Category Archives: Popular

Book Exchange

It seems like it’s about time to make myself useful, that I should impart some great knowledge or research findings. There’s just one problem. This book. I’m trapped and I can’t get out. Not only is David Sedaris on CD occupying my limited free brain space in the car, but at home it’s all about the book. I dream of the end of the day when I can go to bed and read it. That’s all I want.

I love a good epic, multi-generational tale, one that starts with the narrator’s grandparents immigrating to foreign lands usually, but not always, in times of war or disaster, on cargo ships surviving illnesses like tuberculosis and scurvy. I love almost any story that involves scurvy, except those that involve Ernest Shackleton and the eating of pets. I love present narrators – narrators as characters – who talk to me and tell me their stories. I love stories that end lifetimes later with the realization and loss of love, not always the romantic kind. This book fills all of these requirements. It might just make the list of my top 3 favorite books of all time.

The list:

Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz

And now: Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese

What are your top 3? Don’t cheat. Only 3. They don’t have to be literary or lofty; they only have to make you happy. Tell me.

Those Delicious Summer Nights

There are a few nights a year when it’s hot enough on the island to sleep outside. I love those nights. I pull the old futon mattress out from under the bed, pitch it from the loft onto the couch downstairs then drag it outside to the far end of the deck. I lay out a blanket, pillow, sleeping bag, and nestle in. It’s always cool out there in the evening unlike the loft where all the heat of the day collects and waits.

A few weeks ago, I had one of these delicious nights. Sortly after my head hit the pillow my friend the brown bat came to visit, flitting overhead in the fading light. In the middle of the night I got up to use the bathroom and when I came back I startled a heron from a nearby Douglas fir, sending him into an awkward, squawky flight. Then I fell back to sleep to the sound of the water shuffling the rocks on the beach. I slept soundly until I woke to a screech.

It sounded like cats or rats fighting on the beach. There was a sound that was kind of a rattle and kind of a growl. It was a little like purring only mad – really mad – and then more screeching and the sounds of nocturnal animal bodies crashing into the rocks. This went on and on. I tried to picture them; at least one was a river otter. Maybe they were both otters. One could also have been a raccoon or maybe some kind of rat. I wondered what they were fighting over. Turf? Dominance? The remote? Who would do the dishes or fold the last load of laundry? Did someone forget to take the garbage out again? (Perhaps I over-react.)

Turf. It was probably turf. Maybe one of the otters had a totally swank den, a totally private little haven on a point with views of three other islands, where the beach transitioned from rock to pebbles to sand, next to the cove where the crabbing was best. Maybe someone else wanted their little piece of paradise. I hoped they’d work it out, for the sake of my sleep and for them, but I could hardly blame them. It was worth fighting for. When it continued on and on I finally got up, dragged my sleeping bag inside and climbed the stairs to my perfect, cooled-off den.

Lice. Ew.

I seem to be on an insect-related writing spree. First mosquitoes, now lice, and I have a special treat coming up for you, a nearly complete post about giant water beetles!

Of course, this is all really my love of bug-eating bats shining through. After my last bat-related post, Marilyn, sent me a story about Mexican Free-tailed Bats carrying bombs into Japanese cities during WWII. It makes perfect sense. They can carry weight, they fly at night, they hide in dark, obscure corners, and then… boom. A dentist came up with the idea and sent a letter to the White House. Can you imagine? Dear Mr. President…

I’m getting off track. The insect of the day is lice! They’re transferred from head to head contact and there’s an estimated 6-12 million infestations every year mostly in children between the ages of 3 and 12. Children are most commonly treated with Rid or Nix. These shampoos include insecticides that kill the bugs and their eggs. Because the lice are becoming resistant to these treatments, the American Academy of Pediatrics is now recommending each infested child be treated with the insecticide three times.

Of course these shampoos contain toxic chemicals that kill the bugs and are absorbed through the skin. At high doses they can cause short-term side effects like nausea and vomiting and long-term side effects like hormone disruption and cancer.

So, what to do…

  • Depending on where you live, you can hire someone to come take care of it for you. She uses non-toxic products and sells them online too.
  • Of course there’s manual removal with a lice comb and my favorite hair blog had a few other suggestions. Be sure to read through the comments. One person recommends tea tree oil and another recommends rinsing with Listerine.
  • One friend sent a link to this product: Has anyone tried it?
  • This Wall Street Journal article suggests rubbing Cetaphil skin lotion into the hair and letting it dry in an effort to suffocate the bugs before washing them out.

I have not yet experienced the joy of a lice infestation as a parent. I hear that lice is less common in children with African American, tightly-coiled hair. I’m hanging on to that hope.

Any of you have any experience to share? Any tricks that work?

Tiny Cases to Hold Things

It was my birthday on Saturday. My hero, Polly, came to watch Josie while Paul and I jumped a train to Portland for two days and two nights. It was a dream come true. Here are some of the highlights.

We stayed in a trendy hotel.

I bought little cases to hold things. They make me enormously happy.

I tried to take some blogger self-portraits. It’s surprisingly difficult.

I wore a skirt.

I spent hours at the world’s largest bookstore. We bought books. I considered sharing a picture that didn’t show the titles but this says so much about our lives right now. You can’t see the children’s books on the bottom – Olivia, Curious George and Corduroy. It’s kind of a little poem.

I turned 37.

Lover of Trees

The other day I was at a stoplight, spacing, thinking about the sound of waves and the heat of summer or the whooshing of air though the open car windows – or whatever it is I think of when I’m not really thinking at all. Anyway, there was a woman on the corner, she had waist-length hair and wore a prairie skirt. Her arms were stretched around a tree in a bear hug. I use “tree” loosely, it was really more of a tall shrub, an evergreen column. Her head was turned, cheek to scrub.

Now, there is a woman who really loves trees, I thought, good for her.

Then the light changed and as I pulled away, she stepped back and moved her walking cane from one hand to the other and tapped her way across the street. How awesome is it that she has a perfectly acceptable excuse to hug trees all day? I’m a bit jealous.  

I love trees and have been kind of captivated by their health benefits since I first read about this Japanese study that found men who walked in the forest for 2 hours for 2 days had a 50% spike in natural killer cells (cells that destroy abnormal cancer cells). And the study found that women showed a spike in immune system function that lasted for over a week.

In January a similar study was released. 140 people were instructed to walk though a forest for a few hours while another 140 people were instructed to walk though a city for a few hours. The second day they changed places. The study found that being among plants produced “lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure,” among other things.

It makes me want to try harder to find places to plant trees in my already full yard. Maybe I’ll find a few more places. Maybe I’ll put in a bat house or two. Maybe the barn swallows will like it too. Maybe they’ll eat all our insects. Maybe they’ll all help us live longer.

The Reward

Ah, vacation… It’s not an easy thing to get a family, especially one with a young child, out of town. There’s so much preparation. There’s the food planning, the grocery shopping, the packing (you have to make sure you have cute yet practical clothes for all weather conditions, the good sunscreen, the sun hat, and for goodness sake don’t forget Baby Chloe and Monkey).

Then there’s the drive and the screaming when the girl decides she’s bored and had enough. There’s the running around at the rest stop. There’s the car snacking and the tears when you run out of ‘ting cheese (string cheese). Then there’s loading everything onto the boat, bribing the child into the life vest, leashing the dog and trying to keep her from pulling you into the water as you walk down the dock. There’s the boat ride where you’re trying to keep the kid awake because you know if she drifts off the real nap will not happen. There’s the unloading of the boat and the loading of another car and the driving to the house.

Once you get there, there’s putting the girl to bed for her nap and unloading the cooler and the totes full of groceries and removing sheets from furniture and opening blinds. By then it’s pretty much time to start dinner. There’s the cutting, the chopping, the marinating. There’s packing up dinner fixings and the vitamins and the sippy cups of milk and going to the parent’s house. There’s the greeting of the nieces and the combining of chopped items and marinated meats and there’s kids and dogs and more kids everywhere, running, there’s the running, then there’s the crashing and the crying, and the requisite stealing of toys.

Then, finally, it’s cocktail hour. There’s the pouring of beverages and the consumption of guacamole. There’s the sun as it begins its descent, there are hummingbirds at the feeder, there’s the dying wind and the still water and the one ferry boat passing by the one fishing boat tied to one buoy. There’s a set table and kids around it (or close enough) and dogs sprawled out sleeping in the sun and there’s this family and this gin and tonic and grilled ribs and salad. There’s the sun warming the back of your neck. There’s this perfect moment when everything good and worthy comes together and you sit with your people in the most beautiful place you know and exhale.   

I hope you’re all finding lots of these moments this summer.


Stop with the hormone disruptors, Mom. Sheesh!

Let me first apologize for being SO late on this. For heaven’s sake it’s mid-June and I still haven’t written anything about sunscreens. It’s hard to feel a sense of urgency when it’s raining.

This is one of those stupidly-complicated topics. There’s a lot to cover here, no time to dilly-dally, no messing around, I’m going to get right to it.

First, the Vitamin D issue… We need Vitamin D for bone strength, strong immune system function, and studies have suggested high levels may reduce the risk of some forms of cancer. Many of us who live in the northern territories (rain!) are D deficient. The best source of Vitamin D is sunshine on bare, sunscreen-free skin for about 20 minutes a day.

The best way to prevent sunburns is to cover up. Wide brimmed hats, light-weight, long-sleeved shirts, tube socks worn under Velcro sandals are all a good way to go. OK, you can skip the tube socks, but they epitomize how I feel when I go into the sun completely covered: like a total nerd. I save this special look for working in the yard or any time I don’t really care. Whenever I can go with a completely, or partially, covered look I do. I’m always in search of cute sun hats (that also double as rain hats).

If you’re going to wear sunscreen, the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) 2010 Sunscreen Guide.  is a great resource. When choosing a sunscreen, the first question to ask is: can I tolerate a mineral sunscreen? If yes, the EWG approved mineral sunscreens listed here offer the best protection without any chemicals considered to be hormone disruptors.

Mineral sunscreens are often thick and white and don’t rub into the skin completely. I’ve yet to find one that doesn’t turn Josie’s skin bright blue. I mean bright blue. She doesn’t burn easily and I do my best to keep her covered. If I can’t keep her covered and we’re working in the yard or somewhere she won’t get strange looks, I put mineral sunscreen on her. If we’re out at a beach or some fun place with other people and I don’t want her to look like she just stepped out of Avatar, I occasionally (but rarely) put a non-mineral, well-rated sunscreen, which contains at least one hormone disruptor, on her exposed skin.

Gasp! A hormone disruptor on my baby? This is a good time to remember that we’re trying to decrease the overall toxic load on our bodies across a broad range of categories (foods, cosmetics, air quality, etc). We (and by we I mean I) do the best we can but sometimes we have to compromise even for purely cosmetic purposes.

Of the 500 sunscreens the Environmental Working Group evaluated, they recommend only 39 (8%). Here’s why:

  1. Many sunscreen manufacturers make exaggerated SPF claims that cannot be proven.
  2. There’s new information on two common sunscreen ingredients: Vitamin A and Oxybenzone. A recent study found tumors and lesions develop faster on skin coated with Vitamin A and Oxybenzone is a synthetic estrogen found in 97% of bodies that were tested by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

If you have a sunscreen you use and love, you can look for its rating here.

If you want to buy a product not on the list, here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Stick to SPF 15-50
  2. Avoid ingredient Vitamin A also known as retinyl palmitate
  3. Avoid ingredient oxybenzone
  4. Avoid sunscreens with insect repellant

In case you couldn’t already tell, the federal Food and Drug Administration still has not issued regulations for sunscreens makers. Thank goodness for EWG.

Now, get out there and enjoy the sun, but for heaven’s sake, don’t tell me about it (rain!).

My Love of Pockets

Stuff that grows on docks (not really) part VII

I guess I have a thing for pockets. I was mining my notebook for nuggets of entertainment, humor or trivia (slim, very slim) when I came across this little bit about things I carry in my pockets (Elmo undies, sleep caps, dog poop bags, tissue).

A Pocket for Corduroy was my favorite book as a child (so glad I could solve that little mystery for you).

There are times in life when pocket space is at a particular premium, like when I travel. When Paul and I were on our 8-month, round-the-world honeymoon, my pockets were always stuffed. In hot climates I carried a sweat rag. I carried room keys, luggage locks, bits of paper with addresses and locations, translations for cab drivers, bus tickets. The most valuable tool was the compass that Paul carried. We both have a terrible sense of direction. We got very good at reading maps, retracing our steps and communicating with locals in hand gestures and puppetry when all else failed (little games of charades all over the world!). Anyway, where was I?

Yes, parenthood is another one of those times when pocket space is at a premium. There are snacks to carry and sippy cups, barrettes and beads that are pulled out of hair on long car rides. There are little toys, mini monkeys that little girls get from coin machines at diners where their daddies take them. There is lip balm for the chapped-lip types like myself. There are napkins and used bandages and some unstuck stickers in case a certain little girl uses the potty. You get the idea. There’s a lot of stuff to carry but that’s not my point. There’s another point I’m getting to here…

The most valuable pocket tool of all time: the Environmental Working Group’s list of the “dirtiest” and “cleanest” conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. The top of the list contains produce that, even when grown conventionally, doesn’t carry a heavy load of pesticides. The bottom of the list contains the most pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables. You can lower your pesticide intake by 4/5ths if you avoid the conventionally-grown versions of the 12 most contaminated items on this list.

Take a look. Do you see peaches, apples, strawberries and blueberries at the bottom? Berry season is here and the peaches, the peaches are coming. Print it off. You don’t really have to carry it in your pocket but I would recommend carrying it in your purse, or your wallet, or wherever else you carry things because it’s important.

A New Story

We have things to do.

The past few months, when I’ve thought about my approaching five year cancerversary (anniversary of diagnosis), I’ve considered all kinds of ways to celebrate. But the truth is, that week, that whole month in fact, was busy. Real busy. I could see it coming well ahead of time with the events/commitments/fun all piling on top of each other on the calendar – Paul’s ship party, my mother’s birthday party, my mother’s back surgery, a night of sailing, a friend to pick up from the airport, a writing retreat.

Then there was a blog post to write. At first I thought I would tell the story of the breast cancer diagnosis and of the day I found out it was Inflammatory Breast Cancer and the sensational article I stumbled across, during my first terrifying breast cancer awareness month, that stated in simple terms it wasn’t an issue of if but when the cancer would come back and that there was a 90% chance I’d be dead in 5 years. But I don’t want to tell these stories again. They’ve all been written and told. Instead I want to tell new stories.

I want to tell the story of my mother’s birthday party. There’s my great husband who struggles with a punctuality problem who, of course, forgets he’s supposed to leave work early. There’s his meeting that runs long. There’s the changing of the child into her party dress in the parking lot of my grandmother’s retirement home. There’s our late arrival. There’s my daughter’s uncharacteristic disinterest in her grandparents, her inability to eat dinner, her intense dislike of her own chair. Then there’s my daughter’s barf, all over my great husband, all over the table and the carpet. There’s the rushing to the bathroom and changing out of her party dress and into the ugly and too-small backup outfit. There’s the rinsing of the party dress in the sink and the janitor cleaning up the carpet. There’s our return to the dining room for just long enough to say our goodbyes and go home and feed our dog who is starving and exhausted after a weekend of long-distance swimming adventures.  

The next day there’s a sick baby (and I do mean ‘baby’ here, not toddler, because when she’s sick, she will always be my baby) and soup to be made and my mother’s surgery and flowers to be gathered to be taken to the hospital, and hospital rooms to be visited and doctor’s appointments to be made and none of this. None of it is for me.

This story, and my life right now, is exactly as it should be.

On Not Being Shipwrecked

Stuff that grows on docks part V.

Doug and I have been racing small sailboats on and off together for about twelve years, since right after I moved back from Chicago, a punk kid talking trash about roll tacks and gybe angles. (No, you don’t need to know what these things mean to understand this post, just appreciate how those words sound together.)

We went through a period where we bickered like teenage sisters – yelling at each other at starts and mark roundings, anytime things got a little stressy. Then something happened. Maybe it was maturity. Maybe we’d learned how to communicate from our significant others. Maybe we started talking to each other on and off the water. Maybe it was all of these things.

He’d tell me what he expected as the skipper, the decisions I should make, the information he needed about wind shifts, compass headings and fleet position. I told him how much notice I needed and the tone of voice I required.

We’d just started the sailing season five years ago when I was diagnosed with cancer. My oncologist told me I should try to keep doing things that brought me joy, even while (especially while) I was in chemo. Since I sailed every Tuesday night, I scheduled chemo for Wednesday mornings so Tuesdays would be my best, strongest, least nauseous day. I marched through the summer, a freaked-out skeleton, covered in sun screen and topped with a wide-brimmed hat. Sailing was, and has always been, my thing. It was one of the few things I held on to.

I don’t remember talking about cancer on the boat. I couldn’t. I had to sail. When we’re on the boat it’s all about wind pressure, sail trim and right of way. It‘s complete immersion that demands physical and mental devotion. It was my only escape, the only time when my long-term survival drifted to the back of my mind. I didn’t miss a single night that season.

I happened to be having coffee with Doug this winter when his doctor called to tell him he had Medullary Thyroid Cancer. We talked and emailed over the following weeks and months through his surgery and follow up scans and blood work, about the world of cancer in general and his cancer in particular. Our diseases were different but the ever-present fear of recurrence is now something we share.

The 2010 season started a few weeks ago. Doug is through with treatment and cancer-free. He’s light a thyroid now, his upper body strength isn’t what it used to be, and his vocal cords were jimmied enough during surgery that he has a hard time speaking loudly, but we were out there. We didn’t talk at all about tumor markers, scans or surgeons, only about lifts and headers, lay lines and mark roundings. We spent some time working on the coordination of our roll tacks – pushing all our combined weight to one rail to turn the boat then jumping to the other side to flatten as the boat accelerated. Even when our coordination was completely off, everything felt right. We were doing exactly what we should be doing, watching the wind move across the water, and holding down the rail of that boat.

Too pretty for just one picture.