Friday, May 30, 2008

New kids on the block

I've always considered our neighborhood to be a pretty friendly one. We live at the top of a rather long street, and the 8 or so houses in our immediate area are what makes up our little "neighborhood." When we moved in -- almost 10 years ago! -- there were 3 younger kids in the house to our right and 3 older kids in the house to our left, and the rest of the street was older couples or singles, and that all seemed fine to us. When my son was little, he like to visit the older kids (to the left) and see what they were up to. As he grew older, he started playing pretty regularly with the kids next door to the right, who are closer to his age. They have 2 girls and a boy, and even thought the boy is about 2 years younger than J, they get along just fine.

We've had quite a bit of change this past year: one older couple across the street moved away, and a younger couple with a baby (and another on the way) moved in; an older woman up the hill passed away, and builders destroyed her house and have been working on a new one; and next door to the left, the owner (who is also a builder) took down his old house, and built a new one. The new family just moved in next door. They have 4 kids. So this has effectively doubled the number of kids playing on the street.

The weather has been beautiful, and now I hear little voices chatting and little feet running all the time. All the kids have been playing together and seem to be enjoying themselves. The doorbell rang earlier, and it was one of the little guys (I'm going to have to learn their names soon) who wanted to see if J could come out and play basketball. What's funny now is that J is one of the BIG kids. Now the little kids on the street will be looking up to HIM. Now that's interesting....

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Fight cancer?

As the news spread last week about Ted Kennedy's malignant brain tumor, there was a very strange (I thought) reaction to the news. Quote upon quote was printed from different colleagues in the Senate, colleagues in Massachusetts, friends, etc., and everyone was talking about how great a "fighter" Kennedy is, and how he'll "beat this thing." All I could think was: who's kidding whom? Fight a brain tumor? How do you do that, exactly?

Thank goodness I'm not the only one who feels this way. I was vindicated yesterday by Judy Foreman's intelligent article in the Health section of the Globe, 'Fighting' isn't how you deal with cancer.

Foreman says:

The fighting metaphor is insidious because it subtly and not so subtly implies that if you fight, you can "win." And if you don't fight hard enough, you "lose" and are therefore a "loser." In truth, cancer doesn't care whether you fight or not, whether you win or not. It's simply there, just like all the other horrible, debilitating, scary, painful, life-wrecking chronic diseases that millions of Americans deal with every day.

This fighting thing is so American, isn't it? We think of the world as populated by good guys and bad guys. We believe so naively in our power to triumph over adversity, not just as a moral value but as a life-saver. We think a "good attitude" improves survival, while pessimism begets failure and death. But studies show that, while optimism may feel better than pessimism, it rarely, if ever, affects outcome.

And that's a good thing, not a bad one, because it takes away the guilt of feeling so responsible for everything -- the mistaken belief that we have more control over our fate than we actually do.

I'm sick of all the stories in the media about people who get cancer, or some other terrible illness, and then they suddenly become relaxed, happy, fulfilled people because they "see the light" or "find G-d" or suddenly are able to appreciate each day more. The truth is, getting cancer sucks. It just sucks. And whether you feel acceptance or anger, all you can do is hope that the treatment will work (and that you will make it through the treatment and all that it entails) and that you will ultimately survive and be able to continue to live your life.

I hope that Kennedy does well with his treatment, and that he lives on. But he doesn't have to fight unless that's what he really wants to do.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Some thoughts on work

I haven't posted about work for a while. The research project I'm currently working on is a sobering topic, to say the least. Its goal is to improve end-of-life care for children who die in the pediatric ICU. Yes: improve end-of-life care for CHILDREN. Who DIE. It's a sad topic, to put it mildly.

But in the day-to-day work of the study, I don't focus so much on the kids who die and the families left behind, and instead I deal with the realities of coordinating a research study, which includes lots of emails and phone calls and dealing with human subjects issues and institutional review boards and research coordinators and forms and schedules... you get the picture.

Yesterday, however, was one of those days that the reality of the work hit me full in the face. As part of a meeting with other researchers working on similar issues, we saw a training video that is used to train medical professionals to be more sensitive and effective when dealing with parents of kids who are trying to make end-of-life decisions. We watched this video, with actors mind you, and it depicted a sad story of a little boy who had a near-drowning experience, and now he was essentially in a vegetative state. His poor parents were talking with the doctors, trying to figure out what to do. The choices were basically: you can keep him alive with machines (a breathing machine and a feeding tube) but he won't have any quality of life (at least in my opinion); or you can withdraw life support and let nature take its course. Even though it was just a video, even though it was actors, even though I work with these issues almost every day... it was still very emotional for me. Just the thought of having to really deal with this issue in my life makes me so sad.

On the other hand, we got some wonderful, positive feedback in this meeting that the work we/I've been working on for over a year is really yielding some fruit. We are working on a survey that will be used to assess the experience of kids and families during the end-of-life experience. What's different about this survey is that it's from the point of view of the parents, instead of from the point of view of the clinicians. So it really gets at what kids and parents and families need in this terrible situation and whether their needs are being met. It was very validating to hear that folks in the field thought we are doing a good job. So that was the good part of the day.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Two heroes

Last night, I watched Jon Lester, a young 24-year-old pitcher who has also battled cancer, pitch his last inning of a beautiful, strong no-hitter for the Boston Red Sox. It was thrilling. Just seeing the excitement in the eyes of the other players, the hugs, the look of amazement on Lester's face.

Today, I heard the tragic news that Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, who has been a senator here since the 1960s and is a liberal, intelligent voice on many issues that matter to me, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. The prognosis isn't very good.

These two men, it occurs to me, are heroes, pure and simple. Both do amazing things in their work, and both are dealing with that all-too-common disease, cancer.

Monday, May 19, 2008

It's almost time to declare victory

It looks like Obama is actually going to win.

I've been hopeful that he would win for some time now, and it looked like he was winning from a numbers perspective, but no one seemed ready to say absolutely that he was going to win. But now, the time has come.

I'm hopeful, and scared.

Hopeful, because I really like him. He's smart, committed, different, interested in improving the reputation of the U.S. in the world, interested in trying new ideas... and he's the same age as me, to boot. Young enough, but old enough, you know?

So of course the pundits are still complaining that Hillary lost because of sexism. I really don't think this is the case. I think she lost because she wasn't presenting a different enough vision. She's smart. She's got experience. But she doesn't have the leadership quality, the charisma, if you will, of Obama.

I still think Obama has a tough battle ahead of him. Many in the U.S. will not be comfortable voting for a black man for president. I think McCain is a complete loser, but some will feel more comfortable with him than Obama.

I guess time will tell.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

It was the best day ever

Today was a perfect day, from my son's perspective. He is an 8-1/2 year old, sports-loving boy, and through the convergence of several activities, we ended up with a day of boy-loving perfection.

8:25 am - We are off to our first event of the day: Little League baseball game. It only takes about 5 minutes to drive there, and after depositing J there, I head off to post signs at 2 soccer fields (my husband has a bad cold and wasn't able to post the signs or be there at the games himself...but that's another story...). So I drive to the fields, post the signs, and head back to the game. It's a gorgeous, sunny, warm, not-too-hot-and-not-too-cold day.

10:15 am - game ends, we hop into the car and rush home so J can change into his soccer gear. Head over to soccer, which starts at 10:45. The school is having a used book sale, and I snag a few good books. Watch the rest of the soccer game.

12:00 noon - game ends, head home. We each have something to nibble on, and J changes back into his baseball shirt.

12:25 pm - back to the baseball field for game 2 of the day. Husband is feeling a little better and decides to join us. After leaving husband and son at the field, I go to the local garden center, and choose some flowers for my window box. Everything is so beautiful! Put the pots in my trunk, drop them off at home, head back to the baseball field.

2:00 pm - baseball game ends. I am TIRED. We all head back home, and I fix lunch for J and for myself. J rests for a while, then plays basketball outside for a while (will he ever stop?).

3:15 pm - there is a birthday party for the little boy next door, and J is invited. They are going to play street hockey at a local playground. J heads over.

3:30 pm - I hear the kids heading out to the playground. I'm reading in bed. I'm getting sleepy, very sleepy...

5:00 pm - I hear the kids returning from the playground.

5:50 pm - J comes home from the party, and we watch the end of the Celtics game (they won!).

7:00 pm - it's still light and warm outside, in spite of a little rain, and J is back outside playing basketball, and playing with the kids next door. Soon, all of them are playing basketball in our driveway. Will he EVER get tired?

8:00 pm - I force him to come in and take a bath. He is REALLY dirty. While in the bath, I ask him about this day, and he starts singing a song from school: "It was the best day ever..."

It really was.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

A dinner experience

I attended a women's dinner at our synagogue last night. The food was great, everyone looked wonderful, I sat with an interesting group of women, had some interesting conversation, had some wine, had a good time. All that was fine.

What gave me pause was the centerpiece of the evening. Our synagogue is having a Torah written, which is quite an undertaking. A person called a "sofer," a scribe, handwrites each letter of the Torah. I think it takes at least a year. It's a very precise and difficult procedure.

So the sofer was the speaker, which was also fine, and then it was time for us -- the 70 or 80 women attending this dinner -- to "witness" the sofer write a few words in the Torah.

The Rabbi got up and talked about how important and meaningful it was to witness the writing of a Torah scroll, and during his comments he quoted from the Torah, "her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace." He said something like: "the Torah is pleasant, the Torah is love." Maybe not exactly that, but something like that. I couldn't help but think of all the violent stories in the Torah, violence against women, the violent nature of G-d, and how really, the Torah isn't about love. Maybe the concept of Torah is love, but inside the Torah, there's plenty of other stuff. So that bugged me.

The other thing that bugged me was this sense of we were being "forced" to have a "meaningful experience." It was like we weren't able to figure out by ourselves that it was meaningful, so we needed someone to tell us that it was meaningful. As a grown woman, I am fully capable of figuring out if experiences are meaningful, and how I will feel on my own, thank you very much.

It left me with a strange taste in my mouth. And it wasn't the dessert.

Away

I had a pretty vivid dream last night about an old friend, so I looked him up on the internet and sent him a "hi, how are ya?" email. This is what came back via automatic email:
I am traveling and then abroad and will only have email access 1-2 times a week if that for the summer.
Well!

So I haven't been in touch with this person for years, but I know he is an academic, teaching and research, and now I know a bit more. HE DOESN'T HAVE ANY KIDS.

Imagine if I said to my husband and son: "Hey, this summer I'm traveling around the U.S., and then I'm going abroad (to Europe, the maybe the mid-east, hell, maybe the far east), and I'll only have email access sporadically. See you in the fall!" What do you think they'd say?

I'm really tempted to try it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

World tragedies are overwhelming

In the past few days, there has been news of a cyclone in Burma that left tens of thousands dead (and the government is preventing aid to its own people), an earthquake in China that has left probably 15,000 dead, a bombing in India that killed 60, not to mention the regular news of war in Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, Africa, and who knows where else. I'm finding it overwhelming to say the least.

Sometimes I wish we weren't so connected to the news of the world. It just leaves me feeling powerless, helpless, hopeless. There is nothing I can do about these tragedies, and it just adds to my normal level of anxiety. All I can do is focus on myself, my family, my community, my world. It's good to know about the rest of the world, but sometimes -- often -- that knowledge is hard to take.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Criticism vs. praise

In general, I think parents today are very strong on praise. "Good job!" "Nice catch!" "Great hit!" are all phrases given out liberally during my son's recent Little League game. At school -- at least when I'm around -- I hear lots of positive comments given out to the kids at almost every turn. Now, I'm not there when there are daily problems in the classroom, and I'm sure there are many. But overall, school seems like a mostly positive place.

But I was taken aback a bit this weekend when my son's violin teacher came over for a make-up lesson. She actually came down harder on my son than I expected. His recital is coming up, and she told him in no uncertain terms that he should be in a better place with his piece than he is, and that he needs to spend more time practicing so he will sound good at the recital. I was pretty surprised at her harshness. She didn't pull any punches. She told him exactly how she felt, and it wasn't great.

Later on, I asked my son about the conversation. He said that he didn't mind her comments, and that it was better for her to tell him what he was doing wrong than to pretend that everything was alright. He didn't mind the criticism, he told me.

I was frankly surprised.

I think we, as parents, assume that our kids want our praise, and can't handle criticism. We fear it will squelch them. We worry about the way our parents criticized us, and we try to protect our children from that type of criticism. But maybe we are trying TOO hard. Maybe our kids WANT some honest criticism every now and then. This whole incident has definitely given me pause. I need to re-think the way I administer praise and criticism. Maybe a little well-placed criticism is just as necessary as a hundred "good jobs."

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mother's Day

I didn't have very high expectations for Mother's Day this year. Things have just been so busy around here, I knew that A and J hadn't really had time to plan anything extensive. We were all just winging it. They bought cards LAST NIGHT while we were all at BJs. That kind of Mother's Day.

While A and J were off to soccer in the morning, I swung by Volante Farms, our local nursery, to see what's happening. Their new greenhouse is beautiful! I found a link to article that has a good photo of it. I spent a little time (never enough) perusing the flowers, and thinking about what I might want to plant this year, and then bought a few herbs for my herb garden. It's not too cold for herbs still, right? So I have parsley, basil, chives, and some lettuce planted so far.

A surprised me by deciding to take J and a friend for the afternoon to Fenway Park where they were having their annual Mother's Day Walk. So I had the afternoon to myself! The boys got to walk around the perimeter of the field, sit in the dugout, touch the Green Monster and the Peskey Pole, and even try to a World Series ring! They had a great time.

After planting my herbs and working in the yard for a while, I decided to head out to Brookline for a falafel at Rami's, and then a stop into my favorite bookstore in the world, the Brookline Booksmith. There is something about the atmosphere of this store that is unlike any other. They have lots of books on sale, too, sometimes fairly recent ones. It's always interesting to see what is popular. There were at least 3 books about food on the most popular list! I'm interested in reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and also Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. Guess I have to start dropping some hints...

So... it was mother's day. It was a day. Mostly good, somewhat relaxing. A day for a mother. Mother's Day.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Breastfeeding research redux

A few weeks ago, I blogged about a recently-published article about some research on the long-term effects of breastfeeding. Just to remind you, the study was comparing 2 groups: a group of hospitals that supported breastfeeding in their new moms, and a group of hospitals that just did their regular support with their new moms. The researchers followed these moms and kids for 6-1/2 years. That article found that there were "no consistent and significant differences in behavioral strengths or difficulties in children (who were breastfed more, and breastfeeding more) did not lead to any detectable reductions in emotional difficulties, hyperactivity, or conduct or peer problems or to improvement in pro-social behavior..... We found no evidence that the breastfeeding promotion intervention affected the mother's relationship with her partner or with her child nor her satisfaction with motherhood in general." So - I thought that was the end of that. The study didn't find any great benefits to breastfeeding. End of story.

But NO.

The Boston Globe had another article about the benefits of breastfeeding this week, and referred to this same larger study (the PROBIT study), so of course I had to look into it. This article had a provocative headline: Study touts benefits of breast-feeding: Researchers link the practice to higher child IQ! Turns out another journal article was recently published, this time in the Archives of General Psychiatry (here's the link).

So it turns out that the researchers decided to analyze this part of the results separately (just to drive me crazy). They were looking at differences in IQ between the 2 groups (the breastfeeding supported group and the "unsupported" group - sorry, couldn't resist!). For this part of the study, they used the WAIS, which is an IQ test for kids, and also teacher evaluations of the kids' academic performance in reading, writing, math, etc. Remember, these kids are only 6.5, so I'm not sure exactly what constitutes "academic performance" in this age group, but anyway, that's what they were looking at.

So the results sound very sexy. "Our results," report the researchers, "strongly suggest that prolonged and exclusive breastfeeding improves cognitive development as measured by IQ and teachers' academic ratings at age 6.5 years." Wow.

But there's a caveat. Basically, the pediatricians administering the IQ tests had a lot of "variation" in their results, which leads to "wide confidence intervals" around the observed IQ differences. This means that the different pediatricians were administering the test differently, and some of the differences in IQ could just be due to chance, and NOT due to the differences in breastfeeding. Hmm.

The authors had other caveats, too, such as the fact that the pediatricians administering the IQ tests were not blinded (i.e. they knew which group the kids were in, which could lead to bias - slightly enhancing the scores of the kids who they knew were breastfed, for example). NONE of these critiques of the research (made by the researchers themselves!) made it into the sexy headlines. Also, the researchers weren't sure what it was about breastfeeding that might make kids smarter: was it something in the breast milk itself, or was it the social interaction between mom and baby during breastfeeding?

So we are back to where we started. This wonderful study hasn't really answered the questions about breastfeeding benefits at all.

I feel like the results of this study should be: more breastfeeding might lead to greater intelligence in kids, but we aren't sure. But that isn't a very sexy headline.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Israel is 60

It's hard to believe that the modern state of Israel is only 60 years old. Today is the anniversary of the signing of the declaration of independence of Israel. As long as I've been alive, Israel has been there: the good, the bad, and the ugly. As a Jew, it's wonderful knowing that somewhere in the world, there is a place where being Jewish isn't strange or odd. A place that is home. On the other hand, there are plenty of things about Israel that are troublesome, the situation with the Palestinians being one of them. I haven't been to Israel since 1977, so my feelings and internal pictures of Israel aren't very current. Clearly, Israel is important to me in that I am a Jew. It is the place that Judaism started, and a place where much of Jewish history took place. On the other hand, it is just that: a place. Being Jewish, in my mind, is more an internal thing. I can be Jewish here, I can be Jewish someplace else, I can be Jewish in Israel.

In any event, here is a link to a very interesting article that discusses some of the complexities and contradictions at Israel's 60th birthday.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Retire?

So I met with the retirement guy yesterday at work. Yeah, I'm way too young to retire, but I met with him. Completely freaky experience. He asked me things like "how much money do you think you'll need to live on when you retire?" and "at what age do you want to retire?" Retire? I'm 46 years old! (well, almost 47) How am I supposed to think about something that will happen in 20 or 25 years? I can barely plan out the coming weekend, how am I supposed to plan my future life?

Completely. Freaky. And. Scary.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Green isn't new, it's just fashionable

I am so old (!) that I can remember the first time that being "green" was hip. It was during the 1970s. That was the beginning of recycling programs. People brushed their teeth without the faucet running. They put bricks in their toilet tanks. They worried about not having enough gas for their cars.

Then things died down for a while, and "green" went out of fashion. "Green" came back again sometime during the '90s. I even have cloth shopping bags to prove it. People bought smaller cars. Then they bought bigger cars again. "Being green" died down again. Then Al Gore and "An Inconvenient Truth" came out, and suddenly people are interested in climate change and global warming, and now we are back to "green" again. You literally cannot turn a corner these days without seeing a sign, an ad, an article, or something about being "green." You'd think it was something new!

I'm feeling very cynical.

Apparently I'm not the only cynic out there, because I was looking for links on recycling and I came upon this one, which is hysterical!