In the triangle that lies between Chapultepec Park and the stately boulevards and Art Nouveau mansions of La Condesa, Joel (pronounced “Ho-el”) Escalona has his studio. Reaching it means climbing a quivering spiral staircase to the fourth floor. As Escalona answers the door, he runs a hand through hair that looks as if it had already seen a long day. Then he opens his fist to reveal, fresh out of his new 3-D printer, a tiny maquette of a tiered glass bowl that the Libbey Glass Company will soon manufacture by the thousands.
For the 30 years of our marriage, my husband has asked me to manage a task that has traumatized him since childhood. I am in charge of buying gifts for his mother.
As a newlywed, I embraced this challenge. I picked out designer handbags, belts and scarves from the best stores, seeing to it that they were wrapped beautifully, and delivered in prestigious shopping bags.
My mother-in-law loved the shopping bags, but the gifts themselves were always returned, within days and sometimes within hours.
Towards the end of the first decade, I suggested that we stick to Hallmark cards and flowers. But my husband, a dutiful and loving only child, made it clear that he was not going to take that guilt trip.
And so it was, last summer, when our cruise ship docked in Denmark, that two of our eight precious hours on shore were dedicated to selecting a blue-and-white salad bowl in his mother’s Royal Copenhagen china pattern.
I thought we’d nailed it, but — no. The bowl was too fancy. Since it was impractical to return this purchase to Denmark, it was dispatched to a closet, one filled with other rejects, and stacks of classy shopping bags.
In response, I announced my retirement from this spousal duty. But when the holidays came around, the question arose once more: What to get the woman who returns everything?
Finally, it’s gone. My big, state-of-the-art chair – the one with all the levers and sliders and knobs that was supposed to banish my back pain? I fired it. I replaced it with something small, sleek and Scandinavian, called an Iloa. It’s a stool, on wheels. I’m not saying that it’s magic, but it might be.
I should back up. The chair that I just made redundant wasn’t my first. If I remember correctly, it was my fifth, each purchase meticulously researched and custom-ordered, with a single goal: To sit comfortably for hours in front of my computer monitor, and not be miserable afterward.
With the help of some really smart people at Fully, a furniture company that is dedicated to the principles of active sitting, I realized that I had the whole thing wrong. I’d been searching for a chair that did the work for me. I wanted it to hold my body upright, with plenty of lumbar support, so I could ignore my skeleton. It had to cushion my tush in high-density foam, so that I couldn’t feel my sitting bones. But my body never wanted that. All along, it wanted freedom and movement, and I refused to listen.
In 2014, endocrinologist Dr. James Levine published his anti-sitting manifesto, “Get Up: Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It.” He coined the term “sitting disease” and explained that no amount of exercise could counteract the effects of sitting for eight hours a day.
Studies backed him up, showing intensive sitting slowed the metabolism, reduced healthy cholesterol by 20 percent, increased the risk of cardiovascular problems, and doubled the chance of developing type-2 diabetes. Levine recommended a treadmill desk, to walk at a slow pace of one to two mph, for most of the day.
In the course of researching and writing my book, Crooked: Outwitting the Back Pain Industry and Getting on the Road to Recovery, I met scores of people who told me that they liked—or even loved—their jobs and their colleagues. Still, they dreaded going to work, because it was hard to think about anything except how much their backs hurt.
More than once they’d ordered expensive new equipment, hoping to find a way to get out of pain. They’d raised their desktops to standing height, only to realize that being stuck on their feet all day made for cranky knees, hips and ankles. Many jumped on “the medical merry-go-round,” seeing chiropractors, physical therapists, pain management doctors and surgeons, desperate to find someone who could fix them.
| Investigative Reporting
“On a misty autumn morning in Australia’s Royal National Park, just south of Sydney, a peloton of nearly two dozen cyclists tackles a 3,740-foot ascent. When they reach the highest point of the day’s 45-mile ride — the first leg of a weeklong journey — they’re rewarded with cookies and candy from support staff, followed by a downhill glide along a sandstone escarpment. Far below them, waves of the Pacific barrel toward shore and explode in clouds of foam.”
Craftsmanship Quarterly Magazine
“Nand Kishore Chaudhary built a runaway success by working closely with India’s poorest citizens, and by developing an apprenticeship system around India’s chronic battles with child labor. How do such difficult pieces fit into India’s puzzle?”
Craftsmanship Quarterly Magazine
“In my mini-doc, “India’s New Carpet Weavers,” enjoy a quick visit to the villages where hand-knotted carpets are made for Jaipur Rugs Company.”
“For patient after patient seeking to cure chronic back pain, the experience is years of frustration. Whether they strive to treat their aching muscles, bones and ligaments through physical therapy, massage or rounds of surgery, relief is often elusive – if the pain has not been made even worse. Now a new working hypothesis explains why: persistent back pain with no obvious mechanical source does not always result from tissue damage. Instead, that pain is generated by the central nervous system (CNS) and lives within the brain itself.”
The New York Times Magazine
“Why, as I edge toward the end of my 40’s, has so much of what I know become impossible to access on demand? Where are the thoughts that spring forth in the shower but evanesce before they can be recorded, the mental lists that shed items on the way to the supermarket? The names of books and movies, actors and authors, le mot juste, the memory of social plans agreed upon in some calendarless situation — what have become of these?”
New York Magazine
“From their front window on Saturday mornings, the couple saw a stream of well-dressed people, the men in yarmulkes, on the sidewalks of West End Avenue. One day, the Goldsteins followed them to Lincoln Square Synagogue; they were astonished to find it was an Orthodox shul. When they’d think of Orthodoxy, they’d think of the diamond district, of 47th Street Photo. Where were the long black coats and black hats? The crowd that gathered in front of the synagogue on Saturday morning was affluent and attractive. These people seemed to having a wonderful time. The Goldsteins signed up for a course called Basic Judaism.”
O, The Oprah Magazine
“With antidepressants now being used to treat not only depression but an ever- expanding variety of conditions (shyness, eating disorders, premature ejaculation, sexual addictions, smoking, premenstrual syndrome), they’ve almost gained the status of all-purpose wonder drugs. As Andrew Solomon, the author of The Noon- day Demon, a brutally honest and much-heralded tome on depression, noted in a recent article, there are “people with an inflated idea of how happy we should be, who want to medicate away their personalities.” My question is: At what cost?”
The New York Times Magazine
“Life imitates television. The comparison shoppers of “The Price is Right” meet the impulse shoppers of “Sale of the Century.” A woman wearing a self-satisfied grin loads her cart with six reproduction Louis XIV dining-room chairs with needlepoint seats. “I’ve been looking for these for years,” she gloats, “and here they are, for $125 each.” Another woman says, with a sigh, “I stand in the aisles anticipating turns in my life. I think, ‘I might someday need a snowblower.’”
“Several days later, as I walked through the front door of her freshly renovated suburban office, she greeted me as warmly as if I were entering her home. Dressed in casual cords and a nice sweater, she looked like a college girl, even though she’s 44. Within moments, we were chatting like longtime girlfriends, swapping stories of kids and career paths. Here’s what I noticed right away: There was no professional firewall between us, no ‘You are the patient and I am the doctor, and you will stand in awe of my white coat.’”
“For years, compounding pharmacies were few and far between. But during the early 2000s, the backlash against [hormone therapy] presented an opportunity for compounding pharmacies to greatly expand their business by offering bio-identicals. The bioidentical drugs fit nicely into the zeitgeist, which was characterized by the public’s distrust of big pharmaceutical companies, an urge to go organic and the conviction that natural is better. No wonder women have often been willing to pay more for compounded hormones (about $58 for a month’s supply and rarely reimbursed by insurance) than commercial ones ($80 or more but usually covered by insurance carriers and so ultimately cheaper).”
(Note: In 2013, The Endocrine Society presented me with its award for Excellence in Science and Medical Journalism for my work on “The Hormone Hoax,” a project funded in large part by The Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Center For Health Journalism
“At More, we wanted to better understand what such compounding pharmacies were offering, since without FDA regulation of their business practices, that remained unclear. We knew that the FDA had dismissed “bioidentical” as a meaningless marketing term. Mexican yams provide the molecules for all bioidentical hormone products, whether they are made commercially or formulated in a pharmacy’s back room. From a pharmacological standpoint – at least at the molecular level – there was no difference. But our main focus of the article was: Would the capsule contents reflect what the doctor had prescribed? We developed a study design to see what was inside the pills and a plan for a story that we hoped would help a lot of women and alter public policy.”
“Zogenix proposed that Zohydro ER be approved to manage “moderate-to-severe chronic pain in cases in which a continuous, around-the-clock opioid is needed,” for twelve hours a day and months at a time—in other words, to deal with persistent and long-term pain, such as back pain, that shorter-acting opioids don’t cover as well. But given the concerns about abuse of painkillers and evidence of the complications that can result over the course of long-term treatments, how did Zohydro make it through the approval process?”
New York Woman
“I had a presumption: intelligent people do not fall for this stuff. Only desperate slobs of small means and low birth invest any faith in psychic power. Only stalwart relics of the Age of Aquarius—the people who still serve big bowls of tofu to guests—are into the tarot. And only people who are pathetically fatalistic pay rapt attention to the transits of the planets. I was, to put it mildly, very skeptical of the whole shooting match.”
“Being in love meant making a weekend pilgrimage. Sometimes he flew down to see me. More often—especially in the warm months—I left the steaming streets of New York City and headed for the cool brick sidewalks of Portland, Maine. After a year of flying back and forth, and a few thousand dollars spent between us on phone calls and plane fare, he decided to do what he’d been fantasizing about for ten years—and what I’d been hoping he’d do—take on the big city. From the start of our relationship, we’d always talked about living in the same city. We assumed that such proximity would solve all our problems, that everything that disturbed us about our relationship could be attributed to distance. That there were problems no related to our three-hour commute didn’t cross our minds.”
“In the old days, like last year, I would have known exactly what to do. I would have called him in a week to tell him what a pleasant time I’d had, and without hesitation, I would have asked him to join me at a movie or a play or a party or some other event. I would have expected him to be tickled. Now I’m not so sure.”
“‘My love for Zoe and Robin has a physical, tangible quality that grounds me. Their existence makes me feel connected to my mate, to the rest of the world, to the past and the future; it has nothing to do with who they are or what they do. This feeling hit me like a ton of bricks the minute I saw Zoe and has never gone away. It’s with me all the time, like some secret good news.’ These sentiments came to me last night by fax, a midnight gift from a Philadelphia friend. I had another opener ready, but I pressed the delete button on my computer and sent it reeling into oblivion. Unconditional love ought to be this simple, this instinctual, I think—a present bestowed at birth, with no dangerous pieces to swallow. Quite the opposite is often true.”
Los Angeles Times Magazine
“Joan has never been a hesitant shopper. Everything she chooses is the biggest, and with good reason: She and her husband, Tino, have 13 children, nine of whom live at home. Out of mammoth cardboard cartons, she plucks heavy packages as if they were weightless. Although she is only 5 foot 1, she seems to have the strength of 10, the kind of muscle that comes not from Nautilus equipment, but from lifting toddlers and infants, often simultaneously, for years.”
Travel + Leisure
“An old-fashioned shore haven in surfer-dude southern California? That’s Coronado, eight miles from San Diego International Airport. On the bay side of this 13 1/2-mile isthmus: dramatic views of San Diego Harbor, the city skyline, and the two-mile bridge that connects Coronado to the metropolis (you can also take the fun, 15-minute ferry). On the Pacific side: nothing but water, all the way to Japan.”
“Since the little ones arrived, you’ve pushed a dolphin-stroller around SeaWorld, stood in line for the Dumbo ride at Disneyland, and worn out your welcome at the lake cabin. Your travel lust is at fever pitch, and you know what you want: an island vacation. Some of the following five family islands are loaded with city fun, while others are soaked in sunshine and salt water. Once you’re there, with a little planning and a lot of serendipity, cherished family memories are guaranteed.”
“We were so clever that August, a family of holiday makers from smoggy Los Angeles bound for Bodega Bay. An entire month in a beach house for $3,000? How could we go wrong? We crested the last hill, dreaming of warm sand and, to our astonishment, left blue sky for wet, cold, blustery fog. When did it come? When would it go? Locals shook their heads. August was always like that.”
(Note: Ryn Lewis is an occasional pseudonym.)
The San Francisco Examiner
“Believe me, there were some lively debates behind closed doors. Would a trip abroad with our two young sons, Avery and Oliver, create fond memories or nightmarish ones? My husband and I had traveled far and often before we had children. We’d watched exhausted couples hauling toddlers through Paris and wondered if we’d ever have the nerve. Last summer, with our kids 9 and nearly 6, we decided to take our chances.”
New York Magazine
“From the mid-1800s into the first couple of decades of this century, quiet Murray Hill, now nestled at the foot of midtown, drew the big money of Manhattan. It was home to people who had many fortunes in banking and trade. A Murray Hill address had cachet; even if you didn’t have a pedigree, it made clear that you had arrived.”
“You board the Governor Muskie ferry in Rockland, Maine, which has to be one of the ugliest towns in New England. There’s a hustle and a confusion as pickups and battered vans line up: Can the milk truck get on? Are there groceries in that wagon? A man in a hunter’s orange vest, directing traffic, thrusts a flat hand at you to pull you up short and motions forward a flatbed truck loaded with lumber. Then he waves his arm, and you roll your bicycle onto the crowded deck, sucking in your gut to squeeze past a fender. Just then, there’s an ear-piercing whistle. The ferry is under way.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“For five years, since the first time they saw “Cool Runnings,” my sons, 12 and 15, had been angling for a trip to Jamaica. I’d been to the island several times, and we’d have gone in a minute if it wasn’t so far from California, requiring at least one plane change and a long layover. Then, Air Jamaica announced nonstop service from Los Angeles to Montego Bay, four days a week. On its heels, Delta followed. For West Coast dwellers, the Caribbean was finally within reasonable reach.”
| Memory & Attention
O, The Oprah Magazine
“I’d barely crossed the threshold of middle age. As a journalist, I was invested in staying smart and quick, mistress of my good brain and sardonic tongue. But almost overnight, I found that I was missing critical information—the names of people and places, the titles of books and movies. Worse, I had the attention span of a flea. I was having trouble keeping track of my calendar, and my sense of direction had disappeared. The change was so dramatic that sometimes I felt foreign to myself. Over the course of a few years, as friends and relatives moved into their 40s and 50s, I realized that I was part of a large group of people who were struggling to keep up. I was determined to find a plausible explanation for what was happening to my brain and, by extension, to middle-aged minds in general.”
“A warm nasal voice, possibly of Chicago origin, is issuing from the speakers in Joy Golden’s gleaming red, black, and chrome office. Golden and two emissaries from Chiat/Day listen intently. They are reviewing tapes of radio spots they made for Pizza Hut the day before. They’ve heard this particular spot ten times, but all three giggle when it’s over. They like it when the character, on his way to lunch at Pizza Hut, forgets to open his office door. Clunk-thunk. It’s hard not to laugh at the sound effect: the two-hundred-pound studio owner created it himself by walking headlong into a door. Ten times, until he got it right. Anything for Joy Golden.”
“The buyers from Saks have arrived. They are relieved of their fur coats and given coffee. They settle into chairs behind the larger of two tables in Judith Leiber’s West 33rd Street loft, and the show begins. With the enthusiasm she manages to musters ten times a day, a chic vendeuse, attired in black, presents the spring and summer collection. Each handbag is set gently on the table, as if it is a gem worthy of Harry Winston’s Fifth Avenue window.”
“Georgette Klinger, her image reflected many times in the mirrored walls of the salon, crossed the pale beige carpet—the kind that’s ordinarily reserved for the boudoir—and turns left into a darkened hallway. She is making her rounds. Every door is equipped with a porthole situated at eye level. She stops to peer into each of the fifty-five treatment rooks, where clients are swaddled in blankets and comfortably settled into fat white reclining chairs. Society matrons and top models, actors and executives, grandmothers and teenagers are having their faces steamed and massaged, masqued and moisturized.”
“The attendants on the Cathay Pacific Airlines flight from Sydney to Hong Kong have turned out the overhead lights, and most of the passengers are napping. Catherine Devlin reaches for the lever that releases her seat back, closes her eyes, and tries to relax. She’s had one hell of a week; for the last eight days, she’s been working Australia, calling on bank customers from breakfast to dinner, from Sydney to Melbourne. If she never sees the inside of a restaurant again, it won’t be a moment too soon.”
“The results are in. When American automobile manufacturers released their final sales figures for 1981, there was little doubt that Detroit had suffered one of its worst years in decades. Sales of domestic cars fell 5.3%, slipping to the lowest level in twenty years. In fact, recession-level sales volumes in both 1980 and 1981 have cost the U.S. auto industry nearly $5.5 billion.”
“She shifts her 1982 Series III racing green Jaguar into reverse, and we roll down the driveway, past the banana trees, the 40-foot-high birds-of-paradise, and the pale yellow jasmine that surround her Santa Monica villa. We are headed for Gladstone’s for lunch by the shore. She palms the mahogany wheel, swinging the car through sharp downhill turns. She has to watch the road, but I am free, for the first time to watch her. She is Patricia—Tish—Nettleship, owner and president of North Pacific Construction Company, a striking woman wrapped in beige suedes and creamy silks, a tawny seashell laced with gold around her neck; on her right hand, a knife-edge wedge of a ring, sugared with diamonds.”
Columbia Journalism Review
“Alan Abelson, the editor of the business weekly Barron’s, is not afraid of a good fight. He can’t afford to be. Last March, A. T. Bliss, a Florida-based distributor of solar water heaters, brought a $90 million lawsuit against Abelson for allegedly libelous statements in his weekly column ‘Up & Down Wall Street.’”
“Tasting the best stuff is an extraordinary sensation. Placed directly in the mouth, it smells like the sea, bursts on the tongue, then melts saltily over the tastebuds. Christian Petrossian awaits a reaction. When a blissful grin appears, he smiles back. He has just converted another caviar lover, and at $100 for a 125-gram tin of beluga, that’s not a bad afternoon’s work.”
“The advertising-award season is upon us once again. There’s a virtual spring flood of ceremonies—the One Show, the Art Directors Show, the Andys, the Effies, the International Advertising Film Festival at Cannes, and of course, the Clio Awards. Some of the shows are more respected than others. The One Show, an arm of the One Club, gets high marks, as does the Art Directors Show. But the Clio Awards get quite a hammering. Many in the advertising community seem to have a bone to pick with Clio. They’re disenchanted with this annual extravagant production number.”
“Walk into Jack Lenor Larsen’s showroom. Columns draped in flowing fabric race toward the ceiling. Light falls from above in pools, the better to show texture and sheen. On a cutting table, samples from Terra Nova, Larsen’s newest line, are being trimmed and tacked to display wings. Interior designers and their clients browse. Money is no object; paying $100 a yard isn’t uncommon. In textiles, Larsen is the best there is—and often, the most expensive. To know his work is to be spoiled for any other.”
| Columns from The Los Angeles Herald Examiner
Even before I got in line, I knew there would be trouble. The woman was my age or a little younger. She was traveling with two small children and an extraordinary assortment of personal effects. She held the baby in her arms and pushed a stroller loaded with a diaper bag, a teddy bear, and an overnight bag toward the American Airlines check-in counter. A little boy danced along behind her, pulling a large suitcase on wheels as if it was one of those rolling, squeaking, wobbling basset hound toys.
Last week, I put myself through hell. I went shopping for a bathing suit.
For months, I’d avoided this miserable chore. I knew it could take hours, if not days. My friend Lynn offered to join the expedition. She and her husband were off to Santa Barbara, and she was suitless. It would be painful, she knew. She had a baby about three months ago, and despite hard work on her part, she hasn’t quite regained her figure.
There’s a slight problem in our house, and I’m sorry to say that it’s hereditary. I’m going to look older. I know I am. I can already see creases in my forehead and lines around my eyes, especially if I stand in the bathroom in the sharp light of late afternoon and stare at myself in the mirror. To my astonishment, I find that I no longer look like a schoolgirl.
Once a week, I relinquish my compulsion to be busy every minute. I drop in on Lisa, who goes to work on my fingernails. It’s a luxury, I know — it costs me 10 bucks — but for one hour, I sit as still as Whistler’s Mother. We talk. She asks me about my life. To her, it seems exotic.
I just got back from a trip with my husband. We drove around the fat midsection of France for two weeks, in Burgundy, Brittany, and through the green, river-abundant country that lies in between. This is not the amazing thing: We did not fight in the car. Until recently, we have had serious navigational problems, leading to what we call “Car Wars.”
Several female readers are under the impression that I think a woman is incomplete without a man. This, they say, runs contrary to what they’ve learned from years of therapy.
They say they wish I’d shut up.
I’ve given them the wrong idea, and I apologize. No doubt, I’ve dwelled too often on the wonders of my first year of marriage. The truth is, finding myself in a wedded state came as quite a shock. It was not what I expected.
Last week, my husband announced that he wanted to invite six guys over for an old-fashioned poker party. This was a surprise. His idea of entertaining normally leans more toward a cozy dinner for eight, with his wife as chef. What would I think, he asked tentatively, of having a bunch of beer-swilling, cussing, cigar-smoking, gambling guys in our peach-and-white dining room?
In a nook under the roof that shelters our front patio, we have a repeat houseguest. If I knew what she liked, I’d bring her breakfast in bed.
Two years ago, almost to the day, I came out to Los Angeles to visit Ron for the first time. We’d known each other for just a couple of weeks, but we were sure it was serious.
He picked me up at the airport and I was quaking. On the drive to his house, neither of us said much. We didn’t know where to start.
Six months ago, I made a note in my black leather book: “Write about restraining orders and why they don’t work.” I was thinking about a weekend I’d spent with my friend Barbara and her son four summers ago.
It happened long ago, at the New Jersey shore, before we knew that Bruce Springsteen was going to be famous. He played all the dives in Asbury Park, places like the Stone Pony and the Upstage. At 14, we were still too young to get in, but that didn’t stop us from trying. It was part of an evening’s sport.