The editors of Slate have, in their wisdom, decided to improve my life at (minimal) expense to them by giving me a budget to test health products available in catalogs. Even though I pose as a cynic, I harbor a belief in the transformative power of consumer goods, despite the documented failure of any product with "slim" or "anti" in its name. I looked for items that required no effort to use yet promised dramatic effects. I also chose items that were either ubiquitous (suggesting they had something going for them) or unique (the company must have locked up rights to a magical object). I judged them not only on whether they delivered on their claims but also on whether I would buy one for myself or send one as a gift.
I decided to work from the bottom up. My first purchase was an odd-looking shoe called the Arcopedico, with a flat PVC sole and a knitted nylon upper. Normally, the first thing I do when I get home is kick off my shoes, but these were so comfortable that I'd realize, late into the evening, that I'd forgotten to take them off. After a few weeks of wearing my Arcopedicos almost exclusively, what I thought was a permanently throbbing bunion has virtually disappeared. There's one drawback to the Arcopedico. When you wear them people will say things like "Look at your shoes!" This is not a compliment. They don't have the "I've never shaved my armpit hair" aura of the Birkenstock, but they are strangely elfin in appearance.
Would I buy a pair with my own money? I already have.
Would I buy them as a gift? Shoes are a peculiar gift, but I've recommended them to many people.
Purchasing information: The Arcopedico is sold at many prices under various names. I ordered them from the Norm Thompson catalog, where they are called Mile Mates and sell for $54, plus $7.25 shipping. They arrived in two days. (800) 547-1160 or www.normthompson.com.
Moving up, I settled on the Tush-Cush. Almost every catalog dealing with health or comfort carries this item. It's a wedge-shaped foam cushion with a U-shaped piece cut out of the thicker end. Sitting with your spine aligned over the hole is supposed to reduce pressure on your disks. It has definitely made sitting in front of the computer easier and is far more comfortable than the throw pillows I previously used. At $40, it's a pretty pricey piece of foam, but it is a lot cheaper than an ergonomically correct chair. It does not, unfortunately, firm your tush as you sit.
Would I buy one for myself? Yes, although I think all editors should, in their own self-interest, give them to writers.
Would I buy one as a gift? Yes.
Purchasing information: I ordered the Tush-Cush from the Harmony catalog for $40, plus $6.95 shipping. It arrived in 10 days. (800) 869-3446; no Web site.
If you've ever spent an evening plunging your wrists into ice water, you are an easy mark for devices that promise to relieve carpal tunnel syndrome. The wrist supporters sold in the Real Goods catalog feature the antibiotic of the New Age world: magnets. The Food and Drug Administration is skeptical of magnets' ability to relieve pain, but last December the New York Times published a story about a researcher at Baylor's Institute for Rehabilitation Research who found that magnets significantly reduced pain from post-polio syndrome. The wrist supporters I ordered were black neoprene with a metal brace and a flexible magnetic band. I found them bulky, and their primary benefit seemed to come from the heat retention qualities of the neoprene. They were certainly no more effective than the nonmagnetic wrist stabilizers I'd picked up at the drugstore. At $35.95 each (who would order just one?), they seem overpriced.
Would I order a set for myself? No.
Would I buy one as a gift? No.
Purchasing information: $79.90 for the pair, plus $10.95 shipping, from Real Goods. Because it takes up to two weeks for delivery, I paid an extra $7 to have them in five days. (800) 762-7325 or www.realgoods.com.
Another widely touted panacea is a foam bedding material developed by NASA. It is a thick, heat-sensitive material that molds to your body. Catalogs extol its ability to induce an almost vegetative-state depth of sleep. The full mattress runs about $1,000, but Slate doesn't want its contributors to be that relaxed, so I got the pillow from Brookstone for $95. On the box is a small sticker that states the pillow may have a "particular smell" that is "completely harmless" and "will disappear after some time," which sounds like something the proprietor of the Bates Motel might say. The smell is sort of a cross between mildew and a petrochemical plant. A salesman at a Brookstone store gave me this hint: Roll the pillow up tightly several times a day to squeeze out the trapped air. After about a week of doing this, the odor had dissipated enough for me--in the interest of my investigative duties--to take a nap. The pillow does let you sink into it while also giving support. It didn't change the quality of my sleep as all the hype promised. But it is really comfortable.
Would I buy one for myself? Yes, if I were feeling extravagant.
Would I buy one as a gift? I've already had to. After letting my husband sleep on it one night, he insisted on one of his own.
Purchasing information: The pillow is available under a variety of names (Pressure Relaxation Latex Foam, BetterNeck Visco-Elastic Pillows, etc.). I bought the Tempur-Pedic standard Swedish pillow from Brookstone for $95, plus $12 shipping. Delivery is promised in five to seven days (I picked mine up at their retail store). (800) 926-7000 or www.brookstoneonline.com.
The Ionic Hair Wand, exclusively from the Sharper Image, is one of the most maddening products I've used. If it didn't actually work, it would be a disaster. The wand is a battery-powered hairbrush that, through "ion conditioning," claims to make the hair lustrous, add body, and remove odors and dandruff. (Along with magnets and Swedish foam, ions make up the holy trinity of self-improvement.) The first problem was that before I used it, I rinsed it off and turned it back on--apparently before it was completely dry. It burned up in my hand. The free replacement I got didn't shut off properly and melted the batteries in the base. The third one has been working fine--but you have to double-check to make sure it's really off, or it will exhaust its batteries in a matter of hours. I have dry hair, and with the Ionic Hair Wand I thought I could follow my hairdresser's advice to shampoo less often. So I faithfully brushed my hair with the wand for the recommended two minutes a day, day after day. Miraculously, eight days later, my hair looked good and smelled clean. How long could I go? I'm not French, so I finally hit the shower.
Then I discovered one of the secrets to the wand is that it produces minute amounts of ozone, which acts as a germicide. However, ozone is an air pollutant. I decided I'd rather just shampoo.
Would I buy one for myself? No.
Would I buy it as a gift? Only for people who refuse to wash their hair.
Purchasing information: The Ionic Hair Wand is available from the Sharper Image for $39, plus $8.95 shipping. It arrived in five days. (800) 344-4444 or www.sharperimage.com.
My final stop was my crow's feet. Even though I work at home, alone, the W.H. Auden look I've been developing around my eyes has begun to bother me. How could I pass up the Wrinkle Patch--which promised "noticeable" improvement? You leave these small, expensive wing-shaped patches on your worst furrows overnight, and the same technology that makes nicotine patches work is supposed to deliver vitamin C (it's not just for colds, it's for wrinkles, too!) to them. In the interest of science I patched only one eye, never thinking the thing would actually work. By the fourth patch I realized I had to start catching up with the other side if I didn't want to wear a Phantom of the Opera mask on my wrinkled side. I spoke to Dr. Daniel Shrager, a cutaneous pharmacology fellow at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, who did a six-month study of the patches. He said the 10 subjects who used them had a 30 percent to 40 percent decrease in wrinkle depth. Yes, I still have crow's feet. But now I look only like Auden's younger sister.
Would I buy them for myself? I'm already on my third box.
Would I buy them as a gift? You just can't give someone the "Wrinkle Patch" as a gift.
Purchasing information: I ordered a box of 12 double patches from the SelfCare catalog for $50, plus $4.25 shipping. They arrived in five days. (800) 345-3371; no Web site.