Smile Train

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A local storefront in our town has the following saying in its window: “If you see someone without a smile, give them one of yours.”

It’s a clever epigram for a dental office. But it’s also a great sentiment, suggesting an easy way to spread joy.

When I was a teacher, I would stand outside my classroom door between class periods to welcome the students. One day as I stood there, I noticed most of the students smiling at me. This was not a normal occurrence in a hallway full of teenagers. All at once, I realized why. I had been standing there with a big smile on my face.

Research has shown that if people hold a pencil between their teeth, forcing their mouths into a smile, their moods improve. The adage, “Fake it ’til you make it” applies here. Smiling will help us feel happy. And as I discovered in the hallways of the high school, smiling is contagious.

The importance of a smile is a guiding force behind the charity Smile Train. Smile Train funds surgery for children born with cleft lip or palate whose parents do not have the resources to correct the defect. To be sure, there are medical reasons for correcting a cleft lip or palate. But providing a child with a more beautiful smile is not an unimportant one.

The power of a smile has special meaning in my life. When my husband and I adopted our youngest child from China, our first days with her were traumatic. She was bewildered and afraid. Something as simple as a bath would make her cry hysterically, and she would look at us with such somber eyes.

One morning at breakfast in the hotel, I was feeding my daughter. On impulse, I bent down and pressed my forehead to hers. She looked up at me and broke out in a beautiful grin. That smile was a sign. We had a beautiful relationship ahead of us.

Why not try seeing how powerful your smile can be today?

For more information on the wonderful work of Smile Train, go to:

http://www.smiletrain.org

Crazy Californians Need to Get Their Shots

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When I was younger, it was popular to describe California as “the land of fruit and nuts.” The state was depicted as rife with hippies, drugs, and wackos. Of course, this is an unfair characterization, but there is a certain element in the Golden State that resists going mainstream.

And one of the disturbing areas where there is a large fringe element is in the anti-vaccination movement. I recently read a report that officials were warning unvaccinated people not to visit Disneyland due to an outbreak of measles, most of which occurred at the Anaheim park. This report follows last year’s major outbreak of whooping cough, where once again, California led the nation in cases of a disease that is serious and potentially fatal, especially to infants.

The anti-vaccination movement has gotten out of hand. There are no credible scientific reports that demonstrate these vaccines lead to autism, yet high profile celebrities have begun crusades against these life-saving medicines. Come on, people. Do you really want to get your medical advice from Jenny McCarthy?

I have experienced first hand the sometimes deadly consequences of contagious diseases. My own sister died from complications of measles when she was eight years old. I also met a woman who had lost her son to complications of chicken pox.

While many would argue that getting children vaccinated should be a parent’s decision, the failure of large numbers of families to  vaccinate has made it a public health issue. If less than 95% of the population is not vaccinated, we lose what is known as “herd immunity,” and diseases that were all but eradicated can come roaring back.

The reappearance of contagious diseases such as measles and whooping cough are especially serious for young infants who have not yet received immunizations. They can also affect the elderly, whose immunity may have waned and who may not have the physical health to withstand a bout of serious illness.

The public should also be aware that booster shots are required throughout our lives to help keep up our immunity and protect us and others from a reemergence of diseases like measles, mumps, rubella, and pertussis (whooping cough).

I respect others’ rights to make choices based upon their personal or religious beliefs. But when their actions endanger the safety and health of others, that’s where I draw the line. So get yourselves and your children vaccinated. That’s an order!

Fair and Balanced

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After President Obama’s State of the Union address, the analyses and reactions rolled in and were the height of predictability. Liberals high-fived each other, and conservatives criticized. For once, I would like to have heard or read a comment something to this effect:

Well, the economy is somewhat better, and universal health care seems like mostly a good idea. But I’m not sure we’re doing enough to go after ISIS. Middle class tax cuts sound good, but I don’t want to have to pay for them, if I’m being honest. Barack Obama is not the greatest president who ever lived, but he’s not the worst.

In other words, I would like to hear something more “fair and balanced” than what is trotted out in the national news and on social media. It’s getting tiresome hearing the same old saws coming from the same old pundits.

Being objective is supposed to be the goal of journalists, but more and more, news organizations, and the people who work for them, have cozied up to the powers that be. Glitzy correspondence dinners, travel, and other perks from political leaders have eroded the credibility of the news media. In the golden era of news, it was impossible to discern the political leanings of television news anchors. Now I could easily make bets on the political party affiliation of most anchors, reporters, and news analysts.

In the personal sphere, I find it frustrating to engage in political debates with friends and acquaintances. Our prejudices blind us to each other’s point of view. With such a polarized populace, how can we make meaningful progress in our society?

I have one Facebook friend named Dennis whom I have found to be refreshingly unpredictable in his opinions about current affairs. Often seeming very conservative, he has also given Pres. Obama credit where he felt credit was due. Although I don’t always agree with Dennis, at least I get the sense that he is actually sifting through facts and different sides of an issue before he makes up his own mind. Isn’t this what we should all be doing?

I myself tend to be a knee-jerk liberal. I have a hard time stomaching anything that comes from the Republican Party or Fox News. And I don’t like to admit it when the Democrats have made a mistake, such as not sending a high level delegate to the solidarity march in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo killings.

But there is only one way to grow in knowledge and understanding, and that is to seek out opposing viewpoints, evaluate evidence, and make informed judgments. Guess it’s time for me to read the National Review.

Getting It Right

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Since I’ve written in the past about pre-teen angst, it’s only fair to share when things go right.

This morning was a comedy of errors as my thirteen-year-old tried to shoulder a huge, heavy backpack while carrying her lunch bag and saxophone in each hand. It was still dark out but time for early morning band practice.

As the car glided through the quiet suburban streets, I told my daughter that the size and weight of her backpack reminded me of Cheryl Strayed, the woman portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in the movie Wild, who hiked the Pacific Coast Trail by herself.

It had been a three-day weekend, and I said to my daughter, “You know, you might not believe it, but I’m kind of sad – ”

She cut in, in a mimic of my voice, “You’d think I’d be tap dancing to have you all gone, but no. Back to school, back to work, back to responsibilities.”

“You always say that, Mom,” she explained, as I chuckled at how perfectly she had nailed my way of speaking.

“But aren’t you glad I feel that way?” I asked her.

“Yeah, but you said it after Thanksgiving, you said it after Christmas, now Martin Luther King Day.”

We both giggled. I can be something of a broken record, a trait that only worsens as I get older.

As my daughter struggled her way out of the car, hoisting that horrible backpack, I called, “Bye, Reese Witherspoon!”

She laughed and closed the car door.

As I pulled away from the curb, I smiled, reflecting that in the realm of parenting my teenager, sometimes we get it right.

Boko Haram: Where is the Outrage?

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The eyes of the world have been riveted on Paris, where armed men brazenly gunned down staff members of a satirical magazine called Charlie Hebdo and spread terror throughout the city before they were killed by police three days later. In all, 16 people were ruthlessly shot down in those three days.

Meanwhile, in the African nation of Nigeria, the terrorist group Boko Haram was on a rampage of violence that is estimated to have left 2,000 innocent civilians dead. It was the deadliest attack yet for Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is forbidden” and whose stated aim is an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria and surrounding countries.

Yet while millions of people marched in Paris arm in arm, waving placards that said, “Je Suis Charlie,” I have seen no such organized protests against the brutal murder of thousands of civilians by an organization that kidnaps young girls to be sex slaves and recently strapped explosives to three 10-year-old girls, detonating them in a crowded square.

Why the difference? I think the answer lies in the Western world’s inability to identify with the “otherness” of Africa. Whether it be the genocide in Rwanda and South Sudan or the slaughter of thousands in Nigeria, we in the US and Western Europe seem to turn away.

Like many of us, I was outraged by what happened in Paris, and I believe it’s heroic to take a stand for free speech. But I also think it’s important to stand up for the innocent and the downtrodden. For a brief moment last spring, the world did sit up and take notice of what Boko Haram was doing in Nigeria. Images of Americans, including First Lady Michelle Obama, popped up on the internet with signs that said, “Free Our Girls.”

I realize that marching, protesting, and waving signs will not save lives. And I am not talking about US policies on military intervention. Ironically, Nigeria has so far refused US military assistance to fight the menace in their own backyard.

But I think we are insufficiently afraid of the group Boko Haram. Like other Islamic terrorist groups, they are waging a holy war. Nigeria is a Christian-led country, as are some of the surrounding states that Boko Haram has in its sights. In fact, the leader of Boko Haram, in a rare commentary on world events, praised the Paris attacks. According to the former US ambassador to Nigeria, the remarks indicate an ambition to be “part of a much bigger global movement.” (NBC News)

More importantly, we need to stand up for human rights no matter what the nationality, skin color, or religious persuasion.

Je suis l’humanité.

Do You Do Birthdays?

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Yesterday was my birthday.

When my husband and I started dating, he told me he didn’t “do” birthdays. He was uninterested in receiving any cards or gifts, having a cake, or in any way celebrating the day of his birth. I just didn’t get it.

I love birthdays. On my birthday, I am the queen, the center of attention. Feed me bonbons while I lounge on a chaise and read a good book. For my 40th birthday, my husband threw me a surprise party. I was totally in my glory and enjoyed every minute. If I threw a surprise party for my other half, he would divorce me.

Apparently people have different feelings about marking the date that indicates they are another year older.

I think the reason I am so into birthdays stems from my childhood. I grew up in a family with 11 children, so there was only so much attention to go around. On my birthday, however, I got to choose the dinner menu, blow out the candles on my cake, and open a gift that was not a hand-me-down. The attention was on me, and I reveled in it.

The other reason I love birthdays is that I can be unabashedly selfish. On most other days of the year, I don’t feel right about putting my own desires above the needs and wants of others. But on my birthday, I allow myself to do what I want. I let the laundry pile up and the kids fend for themselves. I eat deep dish pizza for dinner (something my family abhors) and have a glass of wine. (Well, okay, I have a glass of wine on many nights that aren’t my birthday.)

As I’ve gotten older, I have extended the celebration to encompass a few days to a week of “Mary’s birthday.” It’s fabulous.

Like most people, when I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to get older. Now I am wishing I could slow down the hands of the clock. Yesterday I met a friend in the bakery where – you guessed it – I was buying birthday treats, and she told me she was picking up a cake for her husband, who turned 50 that day. I was delighted with the coincidence of our mutual birthdays but envious that he was “only 50.”

Sure, birthdays can make us painfully aware of our mortality. That’s all the more reason to do them up big. Buy all the candles in the party store, and line them up on a massive whipped cream cake. Share a toast with friends and family and celebrate that wonderful day when you were born.

As a wise man once said, having another birthday sure beats the alternative!

Making Mental Illness Cool

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I have noticed a tendency in our current culture to casually ascribe various forms of mental illness to ourselves and others.

“Sorry, it’s my ADD. What were you saying?”

“My OCD is out of control.”

“Whoa! Have you taken your meds today?”

“She can be so bipolar sometimes!”

And I find myself wondering whether this phenomenon is a good thing or a bad thing.

On the one hand, it’s refreshing to hear people openly discussing mental illness – taking it out of the shadows, so to speak. With health insurance increasingly providing coverage for mental health, well-known public figures revealing their own struggles with mental illness, and a (slowly) growing acceptance that such afflictions as depression and bipolar disorder are diseases and not character flaws, we have made great strides in de-stigmatizing people who suffer from mental illness.

On the other hand, throwing around terms like “OCD” and “bipolar” flippantly seems to trivialize the very real and often devastating effects of mental illness. Just because I’m a bit moody, that doesn’t mean I have bipolar disorder. A person who is an extreme neatnik does not necessarily have obsessive compulsive disorder.

One problem I can foresee is that by ascribing our behavior so readily to some form of mental illness, we make it harder for people who truly suffer from the disease to be taken seriously. This has already started to happen with Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity (ADHD). There has been a strong backlash against what people see as the over-diagnosis of children with ADHD.

Another problem with trivializing mental illness is that people who don’t really suffer from mental illness will see themselves as victims of ADHD, autism, or OCD. We can develop a victim mentality and make excuses for our behavior based upon our own self-diagnoses.

I am glad that mental illness has been hauled out of the dark attic where it used to be hidden, shrouded in whispers and shame. I am glad there are organizations such as NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) to promote understanding, research, and help for those who genuinely do suffer from mental illness. I am even glad that we can laugh about it a bit, thus removing some of the angst surrounding these diseases.

I just think we should proceed with caution when we talk about such illnesses as depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, and autism, for example. And I know that we should take seriously the struggles of those who suffer from any form of mental illness.