How Sweet It Is!

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I’m sorry to say that after giving up dessert for the 40 days of Lent, I haven’t lost my sweet tooth. On the eve of Easter, I can almost taste those dark chocolate marshmallow eggs I crave.

I was really hoping I’d lose my taste for sugar, villain number one according to the latest nutritional advice. It’s sugar, we are increasingly being told, not fat, that we should be avoiding. And I think that’s because as with many things in life, we take our love for sweetness too far.

In the olden days, sugar was a luxury item. It was used sparingly to sweeten coffee or tea. Mother might bake a cake for a special occasion, but people otherwise didn’t get much refined sugar in their diets. In wartime, sugar was one of the things that was rationed.

But as modern technology made all kinds of convenience foods available and cheap, sugary foods and drinks became ubiquitous. One of the biggest sources of calories in the American diet comes from soda pop, which is loaded with sugar. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in particular is a molecularly altered sugar that is believed to interact in harmful ways with the human body. (Thanks for that science-y info, cousin Trish!) And HFCS is the main ingredient in most sodas.

And switching to diet drinks does not seem to help people lose weight in the long run. I think that’s because the artificial sweeteners still make us crave sugar. And I think that is behind my annual failure to curb my sweet tooth during Lent. Not having banished all sugar from my diet, I still want it.

Sugar is synonymous with fun and celebration. Every party features sweets: from birthday cakes to Christmas cookies to Easter candy. When I was a child, in the evening while we watched TV we were allowed to pick out a candy bar for “treat time.” Dessert was always the reward for having eaten those horrible green beans. Sweets are the stuff of childhood dreams. Why else would Roald Dahl have written the fantasy Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Why else would the Brothers Grimm imagine a candy-studded gingerbread house to lure the unsuspecting Hansel and Gretel into the witch’s clutches?

Tomorrow the Easter Bunny will leave some delicious chocolate at our house. Luckily, the treats the Bunny brings are far too pricey for me to wolf down in one sitting. So I’ll pace myself (and share with the family). I may never conquer my sweet tooth, but let’s hope my Lenten abstinence from them will help me better appreciate the delights of sugar.

As Shakespeare would say, “Sweets to the sweet!”

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Just Say No to Teenage Drinking

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Teens-Drinking-at-a-PartyThis morning’s Chicago Tribune had an article about New Trier officials’ alarm at the increase in binge drinking by their students, as reported anonymously in a survey the students complete annually to gauge teenage health and safety. As national underage drinking rates go down, New Trier’s has gone up.

Recently my teenage daughter told me she wished my husband and I were more “cool” about underage drinking. Apparently many teens’ parents tolerate and even expect a certain amount of drinking on the part of their high school kids. Many parents reason that it’s safer to have kids drink under their supervision. They feel it will lead to more responsible drinking in college.

But as New Trier assistant superintendent says, “All of the research shows it doesn’t work that way.” (“New Trier officials: Binge drinking grew exponentially,” Chicago Tribune, March 11, 2019) According to the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, “Adolescents who attend parties where parents supply alcohol are at increased risk for heavy episodic drinking, alcohol-related problems, and drinking and driving.” (Celia Vimont, drugfree.org, Oct. 1, 2014)

It’s difficult as a parent to take a hard line on the issue of teen drinking. Our culture is very accepting of it, popular movies depict it, and it has come to be seen almost as a rite of passage for teenagers. And teens can find ways of sneaking alcohol unbeknownst to even the most vigilant parents. Yet the research is clear. As Stevenson High School’s substance abuse prevention coordinator Cristina Cortesi states, “We know all of the studies find the number one reason kids don’t use [alcohol] is their parents.” (Tribune, March 11, 2019)

As parents, we want our children to be happy and healthy. In the short term, our teens may hate us for holding the line on teenage drinking. But we need to take the long view and realize that it is their prosperous and happy future that should be our goal.

 

Teach Your Children Well

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The other day I got behind the wheel of my husband’s car and panicked. The fuel tank was so low that the warning light had come on, and the needle was perilously close to empty.

“Relax,” my husband said. “You’ve got 28 miles before the gas runs out.”

I didn’t trust it. Ever since I started driving at age 16, I had been taught by my father never to let the gas gauge go under a quarter of a tank. It was wise advice that has kept me from being one of those roadside losers who run out of gas and have to call AAA or hoof it for miles to the nearest gas station. To this day, I make sure to fill the tank it gets close to the quarter mark.

The lessons our parents teach stick with us for the rest of our lives. I remember once shopping with my mom at a department store. She had been carrying a couple of pairs of pajamas in her arms, considering whether or not to buy them, and was no doubt distracted by having several children in tow. As she left the store and headed into the parking lot, she noticed she was still carrying the unpaid for merchandise. No sensors had gone off, and no security guard had hustled after her. But she turned right around and marched us all back into the store so that she could return the clothes. That simple action taught me never to take what wasn’t mine and to be honest and scrupulous in other areas of life.

Other things my parents taught me over the years were not to swear, not to fight (physically), to treat people with respect, write thank you notes, work hard, play fair, and take credit only for one’s own work. Most of these things they taught, not by words, but by example.

Our children are little sponges soaking up the atmosphere around them. They note what we do and say way more than we would like to think. For instance, when my oldest child was little, one of her first words started with “sh.” Clearly she heard me cursing under my breath frequently throughout the day and was simply mimicking me. Luckily, her baby voice wasn’t super clear, so no one but I knew what she was actually saying. This same child loved to hover around the edges of adult conversation as she grew up. I truly hope that what she heard from her dad and me was positive and life-affirming, not gossipy or negative. But I’m not kidding myself.

As kids get older, they tune out a lot of what their parents say. But they are still watching what we do. If our lives convey honesty, respect, compassion, and integrity, they will come to value those qualities in themselves. If we take care of our health, eat right, and exercise, so will they.

Of course, children are not clones. They will make mistakes and err in judgment just as we did when we were young. But if we are careful as parents to model lives of kindness and responsibility, the trajectory of our kids’ lives is likely to follow a similar path.

As Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang, “Teach your children well.” When they become parents themselves, they will remember the lessons of their youth and carry them forward into the future.

Celebration of Life

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Celtic-Tree-of-Life-Symbol-and-Its-MeaningAbout a dozen well wishers gathered last Sunday afternoon to celebrate the birthday of a mutual friend. To the outside world, the gathering may have seemed pleasant but ordinary. After all, people have birthdays every day of the year. But to us, our felicitations for our friend marked something even more special: new life.

One year ago, that same friend was fighting for her life after a diagnosis of advanced stage cancer. On her birthday, she was in a medical facility preparing for an intensive few months of chemotherapy and radiation in a bid to save both her life and her quality of life. I remember bringing her a battery-operated candle to brighten the sterile atmosphere of her room in that facility. And I remember the uncertainty and fear.

Over the past year, a few friends and I have tried our best to help our friend get through treatment, deal with insurance, and make sure her home, car, and bills were taken care of. With no family, she would have been truly alone in the world. All of us juggled our own family responsibilities in order to be there for her as much as possible. Sadly, one of us, herself afflicted with cancer, passed away.

A year later, my friend is 50 pounds slimmer and cancer free. All her hair has come back gloriously, and there are only a few small scars to reveal what she has been through this past year. When she showed up to her birthday party in her new skinny jeans,  we were all delighted. She’d earned that piece of cake, let me tell you.

Life is a mystery, and cancer is one of the greatest medical enigmas of our times. Why does one woman succumb to her cancer while another recovers? Why does a wife lose her young husband and have to raise young children on her own – or vice versa? What makes one person live to a ripe old age and another die young?

Obviously, I don’t have the answers to those questions. I can only do my best to live a healthy life, to care for my family and friends, and to celebrate life no matter the circumstances. I pray that my friend and all the people I love have the chance to blow out many more birthday candles before they leave this Earth. And I hope I am on hand to help them enjoy that cake.

Ignorance Isn’t Bliss

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The European continent is in the midst of an unprecedented outbreak of measles – unprecedented, at least, since a vaccine was developed to prevent measles, mumps, and rubella in the 1960s. Thirty-seven people have lost their lives due to complications of this very serious disease. Why? Because people refuse to believe accepted scientific fact on the safety of the MMR vaccine.

Ignorance is killing us.

Possibly the biggest threat to future civilizations is the warming of the Earth due to greenhouse gas emissions. The ice melt at the North and South poles, rising sea levels, catastrophic weather events such as deadly hurricanes, and record-breaking heat waves in places like Canada and Scandinavia are all harbingers of doom. But they’re harbingers many people are willfully ignoring.

My cousin is visiting from the Pacific Northwest. She has a nagging cough from the smoke that is hovering over Washington State due to wildfires raging in British Columbia. My cousin told me that as her small plane “puddle-jumped” from her hometown to Seattle, she was unable to see any of the landscape below because the smoke was so thick.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is rolling back emissions standards for automobiles, deregulating the EPA, and encouraging a resurgence of dirty coal production. This is the 21st Century equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

Once again, there is consensus that man-made global warming is a reality and that it may already be too late to save parts of the world from devastating floods, droughts, and famine. But for economic and political reasons, our government leaders are refusing to act. And they have persuaded many otherwise intelligent people that climate change is “fake news.”

And don’t look for future generations to be smarter about scientific facts. It’s well-known that the state board of education in Texas has an outsized influence on what school textbooks are selected across the country for use in our schools. In recent years, board members have objected to the theory of evolution being taught as fact, with one board member even declaring, “Evolution is hooey.” (Gail Collins, “How Texas Inflicts Bad Textbooks on Us,” The New York Review of Books, June 21, 2012)

Science used to be the one pure subject that we could count on not being tampered with by political or ideological concerns. But in our politically charged atmosphere and with so much information (and misinformation) at our fingertips, even our scientific knowledge is being called into question constantly.

I guess the number one skill we should be concentrating on in educating future generations is critical thinking.  Only dispassionate and thoughtful inquiry will lead us to truth and away from ignorance.

 

Put HPV on Kids’ Vaccine Roster

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originalWhile the anti-vaxxer movement has mostly targeted childhood immunization such as MMR and TdaP, there is another recommended vaccine regimen that tends to make parents uncomfortable: the vaccine to prevent human papilloma virus, or HPV. The reason for our discomfort is that HPV is contracted through sexual activity, and we just don’t want to think about our precious 12-year-old having sex (11-12 being the target age at which to give the vaccine series).

But if you think your child will ever have sex in his or her life, it’s a really good idea to have them immunized for HPV since the virus is incredibly common. In fact, without vaccination, most sexually active adults will contract HPV at one time or other in their lives.

The reason for vaccinating against HPV is that certain strains of the virus are known to cause cancers of the reproductive organs and the throat. HPV can also cause genital warts, which is uncomfortable and painful to treat. So while the HPV vaccine is mostly touted for girls, boys should also be vaccinated.

Naysayers will argue that giving children a vaccine against a sexually transmitted infection will encourage promiscuity. But given how widespread the virus is, even if your child remains a virgin until marriage, his or her partner may still be infected and pass along that infection to a spouse. I have also heard parents argue that the vaccine has not been proven to be safe. But millions of children have received the HPV vaccine with no serious adverse effects.

Physicians who treat common gynecological cancers such as of the cervix see great promise in the HPV vaccine. While the vaccine won’t prevent all such cancers, it will greatly reduce the number of people who develop them.

Getting our kids through childhood in one piece is only part of our responsibility as parents. We owe it to them to provide as much protection for their future as we possibly can. The two-dose HPV vaccine regimen is a relatively painless way to help them stay healthy as they mature into young men and women.

Yes, there are plenty of shots to be gotten through in childhood. But with a dose of humor and a Sponge Bob bandage, we can make the HPV double shot part of the “going to the doctor” routine.

No Hurry

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It is a pleasure and a luxury not to be in a hurry.

So often in our frantic lives, we find ourselves hurtling from A to B on our To Do lists, scarcely stopping to take a breath. Our blood pressure rises as we wait in traffic or long lines, knowing that precious minutes are ticking by and the day will all too soon be in our rearview mirror.

Time to take a breath.

This past weekend I was on my own. I could sleep in and stay in pajamas as long as I wanted in the morning. I could while away the hours reading, doing crossword puzzles and binge-watching The Chi (That show deserves a blog post of its own!). I took long walks without the nagging sense that someone or something at home needed my attention soon. And even though I had made myself a fairly impressive To Do list, I was relaxed and in no hurry to complete it.

It’s nice to drop something off at the local dry cleaner and say, “No rush” when asked when I need the item back. It’s lovely to drive when a little bit of traffic or a road closure (We’ve been having many in my small town this summer.) needn’t faze me. It’s wonderful to give my attention to small chores and errands that have been nagging at the edge of my consciousness for weeks.

On Saturday morning, I went to an 8 am yoga class. The theme of the class that day was balance, and most of our poses were designed to help us achieve that balance of body and mind. On my way home from the class, in the spirit of calm it induced, I decided that all prisons should offer yoga classes to their inmates. I can’t help but believe that a regular yoga practice would help diminish anger and aggression in those incarcerated.

Tomorrow life will return to a busier pace for me. My family and household responsibilities will keep me on a more pressing schedule. But I hope to hold onto the peace and calm I am feeling right now when there is no hurry.