Alternative juju

Unconventional remedies are ripe for journalistic inquiry, but are weeklies up to the job? Plus: The secrets of mosquitoes, Osama bin Laden's hiding place and Internet IPOs revealed!

By Jenn Shreve
July 2, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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My theory that a well-made gin gimlet, a snort of coke, one screaming orgasm and handful of Prozac can cure any emotional or physical ailment is not too popular these days. Instead, seekers of healthier bodies, longer lives and socially acceptable dispositions are turning to echinacea, St. John's Wort, chiropractors, fasting, biofeedback, reusable maxipads, acupuncture, yoga, green tea, Shiatsu, Feng Shui, melatonin, aroma therapy, meditation, veganism, the Zone, blue-green algae, Tai Chi, visualization, accupressure, Reflexology, Rolfing, magnet therapy, gemstone therapy and that greatest of salves, colonic irrigation. It's an unfortunate trend that will hopefully peak soon.

In the oppressive meanwhile, there's no question that unconventional therapies have hit the big time. My own dear mother -- whom I use as a barometer for judging the consumer climate-shifts of aging, suburban boomers (thanks, Mom!) -- swears by green tea and a long list of vitamins I've never heard of. But this doesn't explain why three weeklies decided to publish packages on alternative treatments this week. Is it National Homeopathy Appreciation Week and somebody forgot to tell me? Did the makers of St. John's Wort suddenly announce a large-budget advertising campaign aimed at alternative-newspaper readers?

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Of course, "alternative" medicine is an obvious beat for "alternative" media outlets to cover. While the dailies and newsweeklies regurgitate press releases sent by drug companies, tout the latest study -- broccoli causes cancer; cures heart disease! Viagra makes you horny, baby, but it'll kill you! -- and write the occasional gee-whiz, Fluffernutter piece on the herbalist next door, weeklies could be producing some groundbreaking reporting on a growing industry that is both helping and exploiting people without much accountability. Unfortunately, "could be" is the operative phrase in that last sentence. Most of the articles I read this week reveal a galling lack of insight, critical thought or journalistic skill.

Long Island Voice, July 1-7

"A few berries short of a smoothie" by Beth Greenfield

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This article is the star of an otherwise worse-than-weak package on health-care alternatives. Supersleuth Beth Greenfield talks to employees of health food stores about their customers. "They recite tales of customers who shop with gloves on to protect them from germs, spend hours upon hours in the store as if at a lengthy cocktail party or obsessively rearrange items on the shelves like they are at home. Then there are the seekers who give gruesome accounts of their dietary afflictions to anyone who'll listen or who wear nose-and-mouth masks to protect them from scented products." Greenfield fails to mention that the prices as some of these health food stores are high enough to give anyone a breakdown.

Tanya Indiana's contribution to this package, "Old soldiers of the New Age," sadly seems to be lacking a point. It's purportedly about elderly people who use non-mainstream remedies, but the result is a few sloppy profiles, sprinkled with some unexplored skepticism and no unifying thesis.

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Detroit Metro Times [articles and issue not dated]

Special Issue: Alternative Health

The Detroit Metro Times takes the cheerleading approach to journalism with this package that's "meant to start you on your own journey to healing." Alternative treatments are simply assumed to be the way to go, and no effort is made to bring a balanced perspective to the table (unless you count self-declared skeptic Audrey Becker's recommendation that if you just try a few unproven therapies, you'll find one that works for you). Gretchen Van-Monette's article on "Hemp for health" quotes someone who sells hemp seed oil, the president of Hempola (another producer of hemp oil), a naturopathic doctor and one academic from Detroit's Wayne State University. This isn't journalism, it's boosterism. If I need to find the nearest algae enema provider, I'll check the Yellow Pages, thank you much.

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Village Voice, June 30-July 6

"Mind Body Spirit Summer 1999"

The Village Voice promises the "essentials for a healthy summer," but the online version of its package is as skimpy as a g-string. (My sources in New York apparently don't read the Voice, so I couldn't confirm this theory.) That said, the two and a half articles posted on the Voice's Web site did leave me wanting more. Debra Desalvo's "Is yoga therapy an oxymoron?" deftly reports on the complicated and fascinating problem of yoga instructors using stretches and poses to access student's encoded memories of trauma, which the teachers are then not equipped to deal with. "Growth spurt" by Christopher Reardon about a gym for tots was less interesting -- more about how yuppies spend money than health -- but well-written none-the-less.

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Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages, June 30-July 6

"Of Bugs and Men" by Katy Reckdahl

Sitting on my desk at this very moment is my new favorite torture instrument, the "Magic Racket" or "Dengue Fever Bat." This brilliant invention, smuggled in from Taiwan by an acquaintance, is shaped like a tennis racket and has one purpose in life: electrocute bugs. Depress a small button on the handle, and the waffle grid heats up. Swat a fly with it, and the fly bursts into flames; sometimes it explodes. I can't tell you how much joy this electric swatter from bug hell has brought me thus far. Doubtless, mosquito season will provide many future hours of fiery bliss to yours truly. And thanks to reporter Katy Rechdahl, I have a little more information about those evil, blood-sucking, monsters who are going to meet their god this summer.

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Rechdahl's descriptive and densely reported piece looks at mosquitoes, the people who kill them, the entomologists who study them, the epidemiologists who study the diseases they carry, the environmentalists who fight to protect them (more specifically, fight the pesticides used to eradicate their numbers). Minnesota has one of the largest mosquito populations in the world, so there's plenty of material to dissect here. Indeed, the most interesting characters in this piece are the mosquitoes themselves. These bugs use "six moving mouth parts that scissor and saw their way into the skin. One blood meal is about a drop, and, contrary to conventional wisdom, the mosquitoes don't eat it," explains Rechdahl. "That infernal buzzing? It's a mating song." Mosquito sex tends to occur on or near poo. "Their saliva -- which is what makes you itch -- deadens your skin, making it less likely that they'll be slapped." Bastards! They will die!

"Minnesota's most wanted" by CP Staff

The capture of Twin Cities soccer mom Sara Jane Olson (aka Kathleen Ann Soliah) following a segment on "America's Most Wanted" has inspired a record number of Minnesotans to report other fugitives. The City Pages provides readers with an amusing, annotated list of some the suspected residents, which includes Osama bin Laden. What I'm wondering is what percentage of them voted for Jesse Ventura.

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San Francisco Bay Guardian, June 30-July 6

"Damage control.com" by Po Bronson

Even though I am vaguely annoyed every time Po Bronson is featured on the cover of a magazine, and even though I'm far more interested in reading everything written by F. Scott Fitzgerald than anything written by Bronson, I have enjoyed the articles by him that I've read. This little number is no exception. Bronson counters the rags-to-riches mythology of Internet IPO success stories with some basic principles based on his years of reporting on and writing about the area. I myself just witnessed the process firsthand, though I'm not allowed to talk about it. I can vouch for the accuracy of many of Bronson's observations and recommend them to those of you who are interested in following this sort of thing seriously. The Guardian's typically clueless presentation of his article -- Po Bronson airs dirty laundry! -- however, inadvertently helps prove one of his points: that most people don't really understand what's going on there.

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Willamette Week, June 30-July 6

"Dwarf vs. Dwarf" by Chris Lydgate

Portland is going to be a surreal place next week. One thousand dwarfs will be descending on the city for the annual national Little People of America conference. Chris Lydgate reports on the ongoing controversy within the dwarf community over whether dwarfs who use their small stature to entertain -- for example, Verne Troyer, who played Mini-Me in "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" -- are harming the efforts of dwarfs seeking to be taken seriously on the job and in life. Particularly impressive is that Lydgate makes it through his piece without cracking one short joke. Trust me. I'm refraining from spewing a rancid heap of puns right now and it's torture.

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S.F. Weekly, June 30-July 6

"Science of the Lambs" by Lisa Davis

Scientists at Geron Corp., a biotechnology company in Menlo Park, Calif., recently purchased the technology used to clone Dolly the sheep. They've also "produced body cells that don't age. They've refined the ability to transplant DNA. They're working on cloning embryos. They're learning how to grow custom tissue and organs for transplants," reports Lisa Davis in the fascinating article that not only looks at what this company has accomplished but the controversy surrounding it and the current social and political climate for such endeavors. Davis, who admits to not having much background in this stuff, lays it all out nicely in understandable terms and, thankfully, doesn't try to theorize too much about facts she's barely processed herself. Journalists writing about alternative treatments could learn a thing or two here.

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Seattle Weekly, July 1-7

"Internet Appleiance" by Frank Catalano

Last December, I kissed my piece-of-crap Powerbook goodbye and bought a PC. It's the first non-Apple I've owned. Although I couldn't be happier with my choice, I sympathize greatly with Frank Catalano, who writes somewhat painfully about his recent switch from Mac to PC. It's tough to abandon a struggling cause after so many years of loyalty, but Catalano makes a good point: Even with the success of the iMac, Apple still doesn't have much in the way of software, gadgets and so on to offer customers.

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New Times Los Angeles, July 1-7

"Return of the Swami" by Ron Russell

This fun piece deals with the ugly, civic battle taking place over the Self-Realization Fellowship's efforts to reentomb its rotting leader, Paramahansa Yogananda, in a shrine atop Mount Washington, a stone's throw from downtown Los Angeles. Religious wackos vs. city lawyers? This is the stuff of good, long-weekend reading.

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And now, a few supplements to your healthy diet of reading on alternative medicine and treatments:

Vicious Vegan The brilliant jokesters at Brunching Shuttlecocks bring us a list of entrees for people who refuse animal products, but crave the taste of murdered critter.

Pills-a-go-go A whole zine devoted to pills and pill culture.

"Ruptured Warriors" A first person account of a torn achilles tendon. Ow.

Christian Sex Nerve's special section on copulation and being born again.

Fat? So! A celebration of the big, the round and the Botticelli beautiful among us.


Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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