Wednesday, November 24, 2010


"My, you're tall and handsome. Will you be staying with me?"

She looks up at me from her seat next to the window.

"I'm the nurse and I'm just coming by to check on you. Besides, I'm married, and my wife wouldn't like it if I didn't come home." I sit down next to her on the couch.

She laughs. "What's your name again, my dear?" she says in Spanish.

"Keith," I repeat, for the third time in five minutes.

"Is it Christmas this week?" she asks. "Will you bring me a present?" Again in Spanish.

"No," I answer in Spanish this time. "This Thursday is Thanksgiving. Christmas is next month."

"Oh," she says, and takes my hand in hers. "Are you staying with me?"

"My dear," I reply, "I'm the nurse, and I'm just here for a few minutes. It's so nice to sit with you here and chat."

"What's your name again? You're so handsome!" She smiles at me.

"I'm Keith, and I'll be back to see you again next month, OK?"

"OK." Another smile.

We sit for a long minute or two, her hand in mine. Her live-in caretaker is frying eggs and sausage. The smell fills the room and I'm suddenly hungry. I think about stopping for a cup of decaf on my way to see my next client. Decaf with honey and cream.

"What's your name, dear?"

"It's Keith, cielo, and I'll see you in a month or so. Enjoy your breakfast and happy Thanksgiving." I stand up from the couch and I feel like a giant next to her small frame huddled on the couch below me. She seems Lilliputian, simply diminutive.

She looks up at me with wide eyes, her mouth open and smiling. I lean down and give her a kiss on the cheek. It's a risk since it's the first time we've met, but she's been flirting with me since I arrived, and a kiss on the cheek seems appropriate and safe. Her caregiver looks up from the stove and smiles.

"Happy Thanksgiving, dear," she says in Spanish.

"Happy Thanksgiving, cielo," I say in Spanish. ("Cielo" is "heaven" or "sky" in Spanish, and it's used as an affectionate term of endearment.)

I walk outside, and I look back at the window. She's holding the newspaper in front of her face, scanning the words and shapes in front of her. Can she understand what she sees? Probably not, but she's happy, clean, well fed, comfortable, and we had a thoroughly lovely visit.

Happy Thanksgiving, cielo.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Caffeine + Alcohol = Danger

I am extremely pleased to hear that the FDA is standing up to the beverage industry and forcing the removal from store shelves of all energy drinks that contain the problematic and unhealthy combination of high doses of caffeine and alcohol.

A new study has already revealed that beverages containing high levels of caffeine can increase dependence on alcohol, and some data reveals that young people who regularly use energy drinks are more likely to indulge in binge drinking and high-risk behavior.

Beverage companies have recently gone out of their way to create products with catchy names like "Joose", products that are packaged in a flashy manner that belies their questionable and unhealthy contents.

While super-caffeinated drinks like "Red Bull" have been popular for years, newer drinks containing very high doses of caffeine coupled with a 12% alcohol content by volume bring a new problem to the fore. The FDA and other groups have found that young people under the influence of these volatile caffeine-alcohol mixtures are less likely to feel the effects of the alcohol that they are imbibing since it is mitigated by the excessive amounts of caffeine being ingested simultaneously. So, these individuals drink more and more, putting themselves at risk not only of alcohol poisoning but also from the cumulative effects of the stimulating herbs and amino acids contained in these beverages.

Many young people will no doubt feel that the government is overstepping, intruding on their ability to purchase products that are inherently legal yet contain dangerous mixtures of substances whose combination (and excessive use) create enormously dangerous situations.

As I write this post, the FDA has issued a warning to the manufacturers of caffeinated alcohol drinks that the products must be removed from shelves and reformulated. Meanwhile, many universities and colleges---along with some states---are banning these products of their own accord, and we can probably rest assured that energy drinks will continue to come under close scrutiny by parents, consumer groups, the FDA, and researchers.

In a country where the market and profits rule, manufacturers have taken advantage of the situation by marketing products that endanger the health and very lives of vulnerable (and frequently naive) young people. Just like the cigarette industry (which set such a nefarious example), these companies are, as usual, putting profits before safety and health, peddling unregulated products that feed the American addiction to speed, pleasure, and consumerism, not to mention the proclivity towards alcoholism and substance abuse.

The FDA took a stand this week, and I deeply hope that they will follow through on their actions further holding the beverage industry accountable for such a wanton display of poor judgment and corporate selfishness. Our young people don't need companies to hand them their own demise on a silver platter (or, rather, in a seemingly innocuous and brightly colored can), and we need the FDA and other regulatory bodies to walk their talk when it comes to protecting the public from products that create such utterly avoidable scenarios of danger, ill health, and reckless choices.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Pondering Loss, Gratitude and Life

Having recently celebrated The Day of the Dead here in Santa Fe, I have been acutely aware of the power of loss in recent weeks. The celebration of the Day of the Dead in both the Southwest U.S. and Mexico brings the notion of death and loss into the light of day. This time of year is seen as a period where "the veils between the worlds" are somewhat thinner, leaving the dead and the living in closer proximity to one another.

That said, Autumn is often a time of loss for many of us. We grieve the death of Summer, the death of the warmer weather (if we live in an area with normal changes of season), and we either embrace or resist the coming Winter and the more internal hibernatory nature of the colder months.

For me, this Autumn certainly brings with it a sense of loss as Summer wanes and Winter begins to take hold. It also brings to mind past losses and future losses yet to be.

One year ago, my wife and I pulled up stakes in Western Massachusetts, sold most of our belongings, and set out on the open road in a used mobile home that we purchased as our ticket to freedom. That leave-taking was difficult after twenty rich years of life in one place, but it seemed like the right time to leave, and we seized the moment.

Not two weeks after our departure, a dear friend took his own life, forcing us to return to New England in order to mourn his sudden death. This week marks the one-year anniversary of his last desperate and violent act, and the falling leaves and chilly air conjure images of a cold November day last year when thirty of us stood outside the barn where he had hung himself, sharing stories of our dear friend David.

Now, another friend on the East Coast is battling metastatic ovarian cancer, and her poor prognosis and continuing decline give us pause as we note her long-standing importance in our lives and the distinct possibility of losing her.

As I write this post, my eighty-year-old father (who was, by the way, loathe to celebrate his 80th birthday for fear of what this new decade would bring) is beginning what seems to be a slow decline, showing signs of early Alzheimer's, physical weakening, and a general diminishing of the childlike and optimistic spirit that has been his lifelong calling card.

Just this afternoon, a neighbor underwent surgery, and although she is young, healthy and vibrant, it is yet another reminder of the transient nature of our bodies, and the risks we all run by simply being incarnate human beings.

I am grateful for this life, for the people and animals who inhabit it, and I am again and again reminded how, by the grace of God, I continue to be a healthy and intact person who has a roof over his head, money in the bank, food to eat, clothes on my back, a car to drive, and an abundance of loving people around me. It is no small miracle, and the ubiquitousness of loss and death are yet another reminder of just how lucky I truly am.

As David's spirit continues on it's journey and as our dear friend grapples with the cancer that may eventually end her life, I am cognizant of my own continued blessings and how they are not to be taken for granted.

The mysteries of life are legion, but the importance of appreciating that mystery trumps every petty complaint and worry that crosses the mind. For me, the greatest lesson is the need for consistent gratitude, even in the face of loss and grief. It is a steep learning curve, yet one well worth the effort and energy to surmount in the hopes of experiencing peace, acceptance, and the knowledge that life is a gift never to be wasted.