Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Embracing the Screen: A Very Visual Child

My new favorite game is "What Does Wallace See?"  I cut out an assortment of miscellaneous shapes, and he wanders in and selects one or a few and makes a collage. 
A Ship in Rough Seas - He started with the wave and the hull of the ship
A Telephone Pole Next To A Road By A Lawn - Started with the blue and black rectilinear shapes, and the green curve
A Car - Started with the front wheel circle.  Self-Portrait - Started with the circle and the green shapes
The Whale - The original.  Started with the ovoid (what is that shape called?)
What interests me is how he filters what he sees; what are the salient details of an object?  The casement windows on our house have three panes; he always draws them that way.  His clouds are flat on the bottom, like giant cumulonimbus forms on an air mass.  He will draw a schematic of a timber frame, and the structural members are two-dimensional on a flat plane; they have heft.
This is a child who spends HOURS, literally, in front of the computer screen.  If we are home, there is a ninety percent chance he is in the guest room on the computer.  If not, then he is eating or making art work.  I never imagined the screen would play such a large role in our house; we don't have a television and we rarely even watch movies.  I am amazed by how much he gets from it. 

Wallace's first word, or near to it, was book.  He would crawl over to me with a board book in hand and hit me with it, saying "book.  book."  We used to read all the time.  Naturally, I assumed he would be itching to learn to read.  Then he discovered the screen.  We looked up farm machinery on YouTube; he was hooked.  (I have seen a surprising number of promotional spots for high-tech combine harvesters).  I have watched as he has learned to manipulate the mouse, to select videos on Netflix, to enter letters into the address bar and select recent sites from the drop-down menu, to navigate online games.  He taught himself his letters so that he could find them on the keyboard and select his favorite shows and sites: Boowa and Kwala, NickJr, PBS Kids, Thomas the Train, Bob the Builder, Kipper the Dog.  He plays adventure games, art games, word games, music games.  He watches films with intense focus, standing on the bed, fists clenched, head stretched forward; a few days ago he actually hurt his nose bouncing himself off the bed headfirst during "The Lord of The Rings"!  There is nothing passive about his relationship with the screen; this is his passion.  He tells me stories about plot lines and jokes.  When I hear him laughing in his sleep I imagine he is in one of his shows; when he had delirious, fevered nightmares during a bout of the 'flu they were of computer games.

Does he do other things?  Absolutely.  He'll spend hours at friends' houses role-playing or adventuring, he paints and draws.  He still loves to read, but I get it now: he likes the pictures.  "The Hobbit," with its giant trolls and dragon and raging battles, was of little interest until I borrowed an illustrated edition from the library.

He is a director, with a complete and perfect vision of everything he does; my major challenge right now is helping him through the rage and frustration that occurs as he struggles to execute that vision (I am also working on developing my MacGuyver skills, since I am often asked to fashion working machinery from a pile of popsicle sticks and yarn).  His dreams are big, and they are beautiful; when he accomplishes his objective he is pleased and satisfied, but immediately on to the next phase.

Of course there are moments when it worries me, his screen time.  Child psychologists and behaviorists have done numerous studies on the impact of screens on the developing brain.  Some of them draw negative conclusions, some positive, but it does not really matter to me.  In attempting to eliminate the confounding factors, the uniqueness of the individual, studies cannot account for the inherent differences between human beings.  Indeed, they do the opposite.  The world is full of exceptions, and that is what makes life interesting.  Finish school=Experience More Professional Success and Remuneration.  Someone tell Bill Gates. 

But mostly, it doesn't matter to me who he would be if he weren't who he is.  Accepting and embracing his love of these activities, so different from my preferences, is just another way that I learn how to live from watching my children, and from living with them as partners.  I can't wait until he can program, and use sophisticated graphic design programs; based on what he can make out of construction paper, I anticipate some pretty cool results.  As Tom Waits said in his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech, "To my children, who have taught me everything I know.  Or maybe it's everything they know.  Anyway, they have taught me a lot."

When I watch Wallace interact with the screen, when I see the development that comes out of it, I see that he is on his own nourishing path.  As I seek the blazes on my own, I know many times they lead me through terrain that others would prefer I not travel.  If I look for you where you are, I can meet you.  Or I can wait in vain to find you where I think you ought to be. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

10 Simple Ideas for Modifying Your Diet

It's true that I eat raw liver.  For most people this is not a simple shift.  I never said I liked it, though!  It is very likely that, had I not developed a severe metabolic imbalance that threatened to kill me, I would not have adopted some of the more...unconventional... aspects of my diet.  Convincing anyone to eat raw liver is not my intention (but if you have been diagnosed with cancer, suffer from severe allergies or asthma, or have a blood disorder, I highly recommend looking into the work of Dr. BeardDr. Kelley and Dr. Gonzalez.  Read this material and follow up on the research - the protocols are very different for different types of imbalances and the parasympathetic autonomic disorders, such as the blood cancers, need meat-heavy diets, whereas the sympathetic autonomic disorders respond more favorably to raw vegetable diets.)

"I'm not going to tell you to stop eating bread, because you love it," my homeopath told me.  This is a very important aspect of diet - food is a sensory and psychological experience, and if eating becomes about "giving up" the things you love and only eating foods you don't enjoy, then you begin to lose one of the great pleasures of life.  My diet is not pristine, and that is not a goal for me.  Modifying my eating so that I can develop a rapport with my body, and feel what my core health responds to, is my strategy.  There are times when I can absorb "junk" food comfortably, when I can eat sweets or drink alcohol and still feel well, and times when all I want is kale and kimchee!  And of course, there are times when I am feeling the latter but still go for the former; most of us occasionally choose to pay the price for an indulgence.  The key, for me, is recognizing when I am doing that.  If I woke up after a late night of drinking and socializing, and couldn't identify the reason that I felt off, that would concern me.

I prefer the "add, substitute, subtract" approach to diet modification.  I add things that are missing, I experiment with substitutes for things I enjoy in the moment that seem to have negative effects on my body, and I eventually subtract the stuff that makes me feel bad later, or makes my symptoms worse.  Here are four adds, three substitutes, and three subtracts, for a total of ten tricks to a healthier diet:

  1. Nettle infusion. Nettles can be purchased at the health food store, or online (you can harvest stinging nettles yourself, of course, but I have had some painful experiences).  Nettles contain calcium, magnesium, potassium, silicon, boron, zinc, and vitamins A, D, E, and K.  I find that they taste a bit strong, so I add some raw honey (I order mine in bulk from Honey Gardens, which makes it very economical), and I drink it in the afternoon when I might otherwise go for a cup of tea.
  2. Grated salad, or some sprouts.  It is easy and cheap to make your own sprouts, either from sprouting seeds purchased at the natural food store or from organic lentils.  Sprouts are a terrific source of vitamin C, as well as A and B-complex.  I make a grated salad in the food processor, with carrots, cabbage, daikon radish, and sometimes beets (or whatever else sounds good to you), add some dulse flakes for the iodine (you can buy sea salt with dulse in it, which is a natural iodized salt), and then I dress it with miso ginger dressing.  To make this dressing, combine 2T brown rice miso, 2T soy sauce, 1/4C olive oil or sesame oil, 2T rice vinegar or ume plum vinegar, 1T grated ginger, 2 cloves chopped garlic, 1t chile paste.  Run the whole thing through the blender or food processor; I make a larger batch and save it, because I use it on everything.  It is excellent on:
  3. Fish salad.  Instead of tuna (I have enough mercury already with a mouth full of amalgam fillings), I buy canned Alaskan sockeye salmon and smoked kippered herring.  I flake this into a bowl with chopped celery, red onion if you like it, sea salt, pepper, olive oil, lemon juice and a splash of red wine vinegar, and some fresh curry powder (this is also fun and easy to make in a coffee grinder). 
  4. (credit)
  5. Fermented veggies, such as Bubbies or Real Pickles sauerkraut, beets, carrots or kimchee.  These foods are extremely high in a variety of beneficial bacteria, which will help balance gut flora.  Plus, they taste really good.  There are a lot to choose from, mostly available at the natural food store in the refrigerator case.  Be careful to select fermented, and not pickled foods - pickled foods are preserved in vinegar and do not contain active microbes.  Experiment until you find some that work for you.
The key with all of this is to find foods that fit your life.  Chances are, if you are thinking about trying to change your diet in major ways, you will feel a little overwhelmed.  So pick small things.  As you feel better and become more sensitive to your own metabolism, the cravings will shift to things that are good for you.  Snacks and quick meals are important because eating frequently is good for metabolic activity, and when we get hungry it is easy to "cheat."  Here are some easy substitutes:
  1. Instead of  canned soup, make miso.  Buy high-quality, organic miso, such as Miso Master or South River; there are recipes right on the container.  Just carrots and garlic are all you need to make a satisfying, light soup, in about 10 minutes.  
  2. Instead of cookies or bread, if you are craving sugar because you need some energy in the afternoon, keep some home-made energy bars in the freezer.  I make mine in the food processor.  Use dates, cashews, almonds, raw honey and unsweetened coconut; use them in that order and adjust the quantities until you have a flavor and texture that you like.  
  3. Instead of canned beans, use dried.  This takes a little planning, but not much.  Buy organic, dried beans at the natural food store, and rehydrate them overnight in a slightly acidic medium (add a splash of fresh lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, raw milk or whey to the soaking water).  I leave mine to soak until they have started to sprout, occasionally changing the water.  Once they are soaked, I bag them and put them in the freezer until I want to use them; they can be "recipe-ready" in an hour on the stove.  By soaking your beans, you make them more digestible and release more of the nutrients than are available in canned beans, plus you avoid the added sodium and preservatives in canned beans (not to mention the BPA in the can linings).
When looking for things to eliminate, I don't recommend fixating on favorites - that will just generate cravings and a sense of loss (I gave up coffee when I was diagnosed with cancer, and I feel better for doing it. It is such an important morning ritual for so many, however, that I would not recommend eliminating it from your diet unless you really want to, not just because you think you should.)  So, here are three things that I think can make a big difference:
  1. Prepared foods with preservatives.  All those weird ingredients are, well, weird, and the body has to put a lot of energy into processing and detoxing them.  We lack an evolved mechanism for digesting them, because they are so new to our food.  They are usually very expensive anyway - if you are spending that kind of money you can hit the buffet at Whole Foods.  A better way to handle a quick meal is to use the freezer; even if you are not in the habit of making meals and freezing them ahead there are many preservative-free options in the freezer case.  It makes a lot of sense to cook extra and freeze it if you have the space, though.  
  2. Stop eating CAFO meats.  It is true that organic, free-range food is more expensive.  I will tell you that I know a lot of independent, organic and ecological farmers personally, and these folks are not driving Maseratis and laughing all the way to the bank when you pay $8/lbs for beef.  I cringe when I hear folks at the natural food store ranting about the produce prices.  Supply and demand drive all prices, of course, and if the consumers won't pay then the farmers won't be able to sell.  But they also won't be able to grow the stuff; the margins are very slim and the producers and retailers aren't making a killing on this.  They are often barely making a living.   I could write a whole research paper on what makes the conventional alternatives cheaper, involving fillers, cheap drugs and your tax dollars at work.  But I won't.  I will just say that you do not want to eat anything that would kill a vulture.  So buy fancy meat, and if it is too expensive, just buy less.  Buy different cuts.  I use a lot of soup bones, or I get overage from friends who have game meat.  And lentils are cheap and really tasty.
  3. Avoid the "Dirty Dozen" conventionally farmed produce items (this list and these descriptions are from The Daily Green, but you can find it lots of places):   
  4. 1. Celery Celery has no protective skin, which makes it almost impossible to wash off the chemicals (64 of them!) that are used on crops. Buy organic celery, or choose alternatives like broccoli, radishes, and onions.  
    2. Peaches Multiple pesticides (as many as 62 of them) are regularly applied to these delicately skinned fruits in conventional orchards. Can't find organic? Safer alternatives include watermelon, tangerines, oranges, and grapefruit. 
    3. Strawberries If you buy strawberries, especially out of season, they're most likely imported from countries that have less-stringent regulations for pesticide use. 59 pesticides have been detected in residue on strawberries. Can't find organic? Safer alternatives include kiwi and pineapples.  
    4. Apples Like peaches, apples are typically grown with poisons to kill a variety of pests, from fungi to insects. Tests have found 42 different pesticides as residue on apples. Scrubbing and peeling doesn't eliminate chemical residue completely, so it's best to buy organic when it comes to apples. Peeling a fruit or vegetable also strips away many of their beneficial nutrients. Can't find organic? Safer alternatives include watermelon, bananas, and tangerines.  
    5. Blueberries New on the Dirty Dozen list in 2010, blueberries are treated with as many as 52 pesticides, making them one of the dirtiest berries on the market.  
    6. Nectarines With 33 different types of pesticides found on nectarines, they rank up there with apples and peaches among the dirtiest tree fruit. Can't find organic? Safer alternatives include, watermelon, papaya, and mango. 
    7. Bell peppers Peppers have thin skins that don't offer much of a barrier to pesticides. They're often heavily sprayed with insecticides. (Tests have found 49 different pesticides on sweet bell peppers.) Can't find organic? Safer alternatives include green peas, broccoli, and cabbage.  
    8. Spinach New on the list for 2010, spinach can be laced with as many as 48 different pesticides, making it one of the most contaminated green leafy vegetable.  
    9. Kale Traditionally, kale is known as a hardier vegetable that rarely suffers from pests and disease, but it was found to have high amounts of pesticide residue when tested this year. Can't find organic? Safer alternatives include cabbage, asparagus, and broccoli.  
    10. Cherries Even locally grown cherries are not necessarily safe. In fact, in one survey in recent years, cherries grown in the U.S. were found to have three times more pesticide residue then imported cherries. Government testing has found 42 different pesticides on cherries. Can't find organic? Safer alternatives include raspberries and cranberries.  
    11. Potatoes America's popular spud reappears on the 2010 Dirty Dozen list, after a year hiatus. America's favorite vegetable can be laced with as many as 37 different pesticides. Can't find organic? Safer alternatives include eggplant, cabbage, and earthy mushrooms.  
    12. Grapes Imported grapes run a much greater risk of contamination than those grown domestically. Only imported grapes make the 2010 Dirty Dozen list. Vineyards can be sprayed with different pesticides during different growth periods of the grape, and no amount of washing or peeling will eliminate contamination because of the grape's thin skin. Remember, wine is made from grapes, which testing shows can harbor as many as 34 different pesticides. Can't find organic? Safer alternatives include kiwi and raspberries.
I buy organic almost exclusively, but that is a major budget decision and not one that everyone is willing to make.

So there are ten tips.  I tried to pick things that are fairly simple to do; certainly there are lots of other things a person can do to adjust his or her diet.  I have a long way to go.  But first, I need to eat some liver.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Excuses, excuses

Sick sick five-year old will lead to delays in this week's post.  I assure you nothing but brilliance and insight upon my return to consciousness.

Monday, March 7, 2011


Relax my jaw.  My fists.  My hips.  Fart.  The stars are beautiful tonight.  This house was built fifty years ago, when people and furniture were smaller and the world was bigger and a diagnosis of AML might give you time to dig a grave, and a mother's insomnia was not spent typing her thoughts onto a screen for the world to read.

In order to fit the big bed into the room, we had to push it up under the casement, but it fits there and on clear nights I tolerate the convective draft off the windows to keep the curtains open and look at the sky.  There's Wallace, porcelain luster of his face in the glow of the alarm clock.

The alarm clock is too bright, and never set, as John wakes with the day and I with the babies.  It's a sentimental alarm clock.  I have two; my father bought them both for me.  The older one, the one with the beep that gets louder and louder until the fire engine in my dreams finally gives way to consciousness, he bought in the little Main St. Radioshack that used to be below his office.  There's a fancy food boutique there now.  This alarm clock is unplugged and lying in the tangle of its cord on the floor, because it has recently become possessed by some dark force and will attempt, relentlessly, to wake me at midnight regardless of my interventions.  Perhaps it knows something I don't: that I should be awake at midnight making sense of all the laundry that I have failed to address during the rest of my waking hours.

The other alarm clock is a radio.  My dad bought it for me to have in the hospital so that I could plug in my ipod and listen to Gillian Welch and Low Anthem and Townes Van Zandt and Bon Iver.  When the nurses came in at night to "take my vitals" (a faintly disconcerting expression) and change IV bags, I could mark the time as 1, or 2, or 3am by the nightlight glow.  I had two different possessed wall clocks in the hospital, too.  In the middle of the night they would occasionally start spinning through the minutes and hours like a nightmare dream sequence in a movie, portending some calamity, until they had stolen a full day, and then return to "real" time and stop.

The hospital mattresses are vinyl, sticky and crunchy.  The IV tubing was usually in my right arm; the veins are better there for threading the catheter.  The pillows are also plastic.  The linen is washed in detergents and bleaches so harsh that they are nearly rigid with chemicals.  The whole set up would make a person sweat even without the chemo, but the chemo causes sweats, too, as the body tries desperately to manage the toxin load.  I would wake during the night in a clammy pool and strip off my sodden clothes; I had to be unhooked to do it but that was fine because the nurses were usually there to record numbers and replace the sticky sheets.

That was my bed of autumn leaves.  The woodstove has dried them in this little cottage, and I curl up against a warm body, so startlingly absent from my nights suspended in the click and glow.  It stirs and snuffles; are there any eyelashes like those of one's own sleeping child? 
Sometimes the numbers and letters have to turn sideways or lean over to fit, piling up in the little deadline room that I occasionally visit late at night when sleep has left me but first closed all the doors.  They are taunting me, but I can look at the stars, at my sons, at my husband in the silver glow.  Finally they topple out like clowns from a Volkswagen, spill on the floor, numerous but irrelevant with their rainbow hair and big shoes, and I can go back to sleep.