situations that I would never have the opportunity to experience in San Diego.  Like, for example, hang around a black inner city barber shop on a Saturday morning.  So I have to say, that part was genuinely fun.

Now, I have more hair than any three people ought to have so I’m used to having blow dries take a while.  But this took AN HOUR AND A HALF.   Once I take off my glasses, I have no idea what a stylist is doing which always makes me nervous if it’s a new stylist.  From time to time, I’d reach my hand up and feel that my hair was flipping up at the bottom in the back instead of curling under.  I mentioned this to Sheneesha who shrugged, “S’what it wants to do.”  Um, OK, but what I was hoping for was someone to persuade it to do what it DOESN’T want to do.  But at this point, if it’s clean and doesn’t smell like Pine-Sol, I can live with that.  

And in the end, that’s pretty much what I got – clean hair that didn’t smell like Pine-Sol and kind of flipped up in the back and curled under in the front.  Knowing what I know now, I would have lugged the industrial strength hair dryer and the jumbo hot rollers across the country but what I got was an adventure, or at least an adventure-let.  That’s what travel is all about.    At the wedding, my hair had a somewhat sticky feeling that I couldn’t quite figure out since I really thought we’d agreed on no post-shampoo products.  Probably just a little pine sap residue.