It’s Not a Toomah!

I don’t usually make doctor’s appointments, but after nearly a week of persistent, crushing headaches, I gave in. I work in an industry that requires a fully operating brain, so something had to be done.

The appointment started like any other — height, weight, a litany of questions about my lifestyle, family history, and brief summary of what I’d been experiencing. The nurse quietly took notes, showed little concern, and then left to get the doctor.

If it's my brain we're focused on, I'm not concerned about quick doctor's appointments. Let's do it right.

The doctor, a petite Eastern European woman who could use a cheeseburger in her life, came in and repeated back to me everything I’d told the nurse. She had great reading skills. I’ll give her that much.

From there, she asked more detailed questions about my headaches — frequency, location, sensation, possible triggers and so forth. She examined my ears, my eyes, my throat, my glands and concluded I was experiencing migraines. She couldn’t have been more sure.

I’ve had migraines before. I remember back in sixth grade, squinting at a whiteboard from the back of the classroom when the words suddenly became fuzzy. The teacher called on me to read the board, but I told her I couldn’t see. You know that spot you see after looking at the sun? That aura? As my migraine came on, an aura blurred my vision to the point of blindness. A friend helped me to the office where I unloaded a bowl of Cheerios in the nurse’s bathroom. The only cure was sleep.

Nothing I’ve experienced in the past week has been nearly as intense as a migraine, so I was a bit troubled by the hasty diagnosis. Not only that, I was prescribed Imitrex, which isn’t exactly Oxycodone, but I don’t like being prescribed drugs on a hunch. I was also given a migraine treatment plan, which was more like a diary. Each day, I’m supposed to record headaches, their severity, what may have triggered them, what I did to treat them, and so forth.

So, when all is said and done, I left with an Imitrex prescription (20 pills/$66) and a diary.

The No. 1 scare tactic opponents use when arguing against universal health care is the quickness of treatment. You’ll be in the waiting room for hours! Yesterday, I was in, out and done in 30 minutes. When it comes to my health, I don’t want a quick appointment. Trust me, I’ll make time. I want certainty, and I’m willing to wait for. Draw some blood. Swab something. Take some urine, at least. If it turns out something’s truly wrong, let’s tackle it. If I check out fine, hey, I’ll leave a tip with my co-pay.

When I got back to the office from my appointment, a co-worked asked, “What if they told you that you can’t drink coffee anymore?”

That’s about the time my headaches started going away.

Banning Alcoholic Energy Drinks May Just Be a Shortcut

WOLF IN SHEEP'S CLOTHING: Alcoholic energy drinks are packaged to look no different than their non-alcoholic counterparts.

The last time I drank an alcoholic energy drink, I broke a sweat just a few sips in. My entire forehead beaded in sweat and I felt waves of heat rush through my body. By the time I drank half of the 16 oz. can, I’d had enough. I felt intense pain in my stomach, as if I’d eaten glass, and my speech was starting to slur. I’m a 220-pound male who has tended bar for nearly three years. I can drink. Half a can of Joose, the alcoholic energy drink I’m speaking of, nearly put me out cold.

Joose is completely legal and you can get a can for just about two dollars. You won’t have to look hard to find it, either. (I bought the can at a grocery store.) Joose and other brands like Four Loko, Sparks and Tilt are under heavy scrutiny after several instances involving young adults suffering alcohol poisoning. Turns out a high concentration of alcohol and caffeine can lead to undesirable outcomes.

Several states are now considering banning alcoholic energy drinks, and rightfully so. Although, there is one important question that’s sort of been grazed over: Why do young adults drink these beverages despite knowing the health risks?

Answer: Cost.

The average college student stocks their mini fridge with bottom-shelf beer and liquor and they buy it in bulk. (I don’t mean to single out college students here, but most of the reported incidents seem to involve them, so let’s be real.) College students are frugal drinkers, save for maybe the week or so after they receive their FAFSA distribution. They want to have fun and rarely allow finances to hold them back. If they want to party, they’ll find a way.

What’s cheap? What will get college students the most bang for their buck? Alcoholic energy drinks, which promise a night full of energy, because after a long week of studying and testing, even 21-year-olds get tired. They’re also loaded with alcohol, so rather than drilling through a six-pack of beer, they can catch a buzz in just a few sips. That’s efficient, economical partying.

The problem is few actually know what’s in a can of Four Loko, because you won’t find a serving recommendation, calorie count or caffeine total on its label. According to NPR’s Anna King,

“Phusion Projects will give only an estimate of how much caffeine is in [Four Loko]: One can has about as much caffeine as a six-pack of Diet Coke. One can also fills an empty wine bottle and in fact, contains about as much alcohol as a bottle of wine.”

You can rightly assume Four Loko’s competitors achieve the same alarming numbers.

Do I support a ban on alcoholic energy drinks? I’m hesitant to say yes if Everclear and Bacardi 151 are being left on the shelf. However, I would like to see these beverages sold at a higher price with a more detailed warning on the can. Ban alcoholic energy drinks and college students will resort to the more traditional mix of vodka and Red Bull.

Anecdotally, I know alcohol and caffeine are a lethal mix, but I can’t explain why. That wasn’t a part of the drug-and-alcohol curriculum I was taught growing up. Every story I’ve read regarding alcohol energy drinks and young people being hospitalized has shared the same theme: They didn’t know what they were drinking. Short of banning these beverages, we need to do a better of job explaining their ill effects to students as early as high school.

After all, if there’s one thing we’ve learned about harmful substances in this country, it’s that banning them or making them illegal won’t make them go away.

South Dakota Bars and Restaurants Go Smoke-Free — Finally

Bar owners across South Dakota went fetal Tuesday night after a statewide smoking ban passed with 64 percent of the vote. Many seem sure that a smoking ban surely spells doomsday.

Fear not, South Dakota. In fact, I’m one of many customers more likely to go and spend my money at your establishment now that I won’t require a Hazmat suit to enter.

Most of the fear is anecdotal. South Dakota bars and restaurants offer video lottery, which has generated about $100-100 million in annual revenue for the state since 2002. South Dakota receives 50 percent of the money video lottery machines take in, so as soon as anything threatens their popularity, the immediate concern shifts to how South Dakota make up that money?

Let’s not jump off the ledge here. South Dakota is still South Dakota, and speaking as someone at prime bar-going age, business will be fine. What else is there to do?

When Minnesota passed the Freedom to Breathe Act in 2007, small-business owners and smokers alike thought it would put bars across the state in a chokehold. I tended bar at a high-volume college bar before and after the smoking ban went in effect. Anecdotally, I can say customers — even smokers — overwhelmingly preferred the smoke-free environment. In fact, I more frequently saw the same costomers on consecutive nights.

The Minnesota measure was passed to ensure employees are given a healthy workplace. A few weeks before the ban went into effect, I was forced to see an ear, nose and throat specialist after working four nights in a row. I had a wicked throat pain, which I thought was strep, but it was mid-summer, so it seemed unlikely.

“You must work at a bar,” the doctor said. “I see this all the time. You’re lucky that ban passed. I would tell you to find another job.”

I made more money as a bartender in college than in any full-time big-boy job I’ve held since graduating. I feel I was a good, hardworking bartender. The fact I’m not a smoker shouldn’t disqualify me or anyone else from working in hospitality. Every employee, no matter the job, should have the right to work in a healthy, safe, controllable environment. Accidents can happen — miners get trapped, firemen get burned, cashiers get robbed. Employers must take responsibility  to ensure these instances are few and far between. In that vein, is eliminating smoking really that difficult? If it’s protecting your employees — especially those who are on a company health care plan — isn’t it worth it?

According to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, 17 percent of adults in South Dakota smoke. Last year, WebMD ranked South Dakota as No. 26 among states with the most adult smokers. At best, one in every five customers is asked to smoke outside.

Don Rose, a family friend and owner of Shenanigan’s Pub in Sioux Falls, was the leading voice of opposition to the smoking ban. His argument was that of a small-business owner who wanted the freedom to choose whether or not smoking be allowed in his establishment.

In a Monday interview with KELO-TV in Sioux Falls, Rose said:

“You take all, the bars in Minnesota are hurting, North Dakota are hurting, Montana are hurting. I get letters every day … I know that the state is preparing a budget they’re gonna be revealing in December that’s gonna show a 20 percent deficit in video lottery income. They’re planning on this.”

The elephant in the room is, of course, the recession. Name any sector of business that isn’t struggling right now. The other point of contention: Fargo and West Fargo are the only cities in North Dakota where smoking is banned from bars and restaurants. The rest of the state allows smoking bars. Finally, should South Dakota be relying so heavily on video lottery? If what Rose said is true, the budget will be short about $20 million from decreased video lottery income. That’s not a number to balk at, but hardly crippling to the South Dakota state economy. Yet, I wonder how the smoking ban — or smoking, in general — affects the cost of health care in South Dakota. Anyone?

(I completely respect Rose. As far as I know, he’s not nor has he ever been a smoker. He’s a very savvy business owner who only wants his rights left alone by the state. I get that. I also know he cares for his employees. I sincerely hope this doesn’t harm his business at all. I suspect it won’t.)

I swear, bar owners of South Dakota, your businesses will be just fine. Just wait for Thanksgiving weekend, when folks like myself return home. I used to despise meeting up with friends at the bar, but now, I’ll be the one leading the charge. I doubt I’m alone.

And please, don’t act like the smoking ban is difficult to enforce. In today’s Argus Leader, one bar owner said, “People are just going to stay home. The same thing is going to happen in the bars. I can’t see spending five bucks for a drink and then standing outside to smoke.” The same owner said she would tell a customer its illegal, but she wouldn’t call the cops.

If that’s the case, if a smoker is happier to stay home, maybe the problem isn’t the smoking ban — the problem is your establishment. And if you’re not willing to respect the law, maybe you should turn over your liquor license.

Searching for Solutions Amid Rise in Gay Teen Suicides

This flyer is from a vigil held Sunday, Oct.3 at New York University.

OutFront Minnesota, the largest gay-rights organization in the state, will hold a vigil 7 p.m. tonight at Loring Park in response to several student suicides in the Anoka-Hennepin school district which have been attributed to bullying.

The vigil is commendable, but not entirely unique. These gatherings have been taking place across the country amid a perceived rise in suicides involving gay teens who were bullied. But as Liz Goodwin of Yahoo points out, these vigils and overzealously attributing the act of suicide to gay bullying may be compounding the problem.

For her story, Goodwin interviewed Ann Haas, research director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Haas argues that singling out gay bullying as a cause for suicide — and not acknowledging mental illness — has the potential to normalize the act and inspire other teens who’ve been bullied. Haas says:

“We know quite a bit about what kinds of media stories can encourage copycat suicides … There’s an identification there that could lead you to feel, well, ‘My goodness, this person was feeling the same thing that I’m feeling, and he took his life.’ It kind of normalizes suicide. It presents it as a sort of an understandable if not socially acceptable response to a problem. If a story is presented from the viewpoint of the mental disorders that commonly lead to suicide, it’s much less likely to have that kind of identification that leads young people to copy the behavior.”

OutFront Minnesota is calling on Minnesota lawmakers to draft an anti-bullying policy for Minnesota public schools during the upcoming special session. It’s hard to say what that policy would look like in terms of implementation and enforcement. Any legislation would lean heavily on Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), which gave schools the right to punish conduct that would “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.” The same decision supports disciplining verbally abusive bullies, so long as school officials were “able to show that [their] action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.” In this case, it would be about protecting bullied students.

I know a teacher who argues anti-bullying policy is the wrong way to go. She believes creating a bubble of protection around a student, particularly a gay student, would harm their emotional development, creating bigger issues down the road. The idea is kids who are different must develop thick skin, and they can’t do it when school is made into a utopian, idealistic environment. She argues some of us will always be the last picked or the least popular. How will a child develop their character and strength if they’re fooled to think otherwise? It’s an interesting, albeit hard-to-swallow concept.

I’m in the camp that believes creating an anti-bullying policy is just spitting on the fire. There are many organizations who’ve already changed their messaging in light of recent events. “Tolerance is good” is being replaced by, “Hell yeah, it’s hard being gay. But you’re loved.” Kudos to The Trevor Project and Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project for leading the way.

At this point, the media has a responsibility to examine why, all of the sudden, gay teens are committing suicide. There isn’t one element to these stories — homosexuality, bullying, suicide — that’s unique to here and now. What’s inspired this unfortunate behavior? The question everyone’s too uncomfortable to ask: Are these suicides being glorified?

What’s your take? Why the sudden rise? Should schools institute an anti-bullying policy?

When Drugs Go Digital

Just when you think you’ve seen and heard it all …

I read a story on the Huffington Post yesterday about teenagers getting a high off “digital drugs.” They call it i-Dosing. Here’s how it works: i-Dosers lay motionless with headphones on while listening to binaural sound clips from YouTube for 10-minute periods. This equates to a type of sensory deprivation experienced with other drugs like ecstasy or LSD.

From Wired.com:

“Those who want to get addicted to the “drugs” can purchase tracks that will purportedly bring about the same effects of marijuana, cocaine, opium and peyote. While street drugs rarely come with instruction manuals, potential digital drug users are advised to buy a 40-page guide so that they learn how to properly get high on MP3s.”

Don’t get me wrong — I’m good for a night of boozing now and then, but drugs have never been my thing. I’ve got a healthy fear of consequence, both physical and legal. (Christ, I rarely exceed the speed limit.) While there may not be a chemical element involved, you can’t tell me any of this looks healthy:

The fear is iDosing will act as a gateway drug; the same willingness to experiment with digital drugs could compel kids to try harder drugs with actual physical consequences. I get that. It’s probably no coincidence iDosing terrifies me just as any other drugs does. I’m a prude like that. But if you’re a 15-year-old who gives this a try and it turns out to be sort of fun, what’s to stop you from trying marijuana? Nitrous? Cocaine? Heroin?

These are practical concerns.

For you more adventurous types, I’d love to feature a guest post on what iDosing is all about. This seems to be the clip the kiddies are into. If you’re willing, give it a run and let me know how it goes.

I think I’ll pass.

Don’t Forget to Wear Sunscreen

With my girlfriend’s parents in town from South Dakota, it was only right we made one last trip to the Oregon Coast. The forecast called for 68 degrees and sun at Cannon Beach, which was just about the same forecast the first time we went to Cannon Beach last August for Beth’s birthday.

Things really came full circle when, just like last time, I left the beach with extensive sunburn. Vitamin D overdose. UV overexposure. Whatever you want to call it. Have a looksy:

(This is my back. You can tell because there's no belly button. Otherwise, I can see how it might be difficult to distinguish.)

This sunburn  — not my first, not my worst, surely not my last — says a few things about me:

  • My skin, when it hasn’t been exposed to excessive sunlight for 10 months, tends to be a bit on the fair side. This only took three hours.
  • I pride myself on making healthy decisions. I take a multivitamin and fish oil everyday. I work out several times per week. However, when it comes to applying sunscreen on a really sunny day, I’m a complete ignoramus.
  • I assume, time and time again, there’s a direct correlation between temperature and UV index. It was only 68 degrees yesterday, but the UV index had to be 34. Stupid.

So, today, a perfectly gorgeous Sunday which happens to be our last in Portland, I’m stuck in bed, marinating in aloe vera, taking refuge in the low light. (Although, the glow of my laptop screen may warrant sunscreen here soon.)

My girlfriend’s parents ship out tomorrow, and they’re taking some of our stuff with them. We’ll back my Ford Fusion to the brim Friday morning and start the 1,700-mile haul to our new home.

Here’s hoping Portland’s farewell is a little less painful than Cannon Beach’s.

TriMet Tragedy Causes More Concern

My paranoia surrounding walking across the streets of Portland isn’t totally unfounded. Maybe I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ve had this growing phobia of crossing city streets for months now. Like so many of my personal issues, I blame it on viral videos, like those which feature pedestrians dodging vehicles and sudden death at the very last moment.

Tragedy struck in the Old Town district of Portland on Saturday night when five pedestrians were hit by a TriMet bus while crossing a crosswalk. The pedestrians had the walk sign but were hit by the bus that was turning left. Two of the pedestrians were pinned under the bus and died. Another was taken to the hospital, but has since been upgraded to fair condition. The other two suffered only minor injuries.

This happened in a well-lit part of town under driver-friendly conditions. The investigation is still under way, but you can bet Portland pedestrians like myself are taking extra caution when crossing crosswalks. I’m sure this was a flukey thing, but this is also a city that places crosswalks flat in the middle of its busiest streets, away from intersections. It’s a surprise these things don’t happen more often.

If I get hit, it’ll most likely be on the way to work in the morning. On a sunny morning, the sun beams like a laser over the Cascades, cutting through the streets of downtown. I’ve been a lot of places but never seen sunrises brighter than the ones here. There have been mornings my girlfriend has driven me to work, and it may just be me, but without sunglasses, I couldn’t see a thing. God forbid I ever cross the wrong street on the wrong mornin morning. If a westbound car hit me, I couldn’t even be mad.

I also don’t do myself any favors by listening to my iPhone when I walk. My hearing is completely occupied by NPR podcasts in the morning, so I imagine a scenario where I get hit by a vehicle playing out like an episode from CSI: Miami. (If you’re unfamiliar, it’s critical you click here.)

 The driver tells the police on scene his brakes went out and he honked and yelled, but it was like I couldn’t hear him.

Frank: (Picking up my iPhone) “Looks like he was listening to All Things Considered.”

Horatio: “Maybe he should’ve considered dodging that car.”

(Queue theme music: “Yeeeeaaaaaaah!”)

The resolution here is pretty obvious: Pay more attention to my surroundings, eliminate distractions and don’t set Horatio up for a one-liner. Enough said.