"To be too certain of anything is the beginning of bigotry." -- Novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Does Cold Weather Help You Live Longer?

     I'm always looking for the silver lining, so the other day when I was outside shoveling the walkway and freezing my butt off, the thought came to me that I'd read somewhere recently that people who live in cold climates live longer than people in warmer climates. So I began to wonder, is that really true, or is it just a tale northerners tell themselves? I decided to do some homework on the issue.

     Researchers from the University of Michigan, in a study published in the journal Cell, reported that worms exposed to cold temperatures demonstrate a genetic response that triggers longer life spans. The researchers went on to speculate that the phenomenon may translate to humans since similar genetic pathways are present in human beings.

     Also, according to an article in Prevention magazine, scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in California found that reducing the core body temperature in mice extends their lifespans by up to 20 percent. And another study discovered that mussels in balmy Spain live an average of only 29 years, but mussels in frigid Russia survive as long as 200 years!

     Well, that's fine. But what if you're not a worm or a mouse or a mussel? The evidence is not nearly so clear. One source who believes cold weather extends life suggested that things get rotten in warm places. So people living in northern climes are like perishables put in the refrigerator -- they last longer. Another speculates that many harmful bugs and bacteria are killed off during the cold northern winters, lessening the threat of deadly diseases to northerners. Still another says that southerners suffer more damage from overexposure to the sun, which ages the skin and causes skin cancers, thus shortening their lives compared to their northern counterparts.

     Another suggestion: The mitochondria in human cells produce body heat by burning fats and oxygen, and in the process they swallow up the free radicals that contribute to aging. People in cold climates need more mitochondria to produce more heat. They therefore have more mitochondria, and the more mitochondria you have, the slower your aging process.

     On the other hand, some southerners point out that northerners don't get enough sunlight, and may bear the consequences in Vitamin D deficiencies. Some health experts estimate that 50 percent of adults have low levels of vitamin D, largely because they spend too much time indoors away from the sun. The long, dark northern winters may also bring on seasonal affective disorders and other forms of depression which can lead to premature death.

     Being stuck inside, northerners are also more exposed to communicable diseases such as influenza, and because the cold air dries out people's mucus membranes, they are more susceptible to infections, and more likely to suffer from allergies and asthma. They are also more likely to lead sedentary lives resulting in obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart problems.

     However, studies also show that cold weather may affect our body chemistry to reduce the impact of pain, and exposure to freezing temperatures can increase our energy output. Presumably, taking a two-mile walk in 20-degree weather is more exercise than taking a two-mile walk in 70-degree weather -- and we don't feel the aches and pains afterwards.

     So what does all this mean? According to an article in U. S. News, you are most likely to live to age 100 if you reside in North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa or Nebraska. These states are indeed cold, but they also share another common denominator. They are all Midwestern states where people may have old-fashioned Midwestern values such as hard work and clean living.

     Meanwhile an article in WedMD tells us that the states with the longest living residents are Hawaii, Minnesota, North Dakota, Connecticut and Utah. The states with the shortest life expectancy are: Kentucky, South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

     You can see the obvious correlation between temperature and longevity (with the exception of Hawaii). But it's also pretty obvious that a lot of other issues are involved, including wealth, education and a host of other factors. But maybe we can take this away from the issue: If you live in the north get outdoors more, especially in the winter. If you live in the south, stay out of the sun, especially in the summer. But no matter where you live, try to get more exercise.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Not the Oscars

     Last night was Oscar night. B and I turned on the show at 8 p.m. (EST) -- we thought it started at 8, but it actually started at 8:30, so we saw a little of the Red Carpet preview. But honestly, we switched over to "Downton Abbey" at 9 p.m., then we walked the dog, then we went to bed.

     So that tells you how much of a movie expert I am. However, yesterday afternoon we went to a dance at our local American Legion. We sat at a table with a group of friends and acquaintances, all age 60 to early 70s. For some reason, between dances, the topic of movies came up. So here's a report on what people -- real people in our demographic -- think of these current movies, not what the so-called experts would have us believe.

     American Sniper -- Well, actually, nobody at our table had seen this controversial movie about Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in American history, directed by Clint Eastwood. A couple of people wanted to see it, but not B. She is pretty sure it would be too violent for her. She does not like violent movies.

     Boyhood -- B and I have been wanting to see this movie for months, but we haven't been able to find it in a theater. Maybe we're lucky. Three people at our table had seen it. One couple reported that it was so boring they both fell asleep. Our friend Julie offered that she thought it was really bad, and said she would have walked out if she hadn't been with a friend. Later, driving home, B turned to me. "I'm surprised no one liked Boyhood," she said. "Maybe we should go see it anyway, just to find out what they're talking about." Maybe we will ... if we can find a theater where it's playing.

    Fifty Shades of Grey -- I went over this in my last post. One other person at the table had read the book besides me. Curiously, two other women volunteered that they had started reading the book, but had put it down. They thought it was too lame, too vacuous, too whatever. Nobody had seen the movie; nobody wanted to see it. So to steal a phrase ... two thumbs down.

     The Grand Budapest Hotel -- One person at the table recommended this Wes Anderson caper movie that takes place in Europe between the wars. (Another person had it confused with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, about the British pensioners who retired in India. There's a sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, coming out later this year.) I don't know. I'm not a big Wes Anderson fan. But maybe we'll check it out.

     The Imitation Game -- I'd heard about this movie, and honestly, it didn't appeal to me. It's about a British code-breaker in post-World-War II England who's arrested for homosexuality. I figured it's got a complicated, hard-to-follow plot with a heavy dose of political correctness. But several people had seen it, and they recommended it enthusiastically. So I figure, I ought to give it a chance ... even though (I found out later) it only earned one Oscar (for adapted screenplay).

     The Theory of Everything -- One couple at the table had seen it, and they recommended it highly. "But isn't it depressing?" I wondered. "It's about Stephen Hawking coming down with a horrible disease." No, it's not depressing, they said, it's really an uplifting love story. And I found out later:  Eddie Redmayne (who I liked in the movie version of Les Miserables) won Best Actor for his performance. So, definitely, put this on your "go see" list.

     Wild -- I was the only one who'd seen it. I'd read the book, and I liked it. I couldn't visualize how they would make much of a film out of it, so I wanted to see what they did. I thought Reese Witherspoon carried off the role very well; but it seemed to me that a lot was left out of the story. I'd say, if you've read the book, then don't bother with the movie. But if you haven't read the book, it's worth a trip to the theater.

     Sorry, but Still Alice, the movie about Alzheimer's, didn't come up in our conversation. Julianne Moore won Best Actress for her performance. (For a complete list of Oscar winners go to Variety.) But this one has got to be depressing, don't you think?

     Finally, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), didn't come up in our conversation either. It won the Oscar for Best Picture, so I figure it's probably worth going to see. Anyway, I guess that shows you how much I know. But then, as I admitted right up front, we turned to "Downton Abbey" instead.

Friday, February 20, 2015

50 Shades of Gray

     It's an epic story filled with romance and disappointment; hope and fear. And at the very end, there is a dramatic scene that usually takes place in the bedroom.

     Often it starts out with so much promise, only to be tripped up on the shoals of experience, until we realize we can attain a more rewarding and satisfying relationship with ourselves and our loved ones through patience, tolerance, experience, and a commitment to family and friends, as well as the resolve to be true to ourselves.

     There is young passion, maturing into a deeper, more textured love. But the story is not without violence, and sometimes even death, along with the general ravages of time. I am talking about the experience of real life itself, in all its colors and textures, with all its rewards and disappointments -- and the result, for most of us, is 50 shades of gray.

    Wait! If you thought this post was about the new movie, based on last year's hottest book 50 Shades of Grey, you are sorely mistaken. The Grey in that story is a narcissistic, self-serving misogynist named Christian Grey, who lures the young and curious literature student Anastasia Steele into his lair of sexual restraint.

     I read the book and, believe me, it is much more an old-fashioned romance novel than any kind of modern, sexually explicit literary spellbinder. I am not likely to see the movie, because I suspect it is all tease and titillation, but does not deliver a true sense of resolution or completion, much less any real emotional impact.

     I read the book last year because my friend's wife said she'd read it and actually liked it. B tried to read the book and gave up -- not because it offended her delicate sense of sexual propriety (which she does have), but because she thought the book was repetitive and shallow. She couldn't get engaged with the story; and she put it down because she felt it just wasn't going anywhere.

     Anyway, B and I watched a truly romantic movie on Valentine's Day. On TV we caught Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, a classic that B (amazingly!) had never seen before.

     Casablanca is one great film that still holds up, more than 70 years later. And for those of you who were attracted to this post by the titillation in the title, to paraphrase Captain Louis Renault from the movie:  I am shocked ... shocked to find that you think there is some kind of pornography going on in here!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Snow Is Me

     I watch the snow. More than I want. More than I can tolerate. I am sick of the snow.

     And I can't even complain about it, because I spent 2 1/2 weeks in Florida, while many of my friends have been here all winter, shaking and shoveling and shivering. B never took a break from the cold; she's been here the entire time. Her brother lives in Massachusetts, and he's gotten it even worse. There's my daughter in Buffalo. Brrrffalo.

     I see the students down at the college, standing out in the cold, waiting for the bus, huddled under their coats and hats and scarves. They don't complain. Of all the people I know at the college, only one person other than me was able to get away -- she went to Miami with her boyfriend for one week. And I had 2 1/2 weeks. So I can't complain. But those weeks seem so long ago.

     I no longer have any resistance to the cold. It seems that every week I need to put on another layer before I can feel comfortable around the house. B and I sat watching TV last night. I had a blanket around my shoulders; B had one draped over her knees. Like a couple of old people.

     It's mid-February. It was 14 degrees this morning. I keep looking on the five-day forecast to see if it will start to get warmer. Then the ten-day forecast. So far, no sign of it. 

     My friend Mike had the foresight to buy a condominium in Florida at the bottom of the real-estate market a few years ago. Now he goes down there for three months. So he's warm and happy. And I'm green with envy. But nothing is green around here. Only white. I am icy with envy. Someone else I know left for Guatemala. I don't know what he's doing there, but I know he's not shoveling snow.

     And then I get this lovely email from my sister who lives in Phoenix: "Tom: Are you getting all of this snow that we hear about over in our 78 degree weather? (Ha!)"

     I give a forced laugh. I know she means well, means to be funny. But I only think to myself, I will write her in July, asking about the baking, searing, enervating 100+ degree heat.

     But that gives me cold comfort. And I wonder: Is hell hot, or cold?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Do You Know What a Gerund Is?

     As I've mentioned before, I volunteer two afternoons a week as a writing tutor at our local community college. I deal mostly with young adults who are taking either the remedial writing class, or else the basic freshman English course.

     In other words, these young people have a lot of difficulty stringing together more than a few sentences. Most of them are underprivileged kids who went to a substandard high school, and many of them took time off after high school before entering college. A lot of them are also holding down part-time jobs, and some of them even have children, so they don't have a lot of time to spend laboring over their essays, revising them and polishing them up.

     I see a lot of essays with sentences that don't have a clear subject and verb, and a lot of them begin, "Being that ..."

     So now I tell my students, Do not start a sentence with a word ending in "ing" unless you know what a gerund is. It's just not that easy to use a gerund as the subject of a sentence.

      For the record, the word gerund comes from the Latin gerundium, the noun form of the verb gero, meaning, that which is to be carried out. In other words, a gerund is a verb that ends in "ing"and functions as a noun. As in:  Swimming is good exercise; or, Visiting friends can be fun.

     But in the course of developing my rule-of-thumb, I did a little research and found that others have said it much better than I can. So, being as how I found these quotes, let me offer a few:

     "Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it."  -- William Arthurd Ward

     "I never believe nor disbelieve. If you will excuse my speaking frankly, I mean to observe you closely, and to decide for myself."             -- Wilkie Collins

     "They cut down elms to build asylums for people driven mad by the cutting down of elms." -- George Barker

     "Shooting pinballs is not an art form." -- Bart Simpson

     "Humor is laughing at what you haven't got when you ought to have it."  -- Langston Hughes

     "All talk of winning the people by appealing to their intelligence, of conquering them by impeccable syllogism, is so much moonshine."       -- H. L. Mencken

     "There are times when parenthood seems nothing but feeding the mouth that bites you." -- Peter De Vries

     "This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy."                              -- George Bernard Shaw

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Remember Him?

     He would have just turned 90 last month, but he died of cancer in 2008, at age 83. Do you know who he is?

     He was born in Shaker Heights, Ohio, on Jan. 25, 1925, in a family that welcomed religious differences. His mother was a Roman Catholic, born in Hungary, who as an adult became a Christian Scientist. His father was the son of Jewish parents who had also immigrated from Hungary. His father ran a sporting goods store, and his mother worked in the store while raising him and his older brother.

   He identified himself as a Jew, though he never practiced the religion. And he was married for 50 years to a Protestant from Georgia.

     He graduated from Shaker Heights High School in 1943 and joined the Navy. He wanted to be a pilot but was disqualified because he was color blind, so he instead trained as a radioman and gunner. He flew out of aircraft carriers in the Pacific, and narrowly escaped death in the spring of 1945. During the Battle of Okinawa he was scheduled to report to the USS Bunker Hill, but his pilot came down with an ear infection and was grounded, along with his crew. Soon after, when he was supposed to be on board ship, the Bunker Hill was hit by two kamikaze aircraft, resulting in explosions and fire that killed 346 sailors, including the entire contingent from his squadron.

     For his service he received a Navy combat action ribbon and Combat Aircrew Wings. Then, after the war, he returned to Ohio and went to Kenyon College, studying both economics and drama.

     He graduated in 1949 and married his girlfriend Jackie Witte -- they had a son and two daughters together. He landed some acting roles in summer stock in Wisconsin and Illinois, then after his father died, he sold his interest interest in the family store to his brother and headed east -- first to Yale Drama School for a year, then to New York City where he studied under Lee Strasberg at the Actor's Studio.

     He made his Broadway debut in 1953 in Picnic, trying out for the lead role of Hal, but ending up being cast as Hal's old college roommate. He later took over the lead role, and fatefully, also met a woman, an understudy for the production who was to become his second wife.

    A couple of years later the two actors worked together on the film The Long Hot Summer. He ended up divorcing his wife, and they married in February 1958. The following month his new wife won the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in The Three Faces of Eve.

     Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward remained married for 50 years, until Newman's death in 2008. They had three daughters together, and starred together in a total of ten films. In addition, Newman directed his wife in five other films.

     Paul Newman, famous for his rugged good looks and deep blue eyes, was himself nominated ten times for Academy Awards, starting with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, then The Hustler, Hud and Cool Hand Luke. He finally won Best Actor for his role in the 1986 film The Color of Money. But, ironically, he was not nominated for his work opposite Robert Redford in his two most popular films: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973)

     Newman was almost as famous for his activities outside of the movies. He was a lifelong Democrat and cast his early support for Eugene McCarthy for president in 1968. He was proud of the fact that he made Richard Nixon's infamous "Enemy's List."

     He was also interested in auto racing. He owned a number of race cars and competed professionally in several auto races. He was active in a number of charities including The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, a camp for seriously ill children in Connecticut (named after his gang in Butch Cassidy). He was an environmentalist, preserving lands around his home in Connecticut; he donated $10 million to establish a scholarship fund at Kenyon College; and he helped form a committee to encourage corporate philanthropy.

     He ultimately put his money where his mouth was when he founded a company called Newman's Own, starting with salad dressing. He later quipped, "The embarrassing thing is that the salad dressing is outgrossing my films." Regardless, now seven years after his death, Newman's Own is going strong with a whole line of upscale culinary products; and the profits still go to support Newman's favorite charities.


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

What Our Mothers Told Us

     The other day I mentioned that if we'd just done what our mothers told us to do -- no questions, no arguing -- we'd all probably be better off. That got me thinking:  Is that really true?

     Well, I know it would have been true with my kids, if they'd listened to their mother (which they did more often than not). She wanted, above all, for them to follow their dreams, make the most of themselves and make their mother proud along the way.

     But what about us? What if we'd listened to our mothers? What advice did your mother offer to you as a child? In my case, the advice was more modest, more practical. But perhaps no less important. She told me to:

     Drink your orange juice. In our house we began every day with a glass of orange juice. My mom bought it frozen, in a can, and mixed it with water. It was pretty inexpensive that way. She thought it was important that we get a little fruit inside of us, and enjoy the benefits of vitamin C, which she believed warded off colds and other diseases. This was long before Nobel-prize winning scientist Linus Pauling claimed that large doses of vitamin C reduce the risk of getting a cold. Those claims have since been questioned, but the latest research, according to WebMD, does suggest at least some minimal positive effects from vitamin C in reducing cold symptoms. Vitamin C is also an antioxidant and helps reduce inflammation, and offers some protection against immune system deficiencies, cardiovascular disease, eye disease, and even skin wrinkling.

     Eat your vegetables. Well, we know vegetables are good for us. They have no cholesterol, are low in fat and calories, and provide many vitamins and minerals, as well as dietary fiber. My mother served up a lot of broccoli, cauliflower, peas and string beans. (If only she hadn't overcooked them and served them up limp and soggy.) When I was a kid I hated broccoli and cauliflower; but now in my maturity I actually like these two vegetables. (I'm still trying to develop a taste for spinach though.) One other benefit: the vitamins and minerals you ingest in vegetables are more beneficial than those you take as supplements because of other active ingredients in the food.

     Sit up straight. My mother had pretty good posture herself, and was always telling us kids to "Sit up straight!" I wish I'd listened to her. I developed stenosis of the upper spine in my late 40s -- from sitting at a desk and hunching over a computer, said my doctor -- that left me with a numb, tingling left arm, and aches and pains in my shoulders. Fortunately, I did finally listen to my physical therapist (not the first time; but after my third trip to the doctor); and so now I try to sit up straight -- I try not to sit for long periods of time at all -- and I do my stretching exercises to keep my back and neck loose and limber. But I do realize, if I had just listened to my mom, I could have avoided all that!

     Brush your teeth, and don't forget to floss. My mother's father was a dentist, and my mother was very proud of the fact that "I still have all my own teeth" up to the day she died at age 89. I remember her giving us kids lessons in how to brush -- up and down, not across -- and how to use dental floss. I must confess, however, that while I've always been pretty good at brushing my teeth, I still have had my share of cavities. Recently, my current dentist recommended using those softpics, the little brushes that fit between your teeth, and I've found them very helpful -- and, believe it or not, fun to use!

     Tommy, go outside and play! My mother had four children, and so, honestly, I think she wanted us out of the house in order to give her some peace and quiet and time to herself. But I did have a tendency to spend too much time sprawled on the couch reading a book, or flopped on the floor watching TV, or lying on my bed listening to music. So getting outside for some fresh air and exercise was definitely good advice. We all know the benefits of exercise -- which a lot of people get these days by running or rowing or climbing stairs in a stuffy old fitness club -- but really, I think it's better to go outside and take a walk or ride a bike or play a little tennis or golf.

     Anyway, thanks Mom for the advice. I wish I'd taken more of it!