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Is Your Food Safe? You Can Ask the Govt. Just Don’t Eat There.

When the irony of a situation is just too much to bear, you can count on The Scribble Lounge to shine a light and dig a little deeper.

It was reported last week that two cafeterias and five snack bars in the Pennsylvania State Capitol complex would be closed until sometime in January because of…wait for it…a rat infestation.  OK, so they actually said they were mice.  Tomayto, tomahto.

I Smell a Rat in the PA State Capitol!  It's in the food!

I Smell a Rat in the PA State Capitol! It's in the food!

The State Department of Agriculture found the violations during a routine inspection.  Justin Fleming, the department spokesperson, said, “There were mouse droppings around the facility too numerous to mention.”  Ick.

OK—so we all get the irony, if you take the appropriate view of politicians.

But the bigger issue here is food safety.  And if you’ve been in a government building (aside from the sanitation department), isn’t one of the first words that comes to mind: sterile?  It doesn’t matter whether the décor is reminiscent of the 1960s or if newer digs feel like a businessman’s hotel conference room.  It usually feels pretty clean because the janitor has been there for years, happy to have a steady, stable job to get to that government pension.  Often, cafes in courthouses or municipal buildings have all the creativity of a ham sandwich on white with mayo.  And it rarely differs between local, state, or federal branches.  My point—they’re pretty sterile too.  So we thought.

Believe it or not, food safety is on the docket for the federal government.  I’d say it’s like molasses in January.  But that’s even too fast for our government most of the time. The House of Representatives passed a law in July, giving the Food & Drug Administration authority to issue a food recall.  But, as is typical, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee (HELP) passed its own “Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009,” S.510 in November.  Next stop: floor debate in the Senate.  When they get to it in 2010.  But the issue considers very important measures on imports, inspection, recalls, and increasing FDA’s resources.

An important distinction is that food we make at home isn’t the issue.  It’s when we pay other people to play with our food that we have to step back.

Getting the Grade in Los Angeles

Getting the Grade in Los Angeles

For all of California’s problems these days, one thing that’s right has been right since 1998.  That’s more than a decade ago if you’re keeping score.  In Los Angeles County, retail food facilities receive a letter grade according to their inspection score.  That grade is prominently displayed for all to see.  An “A,” you’re good.  A “C,” you eat at your own risk.  “B’s” don’t fare well either.

In 2004, Stanford University Economist Phillip Leslie looked to measure the effect those grades would have on consumers and the market in general.  By obtaining inspection data and revenue data (compiled from sales tax returns), he found that inspection grades greatly increased. Leslie reported that before the law went into effect, 25% of restaurants would have earned an “A;” after more than 50%.  And most importantly, he found that food-related hospitalizations in Los Angeles County decreased 20%.

In January 2009, New York City announced a letter-grading plan, due to appear in restaurant windows in July 2010.  The city will hire 50 more inspectors—there’s a job opportunity!  Washington DC is interested in a similar policy as well.  However their motivation was a Center for Science in the Public Interest report saying it was too hard for DC consumers to get restaurant inspection reports.

Let’s be honest—we don’t really want to know that our favorite pizza joint had a mouse last month.  But even the best restaurants sometimes rest on their laurels a little too much.  You want great food but you want a clean kitchen too.  I have a foodie friend who wouldn’t even see the animated feature “Ratatouille” because it was all about rats in restaurant kitchens.

Grades motivated many of us as 6th graders.  (Even if you weren’t a ridiculous over-achiever like me.)   No one wants to fail.  And goodness, our politicians are among the most competitive ilk there is.  More cities and states need grading systems.  And restaurants will stay on their toes.  Consumers will be safer.

According to the National Restaurant Association, the average household spends $2,276 on food out of the home.  Of course in cities like New York where ovens double as shoe storage, it’s likely higher.

Back to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  OK, after a 101-day budget impasse, a few things fell by the wayside.  The National Governors Association says that state budgets are unlikely to recover until “late in the next decade.”  That’s a long time to bring your lunch.  There’s always Sammy’s Italian across the street where the Pasta Fagioli is $5 or Mangia Qui where filet mignon on a roll with fries is $10.   Skip the café and leave it to the rats, er, politicians, to figure it out.

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December 28, 2009   Comments Off on Is Your Food Safe? You Can Ask the Govt. Just Don’t Eat There.

Purposely Un-Green, Because it Makes People Smile

You’ve seen it at the bottom of emails now and then:  “Think twice before printing this email.”  A friendly environmental reminder to save a few trees, which makes sense if you’re just printing the address for this week’s holiday party.  Take two seconds, grab a pen, and write it down.

The Old Fashioned Way -- Beats Email

The Old Fashioned Way -- Beats Email

It seems we’re still “grabbing a pen” when it comes to sending holiday cards.  Even if your process is entirely automated—from ordering pre-printed cards, computer printed address labels, and metered stamping—there must be some premeditated thought.  Will your junior-year college roommate still get a nod this year, or will she replaced by that new mom in playgroup?  How about your old boss?

At the end of the day—the “old fashioned” way still reigns.  There just isn’t the same moment of anticipation clicking “open” on an email versus opening the envelope. Perhaps it isn’t the “greenest” of me to say so, but I don’t care.  According to the American Greeting Card Association 90% of Americans surveyed said that they like to receive greeting cards and personal letters from friends and family, preferring greeting cards to e-mail, text messaging and phone calls.

I like technology.  I’m not an early adopter—I usually wait until the bugs are out.  But I’m all about old school this time of year.  When it comes to sending good old-fashioned cards, I think it’s fair to say the USPS has figured it out.  When they can take 830 million pieces of mail on a single day, as they did Monday, December 14, 2009, and get the majority of them delivered to their intended destinations, bravo.  As my 87-year-old grandma (who only sends letters and scoffs at email) would say tongue-in-cheek, “What do I know, I’m only a mother!”  It sounds a little better than, “I told you so.”

I think it goes further than just friends and family.  We all have our Holiday card lists.  There are people on that list you never really speak to, but you send them Christmas cards each year like clockwork.  And they do the same.  The world would seem out of balance if you didn’t get their cards, if for nothing more to see that addresses are the same.  If they send a photo of their kids, you see how they’ve grown.  And I even like reading the letters, however sappy, to catch up with people. It’s feel good stuff.

The Greeting Card Association reports that 60% of all seasonal card business goes to Christmas.  (Next biggest is Valentine’s Day at 25% with Mothers Day lagging far behind at 4%–sorry Mom).  According to Hallmark Research, 1.9 billion holiday cards will be sent this year.  That’s a lot of ways to say, “Naughty or Nice?”

Now to the green machine.  As world leaders gather in Copenhagen to discuss the environment, I assure you that most people are not considering post-consumer waste when buying holiday cards.  They look for the witty, the solemn, the right attitude that will communicate their feelings and leave the right impressions with card receivers.  If they are recycled paper, that’s a bonus.

The Berman/Brown Holiday Card 2009

The Berman/Brown Holiday Card 2009

The latest trend for the past few years has been photo cards.  Easy and personal.  Play photographer (or hire one) and then 10 minutes in a CVS or photo store and you’re done.  Many use recycled printing paper, but let’s face it—photo inks aren’t exactly earth friendly.

While the U.S. is home to uber-environmentalist Al Gore, it’s the UK that’s figured out how to recycle Christmas cards!  The Woodland Trust with the help from retailers W.H. Smith, TKMaxx, and Marks & Spencer stores invite shoppers to dump their cards into bins after Christmas.  The conservation charity recycles the cards and plants trees based on the amount of cards they get.  They even let consumers vote on where the trees shall be planted.  The charity says that for every ton of recycled cards, 17 trees are saved.  Brilliant.

And yes, it’s more than just dead trees that environmentalists complain about.  There’s the added mail weight, making more trucks and planes burn more fuel, there’s the majority of virgin paper used for cards production.  Heck, there are the cigarette breaks taken by the greeting card writers when they’ve got writers’ block and need to clear their heads.

The World Environmental Organization has the following recommendations.  Or in other words: things to do with a dead greeting card:

  • Use it as a bookmark. (Ed note: This is the only one that really makes sense)
  • Make it into a gift tag by cutting the old card with scissors or pinking shears. Add the name and a note inside.
  • Cut off the side with the picture (if there is no writing on the reverse side) and reuse it as a post card. You’ll pay only postcard postage rates! (Ed note: Seriously?)

The naysayers go so far as to say it’s all just a commercial excuse for Hallmark to cash in.  Did anyone say Festivus?  ChrismaKwanzaKuh?  Hallmark’s position is:

While consumer demand is an important part of the overall equation, it alone is not enough to prompt Hallmark to create greeting cards for holidays. When evaluating a potential holiday offering, we consider: 1) “sendability” (How likely are people to send cards for this occasion?) and 2) whether there is a large enough consumer need across the United States.

Congratulations on your divorce and new puppy at Christmas, anyone?

Keep those cards and letters coming I say.   In a time of belt tightening, I’m sending fewer cards for sure.  But I’m still addressing them by hand, and dropping them in the slot at the post office myself. And I hope it makes you smile.
Happy Holidays to all.

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December 16, 2009   Comments Off on Purposely Un-Green, Because it Makes People Smile

New College 101: Exercise Your Mind AND Body

The adults succumbed to peer pressure like freshmen at a fraternity party being passed the beer.

Rather than invoke the creative thought processes that higher education hopes to instill in its students, administrators at Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University just balked.  They shriveled like last week’s pizza left under a pile of calculus books in a dorm room corner.

“We don’t want people to feel like they’re being picked on,” Lincoln President Ivory Nelson told the Lincolnian, the school newspaper.

Dr. Ivory Nelson, President, Lincoln University

Dr. Ivory Nelson, President, Lincoln University

No, instead, you’d rather graduate a class of couch potatoes, on the fast track to diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, and death.  So much for higher education.

Starting in 2006, Lincoln University in southeastern PA, required that students with a Body Mass Index of 30 or higher take a physical education class in order to graduate.  This year, that amounted to about 15% of the 2,100 students. Controversy ensued when critics complained that the ruling was discriminatory to both obese people and to black students at the historically black university.  Obese students felt singled out.

This week, the university repealed the requirement.

A recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that African Americans have a 51 percent greater likelihood than whites of becoming obese.  I believe that James DeBoy, the chair of Lincoln’s Department of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, was on the right track.  He just needed to hone his idea a bit more.

I ask this: Why wasn’t the course required for ALL students in the first place?

Had that been the case, we never would have heard about it.  Universities have been requiring physical education and swimming for decades.  In fact, despite rising obesity numbers, over time, colleges have been cutting these requirements.  It’s easier to explain budget cuts in college gym classes than in biology labs.

Some of the discriminatory comments circle around the idea that disadvantaged students might not have the resources to swim or get in shape.  Colleges requiring swim will TEACH it.  And you don’t need a fancy gym to slim down; you need two feet and a sidewalk.   By the way, Lincoln does have gyms, an Olympic-sized pool, and a dance studio.

Colleges of all sizes and endowments have gym requirements.  These days, students don’t need to endure dodge ball and other awful memories of elementary school gym. (Did anyone else out there have to square dance?)

Cases in point:

1. Swarthmore College, PA: students not excused for medical reasons are required to complete 4 units of physical education by the end of their sophomore year.  All students must pass a survival swimming test or complete a unit of swimming instruction.

2. Cornell University, NY: Students must take two credits of physical education and pass a swim test.

Cornell University

Cornell University

3. Davidson College, NC: This school doesn’t mess around.  There are FOUR required credits of phys ed PLUS A SWIM TEST.

4. Dartmouth College, NH: The Ivy requires 3 gym classes plus a swim test.

And if you thought this is limited to private universities with big fat endowments, think again.

The State University of New York at Binghamton requires students to take two credits of “physical activity/wellness.”

I can speak to the Cornell offerings for “gym”—there are more than 100. Good luck getting into Ballroom Dancing or Pistol Shooting.  Yes, these are gym classes and often are the first to close out.  I took Ice Skating for Ice Hockey and Weightlifting (which led to a nice, drawn out slim down post-Freshman 15)

Cornell’s Swim Test even has it’s own website and history:

The origin of the swim test began around 1918 for women when the Director of Women’s Physical Education felt that it was a necessary skill for women to have. The swim test requirement for men was instituted about 1937 and was the result of World War II Cornell’s strong connection to ROTC; many Cornellians served in the war.

There is another way to look at it.  What a wonderful opportunity to experience an activity that you might not otherwise do.  Sailing? Check.  SCUBA, ballet, fishing?  Check, check, check.

Lincoln’s 3-year-old policy hit the news because of an “admittedly obese” and vocal editor for the student newspaper, Tiana Lawson.  She wrote she:  “didn’t come to Lincoln to be told that my weight is not in an acceptable range…”

Lincoln’s DeBoy should have known better when choosing BMI as the gauge for health as well.  Yes, BMI numbers do correlate with cardiovascular disease mortality and increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

Courtesy: Obesity Online

Courtesy: Obesity Online

However, detractors note that BMI does not account for muscle mass, thereby calculating that many professional athletes in their prime are technically obese.

Body Builder Lee Priest: Technically Obese

Body Builder Lee Priest: Technically Obese

All colleges need to do is give credit to students for showing up to PE and “giving it the “old college try” (First attributed to Babe Ruth, by the way.)

Mortimer Adler (Credit: Bachrach)

Mortimer Adler 1902-2001 (Credit: Bachrach)

At Columbia University, the great philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler hadn’t taken his swim test nor fulfilled his gym requirement.  He went on to earn his PhD at the university and began to teach, all without a Bachelors degree. As he told Dick Cavett in 1978:

“And my reason for not going to gym was that I hated to dress and undress in the middle of the day.”

Over his life, Adler wrote more than 30 books, was co-founder of the Great Books Program and chairman of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s board of editors.  He wrote curricula for elementary and secondary schools, where physical education played important parts.  He just didn’t see a place for it in college.

I believe it’s the ideal opportunity—right when students are asserting themselves as adults creating adult habits.  They are bombarded by information and must filter what will stay and what will be quickly forgotten as soon as they move their tassels from right to left.  As much as a university is charged with offering a marketplace of ideas, it’s also charged with offering the chance to create healthy habits.

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December 8, 2009   1 Comment

Alec Baldwin — Give Yourself a Break

Alec Baldwin announced that he’s done with acting in 2012, after his “30 Rock” contract expires.  He thinks he’s been a failure as a movie actor.  Perhaps that was tongue-in-cheek…but it struck a chord.  Success, in the end, is often self-defined.  But how accurate do we really  see our own successes?  Alec, I’m sure the stress with Kim sent you to therapy, but please, go back.  You ARE worthy.

C David Shankbone 2008

(c) David Shankbone 2008

So he hasn’t won an Oscar.  So what?  How many other actors can claim to have worked EVERY year for the past 23 years—in many of those years, making multiple movies.  Throw in Broadway and a bunch of TV.  He’s produced, directed, and even wrote an episode of “Law and Order.”  He’s hardly been typecast, though he tends to be placed in sardonic roles and voiceovers.  SOMEONE thought he was good enough to hire.  Then there’s that guy who goes by Scorsese–he paid Alec TWO paychecks. I’m sure Mr. Baldwin wasn’t the cheapest as his appeal grew, and yet he still gets work.  Currently, he stars with Meryl Streep—what actor wouldn’t want to be in those shoes?

Alec was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 2004 for his role in The Cooler.  He’s been nominated 4 times for Golden Globes for his movie roles.  He’s been nominated for a Tony too–in 1992 for “A Streetcar Named Desire.” OK, so for the competitive spirit among us, no one remembers the nominations.  But consider how many actors worked in each of those years and didn’t get the nod.  Mr. Baldwin is an NYU-trained actor.  Everyone wants to win, but you get the sense he either liked the roles or wanted the work—both noble pursuits.  Winning is a bonus.

I’m not a crazy fan—no need for a restraining order, I assure you.  Back in 1998, I produced a local political talk show, and Alec was a guest.  At that point, he was rubbing elbows as often with New York State Democratic Party Chairwoman Judith Hope as he was with Hollywood stars.  Maybe even more.  Can you think of another guy with Alec’s star power who would stump for a state comptroller candidate?  In Binghamton, NY?

Rumors spread that he was laying ground for a political run himself.  He once told New York Magazine he’d be interested in the Senate but soon denied any plans to actually do it.  He seemed much happier plugging candidates and raising money than spending it to promote a campaign for himself.  Like they say, the best people don’t run because they don’t want the aggrevation.

I like the fact he’s a Long Island native, after my own heart.  I love that he remembers where he came from and puts his money where his mouth is. (See the Carol M. Baldwin Breast Care Center of the University Hospital and Medical Center at Stony Brook.)

From his biography on the Carol M. Baldwin Breast Cancer Research Fund , where he is a member of the Board of Directors, his other volunteer efforts are listed:

He is a board member of People for the American Way, River Keeper and The Creative Coalition, of which he is a past president, and Standing for Truth About Radiation (STAR) Foundation, of East Hampton, Long Island. Alec is a member of the NYU Tisch School Of The Arts Dean’s Council. He also serves on the board of the Carol M. Baldwin Breast Cancer Research Fund, sponsored by Stony Brook University in honor of his mother. Alec is also a dedicated supporter of various animal rights groups.

alec-baldwin-book-jacketHe’s also a published author, chronicling his journey through a very public divorce.   His purpose:  to help others through the family court system, which can be ugly no matter who you are.

Alec is no slouch, to be sure.

When it comes to athletes, there are certain factors that tend to determine success, including work ethic and humility, as reported by Psychology Today in March, 2009:

Aimee Kimball, the director of mental training at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Sports Training, says, “The focus isn’t 100 percent on outcome, but on getting better and making the people around you better. If players see their star working his tail off, they’ll feel compelled to do the same.”

“Humility leads to an understanding that I’m not always the best, and that another person on any given day can win,” says Wade Rowatt, a social psychologist at Baylor University. “If you look at the best athletes, most display this sort of respect for opponents.”

In the 80’s, Baldwin had the bad-boy, cocky reputation.  But people age and he seems to have increased his humility as life got complicated–and way before “Complicated,” his latest movie.

I don’t know if they are friends, but Alec should meet fellow actor, and fellow 51-year-old, Kevin Bacon.  (And yes, they’ve acted together because everyone has acted with Kevin Bacon.  It was in 1988’s “She’s Having a Baby.”).  Kevin has also narrowly missed the big win.  I wonder how Bacon views his career.   He did, in fact, name his charitable initiative “Six Degrees.”

These men, and countless others, are individuals with diverse interests.  They have seen countless successes…all which influenced others.  It depends, I suppose, on how a person defines his or her own success. For some, it’s money in the bank.  For others, it’s recognizability in the public, changing the world, or even affecting just one life.  I think even the most down-on-his luck person has a degree of success–if he or she can both identify and embrace it.  Pollyanna-ish?  Perhaps.

Despite all this, Mr. Baldwin should be allowed to retire from his job gracefully.  And he should be allowed to change his mind in peace, if it goes that way too.  (With a small nod to Brett Favre.) My dad retired in 1989 from his first teaching job after 25 years.  His impact was such that last month, he was personally invited to the 40th reunion of the Class of 1969.  Whether Alec chooses to pursue some other interest or spend his time on the golf course, he must know that he is a success and will leave an indelible mark on his craft.  And if you’re listening, Hollywood Chamber of Commerce Walk of Fame Committee, Alec is long overdue for one of those pink stars.

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December 1, 2009   1 Comment

Adventures in Holiday Travel

“I thought it was a joke.”

These were the words that the Southwest Airlines Flight Attendant reported to the approximately 130 passengers on board Flight 1053 heading to Denver from Philadelphia on Monday, November 23, 2009.

A passenger who thought she was going to Orlando told these words to the flight attendant.  This, despite the typical cute but semi-snarky, teacher-like admonition from the pilot 10 minutes earlier, “Everyone on this plane is going to Denver, Colorado, RIGHT?”

Our plane was already late in arriving to Philadelphia, due to the weather.  Despite a jet way with no plane outside the airport windows, flight attendants assured passengers making connecting flights in Colorado that they would be OK.

We thought we’d tricked the Travel Devil by leaving on the Monday before Thanksgiving.  (And we’re coming back on Friday, instead of Sunday—but don’t tell anyone.)  We were mostly spot on—the plane was hardly full, there was still beer and peanuts left by the time the flight attendant got to us in the last row, and no one seemed stressed about the pending time with relatives.

And then there was the dumb blonde.  (I can say that because I’m blonde too.)  Because we had not left the gate area, the pilot turned around, and allowed her to deplane.  We were now about an hour and fifteen minutes late.   Kind of like when you’re in the check out line and you realize you forgot milk, we had to get at the end of the line again.  We finally left an hour and forty-five minutes behind schedule.

Now the woman was not a danger to other passengers.  And other passengers were rather polite, just gritting their teeth as she left the aircraft.  They waited until she was gone to let the expletives fly.  Most of us nodded in agreement, despite the brash expression of frustration.

But think about it:  The gatekeeper, a.k.a. the flight attendant who takes boarding passes, is the last opportunity for security.  Is that person checking the flight number?  Destination? Or just the scribble of initials or magic marker swipe left by the TSA agent back at security?

Some airlines scan the boarding passes, but today, Southwest did not. I love Southwest.  They check bags for free.  Despite levies and taxes and other fees, they remain a lower-cost alternative for domestic flight.  But like the TSA video brags that 80 countries have adopted the 3-ounce rule for flying with liquids, it appears that universal standards are needed further along the path from the shoeless body scan to cramming carry-ons overhead.

The TSA is checking IDs against the people in possession and against the boarding passes.  IDs are now marked with holograms and are harder to duplicate.  But I print my boarding passes at home.   And I only print one because that’s all I need.  It is a HUGE convenience and I hope to never give that up.   Consider, though, if I printed two.  And if I gave one to someone else who was already through security?  Unlike many problems in government, this one affords an easy solution.  I would gladly factor in an extra 30 seconds that it may take for the gate agent to scan my boarding pass and check my ID one more time.  Today, it was just a dumb blonde.  Tomorrow, it may not be.

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November 24, 2009   1 Comment

Is There a Doctor in the House?

Is there a doctor in the house?  If you’re a new patient, probably not.  Just try to find a doctor, let alone a specialist, who will see you within 2 months.  God forbid you have an issue needing attention.  Go to the ER, and your insurance company will taunt you with paperwork.  Go to work, get others sick, and you’ll get yelled at too.

Is there a docor in the house?

Is there a doctor in the house?

This is today–guess what happens when the 44 million uninsured are going to need to see doctors too!  There is a huge problem that is hovering below the radar while government and media makes the show of dumping the 1900 page legislation on desks:  THERE ARE NOT ENOUGH DOCTORS.  Not just general practitioners but ob-gyns too.

I recently moved 100 miles from my last home base.  Just far enough to require finding all new doctors.  Women are historically bigger consumers of health care.  On my regular team are a primary care practitioner, an OBGYN, a dermatologist, and a rotating orthopedist (One for knees and another for ankles).  When you’re a late-30s athletic woman of childbearing age with decades old skin problems, eventually, you have a staff.

Several months back, I decided to find a primary care practitioner (or PCP) before I needed one.  But then I did need one.  It took hours of phone calls to find a practice near my home in suburban Philadelphia that took new patients, and could see me within two months.  My husband’s doctor wouldn’t even see me.  I eventually found a doctor.

I found a dermatologist in much the same way after hours on the phone.  I almost considered keeping my doctor in NYC.  How often do you need a dermatologist?   It turned out to be once a month–too often for a 200-mile round trip and a 10-minute appointment to get the latest tube of goo to try and clear my skin.

Both my PCP and my dermatologist told me the same thing:  You need to find a local ob-gyn.

I put it off and put it off.  I love my NYC doctor.  He spends time with patients. He doesn’t dole out any BS.  In his Upper East Side waiting room at a tony address, you’d see Orthodox Jews next to WASPy ladies and women on welfare.  It always felt democratic. Few women like going to the ob-gyn–but I loved going to see Dr. Saul Stromer.  Even before I was married, I was impressed by the fact that he delivers more babies than any other doctor at Lenox Hill Hospital.  That was not just cool.  That was dedication.

But like a stubborn kid who finally listens, I decided to find a local OBGYN.  I should have counted the phone calls I made and practices I contacted.  In the end it took 2 1/2 hours to get an appointment less than two months and 10 miles away.

The doctor will see you now.

The doctor will see you now.

I started with referrals from my PCP.  The earliest appointment was MARCH 2010. I called many independent practices to no avail.  I pulled out the big Ivy guns.  I called the University of Pennsylvania.  The receptionist just wants your name, birth-date, and insurance company so my own Ivy League progeny got me nowhere.  But I still figured that Penn Ob/Gyn Care would have an opening.  They have a medical staff of 116 people for chrissakes!  Granted, that does include Gynecologic Oncologists, a specialist in pelvic reconstruction and 15 midwives, but still!  Their first available slot?  December 29, 2009, almost 2 months away.

It’s not the doctors’ fault.  They only have so many hours in the day.  They want to provide quality care.  This is another real healthcare impasse.  Yes, if I had zero insurance, I’d have other priorities.  But I’m sure others share my dilemma.

All specialists are not the same.  Aside from the cosmetic surgeons whose bread and butter comes from cash-for-cans boob jobs, most docs are overworked, and don’t enjoy their families or hobbies enough.  What’s the incentive to become a PCP when you can make more money and have a better schedule as a specialist?

Is delivering babies incentive enough for ob-gyns to balance the fact that they can have as many sleepless nights delivering those babies as the new moms they help create? Let’s consider their astronomical malpractice insurance.  In Florida, with the highest malpractice insurance for ob-gyns, premiums run more than $195,000, according to a 2005 study in Obstetrics and Gynecology.  That’s money owed before a single patient is seen.

According to the American Medical Association, as of 2004, nearly half of America’s counties lacked an ob-gyn: Of 3,143 counties in the nation, 1,541 do not have a practicing ob-gyn to deliver needed care.  Most of the new-ish doctors I know, under the age of 35, are radiologists.  Why?  Because they want work-life balance, and I applaud them.

In a survey from recruiting firm Merritt Hawkins, primary care docs make an average of $173,000/year.  Radiologists, on the other hand, rake in $391,000.  Which would you do?  And don’t forget, they have $200,000 in student loans.

The AMA reports there were 303,749 primary-care doctors in the U.S. at the end of 2007.  That number reflects an 11% increase.  But other specialties are up 13%.  The American Academy of Family Physicians predicts a shortfall of 40,000 family doctors by 2020.medicalexamroom283x424

But just like we need folks who want to be sanitation collectors, and third-shift workers, we need doctors.  Garbage men earn a premium for their dirty work—well deserved.  We provide incentives for teachers to work in inner-city schools; their rewards often come in the form of subsidized graduate degrees or cash bonuses.  We also provide tuition incentives in R.O.T.C. programs to bolster our armed forces with smart, educated young men and women.  These programs are not experiments–they work or they would have been nixed long ago. The Armed Forces figured it out with their “Health Professional Services Program,” or “HPSP.”  This program, offered by the Army, Air Force, and Navy is like ROTC for med school.  However, you will owe a lot of time in exchange for free tuition and it helps if you’re into the military thing.

Congress is working very hard, balancing many conflicting interests.  Let’s not pummel those in Washington yet.  Much of the legislation being considered does provide money to incentivize residents to work in community health centers over hospitals.  Other provisions allow for scholarships or student loan forgiveness if the doctor pursues primary care fields. But all the things in the healthcare bill aren’t supposed to take effect until 2013.

If I’m a college student, I want a sure thing.  Do the math.  That means current college sophomores (who are likely declaring majors like pre-med) would have their BAs before it takes effect (and then be stuck with med school loans).  Current freshmen are in the best position to take advantage of what’s coming down the pike.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are more than 4 million college freshmen.  They could probably be bought with nice computers, Wii’s and some pizza.  Target them!

Everyone has a right to follow passion—whatever it is (even the Boob Docs).  But we’re often influenced along the way—by the potential to save lives, by a teacher, by the drive to build something, or sometimes to just bring home a paycheck.  Let’s encourage more life savers.  We’ll all be better off.

And to those who do become doctors, I can’t promise I won’t get huffy if you can’t squeeze me in.  But I know you’re doing your best.

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November 19, 2009   Comments Off on Is There a Doctor in the House?

So Am I a Jew? My Appetite and My Mother Says I Am.

An ongoing controversy in the U.K. caught my attention this week.  The Jews’ Free School (a public school) is being sued for discrimination by refusing to admit a child whose mother converted to Judaism, and therefore is not “technically” a Jew.

Both of my parents are Jewish, so I am “technically” a Jew.  The New York Times refers to the boy as an “observant Jew.”  So I’m guessing bacon wrapped scallops are off the menu at his house.  But they’re certainly on mine.  The last time I set foot in a temple was for a funeral.  I married a Presbyterian, in a ceremony performed by a Universal Life Minister.  I often host a Christmas party (And I’ve served home made potato latkes there).

Who Doesnt Like Potato Latkes?

Who Doesn't Like Potato Latkes?

Sure, I had a bat mitzvah.  But as it stands today, with all my more recent “indiscretions,” I remain more Jewish than this British kid who wants to attend a Jewish school.  This is the problem with all religion.  Either it’s “my way” or the highway.  By “MY,” I mean whatever god, teacher, statue, spirit, imam, or priest lays down the law.  Even the most tolerant of religions draw the line.

I have a friend who converted to Judaism for her husband.  Her child is being raised Jewish.  I gave her some old Hebrew school books and my Hebrew-English dictionary.  She’ll have better use for them.  I definitely count her as Jewish.

I find the parallels between religion and parenting phenomenal.

If a child who isn’t your biological product lives with you, and you raise him/her, in time you’ll all feel like a big family.  In time, words like “mom,” and “son” breezily fly around.  If there’s been an official adoption, a kid learns the actual difference which we’ve heard a million times:  “That’s my biological father, but this is my DAD.” Even without adoption, the same situation might arise.  It’s about the person and the relationship, not the blood line.  Sandra Bullock stars in a new football movie, The Blind Side that addresses this theme, based on a true story.  Heck, even the Star Wars trilogy deals with blood lines versus the true family.  And there’s no need for a spoiler here; we all know which won out.

According to the World Jewish Population Survey of 2002 , at the beginning of 2002 there were 13,296,100 Jews. Or about one in about 457 people in the world is was Jewish.  According to a 2002 study by the Jewish Agency, “the number of Jews in the world is declining at an average of 50,000 per year.”  I would argue that number isn’t solely due to death.  And when “ruling parties” decide that someone isn’t Jewish, those declining numbers will continue to increase.

Revenge of the Nerds

It’s not just Jews who are having trouble with their numbers.  You’d think the world’s religions were really like one big college Greek system where all the sororities and fraternities are trying to recruit the cool kids.  (Full disclosure: I was in a sorority.) But at the end of the day, the Grand Poo-bah chooses if you’re in.  And just because numbers are down, that doesn’t mean you get to learn the secret handshake.  Worldwide religion has some homework to do if they want to keep the faithful.  Embracing those who follow the belief systems, like the British family, is a good place to begin.  So what if they do it in a way that’s slightly different from how it was done 4000 years ago.

A recent survey from the University of Chicago reported that while the number of people who associate with a particular religion is decreasing, people still pray and believe in God.

Religion or family, it’s about experience, and meaning.  I love Jewish delis and pickles and looking through my Grandma’s photos from 1930s Brooklyn, NY.  And yes, I have a Jewish mother.

This is NOT My Mother. But close.

This is NOT My Mother. But close.

I may choose not to observe it, but I still think Purim is one of the coolest holidays around. (A super-hero woman saves the day and we dress up in costume and drink to celebrate it–great holiday, right!).  For me, family and tradition are how I identify religion.  It doesn’t really matter if I’m speaking a funny language or going to a specific place once a week.  So am I a Jew?  It depends who you ask.  I would say, “Sorta.”  And is the British kid a Jew?  I say, “L’Chaim!”

I’m reminded of the awful platitude, “Why can’t we all just get along?” But the idealist in me still wants to know why.

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November 9, 2009   Comments Off on So Am I a Jew? My Appetite and My Mother Says I Am.

The Right to Vote–No Pressure

Most people live in one state their entire lives.  I have had the privilege to live in several but I only transported my right to vote 3 times.  From New York to Maine to New York to Pennsylvania.  The Maine part was more than 10 years ago and I don’t remember the act of voting but I know that I did.  Election Day 2009 bought experiences that deserve scrutiny, by both state and national officials.votepin

I’m not talking about accuracy or hanging chads.  I’m talking about the voter experience.

First let’s talk about the polling place.  In New York State, no one is allowed to campaign for a candidate or ballot measure within 100 feet of the entrance to a polling location. At least six states, Maine, Montana, New York, Vermont, Virginia, and Kansas prohibit wearing campaign buttons, stickers and badges inside polling places.  In New York, people can’t even wear campaign Tshirts.  I think that’s fair.

But in Pennsylvania, it’s a free for all.  There were signs lined up, guiding my way to the entrance of my polling place.  The signs were mainly for judge candidates.  It’s a lot different than in New York, where judges are appointed, not elected.  I think I like having this option.  Should I ever have the misfortune to appear in front of one, at least I know I had the power to influence that person earning that position.  It wasn’t just the result of a favor or cronyism.

So we’re about to enter the Ardmore Methodist Church to vote.  I’m greeted by two women.  I think, like in New York, they are local League of Women Voter representatives, available to answer any questions, explain the voting machines, etc.  I explain how this is my first time voting in PA and zoom–they both pounce!  One is Regina Balinski, running for County Commissioner for Ward 8 in Lower Merion Township, where I live.  The other is Carole from the local Democratic Party.  It must have been like a 6th sense, (or my past working for Bill Clinton) but I immediately gravitated towards the Dem.  She was very helpful in showing me how things are done in the Keystone State.

I walked down the hall to the Music room of the church school and there was my neighbor Wally manning the voting machine with a few other people I did not know.  Wally could be at any polling place in the nation.  He has been in the neighborhood his entire life.  He knows everyone and every nook and cranny worth knowing.  He even knew me and I’ve only been around for 6 months.  (In full disclosure, he lives across the street from me.)

New York State is known for old, creaky voting machines.  According to “The History of Voting Machines” on

The Old Fashioned Voting Machine

The Old Fashioned Voting Machine

The first official use of a lever type voting machine, known then as the “Myers Automatic Booth,” occurred in Lockport, New York in 1982.  Four years later they were employed on a large scale in the city of Rochester, New York, and soon were adopted statewide.  By 1930, lever machines had been installed in virtually every major city in the United States, and by the 1960s, well over half of the nation’s votes were being cast on these machines.

About 11 years ago, I worked the polls.  Write-ins were actually written in with pencils on these rolls of yellowed paper.  You enter the machine,and pull a lever to close the curtain.  That pull makes a loud noise, not unlike the sound of a bicycle grinding its gears.  It’s actually a lovely noise that to me, as a child, was the sound of voting.  The sound I could not wait to make when I was 18 and could pull the curtain closed.  Once you are inside, voters pull small levers which mark each candidate choice with an “X.”  Very low tech.  They get the job done, but you can’t help but wonder if the maintenance costs for these monsters in Albany has already eclipsed the cost of making the whole thing computerized.

votingmachineCUballot2006I had high hopes for Pennsylvania.  But then again, this is a state where Weight Watchers just recently computerized their processes in the state’s largest city.  (Only about 4 years after New York. )  I guess if they’re slow to network within a company that’s probably better funded than its Board fo Elections, I can’t expect much from the BOE.  I signed my name in the book, took my voter number (#133 at lunchtime–pretty low turn out).  I turned around to give my number to Wally and what awaited me?   A giant Lite Brite they called a voting machine.  It was a little newer than the NYS voting machines.  But that’s not saying much.

The “Sequoia AVC Advantage” has been in use since 1988.  The description explains how the priorities for this device are to be 1) easy to set up 2) easy to use, especially for people with disabilities.  All well and good.  If this was the only way to vote I knew, I’d probably trust it more.

Seeing that there are so many different systems to make some very important choices, I want to know:  why is this something that is not standardized nationwide???  Yes, only every 4 years are we all voting on the same thing from coast to coast.  But if attention is put on getting that right, then every other race that gets counted, whether it’s for Congress, Senate, or Sanitation Commissioner, we would know we could trust the results.  (I’m REALLY trying NOT to mention Florida from 2004.)

Now I hear NYS has tried to update with some of Sequoia’s newer systems. But last year, half of 1500 machines had some major problems. (The company is now known as Dominion.) Currently, NYS is considering a Dominion system and one from ES&S.  And we’re worried about corrupt elections in Afghanistan?  It’s shocking that more cities have not gone the way of Chicago over time.  And we seem to tolerate it from Chicago–and just laugh it off like the electoral corruption is a crazy aunt.

Yes, we have wars to fight and an economy to fix.  But through all this, we have elections.  We have idealists trying to make things better and a populous who gets to choose which ones deserve the honor.  And we deserve to know that 1) we can cast our votes without any pressure in the seconds before we press the buttons and 2) that the buttons we press will count without question.

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November 3, 2009   Comments Off on The Right to Vote–No Pressure

Late to the Party, But Didn’t Miss the Abercrombie Trend!

NYC Flagship Store

NYC Flagship Store

I don’t wait on line for things not worth the wait.  Those two hour lines at the Cheesecake Factory? No thanks–even with the fun buzzers.  Velvet rope night spots?  They’re not so special that I should wait an hour and pay a $25 cover charge for the privilege of a $15 excuse for a Cosmo. When the Abercrombie & Fitch flagship store opened on Fifth Avenue in 2005, with lines around the corner, I applauded the retailer for having that effect on people.  But I continued on to Bergdorf Goodman where I get impeccable service and great sale prices a few times a year.  I popped into H&M to get cheap trends and seek out their occasionally stocked black T-shirts with 9% spandex that keep their shape forever. I saw the A&F ads.  Hot, young models with “just went sailing” hair in frayed t-shirts and plaid.  Like Ralph Lauren with an edge.  Or in need of an iron.

But a recent trip to Italy piqued my curiosity about this American original.  To Italians, Benetton is their Gap.  It’s their source for sweaters and jeans.  But I didn’t see the “Gap” emblazoned on the chests of Romans or Florentines.  Plenty of well-heeled young, trendy Italians had the letters “AF” appliqued on sweats and tees.  Abercrombie?  “Had they all been to NYC?” I wondered.  Online?  What about this 100+ year-old US brand appealed to Europeans more than, say, Levis?  I would soon find out.

One recent autumn day, it looked like rain.  I was strolling Fifth Avenue, impressed by the persistent tourists in pursuit of fashion no matter what elements fell from the sky.  As I approached 720 Fifth Avenue, I saw the crowd. I heard a bevy of languages: Japanese, German, and some squeals that only come from girls under 18 in the sight lines of a shirtless stud.  (Said shirtless stud greeted shoppers as they entered).  The 3-D shirtless stud was worth a look for sure.  But the 2-D shirtless stud in the foyer was even bigger, with a six pack 4 feet tall!

Huge 6-packs greet you

Huge 6-packs greet you

Much to my amazement, and likely due to the economy, there was no line.

Someone put a Meatpacking District-style club on Fifth Avenue, it seemed.  Buff guys in tight black t-shirts with sharp eyes scanning the crowd. (Bouncers? Jeans and t-shirts for sale require bouncers?)  The beat of the techno music that you feel in your chest came from every nook.   It was very dark except for the lighted stairways and pin-spots providing dramatic highlights.  But no bar or cocktail servers. Where there would have been liquor, there were hundreds of impeccably folded $34 long sleeved cotton t-shirts.  Not bad.  Soft too.  Instead of the fashion forward, typical nightclub attire with stilettos, these social butterflies wore jeans and sneakers. Some had entourages. (A.K.A. mom and dad)  They were weighed down with shopping bags instead of over-sized handbags.

Perfectly folded t-shirts

Perfectly folded t-shirts

Lots of chit chat, meat-market type interactions (when mom wasn’t looking).  All the employees are young, cute, hot, striking–pick one of those adjectives.  They don’t hover–they hang out.  No sales pressure.  When they say, “How’s it going?” you really think they want to know or might be trying to pick you up.

No t-shirt goes unfolded for more than a minute, yet shoppers are not made to feel like they can’t be hands-on shoppers.  Go ahead–unfold that shirt.  You won’t get sneered at by the sales staff, despite the fact you almost expect to get the evil eye.  But you don’t need to bring it across the store to see if it matches the jeans you want because there are duplicates everywhere.  They fill five floors with clothing, but I think there are really just 10 different tees, 10 pairs of jeans, 5 plaid shirts and a sweat shirt or two.

Decor aside from the music and industrial metal felt like Ralph Lauren stereotype passed through the filter of a Playboy/Playgirl editor.  The murals feature art of men (mostly) in athletic pursuits. They have perfect bodies–not too muscular.  One demurely lifts his shirt to reveal a six-pack.

Poster sized photos around the store are of gorgeous men and women superimposed with quotations from great Americans.  It’s a way to sneak in a little of the A&F that dates back to the store’s 1892 founding.  With walls of dark wood, stacks of antique canoes, a showcase full of old skis, A&F wants you to feel tradition.  Especially if you’re not the club type–the other easy comparison is to a keg-less fraternity party. All that wood, trophies for who-knows-what and pseudo-preppyness was like any of the Greek-lettered fraternity houses I frequented in college.  But the plaid would fit as well on a BMOC as it would on a hipster from Brooklyn.

Casually preppy

Casually preppy

But feeling clothes, experience, and spending is all you get to do, because I was scolded for taking photos.  Perhaps they’re worried I’m going to try and stack my t-shirts like that at home.

It’s all part of a very successful plan. Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE: ANF) has more than 1100 stores in the US, UK and Canada.  In the past year, their stock has risen more than 44%.  And while their back to school sales for 2009 were down 10%, comparable stores were down 18%.

I’m 37 and this experience did NOT make me feel old. (Happily)  Probably because most shoppers were too old to be my children.  Thank goodness for that.  Their target market ebbs a bit younger at 18-22.  But if I was in the market for a long-sleeved t-shirt, I might try one out.  But even though I live in Philadelphia, I’m a NYer at heart.  I wear black and white tees and you can find pretty good ones anywhere for $30.

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October 30, 2009   Comments Off on Late to the Party, But Didn’t Miss the Abercrombie Trend!