Sunday, May 31, 2015

MY BRAIN ON DRUGS – A Little Fun With "Pharmanyms"

In a previous life I was a copywriter, brand creator and sloganeer. So this post derives as much from that persona as from that of the wondering wanderer I’ve assumed the past few years.

If you’re one of the few folks still watching original, seen-when-aired TV—as opposed to Tivoed programs or on-demand stuff where you can skip the ads—then you’ve seen these incessant commercials for drugs. You can’t watch for ten minutes without seeing one.

Advertisers of everything from hair growers to testosterone boosters to toenail fungus fighters try to convince you—despite the long, speed-read list of sometimes dire side effects—to demand their potion from your doctor. Hell, there are even drugs to improve the performance of the drugs they sold you before!

For starters, shouldn't the insidious tactic of getting you to ask for something your doc may not know much more about than what the culprits themselves have told him be illegal?

And, even if you’re not as cynical as I am, you’ve got to agree there’s something else that's just patently ludicrous about many of these ads: the names.

          I dare you to tell me which are real 
          brands and which are the impostors.

PHOTO: New York Zoological Society via Wikimedia Commons

Does anyone else think, as I do, that you could sit a chimp down in front of a two- or three-column list of random syllables, train it to pick one from each column, and come up with a better name than Xeljanz*? C’mon!

Now, lest you think I’m just ranting—perhaps resentful that some branding pros out there are making a small fortune dreaming up these absurd monikers—here’s a little test. Below is a list of 20 drug brands. (I’ve left out ones so pervasive, like Cialis or Prednisone, that they’ve muscled their way into the vernacular.) I've also spared those which at least try to suggest what they do—like Flonase.

Ten of the names are real, the result, one would assume, of exhaustive research, brainstorming and focus group testing.

The other ten are pure gibberish; I created them in about five minutes using the chimp method—combining randomly-chosen syllables from two or three columns. I challenge you to tell me which are real brands and which are the impostors.

  1. Abradex
  2. Latuda
  3. Cynerol
  4. Osphena
  5. Curina
  6. Stekara
  7. Midaflex
  8. Myrbetriq
  9. Xufera
10. Treximet
11. Infuragel
12. Kaletra
13. Doloram
14. Ertaczo
15. Arterian
16. Fosrenol
17. Jyntala
18. Dacogen
19. Somniz
20. Xarelto

Absolutely insane, right? But then what would you expect from folks who think you’re dumb enough to want something called Revatio?** How about Dumrite? Ufelferit?

 * Xeljanz is a JAK inhibitor, claimed to disrupt the nerve pathways that lead to the inflammation associated with RA.
 ** Revatio, from Pfizer, is the same drug as Viagra, but marketed to treat hypertension (high blood pressure).

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

JUST A STONE’S THROW – Where Kids, Nature and Physics Coalesce

When’s the last time you skipped a stone?

It’s such an iconic image of youth, such a quintessential point of connection between a kid—or an adult’s inner kid—and Nature. It doesn’t matter if you live near that sweet swimmin’-hole pond from a Norman Rockwell illustration or down the street from a drainage canal you wouldn’t set foot in.

Rich or poor, from the sticks or the city, anywhere from Abilene to Zanzibar, any able-bodied person can do it. If there was a pond in Eden, I suspect Adam and Eve did it. All it takes is a stretch of still water and a few reasonably flat stones.

Do you remember who taught you how to do skip stones? Selecting the perfect stone*; the proper grip and body position; a nice, low release point; the finger roll and follow-through. Perhaps, like me, you were in awe of your coach’s skill, her effortless tosses hopping four…five…ten times before sliding, then settling into the water.

The first few times you try it, you may as well be tossing a brick. Soon you get a skip or two, but then…kerplunk. Eventually you get it, and you remember for the rest of your days how very satisfying it was—your first multi-skipper.

     …and, finally, the two elements’ graceful 
     surrender to each other, the water reclaiming 
     the thing it’s spent a thousand years shaping.

There’s something so utterly serene about skipping stones. First, it puts you outdoors, next the water. Most people feel free, calm, happy when they’re near the water.

And the activity itself is so enchanting and sensual as to border on the transcendental: the interplay between solid and liquid, hard and soft, rounded and flat; the sense of flight as the stone’s weight is denied by water’s little slaps from below; the tiptoeing ripple footprints, often tracing a graceful arc; the dwindling rhythm of ever-shorter hops; and, finally, the two elements’ graceful surrender to each other—to gravity—the water reclaiming the thing it’s spent a thousand years shaping.

Have we lost touch with such primal Nature play, such a simple union with the elements? Have our notions of time and place and priorities been so transfigured by the omnipresent allure of instant-information and virtual-recreation technology that we’re forgetting how fundamentally healthy, educational, and peaceful—not to mention how fun—a direct interaction with Nature is, with no man-made device timing it, simplifying it, interpreting it for us?

Whether it’s skipping stones, digging a hole or building a fairy house of sticks and leaves, it’s the innate, elegant simplicity of pure Nature play that teaches human beings—of any age—not just priceless lessons in physics, coordination, spatial awareness, creativity and esthetics, but a deep sense of place.

               You’ve returned to the essential 
               elements of your birthright

For there, next to that pond, or river…or drainage canal, you interact with Nature in the same way the stone and the water do. You arrive light-spirited, spinning ‘round to take it all in. In your excitement, you run; then, perhaps something you see or hear slows you to a jog, then a stroll. At last you are still, and it all surrounds you, absorbs you...and you surrender to it, sinking into its soothing embrace.

The subtle footprints you left along the gravely shore soon vanish, but deep inside, the impressions last for a lifetime. For you’ve returned to the essential elements of your birthright—a small piece of the earth itself, and the clear, life-sustaining liquid that once quenched and warmed and supported you; that cleansed you, buoyed you; that together, in time, will once again absorb you.

                  ---------------------  More On Skipping  ---------------------
I have no claim to any special skipping techniques. But sometimes, after finding my rhythm and laying down a few ten-skippers, I raise the bar for myself and any competitors with some added challenges. I've been known to brag that I can skip any rock at least once, as long as it's small enough to throw. And I back up my claim… okay... maybe a third of the time.

What are some of the tricks and style elements you’ve brought to the sport of stone skipping? Do you have a favorite beach or shore for doing it? Favorite memories? We’d love it if you’d share them in a comment here.

And please, if you're ever stuck for something to do with kids / grandkids, head for the nearest rocky shore and pass on the art, the ancient tradition, of skipping stones. But for you, it may be lost.



Friday, May 8, 2015


Water is the quintessential liquid. We learn about it in utero—how it feels, how it moves, supports, soothes and quiets.

Once we’re out, our relationship with water broadens. We soon become aware that it has to go into our bodies—and come out again. We're bathed in it. We play with it; we splash it, squirt it, slide on it and jump into it, among other amusements.

Eventually we’re taught how water’s a vital part of every living thing. We study how it seeps, drips, pours, wicks and transforms to vapor and ice. We discover that it dissolves and brews. We find, often the hard way, that it can also hurt us—burning, freezing, choking, knocking the wind out of us.

    What other substance can bathe an infant’s 
    head…and carve the Grand Canyon?


Even as we learn of its properties, water, like the air we breathe, is so ubiquitous that it’s difficult to pull back and truly see it. But if we can pretend we’re observing it for the very first time, we begin to appreciate what an utter miracle this clear, quicksilver fluid really is.

When’s the last time you put your busy-ness on hold and took a moment to think about this substance that gives us such utility, such fun, such beauty, such…well…life? Do you appreciate it not just for what it does for us, but for its sheer beauty: its transparency; the way it coats and shines some surfaces, and beads up on others; how surface tension’s invisible skin stretches over it; its lyrical fall and flow?

Water has a capricious relationship with other elements. With light, it can bend like a prism, absorb like a sponge or reflect like a mirror. With air, it respirates aquatic plants and fish, yet suffocates terrestrial organisms. With earth, it provides the nectar of life for nearly 300,000 species of plants. As a mist, it cools, while as humidity it turns up the heat index. Yes, the stuff can even vanish into thin air!

What other substance can both render a Winslow Homer masterpiece and torture a suspected terrorist? Transform itself into the exquisite intricacy of a snowflake and the Titanic mass of an iceberg? Bathe an infant’s head…and carve the Grand Canyon?

      I wonder if and how our attitudes toward 
      water will change in the coming years.


I could go on extolling water’s virtues and the wonder of seeing it anew, but I want to know how and where you most appreciate it. How do you value it—that is to say, how do you act on the knowledge that water—at least clean water—is  proving an ever-scarcer and more coveted resource?

As rivers get sucked dry before they can even reach their mouths, and as the largest sources of the world’s fresh water continue melting into the sea, I can’t help but wonder if and how our attitudes toward it will change in the coming years.

I leave you with a visual appreciation of this magnificent, life-giving, ever-present yet ever-abused liquid. These images only begin to demonstrate how much more there is to ponder, but I must stop here. I’m thirsty.

Sunday, May 3, 2015


In my continuing efforts to demystify the spirituality of awareness, I often find myself at what might be described as the back door of Buddhism. That is, I embrace ideas associated with Buddhism, but without paying the price of constant study and discipline.

One such theft is of the idea that happiness hinges on detaching oneself from expectations—those uniquely human constructs built on the past and future, but having nothing to do with the present moment.

That said, detachment does imply faith. Yes, you most certainly have plans and goals; yes, you apply yourself to the task at hand. But beyond that you believe the universe will steer you to exactly the outcome it—and you for that matter—needs.

An old friend of mine applied this tenet in his encounter, many years ago now, with cocci meningitis, a fungal infection of the lining of the brain. It was thought at the time to be a terminal diagnosis.

Walter—an aspiring Buddhist by the way—tried just about every alternative, new-age treatment you can think of. He meditated. He hung out with crystals. He traveled afar and dug deep within for answers. (The first thing one spiritual/medical guru, in Texas, asked him was, “So, Walter, why did you decide to get sick?”)

I’ll never forget when Walter announced to our men’s group that he’d come to a place of peace with the disease, come what may. As he put it, “It’s like ice cream; if having cocci meningitis is vanilla, then not having it is chocolate. Either way, life is delicious.”

Walter, twenty-plus years later, is still with us.

The trick is to handle these events the best we can, not let them handle us.

We all face events and decisions every day in which we vest the outcome with a value—from how the barista makes our latte in the morning, to whether the house we just bought is really as good a deal as we think it is, to coping with illness, even death.

And we always have the choice between seeing unexpected consequences as failings or misfortune, and seeing them as simply parts of a greater reality which can be labeled as neither good nor bad. It just is.

The trick is to handle these events the best we can, but not let them handle us. And, once we know we’re doing our best, as Walter did, we let go of the outcome.

It’s incredible how liberating this attitude can be. For it does not suffer fools gladly; useless emotions like disappointment, regret and fear are dismissed before they can utter a word.

This is how I want to live my life. But it’s not easy. Ever since I was three or four, nearly every lesson I’ve been taught, every message absorbed from the culture, every example held up to me, has been about investing all you’ve got in an outcome and never letting go of that expectation.

   It may be an outcome we could never have 
   imagined, one understood only by the boundless 
   wisdom of the universe.

Perhaps it’s the luxury of being an older, more independent man, but my instincts have been quarreling with all those do-or-die lessons. They're arguing—when they can get a word in edgewise—that the outward pursuit of success, happiness, faith…whatever…is a fool's quest.

Human beings are hard-wired for happiness. So, instead of looking outside ourselves for a certain result or to acquire some special juju, the real answer is to look within. It is a process not of acquisition, but of divesture, shedding all the garbage that has piled up on top of the perfect juju we already have.

So Walter's point—made, admirably, under the direst of circumstances—is well taken. Except that I'd add one thing. If the outcome we would have liked (before our conversion to quasi-Buddhism, of course) is chocolate, and the one we wouldn't is vanilla, there's a third option: a result that is neither—an outcome we could never have imagined, one understood only by the boundless wisdom of the universe.

As I ponder the deliciousness of all three of these possibilities, an odd thought sidles into my consciousness—a craving for ice cream. Not vanilla; not chocolate. Neapolitan.