Thursday, January 26, 2012

Let the Buyer Beware!

I feel like Miles Monroe, owner of the Happy Carrot Health-Food store in Woody Allen’s classic comedy/satire, “Sleeper.”  Miles lived in Manhattan in 1973; he was cryogenically frozen without his consent; awakened 200 years later, only to find that everything he knew was wrong. 

In their efforts to revive him, the 22nd century doctors who “thawed” him prescribed chocolate and cigarettes!  He refused, of course, coming from the birth of the health food mania of the 1970’s.  But they assured him that the latest scientific research proved nicotine and cocoa beans to be most healthful and rejuvenating.

So it made his abstinence seem futile.  Hmmm.   

And what about all those organic herbs, vitamin supplements, and gag-inducing blended concoctions he must have choked down in the name of well-being?  Had it all been in vain?    

Flash forward, or back to the present, or wherever we are in relation to that fictional scenario:  Reuters Health now reports that a University of Connecticut researcher who studied the link between decelerated aging and a substance found in red wine has committed 145 acts of data fabrication and falsification, throwing most of his findings into doubt.  

That’s right.  Dipak K. Das, who directed the university's Cardiovascular Research Center, studied the substance resveratrol, touted as a means to slow aging and maintain good health as people get older.  A Las Vegas resveratrol maker, Longevinex, has promoted Das's research, and he appears in a lengthy video they produced hyping the nutrient as the next aspirin - “The sliced bread of the Viagra & Botox set.”  I beg your pardon?! 

Thank heavens for the tipster who alerted UConn and the U.S. Office of Research Integrity, which investigates alleged misconduct by federal grant recipients.  They’ve in turn notified 11 journals that published Das's work, including “The Journal of Antioxidants & Redox Signaling.”  Really. 

Shocking for the world of science.  But more important for us: resveratrol in red wine is not the lost secret of eternal youth we were promised. 

Great.  That’s just great. 

Red wine won’t keep me young.  Thank you so much, Dr. Das.  I threw myself into that regimen wholeheartedly!  It’s very discouraging.  And it’s a dilemma:  Should I abstain, or not?  Will we find out next year that, oops, resveratrol really does reverse the sands of time?   

What axiom of wisdom is next to be debunked?  I’m not lankier in my flare-leg jeans?  Minimizers maximize?  They told me I’d look great, but am I just another tubby girl in a V-neck sweater and vertical stripes?!  

For years we thought a golden tan was the hallmark of glowing health.  But no.   

Public schools served grilled cheese sandwiches and tater tots to untold thousands of innocent children.  Now we’re informed that government-issued pasteurized processed “cheese food” and potatoes deep-fried in animal lard aren’t the nutritional dynamos we were led to believe.  Or are they? 

We used to be able to trust our mortgage lenders.  Yikes.  Next they’ll tell me the Nigerian National Petroleum Company isn’t going to transfer $47,000,000 into my bank account, after all. 

Of course, I kind of knew about the Nigerians, anyway.  I barely considered their proposal, though I felt for the Nigerian civil servants who emailed me, being forbidden to operate a foreign bank account and all.  That’s why they needed my help in the first place.  

My 25% of $47million?  That’s about; let’s see, by my calculations, $11million and change.  I could use that kind of dough.  But still, I’m skeptical.  Why did they pay so much for the mineral rights to begin with?  Everyone knows you get your contingencies in place before you tie up your capital! 

And it’s common knowledge that to be a legitimate transferee of such moneys according to Nigerian law, a person like me would have to be a current depositor of at least $100,000 in a Nigerian bank.  Pretty inconvenient.   

They said they’d be most grateful for my assistance, but I just don’t know anymore, now that I’m off the cabernet. 

A person can’t be too careful.  You put your faith in something only to find it reversed on appeal.  Even worse - it was fabricated and falsified from the outset.   

From now on, I’m sticking with the tried and true:  I’ll drink my sloe gin fizz, wear my most forgiving black, and keep my money in the henhouse with the eggs in a variety of baskets.  

No, no!  I won’t be fooled again.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

You Too Can Be Charismatic!

So I’m working on my charisma.  You know - that certain something you might say some of us simply exude.  Just born with it.  Enchanting.  Captivating.  

"It's from the Greek, and it generally refers to a gift, something [a person] didn't necessarily have to earn or deserve," says Mark Oppenheimer who teaches at Yale University.  "But it's this talent, or unique capability.  It comes from the gods, really." 

As I said, I’m working on it. 

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, researchers say they can use science to measure charisma, assuming you have some to measure. 

With a little device they call the “Sociometer,” the creation of Professor Alex Pentland and his team at MIT, a person’s charm can be gauged.  To do this, according to Pentland, the Sociometer measures not what you say, but how you say it.   

Really?  Doesn’t matter what I say?  I’m all over this!  On my way to personal magnetism. 

"So the first thing is energy,” says Pentland in an interview on CBS.  “You have to be energetic."  

OK, if I want to be charismatic I have to be energetic.  I can be energetic.  I am so energetic.  

"It shows up in your hands,” he goes on.  “It shows up in your voice, the way you carry yourself and do things."   

Yeah!  Yeah!  I’m getting’ it!  If you could only see me.  I’m an absolute Liberace at the keyboard. 

According to the MIT team and their Sociometer, high scorers have a real advantage.  Consider what happened when Pentland used his high-tech gadget to assess charisma's impact on corporate business decisions: Without knowing anything about the business plan, [or] the person presenting it, “We predicted how well [the] plan would be rated.  And the two things that really mattered were:  Did [the presenter] sound like they were excited?  And, were they fluid in how they produced the speech?” 

That’s it!  Any animated schmo can effect a winning sales pitch so long as she doesn’t twist her tongue!  Really.  She sells seashells by the seashore. 

And get this:  Professor Joseph Nye of the Harvard Kennedy School says, though we may not like to admit it, winning personalities win elections.  "There is an attractiveness that leads some people to be able to get others to follow them by their personality." 

Oppenheimer, who also studied the subject at Yale concurs: "Most American voters ultimately don't vote on specific policy questions.  They're responding to something else - charisma."  Yikes. 

Sure enough, in a new CBS "Sunday Morning" poll, 3 out of 4 voters say that indefinable something will play a role in their vote - one in four says a major role.  It’s a good way to save time studying candidates and their positions on the issues. 

Supposedly you can be trained to be charismatic.  So, even a bumbling oaf, not to mention any names, can take classes and come out Clooney-esque.  So says John Neffinger, an Ivy League law school graduate who now runs workshops for the charismatically challenged.  He defines charisma as a combination of strength and warmth, beginning with body language.   

Just like Grandma said:  Stand up straight and smile!  Neffinger agrees, "… that is actually the basic formula.  Standing up straight says, ‘I'm here to be taken seriously.  Don't mess with me!’ and that projects strength.  Smiling genuinely projects a lot of warmth." 

The winning combination, and this is where it gets tricky, is a smile that projects both warmth and strength.  "There are two different things going on, on the face," says Neffinger.  "On the bottom half of the face is just a little bit of a smile.  So you got warmth going on the bottom.  But what goes on in the eyes is, there's an intention to the look in the eyes.  There's a determination.  And that intensity connotes strength." 

No wonder Mitt Romney looks so stiff.  He’s trying to remember all this stuff that doesn’t come naturally while fending off Newt Gingrich and Stephen Colbert.   

But with such a simple recipe, I feel certain I can work up from my current state of shy and socially inept, through the intermediate stages of awkward but well meaning, and disarmingly pushy, all the way up to mesmerizingly irresistible.   

I’m very excited about this.  Warmly, sincerely, and with strength. 

Vote for me.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Don't Call Me Shirley!

Whenever I’m trying to soften a blow, I find a nice name for the ugly thing I need to talk about.  You know, a pimple becomes a blemish.  “Boo boo” stands for road rash.  Oops, I guess that’s a euphemism for a nickname.  Maybe I should just say “scrape.”  But it conjures up painful experiences I’d rather suppress. 

In the United States, we favor nicknames for our unmentionables.  Of course, “unmentionables” used to mean “underwear.”  Once, our delicate sensibilities prohibited our calling undergarments by their names.  We were ‘way too proper to say “slip,” or “brassiere” in mixed company.  Certainly not “bra.”  And we could never, never say “panties.”  Why grown men stuttered at the prospect.   

Then Madonna wore her lingerie on the outside, in an instant rendering all lingerie mentionable.  We’ve been chipping away at George Carlin’s list ever since.  You remember his list, don’t you?  The seven words you cannot say on radio or TV.  He developed it through trial and error when his mother smacked him each time he inadvertently said one in her presence.  He wondered as a child why she didn’t just give him the list in advance.  Would have saved him an a** whippin’.   

See?  That brand of whippin’, common in households back in the day, didn’t get the graphic descriptor in polite conversation.  Now, even the President calls it right out.   

Actually, we still can’t say most of Carlin’s words without some repercussion.  Victorian civility precludes inclusion here of the one word from his list that’s common on TV now.  You’ll just have to do your own research and sort it out. 

Frankly, I wish some things remained unmentionable.  Although in retrospect, some restrictions were pretty silly.  My husband and I just watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” as we do every Christmas.  We see something new every year (or maybe, like those progressing into senility, we repeatedly forget what we should be able to recite verbatim).  This time, we laughed when we saw the scene in which Donna Reed reveals she’s pregnant by hinting with a veiled reference and a knowing smile to Jimmy Stewart.  Then, he lets us know he gets the hint when he responds with elation, “You’ve got a bun in the oven?!” 

It took an awful long time for some folks to grow up and say “breasts” without giggling like seventh grade boys in sex education class.  Even nicknames for a person’s body parts remained taboo well past maturity and common sense.  People didn’t speak about breasts, much less use the less-threatening, if inane, term “boobs,” in spite of the fact that Barbie raised them into waking consciousness (pun intended) back in 1959.   

Today we’re pelted with so many blatant anatomical references that it takes a Grey’s Anatomy to keep up.  We have gynecological patter on every show from “Oprah” to “30 Rock.”  It started when Dr. Ruth surged past Dr. Freud with her gleefully graphic sex advice.  Now, Dr. Oz just rides the wave. 

In some cases it may be important to drop the niceties and call a thing by its proper name.  Gambling for example.  Have you noticed the ever-so-subtle push to rename it “gaming”?  This shift is an attempt by those who want our money to make an unsavory thing more palatable.  Responsible adults don’t have gaming addictions - unless they can’t resist the PlayStation.   

“Sex workers” and their “agents” are wending their way into our vernacular.  Prostitutes and pimps fade away.  Their “clients” are no doubt grateful.  The new language elevates and garners more respect.  These are human beings, after all.  Human beings deserve respect even if their behavior is ill-advised, dangerous, or self-destructive.   

Nevertheless it rankles, like “collateral damage,” or “greed is good.”  Too much 1984 for me!  Remember?  The Ministry of Plenty oversees economic shortages; the Ministry of Peace wages war; the Ministry of Love provides the center for punishment and torture; and, of course, the Ministry of Truth controls language and propaganda.   

Still, part of me wishes we could retain the gentility of the charade.  Let’s quit mentioning the unmentionables.  I know; mortgage lenders could go back to telling “stories,” instead of lies.  We won’t deal with being fat when we can be “fluffy.” 

But what’s the harm in eating “Chilean Sea Bass” instead of Patagonian tooth fish?  It’s less stressful in a Stepford Wives kind of way.   

Just don’t try sneaking those mountain oysters onto my plate.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

2012 Risk - Reward Analysis

Maybe you saw this one:  A botched marriage proposal on the jumbotron at a recent UCLA basketball game.  Cameras zoom in on a section of the seats.  A UCLA promotions person in a tight T-shirt with microphone in hand stands by, grinning.  An earnest young man produces a velvet-covered box with a diamond ring.  He mumbles something romantic.  He wobbles onto a knee, opening the box for his best girl. 

But, but…the expected outcome, the one we’ve seen played out so often that we’ve begun to relegate it to the corny and redundant, is upended:  Our surprised and overwhelmed intended bride-to-be hesitated, then stood, put her head down, and ran.  She left her (former) man to face the mortifying facts:  He put himself out there, laid himself bare, and lost, in public.  Now he endures hi-def humiliation not to mention the restocking fee at his jewelers.

Right after thinking how awful it must be for him, the next logical thought among the risk-averse is why’d he do that in the first place?
Why would he take that chance?

Maybe he’s among those unfortunate ones who never learned to read the signals, the word choice, body language, and eye contact of those they pursue.  His sweet but bumbling naïveté let him down.
Therefore he felt certain of the outcome.  It wasn’t risky in his mind, only showy.  “We’ll be on the jumbotron,” he thought with the purest of delusions.  “It will be our 15 seconds of fame.  I’ll be the envy of my friends!  It’ll be fun!” 

Or maybe he thought, no matter the outcome, it would be worth it.  I mean, you’ve gotta give it to the guy, right?  God love him for taking the risk.  What would the rest of us do without risk takers?  The world would be Twilight Zone bland if populated solely with thrill observers.

What would we do without Extreme Sports, or Dancing with the Stars?  We get our kicks gripping the arms of our recliners when the stunt pilot swoops toward the ground.  We admire those who actually take risks to get their kicks.  We’re dazzled when someone else skis down that slope or rides that bull.
A quick review of my life reveals some risk taking:  I was a high school principal, after all.  That’s pretty risky.  I left the relative safety of the classroom to face the daily prospect of rejection by hundreds of adolescents, not to mention their parents, and the teachers on staff.  My daily strolls around campus were made more or less secure based on any unpopular decision I might have rendered.

Of course, the payoffs were tremendous.  I knew that going in.  I’d already spent many years as a classroom teacher and counselor.  Few professions offer the guaranteed rewards of working with young people.  Just spending my time with them was so edifying as to offset any ugliness that might have come my way.  So maybe it wasn’t that much of a risk.  True risk taking requires danger of losing sufficient to counter the possibility of gain.

Maybe our aversion to loss keeps us on the straight and narrow.  That’s a good thing.  We don’t go around accepting bribes or practicing corrupt business for our own personal gain because of the risks.  We elect our representatives and hire bankers for that.  We sidestep illegal drug use and reckless sex because of the hazards they bring.  Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen are our surrogates for that kind of risky business.  Better safe than pathetic.
Yet, there’s something vaguely dissatisfying about safety.  Constant circumspection becomes claustrophobic.  The mild and middle road lulls.  A tiny rogue chromosome wants to break free.  And 15 items in the 10-item line won’t suffice. 

This year, 2012, beckons us past the breakwater and onto the open sea.  Maybe just once, we’ll grab the mike at the karaoke bar and belt one out like Ethel Merman.  Spike our hair.  Buy a convertible or a Mini Cooper…or a convertible Mini Cooper. 

Maybe we’ll risk rejection:  Greet every person we pass in produce aisle!  Try to make every cashier smile.  Dance all by ourselves, barefoot, on the front lawn.  Climb into a raft and shoot the rapids.  Try what scares us.  That thing we’ve always wanted to do, but…

Maybe we’ll turn on the cameras.  Take the risk.  Get onto one knee.  Gamble on a happy outcome.  Double down.