Reading Makes You Smarter

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was curled up in my nightgown in my parents’ bed with my head on my father’s big round belly and my toes poking out from under the blankets. I remember the smell of his shirt and the softness of his voice and the way his calloused fingers held up my favorite copy of “Goodnight, Moon.”  I kept my face close to the thick colorful pages and followed the words with my eyes as he read to me, every night until I could read them back to him. Soon enough, the words in the air became the voice in my head. A voice I became so familiar with, so accustomed to, that every given situation presented before me was a task I could work through with ease. I could rationalize. I could problem solve. I could ace all my tests. I could make moral decisions. Reading to your children is not a waste of time.

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Research from the National Literacy Trust shows that recreational reading can have more of an impact on a child’s future than their family’s economic status. It may very well be their ticket to success. Frequent reading exercises as many as 17 areas of the brain, including hearing, vision, judgment, and comprehension functions, according to an article in Post Independent.

“Reading  makes you smarter for sure. Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably trying to sell you cable TV or high-speed Internet.”  said Kristen Miano, double major in English and journalism at St. Louis University and editor of the university’s newspaper.

Reading invokes the practice of conscious thought. It shapes the mold for the world we can expect to grow into as children, one with complex layers of unseen dimensions we can only understand through thoughtful practice. Studies show that young adults and children who are long time frequent readers score considerably higher on standardized tests than non-readers. Incorporating it into your routine life from a young age could have immeasurable benefits.

“Reading creates a foundation to foster better analysis of everything, be it literature, science, day-to-day interactions or something as number based as math.” Miano said. “As far as learning goes, I find reading expands my capacity to understand what I’m hearing.  If I’ve read anything related, suddenly I have a frame to put my studies in, and from then on it’s easier to learn.”

So what has happened to us? Why don’t people read? An analytical research study done by the National Endowment for the Arts found that around half of Americans ages 18 to 24 do not ever read for pleasure. Every study in the project concluded that numbers for recreational reading were dropping considerably over the last few decades in all age groups across the board. The reality of it is actually very scary. The decline of recreational reading is a significant social issue. According to the report, those who don’t read for leisure could potentially lack in academic, professional, and even social skills because of it.

Many attribute the decline to our society of instant gratification. Entertainment is so much more easily accessible in the form of other technological outlets, that books are being abandoned by children and adults alike. Internet, television, movies, social media, video games, funny pictures of cats, you name it, you can probably access it faster than you can read something of substance. With the new age of fast-paced multi-tasking, it is difficult for someone to focus their attention on a book without getting distracted. How can you get lost in an imaginary world if constant text messages or Facebook notifications keep bringing you back to this one?

“There are days when Netflix or Playstation will seduce you, but nothing beats reading. There’s just something intimate about it.” said Conor Anderson, a teacher at the New York Institute for Special Education and graduate student of Creative Writing. “It’s not like television where you sit as an inactive witness to distant events. In reading, you are as much a part of the action as the author, or the words.”

And that’s just it, books lose out to passive entertainment more often than not. It takes thoughtful effort to derive pleasure from a book, but it’s worth it. It is a give-and-take exchange between author and reader, evoking questions and emotions while challenging us to think and best of all, to imagine. Just like our bodies need exercise, our brains need to read to stay fit and strong. Reading allows us to be educated citizens of the world and to comprehend its events that unfold around us. We need to keep reading in the lives of each other and our children, not because of the literal meaning of the words on the page, but more than anything, the intellectual rewards it brings.

Reality TV

This story appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of New York Moves magazine:

It’s late at night. I don’t even want to know exactly when so I avoid direct eye contact with the digital alarm clock. I roll out of bed feeling like I’m tired of fighting a losing battle with the congestion in its angriest form that has taken a baseball bat to my sinuses, pounding repeatedly throughout the night without tire. As per usual, lying down only makes it worse. I get up and stumble into the living room in a zombie-like fashion and collapse onto my couch.  The rain is coming down outside and my room is filled with the sound of puddles being rhythmically splashed by passing traffic. Even so, the smell of the rain is comforting in my time of suffering. But yet, not comforting enough. Luckily, planted in front of me in the darkness, just lovingly anticipating my arrival in silence is my oldest and most reliable friend. My TV set.

Nothing like good ole television to pass the hours mindlessly until my eyes are glazed over and I have to consciously remind myself to blink. I switch her on and start my search for something decent to get lost in at this hour of the night. I want to laugh, I want to cry! I want to be so engulfed in a story that takes me so far away from here, and my sinuses, that I’m at the edge of my seat only to have the cushion ripped out from underneath me with surprise from the unexpected turn of events, depth, meaning, and drama in my storyline of choice. So many channels! You always have my back, buddy. Let’s see what we can find. There’s must be something, right?

Wrong. We are in the twenty first century.  There is no such thing as quality television any more! How silly of me. I flip from channel to channel only to be increasingly embarrassed that I contribute to this production by paying my cable bill each month. Reality television has infected and spread inside my old friend just as this nasty cold has inside of me. Each ‘show’ is more pathetic than the next. They hire these people, actors, whatever you want to call them, to perform outrageous stunts, get drunk and fight with each other, compete in ridiculous games for an enormous amount of money, or simply just give us an inside look at their ‘regular’ every day life, with promise that they too can live the new American dream; to be a celebrity for no reason.

So I start a series of questions to myself. Take some time to sort of think about it. Roll it around in my head. Try to make an educated, moral decision on what to spend the next few hours exposing myself to. For once. That makes one of us right? So I start with the cliché, why do we continue to watch it?  Why do we encourage this industry based on.. nothing? Thousands of Americans, just like me, every day are entranced by such entertainment that has plummeted to an all time low. Reality TV used to be Candid Camera, maybe a game show here and there. Pretty professional but unpredictable at the same time, and that’s what we liked. It’s hard to pin point exactly when the professional part got tossed aside. And who’s genus idea it was. I can see it now: A big shot executive with a list in front of him of Important Components to a Television Show and just taking a big black marker and crossing out “mature” and maybe “sensible”. Perhaps laughing a bit as he crumples up the list all together and chucks it out the top floor of his penthouse corporate office. Now, as a result, we make popcorn and cuddle up next to our hubbies as we watch people eat cow testicles, 16-year-old girls get pregnant, and crazy brides compete to win plastic surgery for their wedding day. We recline in our Lazy Boys as the families of drug addicts on a path to death plead for them to get help, and as the fattest man in the world cries as he gets fork lifted out of his house to go to the hospital to get a tummy tuck.

It’s sick, really.  I think of it in the same fashion as when I’m sitting in traffic for hours only to find out the reason being was that everyone had to slow down to look at the major accident on the side of the road. Is this relevant to the situation at hand? Reality TV is the car crash and we are the moving traffic. Will we ever successfully leave it be and move past it without a glance, or will we always have to slow ourselves down because it is just so tempting? It’s so bad that we can’t look away. But why is that? Does it make us feel better about our own lives? Some kind of messed up compensation for something?  Does it satisfy some deep, hidden, humane craving to see the gruesome, similar to that of why we watch horror movies? Our logic was hey, if it made it onto TV anyway with all the censorships they have out there, then it’s okay for me to watch it, right? I wonder if that’s what they thought in Ancient Rome when everyone went to watch the Gladiators compete and kill each other. I’m sure everyone had a blast! Except if you were in the ring.

I never knew what my eyes got fixated on in my time of leisure would require such psychoanalysis! But it does. And it should.  If we don’t think about this seriously now where will we be in 20, maybe even10, years from now when reality televisions’ line of morality has been stretched far beyond any social boundaries we thought we had set. How far is too far? When my future self is laying here in this very spot, sick, in the middle of the night, again, will I switch on my Old Reliable only to see a show about who can saw off more body parts the fastest? Which teenager can starve themselves the longest? Who wants to be America’s best stripper? Is the price to pay for instant fame worth it? Ever?

I’m legitimately concerned for the future of our entertainment. Why does everything have to be ‘real’? And what is reality anyway? None of these things I watch seem anywhere close to the reality that I, or any one I know, experiences on a day to day basis so now I’m not too sure. Are we supposed to be ashamed of this? Should this lifestyle be the one our children aspire to live up to because it’s what they think real life is? Who is going to be the person to stand up to this industry and say enough is enough before it gets so out of hand that our children’s exposure to the radically indecent doesn’t stand a chance in hell?

Thinking about all of this has exhausted me beyond belief.  I turn off my old buddy and give her a rest too because she looks like she needs one. Tomorrow, I think I will just get a library card.

It’s My Way or the Subway

As I stood under my very first fluorescent light fixture of the summer while underground waiting for the subway in Time Square, I perspired from every crevice of my being, crevices I didn’t even knew existed. I felt like a plant being grown in some kindergarten class room with too much artificial light and not enough water. I briefly ponder the legality of having this many people in one place, underground, with no venue of air movement or viable escape routes in sight. The air is thick and recycled. The heat engulfs me like a straight jacket. My new clothes are already drenched and my hair frizzy and infinitely less cute than it was 10 minutes prior. But you know what? Despite my literal state of being, I still felt like I was the coolest cat on the block.

It was my first day working my internship at the Columbia Institute for Tele Information. I had no clue what to expect. All I knew was that I had to take a train and three subways to my destination on the Upper West Side of Manhattan every day, for no other reason but the fact I was too scared to get off at 125th St. and wait for the bus across town.  So naturally, I waved goodbye to the Harlem stop as I passed it on Metro North in the morning, only to get off at Grand Central and embark on my journey all the way back up to 116th. Ridiculous, I’m aware. However, I did try catching the bus once and I found myself petrified and sprinting through Harlem at the speed of an Olympic track star. I clutched all of my most prized electronics in my messenger bag up to my chest in such a frenzy that I kept running into oncoming traffic and almost got hit by multiple angry taxis. Never mind the emotional damage, my near panic attack, and the “Scared Westchester Girl” tattoo that birthed itself onto my forehead that day. But that’s getting ahead of myself in the story.

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My first day, I floated through my 45-minute commute on Cloud Nine. I had my Ipod in and my swag on. There is always a certain confidence I get when I start my summer internship in the city. I think it comes from the fact that my whole life I have dreamed of diving in head first to the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple and interning makes me pretend for a second that I’m already there. I blend in with the rest of the commuters as much as possible, putting on my game face to win the race that I feel like everyone is participating in with a very serious conviction. I gladly throw myself into the whirlwind of the ant farm-like atmosphere that is the underworld of New York City.

According to the Gothamist, a daily web blog about the city, there were more than 1.6 billion people riding the subways between all five boroughs of the city in 2011, the most in history. Various stops are busier depending on the day of the week it is, aside from Times Square which has statistics that trump all other stops all week long. Grand Central Station comes in a close second, however Union Square is extremely popular on weekends. We can tell the majority of subway riders are commuters because the ridership tally almost doubles from Monday to Friday in Manhattan, reaching almost 3 million average riders.

So there I went, transferring from Metro North, to the shuttle from Times Square, to the 2, to the 1, then finally arriving at Columbia. I slung my backpack over my shoulder and exited the train with a large crowd of intellectual students. I wondered if people looked at me as I got off with this crowd and said to themselves, “Oh, that makes sense. She goes to Columbia.” I realize this was highly unlikely and I don’t know why I thought about that, but I did every day, and it was like a little joke I had with my delusional self.

The days that followed still held up the excitement that came with glimpsing what it might be like to live my dream. I didn’t care about the sweat, or getting shoved around, or having the train doors close two seconds in front of my face because of all of the slow pokes that I was cursed with having in my path. But then I started to care a little.

My commute transformed into something else. I was no longer a girl just subway-hopping around, getting amped up from my music and from my awesome city-slicking life. I became angry at literally everything. If someone stood directly in front of me on the platform, I was infuriated. I made it so that I would stand on the yellow prohibited area just so I could be first at all times. I didn’t just want to win this race, I needed to win. I built up so much anger for the day that rolling suitcases were invented and thought seriously about petitioning for them to be made illegal. I grunted and fanned myself dramatically when I saw on the electronic sign that my train would arrive in more than three minutes.  Fellow commuters weren’t humans, but monsters out to purposely make me late and ruin my life. I became this commuting machine with no regard for anything but bee lining to and from my destination. It was both comical and terrifying at the same time.

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There is something to be said about the quality of life of the average commuter, however everyone is entitled to their own opinion. According to a city-life blogger and business woman named Jody Mousseau, of the 50 percent of New York City’s population that takes the subway to work every day, each of those people spends on average 39 minutes in transit. If around 3 million people are each spending 12.73 days a year on the subway, 38,190,000 days are spent by all city residents combined, equaling about 104,630 years. And to think I was only doing this for one summer and I was already losing my mind.

I didn’t like the person I was becoming. The girl I am in real life is one who holds doors open for others all the time, and generally goes out of her way to be nice to everyone. She walks slowly and stops to look at the bright colors of the leaves, or how many stars are out. Above ground, I wouldn’t dream of thinking the thoughts I had while down under. I was getting frustrated with myself, and frustrated with the three-hour round trip I made daily. I went through it in such a daze that I couldn’t even remember which train I was waiting for anymore.  It was dirty and crowded and people were mean, especially me. And did I mention it was stifling hot always and everywhere?

For me, the commute did have its moments, though. I started to make an active effort to notice my surroundings and take the time to be actually present, and not just another insignificant tiny droplet in a waterfall of commotion. My inner optimist took mental notes of the things that pleasantly surprised me. I liked when I saw an African American disgruntled teen be the only one on the train to pick up the discarded newspapers on the floor on his way out, as we all stepped over them. I laughed when I saw a mother frantically pushing around her young daughter in a baby carriage while the child sported a big red clown wig. My faith in humanity was slightly restored when I saw everyone jump out of their seats for a pregnant woman who had a newborn strapped over her belly and three other kids at her feet.   I stopped, took off my headphones, and listened to the man I passed by every day play guitar and sing some of the most beautiful and passionate music I’ve ever heard, even though he only had an audience of one. Oh, and I also read dozens of books, thank you, technology.

Toward the end of my internship, I started to really look around at the faces throughout my day. How many of them were happy and thoroughly enjoying their life? It seemed as if everyone just desperately wanted to be somewhere else. I didn’t doubt that every one of them was at some point just like me. The city had chewed them up and spit them out, and if they were like me, exhausted them of their once fiery enthusiasm. They were finally here, they made it, and they are living our dream. But what now, is that what my life is fated to? My lifelong ambition of living and working in New York City had been officially reevaluated. I do not know where my life will take me and I do appreciate the amazing opportunities the city has to offer. However, I learned that I like my sense of sanity intact and maybe a job I can drive myself to and from peacefully wouldn’t be so bad.

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Going through my routine on my last day was bittersweet. I bid goodbye to the underground culture that had become such a large part of my summer. I would miss the funky people I saw and the performers of all kinds. I had gotten used to the atmosphere of life-sized posters and the graffiti plastered walls for a back drop. I closed the chapter on the other faceless commuters I started to see every day, who, somewhere along the way, I started to imagine I developed a silent bond of comradery with. This was after, of course, realizing that they were in fact humans and not monsters. Still, I was nothing short of relieved to be going home back to a world of normalcy where my body was my own and not possessed by some other evil and sweaty stranger. As I walked through the turnstile for the last time, I felt that haunting feeling of constant rushed frustration lift off my shoulders and disappear, retreating back underground where I found it.

Photo Sharing Apps: Oh, so you’re an artsy photographer now too?

The day that cameras were introduced into cell phones was one of utmost importance in technological history. Finally, two of humanities’ favorite digital devices ingeniously combined into one, for convenience of an increasingly lazy consumer audience. Yes, at first the quality of pixel resolution was nothing to brag about. However, it was better than the prior colorless flip phone that only had “Snake” or “Reversi” to feed the need for hand held entertainment.  This technological innovation was a discovery that neared that of Columbus’ in 1492. Now people can take pictures of anything and everything at the spur of the moment. A beautiful sunrise? Check. Newborn kittens? Check. A great hair day? CHECK. Not only that, but one could take the pictures and instantly text them to whomever urgently needed to see them the most. The marriage of the two beloved luxuries was seemingly one with a fairy tale ending.

As the development of cell phones advanced, so did the camera inside of them.  In just a few years, cell phone owners all across the world could use flash and zooming features formally only enjoyed on regular, much less multi functional, cameras. It seemed as if overnight, everyone in the world who owned a cell phone was instantly a photographer. Still, these photos were commonly emailed to oneself or a friend to be downloaded then printed or put on the internet for one reason or another. It wasn’t long before it was decided those aforementioned steps were far too tedious and led to too much time between taking the picture and sharing it with the world.  Thus brought the world to present day life, one that enjoys the easy and quickness of social networking photo sharing applications for smart phones.

According to Top Ten Reviews, there are more than 200 photography related applications available on the IPhone alone.  When it comes to photo social networking, Instagram, Snap Chat, Facebook, and a newly introduced Cinemagram are the main options on the market, according to an article in Tech Crunch. However, Cinemagram is a hybrid between video and photo sharing, allowing pictures to be slightly animated. It has not quite taken off as much as the others have. The article claims that Instagram has blown up in the mobile sphere so largely in the last two years because it has “nailed the basic use case of sharing photos with friends from phones.” Snap Chat is the next contender because it allows for the same concept, except for a more private person to person exchange.

Instagram is a mobile application, initially only available on IPhones, that allows millions of users to take pictures and instantly share them with their friends via other social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Users can take their photographs and run them through various filters of their choice to enhance the colors or add graphics. A location and caption could be added to the pictures. The fast, simple, and fun way to instantly share memories, as well as literally anything else in the world now deemed ‘worthy’ of documentation, is what makes the app so popular.

According to an article on Mashable by Emily Price, since its creation by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, Instagram has been generally gaining 5 million new mobile photographers every week. It quickly surpassed 50 million users after it was opened up to the Android because of its remarkable success on the IPhone. Originally a zero-revenue start up, now the company is at least worth $1 billion to those intimidated by its successes. Instagram posed a threat to Facebook, the biggest social networking site on the market. It didn’t take long before Facebook had an eye out for its competition and wanted to get in on it before it got any bigger. To make sure it did, on April 19, 2012, Facebook purchased Instagram for $1 billion.

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When scrolling through the home screen on Instagram, one could argue it does not resemble that of a typical family photo album. On Instagram, anything a toddler can point a camera at and click a filter for is suddenly very artistic and edgy. It is typical to see anything from a friend’s half eaten dinner to their wedding pictures. The range is unbelievable and maybe that’s what makes it so fun. However it does make all things, even things unimportant, random, and sometimes even inanimate, eligible for a photo op for the first time ever.  Back in the day, photographs were reserved for only the elite. Each one was valuable to its owner. The nature of photography as the world knew it for so many years has inarguably changed into something else.

Not everyone appreciates the convenience of having photographer-like abilities at their finger tips. Samantha Allred, a working photographer and student for many years, is frustrated by what these photo sharing apps have done for the professional community.

“Photography used to be an art. You used to have to make each shot count, because taking a picture took minutes. Developing photos was precise and tedious.”  Allred said. “Now with digital technology you can take hundreds just to get a couple of good ones. Anyone can do anything without ever knowing the skill it required at one point. There is no motivation to learn. It makes me wonder why I’m bothering to educate myself.  Why?  What’s the point in being one of the few that take it seriously?”

Pictures these days are snapped with more frugality and carelessness than ever before. Photos are becoming less and less staged or preemptively prepared because  people tend to just snap quick shots of the things already around them. The line between professional and the amateur is increasingly blurred with everyone having easy access to the same advanced options to enhance a picture. However, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“Hell, I caved in and got Instagram. Because even bands and artists and organizations I love, even they use it. And I think seeing what inspires the people I admire and respect, I think that’s a great tool.” Allred adds. “But it is also a tool that promotes a, ‘food, food, booty shot, nails, cat, food, food, cats, cat, booty shot, food’ ever present pattern on the dashboard.”

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Others like this aspect of the app. Rachel Ouellette, a senior at Quinnipiac claims that her day doesn’t feel complete until she Instagrams at least once, no matter what it is. Her picture album largely consists of her pets, schoolwork or her outfits before going out at night. Ouellette has a reputation for being seemingly addicted.

“I like using Instagram because I feel like it gives me a reason to document pictures of things I might not normally think to with a regular camera.” Ouellette said as she glanced down to her smart phone, a permanent fixture in her hand. “Plus the filters are fun to play around with, since they let you turn an ordinary picture into something interesting to look at.”

More recently, another photo application, Snap Chat, has become extremely popular on the mobile sphere and somewhat of a fun addiction to many people of all ages. Snap Chat was created by Evan Spiegal, a Stanford University student. According to an article in the online publication, Mashable, by Eric Larson, it was launched in September of 2011 and has reached over a billion ‘snaps’ since then. You know the saying, “Take a picture, it’ll last longer!”? Well, that’s not necessarily the case anymore. Snap Chat allows users to take a picture and send it to their recipients for their viewing pleasure that lasts on the screen only for 10 seconds or less. Snap Chat has an undisclosed number of users, but does report that they receive an average of 20 million ‘snaps’ per day. Spiegal says the purpose of this app is to allow users to express how they feel , what they’re thinking, or where they are right in that particular moment without the pressure of self editing because of its temporary existence. If they so choose, they can even add a caption or draw on the picture itself. Now the picture received from your best friend at 3 am is no longer just her cat, but it is her cat with a hand drawn mustache and sombrero with a witty caption. Think it’s hilarious? Well you better soak it into your memory fast because, oops, now it’s gone forever.

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Susan Wegener,33, is a graduate student and adjunct professor who is a frequent user of Snap Chat. She believes the age of photographing everything in sight can be attributed to the freedom allowed by apps like Snap Chat to take an unprofessional looking photograph for fun without being criticized because it disappears so soon, a flip side to Allred’s argument. She goes on to say the other benefits she enjoys from the app.

“I also think that there’s an element of self-impressiveness there– a kind of need to share our perspectives (and food, dogs, whatever) because we’re proud of them and want people to share in what we’ve done or seen.” Wegener said. “Not that this is a bad thing; I think it connects us when we share these intimate details of our lives.”

When it comes down to it, sharing pictures like these, sometimes silly and sometimes not, is something new and something fun (to most.) It’s a good way to brighten up someone’s daily routine, even if it’s just of ordinary things.

“Often I just snap humorous things, like my friends making funny faces or a cat pic or something.” Wegener said. “But just as often I snap architecture, or interesting light, or a beautiful shape.”

Being able to see things through the eyes of the people you admire is a privilege. It helps gain a new perspective and learn more about what inspires them the most. It’s also a great way to feel closer to loved ones far away. Jenna Forte, a nursing student and debatably Snap Chat’s all time biggest fan, agrees.

“It’s one of my favorite apps! It’s great to keep in touch with your friends who you’re not really with all the time.” Forte said with the utmost excitement and enthusiasm about it. “Instead of just shooting them a text it makes it much more personal and interactive. You get to actually see for yourself how your friends are doing.”

Forte has notifications for her snaps that alert to her IPhone. She uses it dozens of times a day, primarily for sending pictures of her making silly faces with funny captions about her daily activities. It is also common for her to take pictures of random objects around her that make her written text more amusing and visual.

“I think it’s both good and bad the photos only last a few seconds. Some pictures that are sent are really embarrassing and ugly and should never be saved.” Forte said with a laugh. “But at the same time, some come out cute and then they disappear forever.”

It is hard to tell what the future holds for the rapidly expanding photo sharing community. It’s no secret that the quickening development of technology has opened more doors than ever imagined even a decade ago.  If nothing else, the photo craze has inspired a new kind of outlet for positive creativity for just about anyone from professionals to children. It has helped the world to see beauty in, literally, all things. But, so what? At least now everyone has an excuse to take the time to slow down and notice their surroundings. Maybe this is just what they needed.

Fad Diets: A Dangerous ‘Quick Fix’?

A notable characteristic of the capitalist market in America is the notion of ‘quick fix’ solutions to various problems. Around every corner, someone is looking to invent a smaller, more efficient model of something that can eliminate the time it takes to accomplish a task or deal with a problem. If you could swallow a magic pill to make you smarter, prettier, happier, or skinnier, would you? Well, as unrealistic as that may seem, the reality is many of these pills exist and are taken daily by Americans all across the country; anti-depressants to be happier, Adderrall to focus on school work, various plastic surgeries or fashion remedies to improve self image, and now countless weight loss supplements on the market to offer this quick solution to what are usually deeper emotional issues.  The price to pay for this kind of instant gratification is the possible detrimental physical affects these remedies have on the body, both immediately and in the future, especially in the weight loss products.

There are countless diet pills and ‘fad’ diets trending through society. It seems like everyone knows someone who has tried one or more of them and lived to tell about it, for the better or worse. According to the Federal Trade Commission and the Centers for Disease Control Prevention have several alarming statistics about the industry. Americans spend $109 million daily on diet products. Two thirds of Americans are dieting at any given time, and only five percent will be able to keep the weight off once their program is over. Obesity allots for 300,000 deaths per year nationwide, being the second leading cause of preventable death. In 2007, the U.S. weight loss market was estimated at $55 billion. Though the Food and Drug Administration does not evaluate dietary supplements for safety or effectiveness, companies are obligated to report any adverse reactions to their product that the FDA defines as “serious.”

The core behind the popularity of these diets is the strong desire to lose weight fast without having to try very hard. It is interesting to compare which age groups are attracted to different kind diets. Older people, specifically mothers, with busy schedules and not much time to devote to working out are more inclined to try something like the hCG diet, a hormone supplement that is supposed to reduce hunger and target only excess fat while following an extremely strict diet plan without any exercise. The young adult generation is more inclined to caffeine based diet pills, such as Hydroxycut, because they give you a ton of energy to work out at extreme intensities and suppress hunger.

“We live in a society that demands and expects instant gratification.  Weight gain is often caused by eating the wrong foods, eating too much in general and moving too little. Instead of addressing these lifestyle issues – people want the quick fix.  Which means when they stop the fad diet, and haven’t changed their lifestyle…weight comes back” said Kristen Wolfe, a professor of Biology and Human Health at Quinnipiac University. “Diets come and go, but the underlying societal issues of poor food choices -unhealthy fast food and processed food in general are cheaper than healthy food- and an unwillingness to take responsibility for the weight gain and to make positive lifestyle changes will generate a continual supply of fad diets.”

One of the biggest fad diet on the market is the hCG diet. Human Chorionic Gonadotropin, or hCG, is a hormone secreted by pregnant women.  The diet began when scientist Albert T. W. Simeons’ published his book Pounds and Inches after studying pregnant women in India. He concluded that the hormone tells the hypothalamus to only burn energy from excess fat, as opposed to healthy fat or muscles that are needed to keep a fetus healthy. According to a January 2012 American Medicine Alert, Simeons’ thought that prescribing this hormone, typically sold in the form of oral drops, pellets, or sprays, paired with an extremely strict 500 calorie a day diet could help people lose 20 to 30 pounds in 40 days from only areas of excess fat on the body. Since the food intake is dangerously small, little to no exercise is recommended which makes it ideal for working mothers, such as Patti Michal.

“I’ve struggled with my weight for the past 30 years. The hCG diet to me is instant gratification. You lose weight every day which keeps you motivated. I have lost 55 pounds so far and am starting my fifth cycle this week.” Michal, age 50, said. “It works for me since I’m not hungry on it and don’t have much time to work out during the day. It’s also very simple to shop and prepare meals because food choices on the diet are so limited.”

Michal isn’t the only one who has received success from the diet. The online community of people trying the diet is large and growing, posting before and after pictures and other testimonies on forums all over the Internet. Since the product isn’t obtainable in stores, the only way to learn about it is really by word of mouth or on these online communities.  To get the hormone, many websites require a user to send a check to the distributor of their choice, usually overseas in places like India, where the diet originated.

There are many risks, however, involved in putting excess hormones in your body. As Dr. Mehmet Oz advised, women may receive ovarian cysts, blood clots, and since hCG is a hormone involved in fertility, unexpected pregnancy. Men get higher levels of testosterone, and if taken long enough, breasts could start to develop as well. HCG, as noted by an Anticancer Research scientific journal, gives cancer cells the ability to produce blood vessels in a process known as neovascularisation allowing them to grow. In general, hormones act almost like fertilizer for cell growth. Therefore, if there is one small cancer cell anywhere in the body, instead of giving the white blood cells a chance to fight it off, the hormone could cause it to just grow faster resulting in tumors.

“My husband did the hCG diet and at age 39 was diagnosed with Stage 4 prostate cancer which is unheard of at his young age. The doctors say he had this cancer growing in his body for 10 years or more but that the hCG allowed this cancer to take off and spread all throughout his organs and bones. It became a very aggressive and fast growing cancer.” An anonymous person posted on eHealth Forum in August of 2010. “HCG PROTECTS cancer from your immune system because it tricks your body into thinking it is pregnant. When your body is pregnant, it doesn’t attack the new baby growing inside of you. The same happens with cancer. Your body doesn’t attack it and it allows it to grow unchecked. I know that hCG works but I would never advise you to take this!” Although this testimony is not verifiable, it is an example of the types of stories hundreds of people post on these online forums about the dangers of the diet.

On December 6, 2011 the FDA issued a press release announcing that “HCG products marketed as weight loss aids are unproven and illegal” and sent letters jointly with the FTC to seven different companies involved in the product. The FDA warns that the weight loss is largely attributed to the low calorie diet and is very dangerous especially without the proper medical supervision. The long term impacts are still unknown since the fad is relatively new.

On the other end of the diet fad spectrum are the caffeine based, store-bought diet pills such as Hydroxycut. The pills are designed to increase energy levels, lose body weight, and burn excess fat. Hydroxycut is one of the most popular dietary supplements on the market and seems to be three pills in one, an appetite suppressor, a carbohydrate blocker, and a metabolism booster, according to the Livestrong Foundation. While many Hydroxycut users have positive experiences with the diet, the others are highly critical because of the pills’ side effects. Each dose of Hydroxycut, two pills, is equal to 2 to 3 cups of coffee and is taken three times a day. High doses of caffeine can cause sleeplessness, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, nausea, irritability, heart palpitations, headaches, diarrhea, tremors, and vomiting. If someone decides to take themselves off the pills, the caffeine withdrawals could be very severe and uncomfortable. However, caffeine pills such as Hydroxycut increase heart beat boosts metabolism which make them ideal for weight loss. This aspect is appealing to younger adults who are busy and love having the energy all day and can channel it into intense work outs, such as 21-year-old Deirdre Ryan.

“I have been on and off Hydroxycut since high school and it definitely works. I just can’t take the pill for too long, though, because although it improves my workouts and really suppresses my hunger, the crash afterward is the worst.” Ryan said. “By the end of the day, I’m starving, irritable, and I can’t sleep at night. If and when I do, I have terrible nightmares.”

The caffeine problems aren’t the only risks involved with taking Hydroxycut. The manufacturer itself has had some serious issues since the drug was released and has become the symbol of why FDA needs more control over the weight loss market to many critics, according to WebMD. The first problem came in 2004 when the FDA banned Hydroxycut’s main ingredient, ephedra, because of the discovery of dangerous side effects, mainly seizures. The company had to reevaluate the ingredients to be safer, but as it turned out, was unsuccessful. In 2009, the FDA issued a warning for all Hydroxycut users to immediately stop taking the pills after receiving 23 reports of serious health issues and one death due to liver failure from the pill. All brands of Hydroxycut were recalled immediately and the company was under harsh criticism once again by health professionals as well as the consumer market.

Although these fad diets seem desirable to quench the need for a “quick fix” solution to weight issues, and often times are successful in doing so, it is unrealistic to keep taking these supplements forever. Often times, upon quitting a fad diet, a person returns to their prior health habits and simply gains all the weight back, as Professor Wolfe suggested. If this should happen, the person will not only be overweight again but could possibly have even more significant internal health problems than they had before. Since these fad diets are relatively new, there are also potentially immeasurable long term health consequences scientists haven’t even encountered yet at stake. Health professionals and the FDA advise consumers to do their research and be completely aware of any and all immediate or long term physical impacts they could have on the body before taking the risk of starting one of these diets.

Vegetarians On the Rise in America

            In recent years, Americans have been increasingly aware of the necessity of a healthy lifestyle for long term survival. Slowly but surely, hints of medical risks caused by unhealthy eating have been creeping into mainstream media and generally into the public’s consciousness.  One way the public is seemingly approaching this issue is to become vegetarians. Vegetarianism has taken a rise significantly in the past few decades and is continuing to become more popular all the time.

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            A 2012 poll by the Harris Interactive Service Bureau and the Vegetarian Research Group found that there are 7.3 million vegetarians in the United States. There are also 1 million vegans. More significantly, the poll found that 22.8 million Americans claim they have a “vegetarian-inclined diet” and 5.2 percent were “very interested” in trying a vegetarian diet in the future.  So while the numbers of actual vegetarians aren’t drastically higher than years prior, steadily at 5 to 6 percent of American population from 1999 to 2012, but the interest by the general public is sky rocketing. A different poll by the National Restaurant Association found that around 20 percent of the population prefers going to restaurants with vegetarian options on the menu.

            As a response, the infiltration of a vegetarian lifestyle is seeping into the consumer market.  For the first time ever, grocery store shelves contain dozens of brands of yogurts, tofus, meat-substitutes, and various other veggie-friendly products. Now it is not uncommon to find vegetarian cook books in local book stores or recipes on the Internet.  None of these things were nearly as prevalent 20 to 30 years ago. The Vegetarian Research Group found that in the 1970’s to 1980’s, most non-vegetarians were baffled by choice of others to lose the meat from their diets. Now, they say when they work outreach booths they get significantly more responses from people saying “I wish I could do that.”

            Experts from The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine attribute this public interest to a series of alarming exposed information to turn people away from meat. Outbreaks of food poisoning from meat products are constantly in the news. Other scares like “Mad Cow Disease” started to make people cautious of meat products. Many people are beginning to educate themselves on the nature of the growth hormones or other additives given to farm animals they eat, as well as their extreme mistreatment while being prepared for slaughter. Nutritionists who study the typical American diet, which is typically centered around meat products, criticize that it is too high in cholesterol and saturated fat while too low in fiber, while a vegetarian diet offers almost the exact opposite. They say that the characteristics of the typical American diet contribute to heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, which allot for 68 percent of all deaths in the country, which many times is a high enough number to scare people into changing their lifestyles. The poll by the Vegetarian Research Group found that 53 percent of people became vegetarians to improve their overall health, while 54 percent did because of their concern for animal welfare.  

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            It is also important to note that there are almost 20 percent more vegetarian women than men. The Encyclopedia of Medicine study attributes this to biology, that men are hunters by nature. There is almost a feminine stigma attached to being a vegetarian that might make men hesitant to try it. Eating meat is a manly thing to do according to our society. The experts go on to say that women are also innately care givers and emotional beings who are more likely to sympathize with the animals. The Vegetarian Research Group poll found that 42 percent of vegetarians are between the ages of 18 and 34. The most common type of vegetarians are young, unmarried women. One of these women, Rachel Ouellette, fits this description perfectly.

            Rachel Ouellette is a 21-year-old nursing student who has been a vegetarian for four years and loves it. Being a nursing student, health has always been a priority for her. She spends her days eating mostly small, but frequent, portions of cereal, toast, peanut butter, fruit, and nuts.

            “In high school, I went to visit my cousin who is a vegan and she was telling me all about factory farming and the way things are processed and it was all just too much for me.” Ouellette said as she nibbled on her second piece of toast of the day. “Then I did my own research on it and I decided it would be a good choice for me. First it was mostly just to see if I could do it, it was a challenge for myself. Once I did, I realized I felt so much healthier and less contaminated.”

            There is good reason she felt so much healthier. According to Live Strong, a vegetarian diet typically contains more dietary fiber, folic acid, potassium, magnesium, and Vitamins C and E than a meat-eaters’ diet. They also usually have a lower body mass index, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, and a higher life expectancy rate. The FDA has also announced that vegetarians have a significantly lower risk of contracting obesity, heart disease, lung cancer, colon cancer, alcoholism, hypertension, diabetes, gallstones, gout, kidney stones and ulcers. They also add that vegetarians typically have generally healthy lifestyles that could also help contribute to their low risk.

            However, there are some dangers to the diet that vegetarians have to be cautious of. The diet lacks essential nutrients only found in meat like amino acids, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc, and essential fatty acids. Ouellette found this out the hard way.

            “At first I lost a lot of weight, too much in fact. I wasn’t good at supplementing my diet with protein and iron and became very anemic. My hair started falling out in chunks and I was constantly freezing to the point my fingers would turn blue.” Ouellette said “So now I’m much more educated on how to be a healthy vegetarian. I drink whey protein shakes and a lot of soy or almond milk to supplement my diet.”

            Generally, as long as it’s monitored correctly, the vegetarian diet offers a good structure for living a healthier lifestyle, something most Americans want and usually need. Some physicians even suggest it as an alternative medicine in some cases of heart disease or other types of chronic conditions and even as a detoxification treatment, according to the Encyclopedia of Medicine. Society is starting to embrace the vegetarian lifestyle now more than ever. Between the new products, a statistical rise of interest, a new trend of public health consciousness, and personal life style changes made by millions of Americans, it is clear the vegetarian diet will only continue to grow more popular. 

A Profile on a Naval Submarine Chief

Imagine being out at sea for months at a time, living under the water and off the radar, in total secrecy. Everyone breathes the same recycled air, ducks their heads through entry ways, and yearns for even a single beam of sunlight. All sense of time and space is eliminated and reduced to an 18-hour day after day cycle in a long metal tube called home. This is a small idea of what it is like to live on a submarine. However, many submariners will admit that despite conditions, there is no greater sense of comradery than to have that experience together. A special bond grows in the midst of carrying out the duty of patrolling the waters and ensuring the safety of Americans everywhere.

The United States’ oldest naval base located in Groton, Conn., is swarmed with 7,500 enlisted sailors whose lives are very different from their fellow Connecticut citizens.  With 687 acres and 15 nuclear submarines, the community itself seems to be a whole different world of its own, and one that is relatively foreign to much of the rest of the state. Coming from all across the country, the sailors who live there each possess a unique story to tell. Among them, one man stands out and is highly respected and admired by most people who know him, especially by the electrical division he is in charge of on the submarine the USS Springfield. Chief Eric Schulte is not your ordinary sailor. He is an experienced leader, hard worker, good friend, excellent father and husband, and all around stand-up human being.

The Schulte home is one of off base housing units built circa 2005 when the state of Connecticut gave around $10 million to the base at Groton. Upon entering, one is greeted by a quaint porch swing aside a pair of old combat boots by the door. A 1 ½ year old golden retriever, Sierra, jumps about excitedly at the new strangers, while the older chocolate lab, Sadie, lies in the corner, only raising a curious eye and offering a tilt of her ear at the commotion. Traci Schulte, Eric’s wife, lifts their 5-year-old son, Daniel, up by the knees so he’s extra tall and makes the shy boy greet their guests as he giggles in her arms.  Despite his protest, she whisks him upstairs to bed while her husband fixes some drinks in the kitchen. He emerges with two mugs of dark ale beer, a sailor favorite, and seats himself at the edge of the couch to prepare for the interview. He sports his Navy physical training sweat pants and a white T-shirt.

At 32 years old, the Wisconsin native describes his experience with the Navy in one word: amazing. When he reached his first submarine in Connecticut in 2001, he had the time of his life living in a house with single guys and traveling on a few around the world deployments throughout his four-year stay there. However, one event in 2001 that cannot be overlooked, especially by someone serving in the armed forces, stood out in his experience at his first submarine. It was two days before his 21st birthday and the USS Alexandria was out at sea for a few weeks off the coast in the Atlantic Ocean. They were scheduled to pull back home on the 12th of September. A day earlier, soon to be an infamous day in our country’s history, the sailors heard an announcement over the loud speaker saying that there had been an attack on the World Trade Center and on the Pentagon. To Schulte, it seemed like it was fake, or a staged emergency drill. It became all the more real when they stayed out at sea for a few more days awaiting orders.  They came home on September 14.

“We got back and it was nothing. No boats, no cars, there was police walking around with machine guns. There were sand barriers everywhere and guys were standing behind them with loaded guns. Each end of the peer was completely manned with people. It literally seemed like the world had ended.” Schulte said.  Even though they were only out at sea for a few weeks, he said it felt like that in that short time everything about the world had changed.

Within days, the USS Alexandria was shipped back out over to the Middle East, but was asked to return in about three weeks because their ship had been scheduled for maintenance, or “ship yard,” a few months later and was not in the condition for attack. However, four nuclear submarines from Groton were sent over for an emergency early deployment.

Since then, Schulte has moved up the ranks and through various jobs and made his way to chief. He’s been on three different submarines, and has been stationed in South Carolina, upstate New York, Groton, New Hampshire, back to South Carolina, then back to Groton. It took extensive schooling and training to become the nuclear electrician he had to be before moving to the USS Alexandria in Groton 11 years ago. Of course back then, conditions on the base were much different. Even though many of the sailors today have their complaints about the status of the base itself, he assures them that things were once significantly worse. He used the words “run down, rusty, asbestos-ridden, horrible” to describe the sub base that once housed the world’s first nuclear powered vessel and the world’s first nuclear ballistic submarine in the height of the Cold War. In fact according to Schulte, in 2005, just before the money was donated to the base, Groton was on the list of top 5 naval bases to be shut down in the US. According to its official website, today the base has more than 200 major buildings that facilitate highly important military activities and training programs for the sailors. The website also boasts of their 12 barracks with 1,625 rooms, 2100 off-base homes in the area, and 35 acres of recreational park area. The base also has many other recreational amenities for the sailors like a beach, a few man-made lakes, a golf course, a paintball course, a shooting range, a track, a bowling alley, pool halls, gyms, and some places for tax-free shopping, to name a few. None of these things Schulte enjoyed in 2001. Despite conditions, however, Schulte persevered and still worked every day to the best of his ability.

Growing up with a father who worked two jobs, Schulte says he learned from his example how to have unbelievable work ethic and to never be a liability to his team. However, Schulte barely saw his father and reflects back on his childhood with an aura of sadness. His mother bounced from job to job and struggled to raise him and his two siblings. Despite his respect for his parents now, at 15 when he was uprooted and moved from his home state of Wisconsin to start over in Texas, he was so upset with them and started to get involved in a bad crowd at school. By senior year of high school, he knew he needed a better plan and like many sailors, knew his parents would not be able to afford to send him to college. He started to research the military and liked the sound of it. A month after graduation, he saw his father cry for the first time ever at the airport before he boarded his flight to Chicago for boot camp.

Now, so many years later Schulte has had his fair share of additional experiences and scares. They seemed to have molded him into a brave and confident leader and role model for his division.

“I think my biggest accomplishment in the Navy so far is my division as a whole. Being able to train the guys knowing I can walk away, knowing I can go on leave, knowing I can go home and nothing’s going to happen. Everything’s going to be fine. The guys have done a great job. They learned from each other, they use each other’s strengths very well. And just seeing what these guys have done and can do is absolutely amazing,” Schulte said.

With 11 sailors in his division, they have become famous throughout the USS Springfield for working so well together. Schulte has become the envy of many of the other chiefs on the boat for having created such a great team who know how to work hard, have fun, but get things done effectively. The admiration Schulte has for his men seems to be mutual.

“Eric is a real American hero. He is very good at executing plans. He knows how to come up with problem solving ideas on the fly. He’s more of an electrician than anyone you’ll meet in the civilian world. He’s a great guy all around and legitimately cares about the people he is in charge of.” said Anthony Tetreault, an E5 Electricians Mate in Schulte’s division on the USS Springfield.

Many people in the division agree that they have the most maintenance to do of any group on the boat. Schulte lives by his policy of positivity, knowing that if he stays loose and happy even through the hardships of the day, his men will too, and leave work with a smile on their face. Because of this, he has made an impact on his men.

“Ultimately it depends on your attitude. The guys have a very positive energy in the division. Easily hands down my favorite job I’ve done. I don’t know why it is. Maybe if it was a different group of guys it wouldn’t feel the same. I can’t say that I like getting up for work at 5:30 every day but I legitimately like going to work and being around these men,” Schulte said.

Even his home life has been impacted since coming to the Springfield. According to Schulte, he is more capable of leaving his problems at the door and enjoying time with his family when coming home at night. His wife of seven years, Traci, can see it too.

“It sucks when he goes out to sea, but it’s been a really positive experience seeing how proud he is of his division. It really makes it easier to support him knowing that he’s really dedicated to what he’s doing.” Traci said. Traci has thrived so much off of her husband’s dedication that she volunteered to be the Springfield’s Ombudsman, which is a liaison between the ship and the families at home while they are out to sea. She organizes fundraisers and events for the families and really keeps the community thriving.

It is evident from talking to Schulte that despite being in the service for 13 years, he has the professional etiquette of one who has been in for 50, but the same boyish charm and playful humor as some of his younger recruits. His permanent smile and aura of reliability makes everyone around him comfortable and at ease. When being spoken to, he gives that person the same full attention and respect as his five-year-old son or the captain of his boat. He has the body language and the eye contact to demonstrate that he is always engaged and listening without passing judgment.  He loves to be outside whether it’s hiking, camping, overall living an active lifestyle. He is a die-hard Packers fan and loves to watch and play most sports, despite his bad knees.

Eric Schulte and his continuing legend is evidence that there is magic to be found at Connecticut’s very own submarine base in Groton. The spirit of his division has grown to be the epitome of part of what joining the military is all about; brotherhood. It is all thanks to Schulte’s guidance, experience, and example. His is just one of many inspirational stories to be heard from the people fighting for America’s freedom. He is proof that sometimes heroes aren’t as far away as we may think.