Breaking The Bad News

On the TV show House, House’s oncologist pal Wilson was reputed to be so humane and caring when giving patients bad news about their condition that, when he was done, patients actually thanked him.  Studies indicate, however, that there aren’t a lot of Wilsons out there in the medical profession.  Instead, many doctors botch one of the most important parts of their job — giving patients truthful information about their medical condition when the diagnosis is grim.

photo-hospital-doorwayTelling patients that they have untreatable cancer, or some other fatal disease, clearly is one of the toughest parts of a doctor’s job — and research indicates that doctors just aren’t very good at it.  Some doctors will break the bad news indirectly or use medical jargon that leaves the patient confused, others will do it with brutal directness, and still others will sugarcoat the news with treatment options.  As a result, many cancer patients aren’t well informed about their actual condition, and their prospects. A 2016 study found that only five percent of cancer patients understood their prognoses well enough to make informed decisions about their care.

Why are doctors so inept at giving patients bad news about their condition?  Of course, it’s incredibly hard to be the bearer of bad tidings, especially when the bad news is about a fatal illness, but there’s more to it than that.  Communications skills apparently aren’t emphasized at medical schools, and many doctors see a diagnosis of an incurable disease as a kind of personal failure on their part.

It’s interesting that, in a profession so associated with the phrase “bedside manner,” so many doctors regularly mishandle what is arguably the most important part of their job and so few medical schools make sure that their graduates are equipped to handle that task in a genuine, caring, and understandable way.  I hope I never receive a devastating diagnosis, but if I do I hope it comes from a doctor who knows how to break the bad news.

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Lettering In BBQ

Most of the varsity teams in American high schools involve sports that have been around for a long, long time.  Baseball, football, basketball, wrestling, and swimming, among others, have all been around for decades.  Now some high schools in Texas are introducing a new varsity team to the mix:  barbecue.

30629807_346739375833962_402609782687286108_nThe high school BBQ teams in Texas sound like a combination of vocational education, home ec, and shop class, with a little rah-rah school spirit thrown in.  Students on the team build and weld their own metal barbecue cooker, design and create their own team t-shirts, and work with teachers to come up with recipes and techniques and develop their pitmaster capabilities in the competitive cooking categories.  At cook-off competitions, the teams are judged on best beef brisket, pork ribs, half chicken, best beans, dessert, best pit, most school spirit, and best t-shirt.

High school barbecue teams sound odd, at first, but I think they’re actually a pretty good idea, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more schools in other states adopting the concept.  The BBQ teams have got to be a lot of fun, and they offer a chance for boys and girls to be on the same school squad, competing together for their alma maters.  The modern world is a lot more about inclusion, and a varsity BBQ team would have room for anyone who likes to cook — regardless of their physical condition, height, weight, coordination, or general athletic ability.  And every kid who letters in BBQ will end up being pretty deft with a grille and smoker and probably can make a pretty mean sauce, besides.  It would be a nice skill to have as you move into adulthood.

Varsity barbecue has been rapidly growing in popularity, especially in north Texas.  One annual tournament drew teams from more than 100 high schools.  I bet it drew a lot of hungry fans, too.

McMansion Envy

American homes are a lot roomier than they used to be.  In 1973, the Census Bureau determined that the median size of a new house was about 1,500 square feet.  As of 2015, that number had shot up to about 2,500 square feet.  And with Americans having fewer children on average, the increase in house size translated into a lot more square footage per resident — from 507 square feet per resident for new houses in 1973 to 971 square feet per resident for a new house built in 2015.

mcmansions-real-estateSo, are Americans a lot happier with their larger, roomier homes?  A researcher tried to figure that out and determined that the answer is:  not really.  Although American homes have grown significantly in terms of their square footage, overall house satisfaction hasn’t changed.  According to the research, the apparent reason is that some Americans are trapped in an endless cycle of house one-upsmanship.

The researcher concluded that Americans whose houses are among the largest in the neighborhood tend to be most prone to house unhappiness.  These homeowners build the biggest house around and are satisfied with it, but when somebody builds an even bigger McMansion on a nearby lot, knocking them out of the “biggest house in the neighborhood” slot, suddenly their satisfaction with their home drops.  The research also indicates that there’s been a kind of nuclear arms race at the top end of the American housing market, with the size of the largest 10 percent of houses increasing 1.4 times as fast as the size of the median house.  Evidently “keeping up with the Joneses” now means adding on to your house to maintain your status as king of the block.

I’m not sure about the statistical analysis used in the research and how you can determine with certainty whether people are dissatisfied with their already big house because it now isn’t the biggest house in the ‘hood, as opposed to other reasons for house dissatisfaction.  But I do know this:  I feel sorry for people who measure their own happiness and satisfaction by comparing their possessions, whether it is houses or cars or something else, to what is owned by others.  It’s a rat race that isn’t really winnable, because there’s always going to be someone with a bigger house and fancier car.

Such people are never really going to be happy — at least not for long.  Better to find a house that you and your family like, forget about participating in the pointless big house derby, and be amused as you watch the Joneses and their McMansions endlessly duke it out for top dog status.

Legalizing Lemonade

This week Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a law making it legal for Texas kids to run a lemonade stand without first getting a license.  In a rarity in these politically acrimonious times, the bill passed both houses of the Texas legislature unanimously.  It prohibits local health codes or neighborhood rules that try to bar or otherwise regulate children who want to sell non-alcoholic drinks, such as lemonade, on private property.

gettyimages-115703269-58ad82445f9b58a3c979537cThe Texas legislation was a reaction to an incident in an east Texas town where police shut down a lemonade stand run by two kids who were trying to raise money to buy a Father’s Day present.  That incident is part of a national trend of neighbors calling the police to report kids who operate lemonade stands, which has led to news stories about lemonade stand shutdowns in Colorado, California, Rhode Island, and other states.  The lemonade stand crackdown reached the point that Country Time lemonade offered legal assistance to the kids running the stands who faced penalties and fines for engaging in unpermitted activity.

Speaking as someone who set up a number of lemonade stands as a kid — and who probably sold some pretty sour, watery, and sickly sweet lemonade to innocent buyers in the process — it’s hard for me to imagine that police, regulators, and busybody neighbors don’t have something better to do than oversee harmless childhood money-making ventures.  Have we really reached the point that you actually have to pass a law to safeguard an activity that has been part of Americana for decades?

But the world has changed.  Apparently we do have to enact laws to make sure that regulators don’t target little kids in their zeal to exercise overprotective nanny-state control over our daily activities.  But because the world has changed, I also wonder if the Texas law is really going to have much of an impact in these days of equally overprotective parents.  How many helicopter Moms and Dads are going to allow their young kids to interact with complete strangers who might pass by and want to wet their whistle with a glass of homemade lemonade?

That ’70s Party

Later this month, Kish and I are going to a conference for work.  The organization sponsoring the conference is celebrating its 40th anniversary and decided to mark the occasion by having a party where everyone dresses up like people did in the year the organization was founded.

what-did-people-wear-in-the-70sIt’s a clever idea, but for those of you who are mathematically challenged, that means we’re supposed to party like it’s 1979.

This will be a tough challenge, because I don’t have any ’70s-style clothing.  In fact, it’s fair to say that I have tried to get as far away from ’70s garb, and ’70s hairstyles, as is humanly possible.  Having gone to high school and college in the ’70s, I enjoyed ’70s rock music then and still do, and I can definitely wax nostalgic about the shows and skits put on by the first cast of Saturday Night Live.  But the clothes and haircuts of that decade are another thing entirely.  Loud “leisure” suits, platform shoes, brightly colored, patterned polyester shirts that were manufactured without any breathing, natural fibers, monster bell bottoms with huge cuffs, enormous sideburns, and carefully combed hair helmets only begin to scratch the surface.

So don’t talk to me about “’70s style” — in reality, that’s a self-contradictory phrase.   From a physical appearance standpoint, the ’70s is undoubtedly the ugliest decade in American history, when the clothing and grooming industries pulled a fast one on the gullible citizens of this great nation, and I’ve consciously tried to put it out of my mind since the calendar page turned to January 1, 1980.

Kish and I have talked about where we might go to find ’70s clothes, but I’m afraid if we bought such items at a thrift store they might end up infecting the rest of the clothing in our closets.

Shucking Small Shampoos And Soaps

The bottom drawer of the vanity in our bathroom has a pretty good collection of hotel soaps, shampoos, conditioners, hand lotion, and mouthwash I’ve brought home from business trips over the years.  Now the New York Times is reporting that the days of tiny hotel bottles of shampoo may be ending.

According to the Times, the little shampoo bottles are the focus of efforts by the large hotel chains, and lawmakers in states like California, to reduce plastic waste.  A bill working its way through the California legislature would outlaw the tiny bottles, and some hotel chains are already moving to refillable dispensers instead.  (Of course, the Times being what it is, it quotes “home organizers” who can explain to high-brow readers that some of us in the hoi polloi bring the elfin bottles home to use, and who can tsk-tsk at the unseemly clutter they create.)

The Times article suggests that some people bring the tiny bottles home as souvenirs of place they’ve stayed.  That’s not my impetus — I do it because I’m cheap about stuff like that.  It’s not like my grizzled mop needs high-end shampoos and conditioners; I’ll use whatever.  If I can bring home bottles of shampoo and soaps so that I don’t have to buy them myself, why not do so?  I haven’t bought shampoo in years.  It’s a small savings, I know, but I figure that all of that penny-pinching will allow Kish and me to enjoy a few extra “Early Bird Special” dinners after we’re retired.

I’ve stayed at hotels with the new wall-mounted soap and shampoo dispensers.  They’re fine, of course, although they definitely do have a more institutional feel to them — like you’re staying at the Hotel Kabul youth hostel rather than at a nice hotel.  Nevertheless, I’m all in favor of reducing the plastic waste that is clogging the oceans and landfills, and those tiny bottles seem like a good place to start.  I’m sure I’ll get used to the dispensers.  Besides, I only use small dollops of the shampoo to work my hair into a good lather, so with the collection of tiny bottles we’ve got in the bottom drawer I’m covered for a good long while.

 

Travel Guilt

If you’ve got a big trip planned for this year, should you cancel it?  Should you refrain from traveling at all, because of the impact that your share of carbon emissions from the plane flight may be having on Arctic sea ice, or rising sea levels?

edited-travel-guilt-770x515That’s the question posed by a curious New York Times article earlier this week.  The author wrings his hands about the issue, caught between a desire to broaden his horizons by seeing the world and his professed guilt that his travel interests are selfish and evil because they may be affecting global climate change.  After quoting lots of statistics about the potential impact of one person’s activities, and envisioning being glared at by a hungry polar bear while pondering his contribution toward disappearing Arctic ice, the author notes that he’s still going to take a trip to Greece and Paris, but only after he’s purchased enough “carbon offsets” to “capture the annual methane emanations of a dozen cows.”

The Times article notes that, in 2016, two climatologists published a paper that concluded that there is a direct relation between carbon emissions and the melting of Arctic sea ice, and “each additional metric ton of carbon dioxide or its equivalent — your share of the emissions on a cross-country flight one-way from New York to Los Angeles — shrinks the summer sea ice cover by 3 square meters, or 32 square feet.”  Taking a cruise isn’t the answer, either; the article says that cruise ships produce three or four times the pollution produced by jets.  Even worse, the article states that just by being an average American we’re harming and even killing fellow human beings, and quotes a determination somehow made by a University of Tennessee professor, who concluded: The average American causes through his/her greenhouse gas emissions the serious suffering and/or deaths of two future people.”

So, should we just stay huddled in our houses with the lights turned off, so as to minimize our personal contribution to potential global catastrophe?  I won’t be doing that.  I like leisure travel, and unlike the Times writer, I’m not wracked with guilt about it.  I’m quite skeptical of any calculation that purports to show that, in view of all of the huge, overarching factors, such as sunspot cycles, solar flares, ocean currents, and wind systems, that can affect the Earth’s climate, the activity of an “average American” can be isolated and found to have a direct, measurable impact on climate.  Science has endured a lot of black eyes lately, with research and calculations shown to be inaccurate and, in some instances, politically motivated, and I’m just not willing to accept unquestioningly that going to visit my sister-in-law in California will melt 32 square feet of Arctic sea ice.  I also question how the activities of an “average American” are calculated, or how a walk-to-work person like me compares to the carbon footprint of the “average.”

So, I guess you can call me selfish, because I do want to see more of the world and experience the wonders of faraway places.  But don’t just ask me — ask the places that travelers visit if they’d rather not receive the infusions of cash, and the jobs created, that come from being a tourist destination.  If we’re going to be doing impossibly complex calculations of benefits and harm, how about throwing in the economic and cultural benefits that flow from travel into the equation?