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Archive for March, 2011

Still My Baby

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

I anticipate most rites of passage with eagerness.  I’m excited for new pages to be turned and new experiences to be lived.  I don’t often get nostalgic for the moments that I leave behind.

For the past several months, though, there has been one major exception to this practice of mine:  IEP’s hair.

I was told throughout childhood that I didn’t have any hair until I was two.  So I did not expect to give birth to a kid with head full of thick locks.  And my expectations were accurate.  IEP was practically bald when he was born.  And save for a blessedly even distribution of peach fuzz, he stayed that way for a long time.

Then, last spring, when he was about a year and a half, it started to grow a bit.  The pieces behind his ears curled up.  On humid days the longer pieces in back would also curl and I just loved it.  It wasn’t thick, but it was there.  What he had he worked hard for.

Beginning last fall I began facing the realization that his first haircut would be needed eventually.  As the weather cooled and the curls relaxed I wondered if the time for it were approaching quickly.  Nevertheless, I waited.  I just wasn’t ready.  Something about his uncut hair meant he was still my baby.  Walking, talking, playing.  But still my baby.

This past weekend, after lots of procrastination and one rescheduling, we had IEP’s hair cut.  We went to a small barbershop in our neighborhood that had been recommended to us by a friend.  IEP was reluctant at first, but compliant.  He got even more cooperative when gummi bears and suckers were introduced.  His hairdresser made sure I was there to catch the first locks in my hands, and directed me to a tissue to wrap them for safekeeping.  Then I picked up my camera and snapped away.

Something about taking pictures kept me a step removed from the process, making it all easier to take in.  I made it through the entire haircut without getting emotional.  However, I haven’t had the nerve to look at the locks of hair I caught since that morning.  They are still wrapped in tissue and tucked in a pocket of my wallet.

I’m quite happy with the results in spite of myself.  I look at him now and I see the little boy that he has already been for many months.  But I also see my baby.  He will always be my baby.

On Roast Chicken and Moral Failings

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Around this time last year I was wrapping up a month-long vegetarian experiment.  Its purpose was not only to challenge my dietary boundaries, but to learn about the nature of our food supply, so I augmented my vegetarian practices with some educational reading.  By the end of the month I had determined that I would reintroduce meat into my diet, but that I would be more selective about the sources of the meat.  And for a long time I lived up to that commitment.  But I’m here to confess to you today that lately I have backslid.

See that roast chicken?  The one right up there?  It looks delicious, doesn’t it?  Well, I can assure you it was.  That very chicken was served for supper in our house last night.  I served it with orzo pasta and roasted vegetables.  Yum yum.  However, in spite of its deliciousness, I have some major ambivalence about it.

You see, that chicken – the delicious one up there – represents a moral failing on my part.  When I purchased that chicken I stood in the butcher section of my grocery store and looked at it.  Then I looked at the free range, organic, air chilled one next to it.  The second one truly did look better.  Then I looked at the price tags.  My chicken (about 4.6 pounds, for those who keep track of such things) cost $3.23.  The guilt-free bird (of comparable size)?  It was a little more than $16.  Sixteen dollars!  For one chicken!  I just couldn’t do it.  So I picked up the cheaper chicken (or, the “chipper chicken” for those who have watched Father of the Bride too many times), and slinked away.

People like Michael Pollan would tell me that a chicken should cost about $16; that factory farming has artificially created an economy that allows me to purchase a chicken for $3.23; and that while I may not be paying for my chicken at the cash register I am paying for it in other ways (such as filth in our food system, environmental damage, and the moral degradation that results from supporting shameful animal husbandry practices).  And they would be right.

So why, then, do I find it so hard to pay what Pollan types would argue is a fair price for a chicken?  And why am I still worrying about it days later?  And why am I fessing up here in this blog post?

I guess I’m here writing these words because I feel like it’s the honest thing to do.  This?  Having integrity about the source of the food we eat?  It’s hard.  Factory-farmed food is easy.  It’s cheap.  And it’s highly convenient.  I’ve read books and newspaper columns and magazine articles and blog posts about our food system.  Most of it sickens me.  And yet, in spite of all my knowledge, when faced with two chickens and a $13 price difference, I made a choice I’m not proud of.

During my vegetarian experiment last March I never did watch Food, Inc.  I think my conscience could use a jump start in this department, so I’m vowing here to watch it soon.  In the meantime, I’m hoping that by coming clean in this post I’ll be able to shame myself into being more conscientious in my shopping habits.

I’m not perfect.  And while I’ve never claimed to be, there for a while I had some pride about my dietary morality.  So I’m here confessing my shortcomings, and hoping that a dose of humility will serve its purpose.

Saucer Magnolias

Friday, March 25th, 2011

The saucer magnolias are in bloom.  I look at them and I see the front yard of the fraternity house.  His fraternity house.  And also my fraternity house.  The one where he courted me, in that casual college way.  I see the saucer magnolia off to the left, its purple and white petals on the ground like confetti. I see college guys in t-shirts, cargo shorts, and flip flops with a beer in one hand and a frisbee in the other.  I see us on the porch, procrastinating, before eventually caving and walking to our corporate finance class together even though we both want to sit on that porch and continue to flirt with each other.  I see us return from class and drop our backpacks on the ground sliding back into conversations that we left behind 50 minutes ago.  I see myself looking back over my shoulder as I leave, headed to the dining hall for supper, walking through fallen petals across the yard.

The Bradford Pears are in bloom.  I look at them and I see my high school.  I see its brick towers and pitched roofs.  I see high school kids filtering out through the gymnasium exit to the parking lot, uniform shirts untucked since the bell has rung.  I see track practice in full swing.  I see myself linger in that parking lot, spinning my car keys around my index finger, not wanting to go home for fear of missing something important to an insecure 17-year-old.  I see the Bradford Pear trees lining the drive, and I smell their scent.  They are not sweet, but strongly pungent in a way that is only pleasing based on connotation.  Yet my connotations never fade, and I love the smell of Bradford Pear blossoms.

The forsythia are in bloom.  I look at their gangly yellow branches and I see the side yard of my childhood home.  I see the triangular flower bed in the corner of the yard with the un-pruned forsythia limbs hanging in arcs.  I see my mother’s vegetable garden, dug in the shape of my home state, partly because my dad has a sense of humor, and partly because he got sick of digging.  I see the shed attached to the side of the house that my dad built with help from church friends.  And I see my handprints in the concrete ramp that was built for the riding lawnmower.  I see my mother explaining to me for the eighteenth time which one is forsythia and which ones are photinia.

The daffodils are in bloom.  I look at them and I see every tree in my parents’ yard surrounded by daffodils.  I see them cut in vases on our breakfast table.  I see the little ones in bud vases on my mother’s bill-paying desk.  I see myself smelling them, knowing that they don’t smell like much, but wanting to believe that they do.

The hyacinths are in bloom.  I look at them and I see my son’s first spring.  I see the day that our nanny was sick and I spent the day at home with my five-month-old baby.  I see myself sitting on our front porch with him, holding pieces of mulch so that he could feel them.  I see myself pick up a broken hyacinth bloom that had fallen under the weight of its own petals.  I see him reach for it, grasp it, and carry it to his mouth.  I see myself take a series of photos of my baby with a pink flower.  I take the bruised blossom from him and smell it, knowing that these smell the way I think spring should smell.

The saucer magnolias are in bloom, and they bring with them an avalanche of memories.

Best Case Scenario

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

On Saturday night I teased my hair up into a high bun and twisted a silver ribbon around it.  I put on a grey jersey dress, grey patent stilettos, and some uncharacteristically funky silver jewelry.  My pink lips were the sole pop of color in a tone-on-tone ensemble.  We were headed to a wedding.

The wedding was lovely.  It was a perfect reflection of the bride and groom, and it brought together friends from all corners of their lives.  GAP and I had a good time sipping our drinks and chatting with old college friends.  And throughout the evening the dance floor was full, as the newlyweds are music lovers and put a great amount of effort into finding a great band.

It was a winning night all around, but the highlight for me was a six-year-old girl.

Once the bride-and-groom and parent dances wrapped up she took to the dance floor with her dad – he in a dark suit with a sunny yellow tie, and she in a pleated white chiffon dress with black sash and black cardigan.  He twirled her under his arm.  He held her wrists and spun her as her feet dangled beneath her.  I smiled at them and then turned back to my conversation.

At first it looked like any wedding dance floor where the child pulls the parent to the floor and the parent obliges until the song is over, and then returns to the table to reclaim a cocktail and an adult conversation.  But this was not that.  Four songs, five songs, six songs later – they were still at it.  The father’s shirt had come untucked and his temples shone with sweat.  His performance was not obligatory.  They bounced and boogied.  They did the twist, the mashed potato, and every other move in the book.  They were tireless.  It wasn’t until the dance floor had been open for more than an hour that they took a short break.  Moments later they returned to the floor, the dad without his jacket and the girl without her shoes.  The twirling and spinning resumed.

Then, as the father picked his girl up her pretty party dress shifted and that was when I saw them.  Underneath her dress she wore a pair of white bike shorts.  I beamed.

She knew.  She knew that she planned to spend the entire reception on the dance floor.  She knew that her father would swing her around.  She knew that she would twirl, and that her skirt might fly up.  Or at the very least she hoped for these things.  And so she came prepared.

Four days later I’m still thinking about her night on the dance floor.  I’m thinking about her frame of mind.  So often we prepare for the worst case scenario – the seatbelt, the bike helmet, the rainy day savings, the life insurance policy.  But how often do we set out to do something with a best case scenario in mind?  How often do make our plans expecting the best?  How often to we go to a wedding with bike shorts on under our dress?

I can’t speak for you, but I know that my own answer is “not often enough.”

To some extent we have to plan for the worst.  We have to know that when plans go awry we will withstand the challenge.  And I would argue that safety nets of this nature actually allow us to enjoy the here and now a bit more since we can relax knowing that a contingency plan is in place.  Nevertheless, I think most of us could stand to imagine the best case scenario a bit more often.

I may never actually wear bike shorts to a wedding, but I think the analogy could serve me well.

A Day Off

Monday, March 21st, 2011

It was a full weekend for us.  Dear friends came into town for a long weekend visit.  Our time together was filled with lots of laughter, toddlers, and food, but very little sleep.  And very little time for blogging.  So I’m taking today off, and will be back on Wednesday.  I hope you had a lovely weekend yourself, and that your week is off to a good start.  Happy Monday!

How Green Is My Soda?

Friday, March 18th, 2011

Most people fall into one of two camps: Coke or Pepsi.  And most people’s allegiance to their camp is fierce.  We do not buy whichever is on sale.  We order water or iced tea when a waiter tells us that only the “other” is on tap in their restaurant.  We stick to our guns.

What, then, would it take to make you switch?  Switch grass, perhaps?* 

Earlier this week Pepsi announced that it has developed a 100% plant-based plastic bottle for its soda.  The new bottle is currently made of switch grass, pine bark, corn husks.  It will ultimately also include orange peels, oat hulls, potato scraps and other leftovers from PepsiCo’s food business.  Pepsi will test the new plastic in a few hundred thousand bottles in 2012, and convert all products once the new process has been verified successful at a large scale.

Coke’s bottles are made from 70% petroleum-based plastic, and 30% plant-based plastic.  While Coke has deployed its hybrid plastic across other product lines (a partnership with Heinz was announced in February), the mix of plant-based plastic has been consistent since it first launched its “PlantBottle” in 2009.

So, if you are a Coke person, will you switch?  Does our interest in making our world more green weigh more or less than our interest in making our taste buds happy?  It’s an easy decision when the economics of the decision don’t extend past our own pocketbooks.  If Coke is worth fifty cents more to me, then I will spend fifty cents more.  My decision only affects me.  But when my microeconomic decision has broader macroeconomic ramifications, will I make that decision differently?  (Or will I just buy cans?)

In the long run, our moral high ground probably won’t be tested every time we need a caffeine hit.  The announcement from Pepsi has been described in the media as the launch of a green arms race.  One commenter even went so far as to say this is the beginning of the end of petroleum-based plastic.  So I suspect that Coke will up its ante in short order.  Nevertheless, there may come an interim period when we must consider the environmental reach of a seemingly very small decision.     

*Sorry, it’s been a long week and I make bad puns when I’m worn out.  It’s my dad’s fault.

Robotic Relationships

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

A couple of weeks ago GAP and I were driving somewhere and he said to me, “You know what the next big thing is going to be?”

“Plastics?”

“No.”  He blew right past my joke.  “Robots.”  And then he went on to tell me how we are standing in the doorway of a whole new era of robotics.  I felt like I’d traveled back to the early eighties but still listened attentively while he told me of an article he read about recent advancements in robots.

Then, driving to work one morning last week I heard this piece on NPR about… robots.  As it turns out GAP was not so far off the mark after all.

Apparently there is, in fact, a new wave of robots being designed, built, and actually used in society.  Up to this point most robots (C-3PO notwithstanding) have been utilitarian in nature.  They performed repetitive physical functions like assembling car parts.  They lacked distinctly human characteristics and they presented no threat to our understanding of interpersonal relationships.

However, the nature of robots is changing.  Per NPR robotic babies are being used to comfort the elderly, and robotic nannies are helping look after children.  According to Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, the evolution of robots to fill human emotional needs is cause for concern.  Turkle was interviewed in the NPR piece and commented that the difference between new robots and old robots is that the new robots are, “proposing themselves to substitute for human beings in these more intimate roles.”

Turkle goes on within the interview to explain that the people she has interviewed have expressed interest in robot companions because of the disappointment they experience in other people.  She even told of one woman whose boyfriend was such a slouch that she envisioned replacing him with a robotic boyfriend.

Really?

Maybe I’m naïve.  Maybe it’s all written on the wall in front of me and I’m still not seeing it.  But I just don’t see this actually happening.  There may be a sad, lonely, person here or there who dreams of life with an inanimate companion, but I think that person is the exception.  The reason I believe this is that we know the difference.  (Did anyone else see Lars and the Real Girl?)  We know that programmed affection from a machine is not the same as real affection from a person.  No amount of technological sophistication can change that.

What interests me more, though, is a tangent to the robot premise.  I wonder about the increasingly robotic nature of our relationships with other people.  We keep up via Facebook and Twitter.  We hit Reply All on e-mail threads.  My MBA girlfriends and I try to connect for one breakfast or dinner per month, but even that has been hard now that most of us are mothers of very young families.  Apart from the three colleagues with whom I eat lunch most days, the sweeping majority of my interaction with my friends is electronic.

This is largely due to convenience, but there is also a safety net in mass electronic communication.  If I’m sitting in a one-on-one situation with you I have to be tuned into you.  I have to read you.  I have to respond to you.  That’s a lot of work, not to mention the fact that I could really screw it up.  Conversely, I have an audience of one.  If something I say doesn’t resonate with you, it might hit me hard.  But in the electronic realm we communicate with a panel of friends.  We only have to talk about ourselves.  Chances are good that someone among our online friends will see fit to endorse what we post.  And we only have to respond to people if we really want to.  Most of what we read goes untouched.  We could never get away with this kind of behavior in real life.

I don’t think we will ever rely on robots the way we rely on people.  It just won’t happen.  But I do worry that without practice our interpersonal skills might atrophy over time, and with that atrophy our in-person relationships will become unsatisfying.  The risk here is not that robots will replace people as companions.  The risk is that without practice our social skills become so scant that we might, even if only for a moment, want them to.  And that, to me, is scary enough.

Chivalry or Chauvanism?

Monday, March 14th, 2011

Even if you aren’t a Christian, you probably know the story.  It’s from Genesis and has been leveraged into literature throughout Christendom.  It goes like this:  Adam and Eve are in the Garden of Eden.  God tells them that they may eat the fruit of any tree in the garden except for the tree in the middle of the garden otherwise they will die.  Then the serpent comes along and says, “Yeah, God was not totally honest with you.  That tree over there in the middle is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  If you eat its fruit you won’t die, but you’ll know of good and evil and you’ll also realize that you’re naked and you’ll probably want to cover up.”  So Eve buys into the serpent’s story (which, by the way, was accurate), takes a bite, and peer pressures poor Adam into jumping off the bridge with her.

This story was the Old Testament scripture lesson in church yesterday, and when the priest kicked off the sermon he did something that caught my attention.  As he began to make analogies that would carry throughout the sermon, he attributed the disobedience to Adam alone.  He talked about Adam setting the course for the human race by eating the forbidden fruit.  Per the sermon it was Adam’s decision to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Eve was not edited out of the scripture reading (thankfully) but she was wholly cut out of the sermon.

As the sermon progressed I thought about this glaring omission.  I thought maybe it was an attempt at political correctness.  Perhaps it would have been a faux pas to blame the woman for sending all humans on a crash course to sin.  Perhaps it was a decision based on chivalry.

But the priest’s neglect of Eve’s role didn’t sit right with me.  Political correctness aside, the truth (per scripture, at least) is that Eve took the plunge first and exerted her bad girl influence over her unsuspecting husband.  So why leave her out?  Was it an attempt to mitigate Eve’s role in a pivotal moment of the Bible?  If so, I’d call that straight-up chauvinism.

GAP (who is wise about such things) pointed out to me that some scholars believe that the blame was placed on Eve to diminish the role of women – to position them as easily manipulated by male-centric authors of the day.  Our church takes scripture more literally than I do.  (I think a lot of people see the Old Testament this way, but I apply a fairly non-literal interpretation to much of the New Testament as well.)  I believe the Bible was written by fallible, human men.  It was written in pieces 100 to 200 years after the crucifixion  when memories had faded and oral tradition had allowed stories to evolve.  So I was surprised at this departure from the written word in the sermon.  The priest who spoke yesterday is younger than our other priests.  I am heartened to believe that his interpretation of scripture might be more akin to my own than to the literal interpretation of the older priests.

I don’t have an answer here.  But I was intrigued by the decision about Eve.  Chivalry and chauvinism don’t often show up in lock step.  But I wonder if yesterday’s sermon might have exhibited a little bit of both.

The Playground Hypothesis

Friday, March 11th, 2011

I’m testing a hypothesis here. 

A couple of weeks ago I went on a research bender in preparation for one of my posts on children and achievement.  As a part of that bender I read an article from Psychology Today entitled “A Nation of Wimps” wherein the author posits that “parental hyperconcern has the net effect of making kids more fragile.”  The article is long and covers a lot of ground about parenting young kids and how our parenting decisions influence the kind of adults they become.  Touching on topics from playgrounds to binge drinking to cell phones it sheds light on a many parenting dilemmas.  I highly recommend it.

One of the topics covered by the article that most intrigued me (but which did not dovetail with my prior posts referencing it) was free play.  I have explored the topic of free play in the past, but the “Wimpy Kids” article prompted me to consider it afresh.  It begins by describing a hypothetical-but-realistic playground scene in which the parents do not chat on park benches, but rather stand right next to their kids, “co-playing” and coaching them through the playground.  When I was a kid any snapshot of a playground outing pictured all of the parents on park benches, chatting away and keeping half an eye on their kids while they enjoyed some adult conversation.  Apparently this is no longer the case.

The article goes on to describe the larger implications of the decline in free play: 

“In the hothouse that child raising has become, play is all but dead. Over 40,000 U.S. schools no longer have recess. And what play there is has been corrupted. The organized sports many kids participate in are managed by adults; difficulties that arise are not worked out by kids but adjudicated by adult referees. … Kids are having a hard time even playing neighborhood pick-up games because they’ve never done it, observes Barbara Carlson, president and cofounder of Putting Families First. ‘They’ve been told by their coaches where on the field to stand, told by their parents what color socks to wear, told by the referees who’s won and what’s fair. Kids are losing leadership skills.’”

So there it is, plain as day: free play is really good for our kids.  Or, perhaps more pointed, a lack of free play is really bad for our kids.  Given this, why have we as parents, coaches, and educators let this vital part of childhood die off?  If we know it is good for our kids, and we know that constantly hovering around them – whether it’s to ensure matching socks or to encourage them to pick the big slide – is damaging, then why do we do it?

This brings me to my hypothesis.  If we sit back and are uninvolved in our kids’ play we feel neglectful.  If we let them work the puzzle alone while we respond to an e-mail; if we let them dig in the dirt outside on their own while we flip through a magazine or fold laundry; if we are not actively cultivating their minds at all times then we think we are lazy, indulgent, and selfish parents.  We positively swim in the guilt of it. 

Yet the research shows that our parenting would be improved by a longer leash.  Our kids will end up more balanced and capable if we get out of their faces a little bit.  Psychology Today tells us, “The less time children spend in free play, the less socially competent they’ll be as adults. It’s in play that we learn give and take, the fundamental rhythm of all relationships. We learn how to read the feelings of others and how to negotiate conflicts.”

So I ask you, do you let your kids play on their own?  Or do you feel the pull to involve yourself in their play, encouraging learning and guiding their interactions?  The research is unequivocal – we need to back off.  But the cultural pressures to hover are strong.  We feel like slackers when we take a step back.  But I think we owe it to our kids to quit trying so hard.

Love and the Ledger

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

There are places where it’s appropriate to keep score.  Sports games.  Debate matches.  Grade point averages.  But not marriages, right?  Mostly right, I think.  A standard understanding of psychology and marriage tells us that keeping score within a relationship is a bad idea; that the tit-for-tat approach only leads to bitterness and hurt feelings.  Nevertheless, I contend that it still goes on, and with good purpose.

A tweet from Gretchen Rubin turned me onto this Wall Street Journal article about how we divvy up all of the responsibilities within a marriage.  Author Katherine Rosman wisely observes that, “In a coupling of two busy people, it’s inevitable that a marital ledger develops, sometimes spoken, sometimes not.”  She notes that during a week in which she had to work especially long hours her husband put in a lot of time with their two young children and then ponders how much free time on the weekend that earns him.

GAP and I have similar arrangements.  We alternate who comes home by 6:00 to let the nanny off.  I volunteer at the children’s hospital on Sundays, and he plays league basketball on Tuesdays.  There is a give and take to these things.  But in order for there to be a give and take, there has to be some sort of score – some baseline of equality against which we measure.  The distinction here, and in Rosman’s description, is that we have to care more about what we owe than what we are owed.  If I care most about when GAP is in the hole, this scorekeeping devolves into the stereotype we all fear.  But if I worry only about my debts, and let GAP worry about his debts, then we stay balanced without things turning sour.

Rosman tells a story about a recent week when her husband and kids were plagued with the flu, when she did laundry for days on end to keep the germs at bay, when she was dealing with a looming deadline that overwhelmed her, and how her husband helped her through her meltdown to make the deadline.  The morning after the deadline she and her husband were both cranky and tired from having been up late.  It had snowed overnight and the car needed to be scraped.  And she explained:

He could have said — but never would — that I should scrape the car because he had helped me with my story the night before. He never would say that, because that isn’t why he had helped me.

In every marriage, there are things we do for the ledger. And then there are things we do for love.

And that’s what makes the difference.  For all our efforts to keep our marriages balanced, what really matters is that at the end of the day, when we really need each other, we help each other not for the IOU on the other end of the favor, but for love.