Sunday, November 22, 2015

Support Medical Research While You Shop Online!

I have been in denial that the holiday season is coming up so fast, but Thanksgiving is next week, so I need to face facts: it's time to start my holiday shopping. Here in the U.S., people get whipped into a shopping frenzy before they've even digested their turkey dinner on Thursday.

I'm sure most of us won't be standing in lines outside stores at 5 am on Black Friday, but if you're like me, you probably do most of your shopping online. I do plan to take advantage of the sales and discounts on Cyber Monday (November 30 this year). I can usually get almost all of my holiday shopping done online, with a quick stop at the drugstore or Target for stocking stuffers.

Did you know that you can donate to your favorite charities and medical research organizations while online shopping...without spending a dime? There are several ways to do this. In each case, you choose the organization to donate to, and the online store donates a percentage of your purchase to them (the amount varies by store), so it costs you nothing! I usually choose the Solve ME/CFS Initiative because they have spearheaded and financed some of the most important, ground-breaking research in our field and have been at it the longest, since 1987. You can look for your favorite charity or organization and choose whichever one is important to you.

Here are three ways to donate while shopping:

iGive - Choose your charity, then click on various online stores through the iGive page to automatically donate. This is the shopping engine I use the most, and my iGive page tells me that my own shopping has donated over $200 to the Solve ME/CFS Initiative, of a total $6229.31 donated to that group through iGive! Bonus: when you use iGive, coupon codes for the store where you are shopping automatically pop up, so you can save, shop and donate all at once!

 GoodShop - Works pretty much the same way as iGive - you choose your charity/research organization, then shop through their portal. Like iGive, GoodShop also provides you with any relevant coupon codes for your store. If you are looking for a particular charity or want to shop at a certain store, you can check both portals to see where your favorites are.


AmazonSmile - As usual, Amazon does things their own way. They have their own system that works the same way as iGive or GoodShop. Just go to the AmazonSmile page instead of the usual Amazon home page, choose your charity and a portion of what you buy is donated. More information about AmazonSmile here. Since they sell pretty much everything, you can raise a lot of money for your cause this way. We buy ALL of our supplements through Amazon (they have a huge selection and low prices), so we donate through them all year long. You just have to remember to go to AmazonSmile instead of the main Amazon page, but they have a convenient button you can download to help you remember (iGive and GoodShop also offer buttons & mobile apps) - and it is still your own Amazon account.

So make that holiday shopping list and get ready to contribute to your favorite causes from your couch! And remember to use these services & portals all year long, for ordering supplements, drugstore items, books, or whatever you normally buy online.

I'm getting ready for Cyber Monday!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Holiday Anxieties

Thanksgiving is one week from today, the official start of the holiday season (at least here in the U.S.), and I am mostly filled with anxiety rather than happy anticipation. This holiday season is going to be even more challenging than most: we are traveling next week for a 5 day trip to visit my hometown; two weeks later, we are traveling again to celebrate an early Christmas with my family; and then two weeks after that, we are traveling all the way to Jamaica for a full week with my family. Just the thought of all those expectations, obligations, and activity makes me dread the whole season.

Next week, we have a 7-hour drive each way and family events scheduled every day we are there - most of them scheduled for early afternoon when I need to nap. My family barely acknowledges my limitations and needs (some of them don't even do that), and they expect me to somehow manage to participate in everything planned. I'm already worrying about how to squeeze in naps, stick to the strict diet that keeps me functioning, and manage my energy.

To make matters worse, I got hit by yet another bout of bronchitis last week. I spent all of September & October battling first bronchitis and then the flare-up of yeast overgrowth that resulted from needing two rounds of antibiotics. I felt good - back to my normal baseline - for exactly two weeks. Last Friday, I woke up with chest pain & tightness, congestion & coughing - it just all popped up overnight! My husband pointed out that my usual strategy of waiting and trying to avoid antibiotics backfired this fall when I ended up needing 15 days' total to finally kick the infection, so I started Zithromax immediately this time. The chest pain & tightness eased within a couple of days, though I am still battling some congestion (both sinus and chest) and a mild cough. I need to get completely over this before we leave for Rochester next week, or I will never survive the family marathon!

Besides fighting this infection, I'm preparing for the trip by trying to calm my anxieties. I'm trying to remember that others' expectations don't matter - I can only do whatever I can do. I'm trying to stop the worst-case scenarios that plague me, worrying about what might happen next week. I'm trying to stop those stories running through my mind about how my family doesn't understand and instead focusing on taking care of myself. I'm trying to breathe deep, stay calm, and not allow worrying to add to my burdens.

Of course, all of that is easier said than done! But I'm trying. The truth is that I usually end up enjoying these family gatherings & I usually manage better than I expect (though there have been some spectacular disasters, too).

What are your plans for the holiday season? How do you handle anxiety over family gatherings and others' expectations?

Breathe deep...

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

TV Tuesday: The Mysteries of Laura

As I've mentioned here before, there are TV shows that I watch with my husband each week and a few shows we save to watch with one or the other of our sons. But I also watch a few shows on my own, at lunchtime - that's my "time off" each day to unwind. Many of my lunchtime shows are things my male-centric family doesn't want to watch with me (like Parenthood and Gilmore Girls), but I think they'd like this show if they gave it a chance.

The Mysteries of Laura stars Debra Messing as a tough NYPD homicide detective who is also the mother to twin boys who are little terrors. It's a crime show but with a lighter tone and sense of humor than most shows of its genre. Laura Diamond works homicide cases by day and tames her little darlings by night. Her ex-husband, Jake (played by Josh Lucas) also works with her...and sometimes helps with the parenting, too. Laura's character is very different from Messing's most recent role as the glamorous Julia on Smash. Here, she is...well, a homicide detective and a mom, often dressed sloppily in sweats and always carrying food in her giant purse (along with a gun).

As in any crime show, each episode features a different case, and Laura and her fellow detectives strive to catch the bad guys, usually with plenty of red herrings along the way. I like Laz Alonso as Billy and Janina Gavankar as Meredith, two of Laura's fellow detectives, but Max Jenkins as the unpaid but brilliant assistant, Max, is my favorite. Along the way to solving homicides, we see glimpses of the team's personal lives, especially Laura's and Jake's.

While the crimes are serious (obviously, since they are murders), the show has a fun, light tone and plenty of humor. Fans of Castle and Bones will probably enjoy the combination of personal stories, cases to solve, and humor in The Mysteries of Laura (though it has far less gore than Bones!).

The Mysteries of Laura is now in its second season and is available on Hulu, with recent episodes available On Demand and at the NBC website. Since it is a crime show, with each episode a different case, you don't need to start at the beginning but can jump in anywhere and catch up pretty easily.

Check out the trailer for The Mysteries of Laura to see its unique mix of humor, warmth, and crime-solving.

What are your favorite crime shows?

Monday, November 16, 2015

Movie Monday: The Martian

It is rare that my husband and I actually get OUT to the movie theater. Last week was one of those rare events - we took advantage of our local theater's $5 movies all day Tuesday and saw The Martian. We had both read the novel (read my review here) and loved it, so we wanted to be sure to see the space thriller on the big screen.

Matt Damon plays astronaut Mark Watney who is left for dead on the surface of Mars, after his crew is forced to make an emergency evacuation, and read-outs from his punctured suit (some distance away) indicate that he is no longer alive. However, due to some miraculous circumstances, Watney wakes up some time later, alone on Mars but very much alive. From there, the action moves back and forth between the surface of Mars, where Watney must use his wits and the equipment left on the surface to figure out how to survive, and NASA at the Johnson Space Center, where everyone first grieves his death and, later, tries to figure out how to rescue him. It's like the movie Castaway crossed with the TV show MacGyver and set on Mars.

Damon is fabulous in this movie (as he usually is), playing Watney with intelligence and humor, just as he is portrayed in the book. For much of the movie, like Tom Hanks in Castaway, he is on-screen alone, though he has the advantage of making video logs and, later, sending e-mails, so he's technically not talking to himself (or to a volleyball) all the time. Back on earth, the NASA employees and contractors are played by a combination of celebrities, including Jeff Daniels, Kristin Wiig, and Donald Glover (of Community fame) and lesser-known actors. With scenes alternating between Mark alone on Mars and the team at NASA trying desperately to save him, there is plenty of suspense here.

For fans of the novel, the movie sticks pretty close to the book, and it's wonderful to see such a great book come to life on the screen. I was especially intrigued to see what equipment like the Hab, the Rover, and the MAV looked like. As is typical in a book adaptation, a few scenes in the book were cut in the movie, a necessary step to fit an entire novel into a 2-hour movie, and many of the detailed calculations in the book were left out (that would make a dull movie) and instead covered by Damon saying "I'm going to have to science the sh*t out of this." There were two production choices made that I found puzzling. In the movie, Watney was left behind about two weeks later than he was in the book - a very minor point, but I couldn't figure out why they changed that. They also changed the very obviously-Indian Director of Mars Operations, Venkat Kapoor, into Vincent Kapoor, played by the Nigerian actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor. I guess they really wanted that actor. They did try to explain it by having him say that his mother was Hindu and his father a southern Baptist, but then why did he have an Indian last name? Again, a trivial choice but one that I found odd.

My husband and I both enjoyed the movie (and our rare evening out!) very much, as did our two sons when they saw it with their friends, and the two and a half hours flew by. The acting was excellent all around, and even though we knew how it ended, there was still plenty of suspense built into this thriller in space.

The Martian is now playing in theaters.

Have you seen any good movies lately?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

TV Tuesday: Limitless

Today's TV Tuesday focuses on another new show this season, Limitless. Like Blindspot, this is one that our college son likes so much that he comes home to watch it with us on Sundays (it airs on Tuesdays, but we watch it On Demand).

CBS's new show Limitless is based on the 2011 movie of the same name, starring Bradley Cooper. In fact, Bradley Cooper is on the TV show, though he plays a character who doesn't appear in every episode (the same character from the movie). In case you missed the movie (which is a fast-paced thriller), the concept is that a new drug called NZT allows a person to use all of their brain's capacity, instead of only a fraction of it.

Jake McDorman plays the adorably scruffy Brian Finch, a struggling musician whose siblings think he should settle down and get a real job. In the first episode, Brian comes across NZT and is amazed by its power. He uses it to figure out what kind of mysterious medical condition has affected his father. When the FBI thinks he is involved in an NZT-related murder, Brian stays on the drug in order to find the real killer and clear his name. He then also learns that coming off the drug has some serious and painful side effects.

Bradley Cooper's character, Senator Edward Morra, approaches Brian and gives him an injection that allows him to take NZT without side effects, but Brian's not sure what the senator and his team want in return. The FBI is impressed with the way that Brian solved the case and hires him as a consultant, understanding that he needs the NZT to function at such a high level. They have been investigating NZT themselves and think that Brian has a genetic anomaly that allows him to take it without the usual - often fatal - side effects. They assign him to work with Agent Rebecca Harris, played by Jennifer Carpenter (from Dexter).

From then on, the show is like a traditional crime show, with a sci-fi/thrillerish twist. Each episode features a new crime that Rebecca and Brian try to solve, and Brian uses his super-brain power in unique ways to help solve the crimes. Lurking along the edges is the Senator and his henchmen, who occasionally ask Brian to do things for them that he doesn't want to do, using his father's health as a way to blackmail him...though neither Brian nor the audience knows exactly what they are up to.

All three of us are enjoying the show. It's fun - and often amusing - to see the ways that Brian uses his high-powered brain, and being Brian, he often gets into trouble. There is good chemistry between Brian and Rebecca, and the show has a good sense of humor. So, it has a lot of different elements - crime-solving, humor, mysterious shadow organization, a hint of romance - all wrapped up in a unique concept.

Limitless airs on CBS Tuesdays at 10 pm. All of its episodes (#8 airs tonight) are still available On Demand or on the CBS website (the last 5 episodes free) and also through Netflix.

Which of the new TV shows have you been enjoying?


Monday, November 09, 2015

Movie Monday: Up Heartbreak Hill

Ahh, we enjoyed a lovely weekend camping - relaxing and soaking up the last of the warm fall days and fall color. It was very low-key and restful (which allowed me to be more active and enjoy some kayaking and a walk) and good to be unplugged for a few days. Back to the real world...

Since we were camping, we didn't watch as much TV last week and didn't have time for a movie, but the week before, I enjoyed a fascinating documentary about Native American teens.

Up Heartbreak Hill follows three modern Najavo teens, living on a reservation in New Mexico, during their senior year of high school. Thomas is a runner on his school's track and cross-country teams, hoping to do well enough his senior year to get a college scholarship for running. He wears his hair in a neon pink giant mohawk or in other brightly-colored styles and has had a difficult childhood, growing up with first his grandmother and then his aunt, after his mother left the reservation and his father was imprisoned for drunk driving. They are both back in town and back in Thomas' life, and he is struggling emotionally his senior year with trying to get close to them again.

Tamara, one of Thomas' closest friends, is one of the smartest kids in her class and wants to go to college to become an engineer. She says that the classes offered in the small reservation high school don't challenge her enough, and her teacher tries to coach her for the SATs, but he says their students never get high scores simply because they don't have the resources to teach at a higher level. Her principal explains that his budget for the entire high school is just $13,000 a year(!).

Gabby, the third in their group of close friends, has been passionate about photography ever since her parents gave her a camera. She'd like to go to college for Photography, and her family is supportive of her. However, Gabby has a boyfriend on the reservation. He'd also like her to go to college, but she is torn about leaving him behind.

The film follows the three friends through their senior year. They grapple with typical issues of any teens - what to do with their lives, where to go to college, the social dramas you find in any high school - but they have some unique issues, too. The reservation is a very insular society, and the outside world is large and a little scary. In many cases, due to extreme poverty, substance abuse, and a culture that emphasizes the family and the tribe, they are torn because they want to see what is out in the world but their family needs them. I was fascinated by this tension between the modern world and the ancient Navajo culture, as well as the inside look at life on a reservation. There's a bit of suspense in wondering what each of the three friends will decide, and a special feature shows an interview with Thomas and Tamara three years later, so you get a peek at how their lives turned out.

Up Heartbreak Hill was produced by PBS and featured at several film festivals. It is available on DVD (I borrowed it from my local library) and it can be livestreamed through the PBS website through November 30 (I'm not sure if it's on Netflix).

Have you seen any documentaries lately that you enjoyed?

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

New Study Finds Differences Between Moderate & Severe ME/CFS

A new research study was published recently identifying specific types of immune proteins in the blood of ME/CFS patients. That in itself is nothing new; it builds on many previous studies that have tried to characterize the specific, unique type of immune dysfunction in our illness, like the ground-breaking study from Columbia University earlier this year.

This new study found differences in the immune markers (cytokines and immunoglobulins) between those patients with a moderate case of ME/CFS and those with the same illness who were more severely affected. This makes sense, that the immune dysfunction at the heart of the illness might be worse in those patients who are the sickest, but this study is one of the first to quantify that difference.

This finding helps to build more evidence for characterizing ME/CFS - and even degrees of the illness - by specific identifiers of immune dysfunction in the blood and brings us yet another step closer to biomarkers that could be used to help diagnose the disease.

For more information, you can read the study's abstract here and a previous study with similar findings from 2014 here.

Lots of exciting steps forward in ME/CFS research lately!

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

TV Tuesday: Red Oaks

Many of my reviews of new TV shows the past few weeks have been focused on suspense, thrillers, and drama. So how about something more light and fun?

I have been watching Amazon Prime's new original comedy series Red Oaks on my own at lunchtime, and I am really enjoying it. Set in 1985 suburban New Jersey, the show features David Meyer (played by Craig Roberts), a college student at NYU who is spending his summer at home working as an Assistant Tennis Pro at the local country club, Red Oaks. Many of David's friends from high school also work at the club as parking attendants, lifeguards, etc. His girlfriend, Karen, works there in true 80's fashion as an aerobics instructor. The members of the club are from a different (wealthy) world, including club President Mr. Getty, played by Paul Reiser (from Mad About You and Married). Adding to the fabulous cast are David's parents, played by Jennifer Grey (from Dirty Dancing - my all-time favorite!) and Richard Kind (from Spin City), who is always hilarious.

Red Oaks manages to tackle some serious issues, while also being funny. David is ambivalent about the career his dad has chosen for him - accounting - when his real passion is videography and film, something his dad refers to as his hobby, even when he gets paying jobs in the field. Meanwhile, he and his girlfriend are drifting apart, though neither seems ready to admit that. This summer is something of a turning point for David and many of his friends, as they struggle on the brink of adulthood to figure out what they really want out of life. Meanwhile, David gets plenty of advice from his parents and various characters at the club, including Mr. Getty, whose gorgeous & rebellious daughter seems attracted to David (and vice-versa). One recent episode featured a Freaky Friday-like switch between David and his dad which was hilarious!

One of the fun things about this show is its 80's vibe - the clothing, the excess, the big hair. I was actually in college in 1985, so I am loving the nostalgic feel. Lest you think they overdid the 80's fashions, I actually wore outfits to aerobics classes almost identical to the ones David's girlfriend, Karen, wears on the show! Actually, I think they got the look spot-on: it's not everyone in neon or looking like Madonna, the way some shows and movies depict the 80's but more realistic. And the music! I am loving the music. I had "Love is Like Oxygen" in my head for days.

All in all, it's a fun, nostalgic romp, and I am thoroughly enjoying the ride. If you enjoyed John Hughes' movies in the 80's, you will love Red Oaks.

Red Oaks is available for free (and exclusively) on Amazon Prime.

What new shows are you enjoying?

Monday, November 02, 2015

Movie Monday: Dark Places

On Halloween night, our 17-year old son had some friends over for a Scary Movie party - they watched Children of the Corn and The Babadook, the latter which he and his girlfriend said was absolutely terrifying - too scary, in fact.

Upstairs, my husband and I decided to also watch a spooky movie, though much tamer, since neither of us really likes horror movies much. Amazon Prime had a great selection of creepy movies available on Halloween, and we chose Dark Places, based on a Gillian Flynn (author of Gone Girl) novel that my husband had read but I hadn't. He warned me that the book had been gory, but the movie was really not graphic. We both enjoyed this suspenseful thriller.

The story centers on 33-year old Libby Day, played by Charlize Theron, whose mother (played by Christina Hendricks of Mad Men fame) and two sisters were murdered when she was just eight years old. Her brother, Ben, was convicted of the three murders, in part based on Libby's testimony. As you might expect, that event ruined Libby's life, and she lives an isolated, haunted existence. Her lawyer informs her that the money from her mother's life insurance is running out, so Libby agrees to meet with a secret society called the Kill Club that want to hear her tell the story of that night and are willing to pay her. The Kill Club investigates notorious crimes, and this one is important to them, as it was particularly infamous and some of their members are convinced that Ben is innocent.

Libby is resistant to the club's efforts to look into her family's murders at first, but soon she begins to wonder if they are right and her brother might have been wrongly convicted. She feel responsible, so she begins to dig into the events of that night and the days and weeks leading up to it, peeling back layers bit by bit. The movie goes back and forth between Libby's present-day investigation and flashbacks to her childhood, as she allows herself to remember more. Meanwhile, Libby goes to visit Ben in prison - for the first time in 25 years - where he claims that he is innocent but won't tell her who really committed the murders, if he knows.

This movie does a great job of slowly building suspense, as the events of that fateful night are gradually revealed, both to Libby and to the viewers. We go along for the ride as she goes deeper and deeper into the events of the past, uncovers long-forgotten clues, and finds people long-forgotten. Since this is Gillian Flynn (I read her novels Gone Girl and Sharp Objects), I expected a really twisted ending and very little hope. I was pleasantly surprised, though. While the story is definitely dark and twisty, it is not nearly as hopeless as Gone Girl. We were spellbound by this gripping, unpredictable mystery/thriller.

Dark Places is currently available for free streaming on Amazon Prime and Netflix and is also available on DVD and through Redbox.

Did you see any spooky movies this week?