Monday, April 27, 2009

Do You Know Your ABCD(E)s?

We are all protective of our children’s skin – slathering them with sunscreen, covering their heads with big floppy hats, and keeping them out of the sun at the most intense hours of the day. We need to remember to take the same precautions for ourselves.

Five years ago, I noticed a strange new mole on my leg. It grew quickly, but I didn’t think much of it until it started to itch and bleed. My dermatologist wasn’t particularly concerned, but he wanted to take it off just to be safe. Thank goodness he did because it the mole was melanoma – the most deadly form of skin cancer. Following additional surgery, I was lucky to learn that there was no sign that the cancer had spread beyond the original site; however, my view on sun safety has changed dramatically since my diagnosis.

Back to the ABCD(E)s:

"E" is relatively new - it stands for Evolving - any mole that is new or changing should be checked by a dermatologist. (For the record, my melanoma looked just like the first "normal" example shown above, but it grew very quickly.)

Here are a few recommendations from the American Academy of Dermatology for good sun protection practices no matter what your age:

1. Avoid deliberate tanning. Lying in the sun may feel good, but the end result is premature aging (wrinkles, blotchiness, and sagging skin) as well as a 1 in 5 chance of developing skin cancer. Tanning beds and sunlamps are just as dangerous because they, too, emit enough UV radiation to cause premature aging and skin cancer. If you like the look of a tan, consider using a sunless self-tanning product. These products do not protect skin from the sun, so a sunscreen should be used.

2. Generously apply sunscreen to all exposed skin every day. The sunscreen should have a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 15 and be broad-spectrum (provides protection from ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays – look for products containing zinc oxide, parasol 1789, or meroxyl).
Most people do not apply enough sunscreen to help protect against harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. One ounce, enough to fill a shot glass, is considered by the Academy to be the amount needed to cover the exposed areas of the body properly. So when applying sunscreen, remember to “slop!” it on.
Here are a few more tips:
• Don’t forget your ears, nose, neck, hands, and toes. Many skin cancers develop in these areas. Protect your lips, another high-risk area, with lip balm that offers sun protection with an SPF of 15 or higher.
• Sunscreen should not be used to prolong sun exposure. Some UV light gets through sunscreen.
• Sunscreens should be applied to dry skin 15-30 minutes before going outdoors, and reapplied every two hours.
• Be sure to reapply sunscreen after being in water or sweating.
3. Wear protective clothing, such as a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses, where possible. This is what Australians call

4. Seek shade when appropriate. The sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

5. Check your birthday suit on your birthday. If you notice anything changing, growing, or bleeding on your skin, see a dermatologist. Skin cancer is very treatable when caught early.

For additional information, please see The Melanoma Research Foundation or The Shade Foundation.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sticker Shock

S turned four last month, and many of her friends and playmates are taking ballet. One such friend was over yesterday, and S swooned over her friend's ballet slippers and leotard. Having recently resigned myself to the fact that, in spite of my best efforts, S has a serious girly streak, I took some time to investigate ballet lessons at local studios. The strongest barre in the world wouldn't have supported me when I learned that most require NINE MONTH COMMITTMENTS to the tune of over $800 (not including shoes, leotards, tutus, recital costumes, etc.).

First of all, signing a four-year-old up for a nine-month committment is akin to asking her to do this forever. I mean, five minutes is a long time in S's world. Secondly, how on earth can I justify that kind of $$$ when she may hate it - correction - she may not like it after a week? Yes, I could sign her up through parks and rec for a "ballet" class, but the purist in me needs the big mirrored wall with the barre and the little girls in their pink leotards (side note: A was VERY upset to learn that boys don't - usually - wear tutus). Maybe start there and if she likes it suck it up for the big leagues? Or keep my fingers crossed that she falls in love with tennis (starting Friday).

Basically, how do you know 1) when your child is ready to start a new activity 2) how many to have going at once 3) when/if to let them stop once they've started (not in general, but in the middle of a series of classes/lessons)? I was the kid who had a very short attention span and liked this for a week and then that the next week - and got to stop when I didn't like it. In retrospect, that probably wasn't a great life lesson - when you grow up there are plenty of things you have to follow through on whether or not you want to do them. Not that the lessons you learn when you're in preschool stick with you throughout life, but I tend to think that unless it's causing some sort of real harm to a child, making him/her see through a (reasonable) committment to something is a good lesson to teach, no matter the age.

Anyone out there with ideas/experience with this?

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Is Michael Stipe my kids' Brian Wilson?

Last night while driving home with the kids in the car, a little-known R.E.M. song [Carnival of Sorts (boxcar)] came on the satelite radio. Before I had a chance to turn up the volume, A. exclaimed from the backseat "I like this song, Mommy." S. chimed in that she did too. How that warmed my heart.

As those of you who know me in real life probably know, R.E.M. is my favorite band. I've even engaged on road trips to see the band on tour, including one quite memorable show in Atlantic City on Halloween (when I was 5 months pregnant) and another at Jones Beach this last summer during a nasty thunderstorm.

I started to think about how our parents' music preferences influence our own as well as when the two paths diverge. I grew up with a lot of 50s and 60s eras oldies, heavy on the Beach Boys, as well as late 70s and early 80s pop hits. My first in-person concert was Cher (accompanied by my father - pretty frightening in retrospect) followed by a Beach Boys/Chicago double-header. Both of these were in junior high. At the time, I though this music was the best out there. Then came high school.

One of the first tapes I bought after entering high school, at a friend's suggestion, was Violent Femmes by Violent Femmes. In the car on the way home, my dad offered to play it for us. Needless to say, halfway in to the first verse of "Blister in the Sun" (right around "body and beats I stain my sheets"), Dad ejected the tape and said "are you sure that's the kind of music you want to be listening to?" To my dad's credit, when I replied in the affirmative, he kept his mouth shut. From then on, there has been very little overlap in our music of choice.

I still really like the Beach Boys - Pet Sounds makes a rotation on our playlist - but most of the rest of what my parents listen to makes my skin crawl (can you say Fleetwood Mac?). I like to think that D. and I have more progressive music preferences than my parents, but I'm sure the day will come when S and A will ask me to change the music when R.E.M. comes on in the car.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


My dad's mother died five years ago today. Walking home from work the other day, I got tears in my eyes as I thought about her and what she meant to me. Which was strange, because I don't remember crying when she died.

Other than the anniversary of her death, it was this year's political atmosphere that made me think of Grandmommy the other day. If she was here, Grandmommy would be one of those grey-haired old ladies out supporting her candidate with all of her might.

Grandmommy was one of the smartest women I've ever known. Had her life taken a different path, I could easily see her as a college professor or civil activist. As it was, she grew up with an alcoholic, abusive father in Baltimore, MD, and got married at age 16 to my grandfather who was nine years her senior. She never went to college, nor do I think she even graduated from high school Her first child, my aunt, was born when Grandmommy was 20; my father arrived four years later. She worked for my grandfather's engineering company, was very active in her church, loved knitting, played a mean game of bridge, and was an avid crossword puzzler. She always lectured us that there was no such thing as a "healthy tan" (words I wish I'd listened to). An avid supporter of women's rights in general, she needled my conservative father each year by sending a contribution to NOW in his honor. She was a voracious reader (late in life she limited herself only to female authors) and encouraged all five of her grandchildren in our academic endeavours.

Grandmommy wasn't the coddling/spoiling/cookie baking type of grandmother. She had a temper and could be moody. And Grandmommy always spoke her mind. After dinner when the kitchen was cleaned up, she would announce that the kitchen was closed. Too bad if you wanted a snack. Another of her favorite sayings was "no roughousing in the living room." She had no patience for petulance and one infamous time told my younger sister than children should be seen and not heard (my sister was in college at the time).

All of that being said, there was never a doubt in my mind that Grandmommy loved all of us unconditionally. If she had a favorite among us, she never showed it. She always made time for us, and there were dozens of things both big and small that she did to make us feel special. We visited my grandparents for a few weeks each summer and there were so many things we looked forward to that, looking back, were all Grandmommy's doing. She always had popsicles and dill pickles (my favorite) when we came to visit. She baked - and later taught me to bake - rhubarb crisp. She and my grandfather bravely took my sister and me on a cross-country trip to see my aunt's family when we were just in elementary school. When I was accepted to college, she sent me a dozen long stem roses in honor of the achievement.

Our relationship really grew once I was out of high school. At that point, she and I connected as adults, which was much more her speed. I visited her a number of times by myself in these early adult years, and our conversations really helped me figure out who I was as a person. She didn't like my college boyfriend because he didn't call his mother when he was at school (and she was right). She adored my husband from the moment she met him (and she was absolutely right, though I didn't need her to tell me). She was one of the happiest people at our wedding.

After supporting her ailing mother through many years in a nursing home - an excruciatingly slow deterioration of mental and physical abilities - and caring for my grandfather as his health declined over many years due to poorly managed diabetes, Grandmommy resolved to not leave the world in similar fashion. She was a supporter of Dr. Kevorkian's methods and always thought it was strange that people think it is humane to put animals to sleep to ease their suffering but don't feel the same about other human beings.

Ultimately, Grandmommy didn't have to resort to any drastic measures. After suffering excruciating back pain for a number of months, she consented to an MRI (she was claustrophobic and had avoided this test). It turned out that the cause of the pain was metastases from advanced lung cancer. She asked for only palliative care and died three days later. I think she had a deal with the man - or as she would claim, the woman - upstairs.

I miss her.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Solving the What's for Dinner Dilemma

Last month, I joined a friend for our first trip to one of those "we prep, you assemble, we clean, you freeze and cook later" meal places. I think we were the last two working mothers in the world to try this place. I'd thought about it many times, but when I looked at the meal options, I was underwhelmed. More accurately, I always thought "but I could make that myself at home for a lot less than $20/meal." Following a fairly miserable week where "what's for dinner" became an emotionally charged question, I decided to try this option to fill in the gaps between home-cooked balanced meal and frozen pizza.

Overall, I was fairly satisfied and I learned a lot. I learned what kinds of meals to take advantage of in this format (think lots of ingredients, lots of steps) and what kind really don't save you any time (think large cut of meat, frozen with a marinade, to be prepared in a crock pot). I also learned some handy shortcuts (Need to bread chicken? use resealable bags instead of three separate dishes. Put the chicken in the bag with a bit of flour. Seal and shake. Add the egg. Seal and shake. Add the bread crumb mixture. Seal and shake. Sweet.) I also learned that I can do this myself, for much less money, with a bit of planning.

So, in order to help others out there with the "what's for dinner dilemma," I thought I'd periodically offer recipes that I've had good success making in advance (or making twice as much as we'd need for dinner), freezing, and serving at a later date. Please share any tips or recipes you may have as well. I just borrowed this book from the library and hope to find some additional inspiration from it.

For the first recipe in this series, I thought I'd share a family favorite, particularly this time of year. I've adapted the original recipe from Cooking Light to make it easier. This makes a ton. It's a fast weeknight meal and the leftovers freeze beautifully - just cool, put in a freezer-safe ziploc bag, and when you're ready to eat either defrost and bake in a casserole dish or heat in a large pan on the stovetop.

Chicken with Roasted Pears and Wild Rice

2½ cups uncooked specialty wild rice blend (without any spices; you can often find this in the bulk grain section)
2½ cups apple juice
2½ cups low-salt chicken broth
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 pounds cooked, skinned, boned chicken breasts OR the meat from a store-bought rotisserie chicken cut into bite-sized pieces
4 small firm ripe Bosc pears (about 1½ pounds), cored and chopped in to bite-size pieces
1 cup dried cranberries or dried tart cherries
1 tablespoon sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
¾ to 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cover large jelly roll pan with nonstick aluminum foil and place pears on pan. Put in oven for 20-25 minutes (until pears soften slightly).

While pears are baking, combine rice, apple juice, and chicken broth in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes or until liquid is almost entirely absorbed.

Combine rice mixture, chicken mixture, pears, cranberries, sugar, salt, and cinnamon in a large bowl. Toss gently.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

When Did Halloween Become A Season?

I'm not sure what the Halloween equivalent of Scrooge is, but I'm slowly turning in to it.

Growing up (back in the dark ages, i.e. the late '70s/early '80s), Halloween was on October 31st. The night before we would carve our pumpkins. On Halloween proper, we went to school in our usual clothes, came home and ate dinner. Only after all of that did we put on our costumes and head out in to the neighborhood with our plastic orange jack o' lantern buckets to trick or treat.

Somehow in the past 25 or so years, Halloween has morphed from an evening into a month-long costume/witch/ghost/candy corn extravaganza. There were no fewer than 3 Halloween events we could have gone to yesterday in our neighborhood alone. While I appreciate that this fosters a sense of community, it seems to be spiraling out of control. I get the ubiquitous "Fall Festival" - that works for me - but Halloween events 2+ weeks prior to October 31st just aren't right.

Why is this? Do people really enjoy dressing up in costume that much? Or is it more of a compensation for the fact that so many of the traditional December holiday celebrations have been scaled-back due to political correctness? I know Halloween is a Big Time Holiday for many (including a dear friend of mine who puts on a phenomenal party for the occasion each year - we miss you, A!), but it's gone too far.

I know of more than one friend who has had to acquire a second costume for his/her child because the first one is already worn out from use this year. Are you kidding me? I've always had trouble coming up with just one. (Allow me an aside to describe my all-time favorite Halloween costume: Fourth grade, Cindy Lauper, complete with the spray-colored hair, Mr T-like necklaces, and mismatched tiered flowing skirt. Too bad for you I can't find a picture. Of course, D's favorite Halloween costume of mine was the skin-tight tiger print getup I had one year when we were dating. But I digress.)

I'm not to the point where I'm totally down on Halloween - my kids have costumes, I've already bought the candy (Snickers and Skittles, just in case we're "stuck" with leftovers), and we made the journey out to the pumpkin patch last week to pick out two orange orbs for jack o' lanterns. On Friday, S&A will be dressed up in their Halloween best, ready to go and ply pounds of refined sugar from friendly neighbors. I just feel like some of the fun and magic gets lost when the celebration is carried on too long.

ETA: I just saw Kate's Halloween post as I finished writing this one - glad I'm not the only one!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

So, Back To My First Grade Teacher

Mrs. Poland couldn't help that she was a bitch.

For years and years (possibly centuries), Mrs. Poland specialized in teaching first graders who needed extra help and attention - students who hasn't quite learned how to read or who struggled with early math skills. In one of the great misguided social experiments conducted by schools in the late 70s/early 80s, the powers that be thought it would be beneficial to take Mrs. Poland out of her comfort zone for the 1981/82 school year and saddle her with a group of gifted and talented students. Boy was that a mistake.

I was part of this smarty posse. The other characters were: Sarah, Dana, Brian, and Chris. All of us tested well above our grade level in reading and math and were generally an extremely precocious bunch.

Sarah was my first best friend and a gifted dancer with a flair for the arts. Dana was a practical, yet fun, playmate. Brian was ADHD when it was called "hyperactive" (maybe it had something to do with the fact that his breakfast typically consisted of Pop Tarts and Pepsi). Chris was my nemesis. I was the bookworm of the crowd, reading at a 6th grade level. Every day during reading circle, I was sent to the Principal's office to teach myself how to type. Boy is that coming in handy now.

Mrs. Poland had no idea what to do with us. She ridiculed us for knowing all of the answers and chastised us for speaking up to help others who didn't. We were confident, spirited and, yes, sometimes a bit sassy. One time Chris and I got in to a huge fight about whether or not we'd be alive in the year 2000. I argued that of course we would - we'd only be 25-years-old. Chris argued that we could die before then. Mrs. Poland took his side. (I think a first-grade teacher taking the side of death over optimism that a 6-year-old will live to age 25 is a pretty bitchy thing in and of itself.)

In retrospect, Mrs. Poland may have been one of the nicest people in the school. She may have just been trying to look out for the others in class who didn't know it all but her way of doing it made us feel like pariahs. No one had given her the skills to deal with a bunch of Type A brainiacs, and it didn't do any of us - or Mrs. Poland - any favors.

If I remember correctly, the order of the first grade universe was restored the following year, and the five of us were blessedly placed with a second-grade teacher who knew how to keep us under control and challenged in a positive way.

I wish I knew what happened to my friends from back then - I moved into a different school district before third grade. Through the miracle of magnet school education, Dana, Brian and I met back up in high school. Last I heard, Sarah spent a number of years working for a London theater company before moving to NYC. I haven't heard a word about Chris in over 25 years, but I hope he got to see the year 2000.