Monthly Archives: May 2013

Lessons of a Bow Tie

My eldest son, currently finishing his junior year, went to his high school prom this past week.  He had purchased a corsage for his date with ribbons to match her dress, and his date had purchased him a bow tie in the same color.  Cute, yes?

My son gathered all the elements of his outfit for the big evening a day ahead of time, to make sure there was no last minute black-sock-finding crisis or any other such problem.  On prom day afternoon, he started getting ready early.  Plenty of time to spare.  My husband was on his way home, and I went out to pick up the other two boys in time for everyone to head over together to his date’s house to pick her up and walk over to Prom Park (it has a real name, but this park has been used in our community for so many years as a gathering place for pictures before the yearly dance that everyone just calls it Prom Park).

My cell phone rang.  “Hi Mom.  I’m on that how-to-tie-a-bow-tie website, but I can’t get it to work.  This might be a problem.”  “Don’t worry, Sweetie, I’m on my way home.  I’ll figure it out.”  No problem.  I know how to tie a regular tie – how difficult could it be to tie a bow tie?

Apparently, it could be quite difficult.

There were plenty of websites with directions.  And directions were in the box that the tie came in.  And they all described the process in the same way, which involved exquisite detail on how to cross one end over the other and pull it through (the same first step used to tie a shoe), and then going to an incomprehensible step involving six simultaneous movements requiring three hands and a degree in mechanical engineering.  Unfortunately, our mechanical engineer was still on his way home from work, and he also had never actually tied a bow tie.

As this wardrobe step that we had assumed would take five minutes stretched to 25 minutes, I sent the other boys to find a neighbor who knew how to tie one.  No luck.  A few texts to see if anyone at his date’s house knew how to do it.  Also no luck.

But as we were seeking outside consultation, we stayed in front of the computer, looking at different instruction pictures and videos, and kept trying.  It started getting a little closer.  We figured out the first half of the bow.  At this point, we were close to running late.  The second half of the bow wasn’t right – it was folded kind of backwards.  My husband arrived home.  He grabbed the prom tickets from the counter, my middle son grabbed the corsage from the fridge, my youngest son grabbed the camera, and we all went to the car, with me not letting go of the half-bow around my eldest son’s neck.  Still not letting go, I maneuvered into the back seat next to him.  My youngest son buckled my seat belt for me as I folded the second bow half the other way and pulled the end through the knot loop in front.  And it looked like a bow tie.

And I tightened it.  And it stayed.

We worked on evening it out and centering it during the mile-and-a-half ride, with everyone giving input and opinions as to whether it should be under or over the little folded points on the tuxedo shirt collar.  We pulled up at my son’s date’s house and clambered out of the car.  Lots of pictures.  Corsage and boutonniere exchanged.  More pictures.

Two block walk to Prom Park.  Hundreds of very well-dressed juniors and seniors with familial paparazzi following them around, the kids posing in various combinations and permutations with friends met this year, friends from infancy, and friends from everywhere in between.  One classmate, who always wears bow ties (there’s always one, isn’t there?), looked at my son and said “good job on the tie!”  Any lingering doubts my son may have had on the quality of the bow work disappeared with that one line.

The park picture frenzy went on for well over an hour-and-a-half, and then the kiddos piled onto limo buses and were off for an evening of dinner and dancing.  And I had time to reflect on the events of just a couple hours earlier.

In the grand scheme of things, a bow tie is nothing.  Not a big deal.  Even by prom standards, it’s a small thing.  But the saga of this particular accessory can teach, and it can be tied in (get it – tied?) to other life areas, including the medical realm.

Aside from the obvious life lesson that one should practice new things ahead of time, the difficulty of this accessorial knot reminded me of aspects of the art of practicing medicine and of the art of navigating a personal health issue.  When confronted with difficulty, keeping calm and breathing deeply helps significantly.  Panic won’t get you anywhere.  Look for sources of help.  If an expert consultant is not immediately available, read and re-read available writings on the subject.  Look at different pictures, read descriptions, and watch some video.  Looking at a situation from different angles can help you see the whole picture.

If you don’t understand something, don’t give up.  Keep asking questions.  As you’re focusing on the problem at hand, have others around you help with the other details of your life.  If something seems really wrong, it’s ok to start over.  As you get closer to figuring out a solution or plan, keep a tight hold on what you’ve already figured out.  Confirmation from an expert that you’re doing the right thing can be quite powerful.

And remember to enjoy the dance with those around you.

The Birth of a Birthday Cake

Made a couple of birthday cakes in the last couple days, since there have been a couple of birthdays in my house.  In the time since I baked my eldest child’s very first birthday cake to now, as we celebrate his 17th birthday, there’s been some change in my approach to cake.

I’ve always made cakes from scratch – I like having control over ingredients, it’s fairly easy to do, and it tends to impress people.  Back then, I hadn’t yet discovered whole wheat pastry flour, which I now use almost all the time.  It’s available at most “health food” stores and many “regular” supermarkets.  Whole wheat pastry flour has a very light, mild flavor.  It bakes up soft and light.  And it has 4 to 5 times more fiber than white flour, and about 25% more protein.  The fiber and protein help keep you feeling full, and help slow your body’s absorption of sugar.

Speaking of sugar, I’ve certainly changed how I use that in my baking.  I used to use as much sugar as a recipe called for.  Now I routinely decrease the amounts of sugar, brown sugar, molasses, etc., and my cakes, while still plenty sweet, are not cloying.  You can cut down by about a quarter of what a recipe calls for without any complaints from the kids (or from grown-ups, for that matter).

In any cake recipe that lists “shortening,” I substitute canola oil.  Works just fine, and avoids hydrogenated fats.  I’ve also found several soft butter substitutes made without hydrogenated oils that work wonderfully in frosting.  I make a basic “butter frosting” with the aforementioned substitute, powdered sugar, and a little low-fat buttermilk.  Or, depending on the type of cake, I’ll sometimes “frost” a cake by putting a layer of mini marshmallows on top and popping it briefly in the oven to get a melted toasted marshmallow topping (watch very closely if you do this, because it can burn very quickly).

I haven’t found a great way to reduce the amount of sugar in frosting, but it’s very easy to simply reduce the amount of frosting I use.  And I reduce the amount of cake I make, as well.  I used to make a full recipe any time I made a cake.  Now, if it’s just going to be the five of us on a birthday night, I don’t make a full double layer cake that’s supposed to feed a dozen people (because those dozen servings would simply over-feed the less-than-half-dozen of us) – I halve the recipe and make a single layer.  And I leave it in the glass baking pan and just put a thin layer of frosting on the top.

There’s certainly plenty for all of us, but not so much that those of us with limited cake will power can go too far overboard.  And when we have birthdays right on top of one another, that’s especially helpful!


Consequences of a Dandy Time

Today, I am in pain.  Here’s the story:

There are many things that I’m good at.  Horticulture is not one of them.  Generally, I kill plants.  It’s genetic.  My mom has generally killed plants, too.  Her explanation is the same as mine:  plants, unlike children and pets, don’t make noise when they need something.  So they will at some point become too dehydrated to make it back to health when I finally see the shrivelled, cracked leaves and dump water on them.  In recent years, my mother has been successful with some tomato plants, and I have had success with some herbs – the power of the food incentive is also apparently genetic.

However, a glaring exception to my horticulturally challenged life is my extreme talent for cultivating weeds in our yard.  There’s actually no mystery here.  We don’t have the fertilizer/herbicide/pesticide truck come to our home.  These chemicals run off lawns and into our ground water supply.  While there may be times when use of some of these synthetic chemicals in moderation may be helpful to our human population, for our family the risks and environmental costs far outweigh the benefit of a pristine lawn.  We’ve looked into organic methods of weed control, and it sounds like corn gluten works reasonably, but apparently it can attract rats, and I’d WAY rather have weeds than rats.  Spraying a mixture of vodka, vinegar and dish soap on the weeds doesn’t work at all.

So we have a really horrible lawn.  In other respects, we are decent neighbors (we share when we bake or when we go apple picking, we return dogs who get out of fenced-in yards, we watch out for things when neighbors are away, etc.), so I generally try not to allow myself too much guilt over the mown-weed look of our yard.  But when the dandelions bloom in the spring, I feel bad.  So yesterday morning, I went outside with a couple of trowels and a dandelion-removing contraption (doesn’t work so well, but switching tools every once in awhile helps break up the monotony and spreads the work to different muscle groups).  And I started pulling out dandelions.

And I kept pulling dandelions.  My husband helped for a few hours.  My 12-year-old helped for a bit.  My 15 and 17-year-olds made fun of my hat, pointed out the futility of my endeavor, and made me lunch.

And I kept pulling.  Different positions.  Switching hands.  Sitting, standing, squatting.  Filled up two yard waste bags.  Like shoveling snow, there was a meditative quality to the work.  There was also a bizarre feeling of triumph with each yanked root.   I cleared about 25% of our front lawn and stopped due to physical exhaustion and the need to pick up groceries.

Which brings me back to today’s soreness.  Apparently, pulling dandelions is an incredible workout.  I hurt in most of the places that personal trainers and exercise videos target.  Muscles in my abdomen, thighs (mostly back, some front, also inner and outer), shoulders, buttocks, upper arms (front and back), upper back and flank are all speaking to me today.  It really was a full-body workout.  And much cheaper than a gym membership.

The dandelions are already growing back this morning in the cleared areas, so I’m set with the muscle-building part of my fitness plan for the summer!



Sun Spot

Gorgeous weather here recently – sunshine, mid 60s to mid 70’s, sunshine, light breeze, sunshine, and did I mention sunshine?  People are outside again.  My kids have noticed that there is a palpable increase in energy among their classmates.  Spring is sprung!

So we’re outside a lot more, happily taking in the warmth and the light.  And the UV rays.  And the conflicting caveats to stay-out-of-the-sun-so-you-don’t-get-skin-cancer and to get-enough-sunshine-so-your-body-can-make-enough-vitamin-D.  Both of the caveats have merit, and a little practicality and balance can go a long way.

The sun can certainly harm us, but lack of sun can harm as well.

Sunburns are not good – aside from the temporary pain they cause (and the dehydration and infection risk, too, if they are serious burns), they are linked with a higher risk of melanoma (the least common but most deadly of the “big three” skin cancers: melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma).  The later melanoma risk seems to occur when the sunburns occur during childhood (when folks in this country tend to get most of their sun exposure), but sunburns are not good for adults either.  Cumulative lifetime sun exposure, in addition to increasing skin cancer risk, also causes generalized skin aging (wrinkles, sagging, etc.).  The sun seems to do its harm through a combination of direct DNA damage and damage to the skin’s immune processes.

Of course looking directly at the sun can cause permanent, severe eye damage and blindness, but ambient sunlight exposure can harm our eyes also, as well as our skin.  One biggie is that cumulative sun exposure is related to certain types of cataracts (clouding of the eye’s lense).  An afternoon skiing/sledding, at the beach, out on the water, or out in the open without adequate eye protection can cause photokeratitis (“snowblindness,” a temporary (and painful) burn of the cornea due to bright, ambient sunlight intensified by reflection off snow, sand, concrete, etc.).  Wearing sunglasses with 100% UVA and UVB protection helps protect your eyes from bright ambient sunlight.  And wide brimmed hats are quite helpful as well.

Lack of sunlight has its downsides.  Seasonal Affective Disorder is depression that occurs during winter and early spring, thought to result from prolonged lack of sunlight.  It is actually treated with light therapy.  There are medical conditions that occur more frequently in areas with longer winters. The conditions are likely multi-factorial, but may certainly have a lack-of-sunlight component.  Low vitamin D levels have been found more frequently in people with very little sun exposure.

Sunlight helps us regulate our circadian rhythms, and it’s simply a pleasure to be outside on days with bright blue skies.

So here’s what I do regarding me and my family and sun exposure:

We love being outside, and we get outside frequently.  I find that the best time is in the early morning – it’s cool, the sun wakes me up, people are out but it’s not yet crowded and noisy everywhere, and there’s plenty of shade (since shadows are long).  When there’s not plenty of shade, wide-brimmed hats, preferably ones with flaps to cover napes of necks, are essential (you can find great ones at Army/Navy stores).  When outside during the part of the day when the sun is strongest (about 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on the eastern edge of the time zone, and about 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on the western edge of the time zone), we seek shade (there’s still plenty of scattered ambient light to enjoy, and brief forays into direct sunlight in between shady spots allow for some vitamin D synthesis).  When shade is not available, we make use of hats and sunglasses, protective clothing when practical, and use of a good sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher, UVA and UVB protection), applied thoroughly and frequently.

(Note: Sunscreen use has been associated with a decrease in risk of basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, but not of melanoma, so given what we know at this point, it’s still probably best to seek shade when possible, even when wearing sunscreen.)

We always keep hats and sunglasses in the car (it’s not difficult to find cheap sunglasses that block 100% of UVA and UVB).  I keep sunscreen in my purse, and the kids keep it in their backpacks and sports bags, but we try to make use of shade and avoidance-of-peak-hour-sun in preference to sunscreen when possible (this is difficult to do at track meets, so we use a ton of sunscreen at those).  We also use big golf umbrellas to shield ourselves from the sun at track meets or other similar outdoor spectator activities (tons of people do this – such a smart, basic idea, and I had never thought to do it until I saw it done at a high school meet a few years ago).

Happy spring!  Happy sunshine!  Enjoy your day!  Enjoy being outside!