The Worst Birthday Card Ever

I’m excited to be turning 50 soon, and my friends are celebrating early–even Aetna. They sent a card: “Happy Birthday!” it says, with fourteen lighted candles. It says “aetna” in a font twice the size of the greeting, which somewhat braced me for the message to come.

Aetna birthday card 50 front 09 2012

The interior begins, “Wishing you a very happy birthday” and continues “and offering an important screening reminder.” Naturally. No surprise there. They do insure me, at a high deductible followed by extremely high coverage in case I ever get severely maimed, or I fail to kill a cluster of my own rogue cells. Can’t you just hear the cancer scare coming?

It’s all one sentence, with a poetic line break, allowing a nanosecond to pretend that, together, we celebrate my life and health.

Aetna birthday card 50 interior 09 2012

The type gets tinier, on a card with more white space than type, like a legal notice, a disclaimer, a space to admit that the cure is worse than the disease, the prognosis is poor, and results may vary.

Breast cancer, I assume, since we women are daily hexed that we should worry about that until we take our inevitable turn.

Imagine my surprise when they chose to focus on colorectal cancer. I laughed. Of all body parts that could possibly be endangered by cancer, this is the guest of honor–and the only one–chosen for my half-life celebration?

It gets worse: four bullet points on why this matters, three more on the types of tests I should be requesting. I spare you the grisly details. You can probably read them on the image above.

Obviously, Aetna didn’t hire me to help them word this, but they should have.

First, I’d wipe Aetna off the cover. Clearly, we all remember who you are, having paid you often enough. Go for the sneak attack. Let us think it’s a real card from an actual friend, then sign it: “Aetna.” Or better yet, sign it in real ink by a live person representing Aetna. (Signature machines count.) I would give bonus points for offering this live person’s direct phone number.

Second, knock it off with the medical hexing. Promote health, not cancer.

Personalizing it would be nice. You managed to put my name on the envelope.

And Keep It Simple, Sweetie. Here’s a draft for you. “Gwyn, we wish you the best of health, and look forward to partnering with you each year to protect it.”

If you can’t leave well enough alone, you might say, to minimal offense, something like, “We are proud to cover many (most? all?) of your annual screenings at no cost to you. Please call me if you have any questions about your coverage or screening recommendations.”

The ad on the back is fine. You could even add a chart of recommended screenings by age. (Our medical records do include gender, so it would not be hard to personalize that as well.) Be sure you cover at least forty more years in the range; suggest that you believe we’re relatively young and want us to outlive life insurance as well.

Better yet, offer the top ten ways to promote health after age 50–eat more plants, exercise, meditate–things that do not involve lab techs and radiologists–the attitudes and activities that could make your bottom line and our bottom ends equally healthy.

Have you received a corporate birthday card you actually enjoyed?


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2012. All rights reserved.
Images: Scans of Aetna’s Age 50 birthday card. Used for critique. Please don’t plagiarize their work and ruin your own customer service reputation.

Want a More Effective Brain?

Do you think of your brain as a tool? Or have you confused your brain, your processes, your thoughts with your very being? You are not your brain, yet exercising your brain can do wonders for your experience of life, and your writing as well. Here are ten ways to stretch your brain:

Personally, I like Art Kramer’s advice: “Ide­ally, com­bine both phys­i­cal and men­tal stim­u­la­tion along with social inter­ac­tions. Why not take a good walk with friends to dis­cuss a book?” Yes!

And for a real breakthrough in learning, find a Brain Gym teacher.


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2012. All rights reserved.

Writing Detox

Sheila Patel, MD, of the Chopra Center suggests “9 Practices for Seasonal Detoxification,” many of which you might expect from a “board-certified family physician and Ayurvedic expert.” She prescribes an organized or do-it-yourself healing retreat of meditation, mind-body exercise, foods, herbs, sauna, massage, rest, nature–and writing.

9.)  Keep a Journal
Writing is an extremely useful tool for self-reflection and emotional detoxification. Take time each evening to write about what you have been feeling both physically and emotionally. Note what you are grateful for, and then try to identify things in your life that you would like to eliminate. Write about how it will feel when these things have been eliminated—and also identify what you would like to bring into this space that you will create in your life.

Writing will change your life! Here Dr. Patel touches on several reasons for that. Self-reflection is good for brain functioning, stress reduction, and creativity, especially when focused on gratitude, and when it leads to making positive changes.

And for the writing retreats I often recommend, you may spend more time writing, but I hope you’ll also incorporate many of Dr. Patel’s suggestions. Enjoy the rest of her article here:


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2012. All rights reserved.

Cultured Men Healthier and Happier

A Norwegian study has suggested that people who attend cultural events are healthier and happier, and that men may benefit most. Norwegian support for the arts already stands on the assumption that cultural events benefit health, so researchers sought evidence by surveying almost 60,000 Norwegians. Two studies had shown positive correlations between health and happiness and respondent’s cultural, sports, and religious activities–pretty much everyone who has a life–while this study focused on the cultural events, in both spectator and participant varieties.

This study concluded that “participation in receptive and creative cultural activities was significantly associated with good health, good satisfaction with life, low anxiety and depression scores in both genders. Especially in men, attending receptive, rather than creative, cultural activities was more strongly associated with all health-related outcomes.” (Abstract: Cuypers et. al. in Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health) 

Even a minimum of about one event per month showed positive results. (Randy Dotinga at

Further studies are planned. As another observer pointed out, this study might also show that healthier, happier people get out of the house. (Dotinga quoting Shigehiro Oisha)

I also notice that researchers included both viewing and participating in sports as “cultural events.” Here in the United States, those categories are mutually exclusive. So before you get your hopes up, Cultured Women, it’s premature to claim that symphony nights produces healthier and happier men than football games–this study didn’t compare types of events–but any activity is a start. And you’re welcome to test my hypothesis that Cultured Men are fifteen times more attractive.


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Writing into the Darkness

Joyce & Tom DeBaggio
Joyce & Tom DeBaggio at their herb farm in Chantilly, VA, 2007

Author and herb farmer Tom DeBaggio died yesterday. He put us on notice over a decade ago, describing his early onset Alzheimer’s as “the closest thing to being eaten alive.”  NPR’s Noah Adams and Melissa Block interviewed him periodically, and Tom wrote two books about his final journey, Losing My Mind, then When It Gets Dark.

By way of introducing the first, he said, “At first I viewed the diagnosis as a death sentence. Tears welled up in my eyes uncontrollably; spasms of depression grabbed me by the throat. I was nearer to death than I anticipated. A few days later I realized some good might come of this. After forty years of pussyfooting with words, I finally had a story of hell to tell.”

Tom left a legacy of gardening expertise through other books and his herb varieties themselves. And now he’s closed this long chapter. He donated his brain for research, and he completed his own longitudinal research from inside his brain for as long as he was able to, expecting his wife Joyce to share their whole experience to its difficult end.

He’s inspiring, not only for anyone affected by Alzheimer’s, but for anyone who lives, who has a story to tell, an expertise to share, and the mind and memory enough to record it. Thank you, Tom.

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011