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Archive for June, 2012

Shorthand

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

You can set your watch by it.  If my sister and I are together and we aren’t having a good time she will look at me and say, “This place is a tomb.  I’m going to the nut shop where it’s fun.”

It’s from “You’ve Got Mail, ” and if you recognize that line then you might have watched it as many times as we have.  It’s one of many movie lines that comprise a sort of shorthand that we’ve been using for years.  And as the internet blossomed yesterday with touching responses to the news of Nora Ephron’s death, my response was different from most of what I read.

It’s worth noting, of course, that there were several lovely descriptions of the many ways in which her contributions to modern culture were important, particularly for women.  Lisa Belkin of The Huffington Post published two pieces about Ephron, (here and here), both of which I really appreciated.  Just as many people wrote, she truly did validate the female experience in ways that no other filmmaker before her had.  But her impact on my life was  more personal.

It was sometime around my senior year of high school that my sister and I became really close.  We’d gotten along just fine throughout most of our childhood, not counting a few rough patches during the middle school years.  But after we emerged from seventh, eighth, and ninth grades without killing each other, it took us a little while to settle into the groove of best-friendship that would carry us through college and into early adulthood.  That settling-in process, however, was in reality not nearly as charming as Nora Ephron might have imagined it.  Thankfully for us we were able to lean on her (and a few other screenwriters) as we stumbled our way through.

I suppose it is not surprising that our transition from childhood sisters into adult friends would be forged at the movies.  We share the same sense of humor.  And we each have an uncanny memory for shared pop culture touchstones.  When more meaningful topics of conversation didn’t interest us, quoting pithy movie lines back and forth to each other communicated something deeper without having to state it explicitly.  It said, “We have this thing in common.  It was a shared experience and it mattered to me.  And this relationship with you?  It matters to me too.  I’m glad that you’re my sister, but I’m also glad that you’re my friend.”  I realize that’s a lot to extrapolate out of one college girl saying to another, “Don’t you just love New York in the fall?”  But somewhere between the lines, that’s exactly what it meant.

No one can ask Nora Ephron now what her career meant to her.  I know that she cared a great deal about forging new paths and upending the status quo.  I admire her for that.  But I most appreciate her for writing movies that my sister and I wanted to watch over and over until we’d committed them to memory.  I appreciate her for giving us a shorthand; a quirky way to tell each other that the relationship between us is like no other in our lives.

Follow Your Bliss

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

The old adage goes that you should figure out what you love to do so much that you’d do it for free, and then find a way to get paid for it.  I don’t doubt the wisdom of this advice, but I wonder how many people actually follow it.

I started thinking about this over the weekend when GAP and I went to see Gavin DeGraw and Colbie Caillat in concert.  They were both terrific, but the pleasant surprise of the evening was the opening act, Andy Grammer.  I thought I’d never heard of him until he started playing and then I immediately recognized his music.

The reason his part of the show was so enjoyable was because it was riddled with technical difficulties.  Ironic?  Yes, but nonetheless true.  Just as he and his band kicked off their opening number the sound blew out.  Undeterred, Grammer sang an entirely acoustic version of his first song.  The audience quieted down so that we could hear him, singing along in tones so hushed that he actually stopped and laughed.  He handled the glitches with grace, humor, and a deft hand indicating that despite not being the show’s headliner he had clearly logged his 10,000 hours.

Eventually the sound problems were resolved and the show resumed.  As Grammer’s set went on I learned via his between-song commentary that he got his start as a busker in Santa Monica.  He spent three years earning his rent money via donations tossed into his guitar case.  He commented that his family thought he was crazy, but he kept after it, which naturally prompted me to wonder what I love doing so much that I would do it in exchange for other people’s pocket change all while facing the gentle ridicule of my friends and family.

Clearly I’m past the place in life that would afford me such liberties.  I have two kids who need and deserve a happy and stable life.  Even if I did decide today that I had the passion to make a run of it as a rock star, actress, painter, or writer I’m quite sure that the career path I’ve forged in marketing is the path I will keep.  But what about my more formative years?  The start of my adult life was quite calculated – entry level desk job, sensible one-bedroom apartment, etc.  Apart from the risk of moving to a new city it was all very by-the-book.  Did I ever have whatever spark it takes to pack up and follow my bliss?

The implication here, of course, is that to follow your bliss you must make a gamble.  You must scrimp along on a shoestring budget while waiting for some bigger dream to come true.  You must risk failure and perhaps existential crisis of some kind.  But is that true?  Can you not follow your bliss in a more risk-averse way?  It seems this gambling requirement is true of artists, but I’m not sure it holds true for the population at large.

On Friday night we attended the surgical residency graduation dinner of a cousin of mine.  As a very little boy he underwent back-to-back open heart surgeries.  As an adolescent he decided that it was his dream to become a doctor.  And not just any doctor; a pediatric cardio-thoracic surgeon who could save children’s lives just as his was saved.  Earlier this spring he performed, for the first time, the exact same surgery on a child that was performed on him.  It was, quite literally, the culmination of all his professional dreams since he was 12 years old, and it didn’t happen by accident.  It was the end result of decades’ worth of education, training, and strategic planning.  And it was most certainly his bliss.

I think the problem here is not that we don’t know how to follow our bliss once we’ve found it.  It’s that we don’t know how to find it in the first place.  Don’t get me wrong, I am blissfully happy in most areas of my life.  However, I wouldn’t say that career is one of them.  I have a job that suits my interests and skill sets and utilizes my education.  I am reasonably compensated for it and by and large I find my work satisfying.  I wouldn’t, however, say that I feel blissful about it.  So why don’t I follow my bliss (apart, of course, from the aforementioned responsibilities of parenthood)?

Well, if we’re being quite honest, I’m not sure I know what my bliss is.  Barring any concern for the kind of living I could make, it probably has something to do with horses.  But back when I was laying the groundwork for my career I knew well that the life I wanted to live could not be supported by a career as a horse trainer.  I rarely wonder what my life might look like if I’d sacrificed lifestyle for bliss, because I have a largely happy life.  Every now and then, though, I run into someone like Andy Grammer and think about the path not taken.

At the very least, I’m happy that Andy Grammer followed his bliss.  Watching him perform was a real treat.  And when you get down to it I suppose I shouldn’t question my decisions too much.  Because it was the career in marketing that enabled me to afford the tickets.

The American Question

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

I mentioned in Tuesday’s post that I’m reading Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman, and that I’m really enjoying it.  It is the part-memoir/part-parenting book written in response to her experience raising small children in Paris.  She is a charming writer and even when I disagree with her position her humor and wit still make it a fun read.  That said, in spite of being a quick and easy book it’s given me a lot to think about.

Amidst Druckerman’s evaluations of how we feed, socialize, and care for our children I’ve been prompted to consider and question some of the key tenets of both French and American cultures.  There is a line in the 1995 remake of the movie Sabrina in which a glamorous Julia Ormand explains to a stuffy Harrison Ford that French culture is all about pleasure.  And she’s right.  When it comes to savoring life I’m not sure anyone does it better than the French.  (Although the Italians might give them a run for their money.)  America, on the other hand, is all about achievement, and Druckerman crystallizes that stance when she quotes a Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget.

Druckerman researches various parenting philosophies as she tries to pin down exactly which discrete components add up to “French parenting.”  In her investigation of French parenting she tells how Piaget came to the States in the 1960s to share his theories on child development.  As he explains the various developmental stages through which all children must go apparently nearly all American parents ask some version of what he calls “The American Question” because it was asked ad nauseum by American parents.  That question was, “How can we speed up our child’s progression through these steps?”

Druckerman writes,

The American Question sums up an essential difference between French and American parents.  We American assign ourselves the job of pushing, stimulating, and carrying our kids from one developmental stage to the next.  The better we are at parenting, we think, the faster our kids will develop.  …

French parents just don’t seem so anxious for their kids to get head starts.  They don’t push them to read, swim, or do math ahead of schedule.  They aren’t trying to prod them into becoming prodigies.  I don’t get the feeling that – surreptitiously or otherwise – we’re all in a race for some unnamed prize.

This isn’t to say that the French are a bunch of louts.  Sure they can only claim 64 Nobel laureates to America’s 331.  But when you normalize those tallies by population (roughly 65 million for France and 313 million for the U.S.) each country has earned about one Nobel prize per million people.  And this doesn’t even begin to count the contribution of French art, music, literature, and food to the modern international cultural landscape.  No, they didn’t invent the cotton gin or the iPad, but  they seem to have discovered that more factors into a worthwhile life than mere commercial success.

I must admit, there’s something about the French approach to child rearing that really appeals to me.  Perhaps it’s just that Americans’ “concerted cultivation” can be exhausting (it can), but I also wonder if, at some level, the French way isn’t just a better way to raise kids.  When you get right down to it, most of us don’t grow up to be Condoleezza Rice or Bill Gates.  Most of us grow up to lead lives that are invaluable to ourselves and those in our immediate circles, but which would be considered unremarkable when evaluated at a global level.  Given that, would we not be better off learning from the very beginning how to live life in a way that maximizes enjoyment, rather than accomplishment?

Nevertheless, despite all of my misgivings about middle-class American parenting practices, I am American and I abide by many of them.  I still want my kids to hit their milestones at least on time, if not early.  And I want to see signs of their talents and intelligence even as they are tiny little youngsters.  But before my American-ness gets the better of me I make a point to remember an interview I heard with Malcolm Gladwell on NPR a couple of years ago.  He commented that when you meet someone as an adult, no one cares at what age they learned to talk or to read or memorized their multiplication tables.  Once we reach adulthood it matters that we can do these things, but not when we first learned.  So if that’s the case, what’s the rush?

Nothing To Be Proud Of

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

I was proud of myself.  And then I was ashamed of myself for being proud of myself.  You see, the very thing of which I was so proud was something over which I had no control – a complete coincidence, to be sure.  No one deserves to be proud of themselves for something they didn’t do on purpose – like being tall, or not needing glasses.

Why was I proud?  I had just dropped off a couple hundred ounces of frozen breast milk packed in dry ice at a UPS distribution center for overnight delivery to a milk bank in Indiana.

Why was I ashamed?  Because given the circumstances donating the milk was the only decent thing to do.  It wasn’t heroic.  It was the very least I could do.  Anything else would have been borderline despicable.  So being proud of myself for donating it felt awfully self-serving.

What are the circumstances I refer to?  Well, the fact that I had a few hundred ounces of frozen breast milk to give in the first place.  For reasons that are unknown to me and completely out of my control, I produce a lot of milk.  (I joke that I’m part Holstein.)  It was this way when IEP was a baby, and now with SSP we’re right back there.  I make more milk than any one baby needs and it piles up in our freezer.  When this happens I have two choices – let it go to waste, or ship it off to a milk bank for babies who need it.  Seriously, there’s only one right answer here.

As I got to thinking about this I was reminded of a passage in the book I’m currently reading, Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman.  It’s a charming and insightful book; one that I’m quite glad my mother pushed on me.  Amidst the author’s commentary about all that American parents do wrong she does call out the French for quite shamelessly ignoring the benefits of breast milk.  As a culture they turn, almost unilaterally, to formula.  It was one of the few parenting decisions she made that ran counter to her fellow Parisians.  However, in her discussion of this topic she also calls out American mothers for turning nursing into a competition.  She writes:

After the baby is born, the first obvious difference between French and American moms is breastfeeding.  For us Anglophone mothers, the length of time that we breast-feed – like the size of a Wall Street bonus – is a measure of performance.  One former businesswoman in my Anglophone playgroup regularly sidles up to me and asks, faux innocently, “Oh, are you still nursing?”

It’s faux because we all know that our breastfeeding “number” is a concrete way to compete with one another.  A mother’s score is reduced if she mixes in formula, relies too heavily on a breast-milk pump, or actually breast-feeds for too long (at which point she starts to seem like a crazed hippie.)

In middle-class circles in the United States, many mothers treat infant formula as practically a form of child abuse. The fact that breast-feeding requires endurance, inconvenience, and in some cases physical suffering only increases its status.

It is a passage that stuck with me.  Reading it made me realize afresh how absolutely ridiculous it is to associate any amount of status with nursing.  Yes, I’m all for promoting the health benefits to both the mother and baby.  I’m all for eliminating any negative stigmas attached to nursing.  And I would certainly advocate for anyone who has the ability to nurse her baby for at least six months (and up to a year if possible) to do so.  Nevertheless, many of the circumstances that add up to that kind of success are often out of our control.  A woman’s milk supply can be affected by her diet, level of hydration, and how frequently she nurses or pumps.  But by and large it’s a part of her biology that was determined long ago and in which she had no hand.  The second major factor in successful nursing is the ability to nurse regularly.  Granted pumping greatly increases the freedom and flexibility that a nursing mother has.  Nevertheless, many working women have jobs that don’t afford them the opportunity to stop working for 20 to 30 minutes every three hours so they can pump.

Some women do deserve to be proud for going the distance with nursing.  Women who struggle with supply and pump between feedings just to produce enough milk for the baby to thrive.  Women who battle thrush, and mastitis, and clogged ducts.  Women whose jobs are not at all conducive to pumping and who finagle a way to make it work in spite of crappy logistics.  These women should be proud of what they’ve accomplished if they manage to nurse their babies for longer periods of time because they’ve overcome some major obstacles to do so.  (Which isn’t at all to say that they should be ashamed if they switch to formula instead of doing battle with their breasts each day.  These are highly personal decisions.)

As for me, I am lucky.  I have a good milk supply and a desk job with an office door that locks.  Given this stacked deck nearly any woman could easily nurse her baby to a year.  But the fact remains that not all women are dealt this hand.  And every time we judge or condemn a woman who weans her baby earlier than that we undermine the community and fellowship that all mothers should share.

For a woman in my position, donating the milk was the only decent thing to do.  Being proud of it would be like being proud that my kids are up to date on their shots; or being proud that I gave a seat on a bus to a 95-year-old woman.  When it’s the only reasonable option it’s nothing to be proud of.

Do Not Disturb

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

When I was a kid we didn’t answer the phone during supper.  It was a pretty strict rule that was only broken if an important call was expected.  Supper was a special time set aside for talking and spending time together without interruption.  As I think about that now I am struck with a big sense of nostalgia.  Can you imagine that a phone call to your landline was the only opportunity for supper to be interrupted?  That, for sure, is a bygone era.

Today our cell phones – on our persons almost all the time – buzz at us constantly.  And phone calls are the least of the distractions.  We are also notified of incoming e-mails, meeting reminders, text messages, Facebook updates, and Scrabble turns.  Sometimes it seems there’s no end to the electronic shoulder tapping we face each day.  And, not surprisingly, we’ve come to expect, want, and even need such constant input from our gadgets.  You would think that the cell phone companies would be laughing all the way to the bank – and for the most part I think they are – but earlier this week there was a tiny shift in that paradigm.  For the first time ever, a cell phone company conceded that less interaction with our mobile devices might be in order.

Amidst all of the buzz about the new MacBook Pro at its Worldwide Developer Conference on Monday, Apple announced a new feature to the iPhone: the Do Not Disturb setting.  Basically it allows all of the incoming data to be registered by your phone, but doesn’t announce their arrival to you.  So as you sit there at dinner, or in a movie theatre, or working a jigsaw puzzle on the floor with your kids your phone sits silently as though no one were trying to reach you at all.  Only when you pick the thing up and activate its touch screen will you see the calls, texts, and e-mails that you’ve missed.

As I’ve thought about this feature over the past couple of days a few themes have stuck in my mind.  For starters, I’m mightily impressed with Apple for being forthright about the role that cell phones play and for admitting that there is a point at which they detract rather than add value to our lives.  But I’ve also had some mixed emotions about it.

When you get right down to it, our cell phones have always had a Do Not Disturb setting: the power switch.  We’ve always had the opportunity to set boundaries for ourselves.  We’ve just never done a very good job of it.  And as our phones have evolved to become digital proxies for everything that happens in our lives our reluctance to separate ourselves from them has only grown.

Mobile phones aren’t the only electronic distraction rendering us largely devoid of self-control either.  The internet itself, while incalculably valuable in today’s world, is probably the most utilized time suck in the history of man.  I’m pretty confident that more hours have been wasted online than with any other single medium.  This theory is further solidified by the popularity of the internet-blocking compeer application called “Freedom.”  According to its website, “Freedom is the world-famous app that locks you away from the ‘net so you can be productive.  If the internet is distracting you from your work, Freedom might be the best 10 dollars you’ll ever spend.”

Apparently we are weak, weak, weak in the face of technology; so much so that we require new software programs and features to help us meter its presence in our lives.  We can’t just turn the phone off while we eat dinner, or close the web browser when we need to do actual work.  We can’t trust ourselves to exercise any kind of restraint and so we have turned to digital handcuffs to keep our focus where we want it to be.  And I’m not sure how that sits with me.

Is it better to admit our weaknesses and work around them?  Or should we be able to conquer them without artificial legs up?

I suppose I’m inclined to believe that admitting a weakness and taking steps to work around it is superior to denying that the battle exists and continuing to lose it.  Nevertheless, I think it’s worth exploring why we, as a culture, have come to rely so heavily on constant input, feedback, and stimulus from the digital world.  The reasons, of course, are myriad.  (We are expected to respond to work e-mail at all hours just because it can reach us at all hours.  We have come to rely on texting for short snippets of conversation.  We crave the affirmation afforded by likes and comments on Facebook status updates.)  But just because we can explain something doesn’t mean we can justify it.

In a perfect world perhaps we would be better able to exercise restraint in the face of temptation.  But as it is I guess I’m just glad we have the tools to take temptation off the table altogether.

Thunder Up!

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

Do you know what tonight is?  Do you?  Tonight is the first game of the NBA Finals.  And guess what has two thumbs and actually cares?  This girl!  That’s right, boys and girls.  Gale, who has never cared a nit about professional basketball in her entire life has become an avid fan in the past three weeks.

Why this new and unbridled enthusiasm?  I’ll tell you.  One of the teams in the NBA Finals is the Oklahoma City Thunder.  That’s right.  One of the teams in the Finals is from my home state.  It’s a Christmas miracle!

This is a big deal to me because Oklahoma had never had a professional sports team until the Thunder (formerly the SuperSonics) up and relocated from Seattle four years ago.  (Because, really, when you pit those two cities against each other, OKC wins every time, right?)  And I’ll be perfectly honest and tell you that until the Thunder started plowing their way through the playoffs I still wasn’t paying much attention.  But in the past couple of weeks being from Oklahoma has been really fun.  We’re doing something well!  The nation is watching!  And my home state is making us all proud!

GAP says this now-that-they’re-in-the-Finals-I’ll-be-a-fan approach is what they call, um, er, “jumping on the bandwagon,” but I don’t care.  It’s not often that a girl gets to be proud of being from Oklahoma.  I have a lot of affection for my home state because it is my home state.  But in recent years it seems I’m usually making some sort of half-hearted apology for it, rather than walking around proclaiming my heritage.  (Incidents like this one and this one are to blame.)  These past few weeks, though?  I’ve claimed it with pride.  Along with all of my other fellow Okies, I’m ready to “Thunder Up!”

However, amidst planning Game 1 viewing parties and reading about how Kevin Durant made “the leap,” I’ve also given some thought to fair-weather fandom.  As many of you know, I’m a huge Cardinals baseball fan; a from birth Cardinals fan.  That’s usually pretty easy though.  The Cards are an amazing franchise with a storied history and some incredible seasons in recent years.  Being a Cards fan is a lot of fun.  (Moreso than, say, being a Cubs fan…)  But I know a lot of people who slog through one after another losing season because they are loyal to their team.  And I don’t knock that.  It’s hard core and it takes faith and humility in vast quantities.  But I am here to say that I think there’s no shame in jumping on the bandwagon of a winning team.

Sports, when you get down to their essence, are games.  ”I’ll bet I can throw more balls into this bushel basket than you can.”  We play them and watch them because they are fun.  Sure, in today’s world they are huge industries too.  But once upon a time they were all merely pastimes played for amusement.  Despite whatever extent to which our identities may be wrapped up in our teams, I think we should always be able to participate in sports – either as a player or a fan – just for fun.  And if that means riding the coattails of a winning team, then so be it.

Obviously, I hope the Thunder win the NBA title.  But more than anything, I hope I have a lot of fun watching the games.  I’m here for a good time.  No more.  No less.  So bring on the pizza and Cokes and cheers and jeers.  I have a team and I’m loving my view from the bandwagon.  Thunder up!!!

Darwin and the Airplane

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

When she sat down she immediately pulled out her book.  She was relieved to see that the guy sitting next to her did the same.  She intended to fly to New Orleans quite happily without having to chit chat all the way there.  As it turned out, she married the guy about three years later.

The “she” I refer to?  One of my best friends from undergrad.  And yes, she married a guy she met on a flight.  Five years and two kids later, they are happy as can be.  Had they both kept their noses in their books as intended that likely wouldn’t be the case.

I got to thinking about my friend when I read this article about how Baltic Airlines intends to allow passengers to board planes according to their moods.  Worker bee travelers can tap away at their laptops in concert.  Those looking for networking opportunities can join up as well.  And those wanting to keep to themselves can select a “relax” option.  At first blush this strikes me as a genius idea.  We’ve all been stuck next to a Chatty Cathy when all we wanted was some peace and quiet.  I’ve also been in the inverse situation where after long and sometimes lonely business trips I’m looking for a conversation, only to get major nonverbal cues from my seatmates that they are not.  Nevertheless, there’s a part of me that bristles at this idea of mood-based seat assignments.

It seems that via social media and other electronic conveniences we are increasingly able to control what exposure we have to people around us.  We can use Facebook to “check in” at various locations and events, enabling us to find people we already know in the same place.  We can hunker down into our smartphones, iPads, and Kindles while waiting for restaurant tables.  We can chat on the phone while riding in taxis.  And now we can have some say in how we are seated on airplanes to ensure that we either are or aren’t disturbed, according to our mood.

It’s not that I mean to be a total grinch / luddite / hater.  I believe that all of these conveniences have real value.  But I also think there is real value in facing the unexpected.  For starters, the real world brings unexpected things our way all the time.  How are we to learn to deal with them if we never have to?  We read in parenting magazines and blogs that we have to allow our children the opportunity to fight and fail and resolve conflict because our interventions will ultimately prove counterproductive.  I can’t help but wonder if the same isn’t true at some level for adults.

Not every unexpected encounter is one for the history books.  Plenty of them come and go without lasting in our memories.  But I think that the more we minimize or narrowly select our human interactions the worse we become at interacting.  And then a cycle starts:  The worse we are the less we want to do it.  The less we do it the worse we get.  And so on.  And that is why I believe there is value in chatting up the bartender while you wait for your date.  There is value in smiling and nodding while a person tells a story that doesn’t particularly interest you.  There is value in sitting next to a person on an airline with whom you have nothing in common.  Relating to people is the only way we learn how to relate to people.  (How’s that for meta logic?)  I fear that this Darwinian selection process of only linking up within our existing cohorts will ultimately make us socially weaker.  We will never have to flex new and different interpersonal muscles.

The traveler who wants to work or network or sit silently may get more out of a flight by electing to sit next to someone just like him.  But  with that he loses the opportunity to find that he has something in common with a person who, on the surface, seems foreign to him.  The soccer mom and the tattoo artist who both have kids leaving for college.  The sales guy and the computer programmer who just finished the same book.  He also lose the opportunity to meet someone who is truly different.  The musician going out on tour.  The person who writes mobile phone apps.  The person who used to work for the Fed and now drives a cab.

When you get down to it, I suppose this is a post about being open minded.  Finding like-minded people quickly and easily via the vast electronic capabilities available to us today is an incredible thing.  The world can be an isolating place and I think it is often made better by the ability to seek out compadres we might otherwise not have found.  But I think we have to be careful not to let the pendulum of our interactions with the world swing too far in the other direction.  We can’t allow ourselves to only find like-minded people or we’ll lose the ability to relate to anyone who isn’t already a kindred spirit.

Back to my friend who met her husband on a plane.  The irony of it is that they both intended to avoid each other and ended up finding a connection in spite of themselves.  Sometimes life throws people at us and we must interact no matter how much we don’t want to.  Nevertheless, I think we have to beware the pitfalls of keeping our circles small.  There’s a whole world out there that is filled with people we might not want to miss.

With Freedom Comes Responsibility

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

They were the words I heard along with nearly every major rite of passage.  When I got my first bike.  When I was first dropped off at the mall without an adult.  When I got a curfew.  When I got a car.  You name it and I heard some version of, “With freedom comes responsibility.”

You probably heard it too.  And if you are a parent whose child has been granted a longer leash at some point then you’ve likely said it yourself.  It is a parent’s way of reminding a child that while he has earned the right to wander farther from the nest, in some literal or metaphorical capacity, he must hold up his end of the deal.  He must not squander that freedom.  He must enjoy and use it wisely.  And the most important implication, of course, is that he must use good judgment or the freedom will be taken away.

Perhaps someone should have told the American public the same thing when we were given the freedom to buy fountain sodas in 44 ounce portions.

I’m sure you’ve caught wind of the new legislation proposed by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.  The basic premise is that sugary drinks (sodas are the primary target here) could not be sold in portions larger than 16 ounces.*  Beware, Big Gulp – this means you.  Not surprisingly, consumers and beverage industry insiders alike are, well, freaking out.

There are so many ways to look at a ban like this.  Some people will believe (as I intimated at the start of this post) that as a society we have not managed our dietary freedoms responsibly and that the loss of such freedoms is a logical and appropriate consequence.  Other people will believe that our country was founded on a basic premise of freedom and that legislating something as seemingly benign as soda consumption strikes at the very heart of who we are as a nation.

While I have my own opinions, I can understand both perspectives.

This Huffington Post editorial makes some fair points against the ban.  Author Adam Geller addresses the “slippery slope” argument by commenting that,

If government is within its right to restrict behavior to protect health, then why wouldn’t a mayor or other official ban risky sexual conduct or dangerous sports like skydiving? What’s to stop a mayor from requiring people to wear a certain type of sunscreen or limit the amount of time they can spend on the beach, to protect them from skin cancer?

My response to him?  Sky diving accidents are not costing our country $174 billion dollars per year.  Even skin cancer doesn’t hit that tally.  And it’s that dollar figure that causes me to lean into Mr. Bloomberg’s territory.

Let’s consider the tobacco industry as an analogy.  If you think about tobacco legislation, things got really serious at two key moments.  One was when we discovered that the tobacco companies knew their products were addictive and took steps to increase their addictiveness.  The other was when it was proven that the damage done by smoking was not limited to the smokers themselves, but also to those around them.  Once we knew with certainty that second-hand smoke was having an adverse effect on non-smokers we began taking things much more seriously.

Now, if I alone am obese, my obesity doesn’t affect your health.  It doesn’t give you Type 2 diabetes or hypertension.  It doesn’t raise your prescription costs or require you to have a foot amputated.  The immediate adverse effects of my own obesity lie with me alone (and perhaps loved ones in my life who must also deal with it).  But if 63% of Americans are overweight or obese, that does ultimately affect you.  When two thirds of Americans are overweight it affects patient volumes and wait times in emergency rooms.  It raises insurance premiums across the board.  It creates massive amounts of chronic disease that will burden our healthcare system for generations.

So while my obesity may not affect your health, it absolutely affects your life.  And this is what brings us to the conundrum of the soda ban.  That is, how much are we willing to allow our government to intervene in this issue?

In this vein, an LA Times editorial comments,

Almost everything government does restricts the freedom of the governed in some way. People tend to accept these limits without complaint when there’s a clear connection to public safety and civil order, or a clear benefit from the spending that’s proportionate to the cost. … The support weakens when the connection to public safety isn’t so clear or the benefits are more abstract. … [T]he public accepts some governmental intrusion into what people eat and drink. There is an assortment of restrictions on alcoholic beverages, including a minimum drinking age, drunk-driving laws and regulations governing when and where liquor may be advertised. There are food safety standards and nutritional mandates on school lunch programs. …  But telling the average person that he has to eat X or cannot eat Y goes a step further. It intrudes on personal decisions that consumers make with their own dollars that affect just their own bodies.”

Ahhh, yes.  But as we’ve already discussed, the effect eventually reaches much further than the individual’s own body.  So what do we do next?  Mr. Bloomberg, being a politician, has chosen to pursue the legislative route.  (When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail.)  However, marketing experts believe that such restrictions will cause people to resist their intent, potentially causing them to backfire altogether.**

The next problem, then, is figuring out how to make an issue of this issue without hurting the feelings of more than half the country.  There is such stigma attached to obesity.  It brings with it a whole cargo ship’s worth of baggage including feelings of insecurity, weakness, inadequacy, failure, judgment, and so on.  These are valid sensitivities, and ones that should be handled with kid gloves.  That doesn’t mean, though, that they shouldn’t be handled at all.  Ignoring this problem won’t make it go away.

The most important point in this entire issue, though, is to acknowledge that Mr. Bloomberg isn’t wrong in his assessment of the problem.  American rates of obesity (and all its related conditions) must be lowered.  I’m not the right person to say whether or not his legislative tack is the right one.  But his strategy – reducing consumption of countless empty calories – certainly is.

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*The ban would not apply to juices, diet sodas, alcoholic drinks, dairy drinks such as milk shakes, or sodas sold in grocery stores.

**From my vantage point, I wonder what a well-executed public service campaign would do.  (When you are a marketing professional, everything looks like a campaign opportunity…)  In the spirit of the “This is your brain on drugs” commercials from the 1980s, I can imagine a series of ads that would highlight the horrors of obesity and all of its medical side effects that might be quite compelling.  They would cast a pall on excessive consumption while still leaving the ultimate decision in the hands of the consumer.  But I don’t  know if they would ultimately be effective or not.  It’s an idea, I suppose.