Tuesday, July 29, 2014

What new hell is this?

T minus 72 hours till our big cross country journey, and I get a phone call from the allergy doctor.  I had brought my son in for some allergy testing recently.  His twin sister has a diagnosed peanut allergy. He had never been given peanuts, until recently, at Easter, where I let him have the peanut butter cup he got at the egg hunt.  Of course he broke out into hives.  I talked to our pediatrician who recommended going with him to the allergist.  We finally got him seen a couple of weeks ago. They gave us a script for a blood draw. A few days later I got him to the lab. I happened to be there for another appointment for myself 2 days later, but the results had not come back at that point.

So they call me today.  I had nearly forgotten about the tests. I'm in the midst of trying to pack, do laundry and make sure the house is not to much of a wreck for when house sitters come to check on things.  My mind wasn't in the place for this.  Given, we have dealt with food allergies before.  My daughter had an egg allergy that she grew out of, and continues to react to peanuts. I myself am gluten free, so I am used to carefully reading labels and grilling waitstaff as to the contents of various entrees.
The nurse starts off by confirming that there is a peanut allergy.  We more or less knew this already. She says all tree nuts are an issue as well.  This hadn't been an issue for my daughter; hers is a peanut allergy only.  So no nuts of any kind, and worse no pesto.  But we can deal with that.  

She then goes onto tell me he is allergic to shellfish.  Now this kid can down several bowls of ceviche in a sitting and has not reacted at all, but okay, we can eliminate shellfish.

The other big allergy is dairy.  I did have a feeling about this.  He has never liked milk, and did seem to have at minimum some lactose intolerance.  But an actual allergy means no cheese and no butter (butter and hard cheese do not contain lactose for those not in the know).

She says okay those are the bad ones, the 4's and above on a scale of 1-6.  She then goes down the rest of the list: garlic, tomato, potato, wheat, barley, oats, rye, sesame, soy, and he had a mild reaction to pork and chicken.  Okay so what is this kid actually supposed to eat? He can't have milk or the most obvious replacements almond milk or soy milk? I'm Italian and my husband is Mexican.  Every last one of my recipes contain garlic and/or tomatoes.  And try eating Asian food without soy sauce. Heaven help me.  Even given that I am used to gluten free cooking, I may also have to eliminate oats and potatoes.  That is just cruel.  We are left with rice and corn as carbs go.  Pretty paltry.

And again, this happens all just before we are set to drive cross country, where I will have little to no control over the food. At the very least the nurse said to focus on the allergies that registered 4 and above, so that is the peanut, tree nut, shellfish and dairy. Deep breaths.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Gluten Free Manifesto - Bacon, Wine, Chocolate & Cheese

Articles like this one burn me up.

For me, being gluten free is not just a fad diet.  It is not all in my head. So you can roll your eyes at me all you want, but I'm not going to just eat that slice of cake because you think my health issues are annoying.

I think this has been an issue for me all my life.  When I was a kid I was super skinny.  In high school, I had a number of stomach problems.  At that point they told me I was lactose intolerant.  I cut out dairy, and it helped.  I always had fatigue. My periods were never ever regular. In college, I started to have mysterious swelling in my hands and joint pain.

It only got worse after I had my kids.  I had this mysterious burning sensation in my abdomen. My hair was falling out in clumps. I went through every diagnostic test imaginable.  After ruling out lots of other diseases, my doctor diagnosed me with fibromyalgia.  I was put on Cymbalta, which is basically an antidepressant that is used for pain management and Hydrochlorothiazide for the swelling.  They helped my symptoms, but came with their own side effects.

Then my gall bladder became an issue, maybe because of all the drugs, or maybe from my underlying issues.  Once it came out, I still had symptoms.  I had diarrhea every. single. day.  The surgeon washed his hands of me and my phantom gall bladder, so I went to a gastroenterologist instead. This wise man said he suspected my issue may be with gluten.  I was skeptical. I mean, I'm Italian.  How could you ask me to give up pasta?  He convinced me to give it a shot for 2 weeks.  If I felt better great, if not, we'd investigate some more.

So reluctantly, I cut out gluten.  It didn't take 2 weeks for me to be convinced.  It only took 48 hours. Suddenly, the burning in my abdomen that I had been living with was magically gone.  The swelling in my hands abated. The aches in my knees, that I had attributed to my advancing age and too much weight, suddenly disappeared. All this pain that I had been just living with as my baseline normal didn't have to be.

I did the blood test to see if I had Celiacs.  It came back negative. I haven't done the endoscope or the liver biopsy that they suggest for a more definitive diagnosis.  I figure I feel better, the results are not going to change my mind or my diet, so why bother? Ain't nobody got time for that! The problem is that if you don't have Celiacs, some people will tell you it is all in your head. I guarantee you it is not. A little gluten and I am running to the bathroom.  A lot, and I throw up. (Yes I'm talking to you trendy sandwich shop girl, who rolled her eyes then gave me the wrong bread after I asked for GF). It is not in my head.  

It's was not so easy at first. Gluten hides in a lot of places. Ketchup, cold cuts, soup, salad dressings are all problematic.  Little by little I learned to make replacements.   Now, I barely miss it.  I can cook just about anything without gluten. The GF pastas are good.  I make fabulous risotto.  I got myself a fryer, and make my own french fries and corn dogs.  You could eat at my house for several weeks and never notice the lack of gluten. Plus, I still can have bacon, wine, chocolate and cheese.  What more does a girl need?

It is hard to eat out.  Most places I am left to choose between steak and a baked potato, or plain chicken and a baked potato.  Thankfully there are more and more places expanding their menus.  It seems that gluten free salad dressing is becoming the norm in most places, so I can at least get a salad to go with my chicken.

Parties are hard. I tend to bring my own food just to be safe. What are we eating?  Pizza, wings and birthday cake, oh and a sub platter. Great.  I can have the celery they sent with the wings, but probably not the blue cheese dressing.  Tip - tortilla chips and salsa are an easy fix. Better yet, skip the pizza and go for a taco bar instead. Queso is a bonus(see above remark regarding cheese).  Fresh fruits and veggies are great as well.  I don't expect anyone else to eat gluten free, but if you invite me somewhere, know that this is an issue for me.  

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Songs for the First Day of Day Camp

We have a town day camp. They pay town's teenagers minimum wage to watch the town's children. The kids get to swim and play on the playground, and run around in the heat till they come home at 2:30 and collapse. It is a beautiful, wonderful thing, and worth every penny of the $250 family maximum for 4 whole weeks of peace. This is the first year that all 3 of my kids will be going, leaving me with an empty house for several hours each day. I'm singing little tunes to myself.

♫I'm so excited, and I just can't hide it, I'm about to lose my kids, and I think I like it. ♫

(Sung to the tune of Leaving on a Jet Plane)

♫The bags are packed,
And ready to go,
The lunches ready
inside the fridge door.
I can't wait to wake you up to say goodbye.
The dawn is breaking, it's early morn, the minivan is waiting
Dad's blowing his horn.
I'm so happy to finally be alone, I could die.
So kiss me and smile for me, tell me you'll be good for them,
no more holding my leg and not letting go.
Cause you are leaving to go to day camp
I have 6 hours till you all come back again.
Oh yes, you have to go.♫

Or how about this one that speaks their language (sung to the tune from Frozen, no not that one, the other one).

♫For the first time in forever,
There will be quiet, there will be fun,
for the first time in forever,
I will be asked for by no one.

Don't know if I'm elated or gassy
But I'm somewhere in that zone
Cause for the first time in forever
I will be alone.

And I know it is totally crazy
To dream I'd get to relax
But for the first time in forever
At least I've got a chance

I know it all ends in August,
But at least I have today,
'Cause for the first time in forever
For the first time in forever
No children are in my way!♫

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Debbie Downer Donner Party

We are planning a cross country trip with the kids for this summer.  We have talked about doing this for years. My husband's family and we live on opposite coasts.  Airfare times five is quite expensive, plus we have to rent a vehicle once we get there. A family wedding forced us to revisit this idea of driving. We discussed it at length, and decided to make a go of it this summer.  My husband has enough vacation time.  I'm not working or going to school this summer. The kids are big enough to amuse themselves with electronics.  We bought a newer minivan, with just 30,000 miles, as opposed to the old one that had 130,000 miles on it. We kind of feel like it is now or never.

We have done longer trips with our kids, but this would certainly be the longest yet.  We drove to Virginia when they were infants, and we managed.  On that trip, we had to actually stop and take them out of their car seats to feed them rather than just throw apples and goldfish into the back seat.  (Though having kids in diapers may cut down on bathroom stops, or would if I had any bladder control left after giving birth to twins.)

There are those that think we are crazy, and maybe we are a little bit. My mother keeps trying to talk us out of it.  She offered to take my kids on the plane with her while my husband and I drove out. She obviously wasn't getting the point about family togetherness and creating memories.  She offered to stay home, missing the wedding herself, and let me and my husband fly, failing to consider the fact that their other set of grandparents may actually want to see my kids.

I think that she thinks it is 1846, and that we may all die of dysentery as we make the trek westward.  I know stuff happens, but armed with cell phones and AAA, I think we can handle most things that come up.

She warned of it being tornado season in the midwest.   I reminded her of the fact that a tornado touched down a couple of weeks ago not 30 miles from where we lived.  The fickle finger of fate may just as likely land a tornado on my minivan as I drive my kids to Little League than when we traverse the Great Plains.

She warned of entire areas of the country with no people, and no where to stop, and no cell reception, and no gas.  Didn't you see Tremors?!

I had to promise her I would call or text every hour or so.  I just hope that snake monsters don't snap the axle on our new mivan.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

I’m…Movin’ Out

“Mama, if that’s moving up then I’m…movin' out.”

I guess Billy Joel is right about me on at least one count; I am moving out. But I’ve also moved up, moved down, back, forth, in, out, and out again. Now that I’ve…one…two…three…four…five……..tabulated all my glorious residences, I’ve come up with a number. I’ve moved SIXTEEN TIMES in my life and I’m really not that old. It averages out to be about once every two years.

I’ve been through it all. Passive aggressive landlords, cockroaches, lacrosse team neighbors and their parties that never ended, leaky everything–pipes, floors, ceilings, roofs, walls, basements. And of course there was one notorious Pink House. It could be the subject of a whole novel, but I’ll just say “creepy” and call it a day.

Instead of packing boxes, purging, and organizing like I should be, I’ve decided to mentally prepare for M-Day by reaching out to some of the other “experts” out there. I was hoping to get some good advice (so I can do it right for once) and compile some of the tales that are funnier than mine. And don’t worry; I’ve included some of my own “horror stories” as well:    

Dogs and skunks are never a good combination, especially the night before moving day. No amount of tomato juice makes that smell go away. We ended up throwing away a lot of stuff that couldn’t be washed and had to go through extreme measures to cleanse the air in TWO homes. Poor Schuyler-dog (may she rest in peace). She got sprayed right in the face and on a damp or humid day, there were still hints of the odor even years later. –Alicia, Massachusetts

Best advice. Hire movers. Worth every penny. –Daniel, Arizona

Your [Alicia] first Boston apartment on Beacon St. when the elevator puked parts! –Andrea, New York

Ah, Boston. Yes, make sure the elevator works when you’re moving into the fifth story of an apartment building or your moving buddies will never let you hear the end of it. And every time the story gets retold, it gets more and more outrageous. It was 98 degrees…300 percent humidity…and there was a hurricane looming on the horizon…and then a flock of flying monkeys started hurling overripe bananas at our heads… Alicia, Massachusetts

My move outta Brooklyn was a beauty! 95 degrees with a major hangover! 3rd floor walk up to the apartment. No help and crates full of albums and couches! I saw a homeless guy pushing a shopping cart down the block! I hired him, told him I would murder him if he stole anything! Promised him $40! He did such a great job I paid him $80 and gave him my bicycle! Guy saved my a$$! Mike, New York

Oh dear. So many to choose from. The time I bought a couch specifically so I wouldn't have to lug it to my 3rd floor apartment, and the delivery guys left it outside. We had to rig a pulley system to get it up over the balcony. When we left we redid the pulley, but gravity took over at 9.80 m/s2. Or the time the mattress fell off the roof on I-787. Or the time the new boyfriend was helping me move, and found not one but several condom wrappers in a couch that had been in storage. –Carissa, New York

I was going to include the I-787 one from my perspective because I almost died that day! It was windy and raining and rather than drive through town, my sister [Carissa] decided to take the “faster” route, the highway, which by miles was a longer distance. Unfortunately, my father’s [Steve] roof rack wasn’t meant to hold a mattress, in the wind, going 55 mph…and it snapped off and the mattress went with it. Good thing my boyfriend, now husband, had the skills and reflexes of a NASCAR driver. –Alicia, Massachusetts

Yeah, good thing. You’re ’89 Camry would have been done!  –Greg, Massachusetts

Then there was the POD incident. They couldn't get it into our driveway because the tree hangs too low. The put it in our backyard, but the driver rolled over the corner of our neighbor’s property, leaving tracks. I wasn't the one driving the truck and at that point I was not even really sure where the line was. That didn't stop the guy from banging on my back door and screaming at me when I was home alone with my 2 year old. It was terrifying. Nice way to welcome the neighbors.  –Carissa, New York

Oh, there was the time the ex and I had to move an entire apartment in a utility van because U-haul screwed up our reservation. We got the van at 6pm on a Friday and had to have it back by noon Saturday (the next day). We worked through the night, stopping to get 2 hours of sleep. We got the van back to Enterprise with 5 minutes to spare before they closed.  Alex, Rhode Island

When you’re moving out of cockroach pit, they say to leave your furniture outside for at least 24 hours. But just make sure it’s not raining the next day.  For us, it was, and the moving van got stuck in the mud. By the following day, there was literally an inch of mud on the floor. We needed something close to a chisel to get it off! –Jeanne, New York

Make sure you have a backup plan when you arrive at your new place, especially when you have children with you. There was one time the previous tenant, a royal SOB, wouldn’t leave the premises until his lease was “officially” over. He planned on being there until 11:59 pm on the last day. With a sick kid in the car, his wife finally convinced him to let us in, but it was still after ten o’clock at night. The same guy tried to sue us for the cost of the heating oil he left in the tank, nearly full, of course.  –Steve, New York 

If you move a washing machine make sure you have it roped to the dolly. The bottom is hollow and the insides plastic. If you use movers, definitely get a referral and hear stories about them. –Paul, Georgia

I once helped some friends move and had to help carry what seemed like hundreds of large Rubbermaid boxes packed with old textbooks out of their basement.  –Phil, New York

Those "friends" must be jerks! –Greg, Massachusetts

Sorry, Phil, [not really] chemistry and physics haven’t changed that much in fifty years and I was still teaching at the time.  –Alicia, Massachusetts

Your father [Steve] once helped your Uncle John move me from Saratoga, NY to Long Island in a snow storm with a record 150 car pile up on the Northway. What a day. Thankfully while we have moved several times, we have gained knowledge and advice from many on how to do it right! –Andrea, Virginia

Well, there you have it folks! Advice from the “experts.” It’s hard to believe I have to go through it all again in a few days, but the complete life upheaval should be worth it in the end. Because the next house is for keeps... 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Gluten Free Favorites

I have been eating gluten free for over a year now.  I've learned a lot along the way.  I decided to put together a list of my favorite things.  Some of these tend towards the more "processed" foods. We try to do whole foods and naturally GF stuff more than the replacements. Every once in a while though, a girl needs to eat a cookie, or just open a can of soup for a quick meal.

Disclaimer- I have not been paid by any of these companies, it is all stuff I have actually eaten and liked.

Udi's Gluten Free Snickerdoodles - These are quite possibly the best cookies that I have ever eaten in my life, with or without flour.  They are thick and chewy and just all around wonderful.

Herb Ox Bouillon Cubes and Packets - So many soups and gravy mixes contain flour. These babies are great to start a gravy.  I use them with Minute Rice as a quick side dish that isn't "just rice". The packets are great to make dip with.

Boar's Head Cold Cuts - If you go to their page they say "We were gluten free long before you thought to ask."  I love that.

GF Bisquick - This stuff is magical.  I have used it to make pancakes and to bread fish.  I also mixed cornmeal with it to make a great corn bread.  This is another pantry staple.

Perdue Chicken Tenders - These are a great convenience food.  It is rare to find "breaded" foods that are safe to eat.  These are in regular rotation around here for busy evenings.

Ore Ida Potato Crowns - These are naturally GF, and another great thing to just throw in the oven quickly for dinners on nights where we run from dance to scouts to Little League.

Schar White Bread - So far this is the best national brand bread that I have tried. There are a couple of local bakeries around that do more artisanal bread and rolls, but this one is good toasted, and makes a nice grilled cheese.

Robert's Pirate Booty - We ate this all the time, even before making the change to be GF.  It is a great low calorie snack, and perfect to sate carby cravings.

Cape Cod Potato Chips - Potato chips should be GF, but depending on the flavorings, you have to be careful.  All of Cape Cod's are, and they are not cooked in peanut oil, as Utz's are.

Amy's Lentil Soup - This is a terrific, nutritionally dense soup, and great for an easy lunch. Also, it is quite portable, so I tend to keep a can on hand to bring places where there may not be food for me.

Amy's Frozen Dinners - My husband's favorite is the tortilla bowl, and he can appreciate the tamales, even if they aren't his mother's. I myself love the cheese enchiladas and the Mac n cheese. I wouldn't recommend the Cheez version however, unless you have really bad dairy issues or tend towards the vegan.  GF, Dairy free Mac n' cheese is pushing the boundaries a bit.

Progresso Clam Chowder - A great soup that is naturally GF, and is found in the regular old aisles of the grocery store.

Progresso French Onion - I usually use this soup as a base in recipes.  I used to use Lipton's dry soup in a lot of things, and this is an acceptable GF substitution.

Annie's Gluten Free Mac n' Cheese - I love that there is a boxed version that we can still eat.

Sam Mills Pastas - GF pastas generally have come a long way.  Major brands are offering their own, but I still like this one, as it comes in 16 oz. packages for just slightly more than regular pasta costs (other brands reduce the package size, and so I have to make 2 boxes for the family).  It is corn based, and perhaps less healthy than some of the brown rice versions, but it is the closest to regular pasta that you can get.

Pillsbury Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough - I was very excited when I heard about this product. There is just nothing quite like a warm chocolate chip cookie.  Of course I can make my own, but I love the option of making these quickly on cold winter days to warm up the house.  It's also a good thing to keep on hand to bring to a party, so you will have something sweet to eat.

Plated - This is a more of a service and not a product. They put together all the ingredients for a meal for you, and mail it right to your door. Their recipes are based on whole foods, and well over half are naturally GF. The recipes tend towards gourmet,  but are simple enough that even my husband (a non-cook) can make them.  If you want to give them a try, click here for a good deal.

What are your favorites?  What should I add to my list?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Early Childhood and Video Games

     I was talking to a friend of my mother's recently.  She directed some questions to my 5 year old son, and he started chattering on about Minecraft, his latest obsession. I had to explain all that is Minecraft to luddite. The second she heard the words "video game" an audible tsk tsk escaped her lips. I don't think she understands the world of video games today. However, she is not alone as quite a few of my mommy friends don't let their kids have video games of any kind (which is a shame because I could hook them up with my connections). I respect their choices, but I hope that they don't judge me for my choices.    
     As a disclaimer, my husband makes video games for a living.  I personally would consider myself a hardcore-casual gamer, as in when I get into a game that I like, I will generally play to completion. My kids were exposed to video games from a very young age.

     When my eldest was 18 months old, she discovered the wonder of the GameBoy, as did we on a 6 hour cross country flight.  Shortly thereafter, the iPhone debuted, in all of it's toddler amusing glory.  My friends watched with awe as she flipped between aps, showing her favorites, and then showing off pictures, and even took pictures of them.  
     Now, a half dozen years later, my kids are big into video games. They do spend a lot of time playing games, but much less time watching television.  I actually prefer they play games, where they are an active participant, rather than sit passively and watch TV or a movie.  I think most parents and educators would be pretty amazed at some of the learning that takes place during game play.  

      Minecraft is the game of the moment at our house.  It is like Legos in the virtual world (and you don't ever step on them!).  You can build things, dig in the dirt, raise animals, plant trees, all in a virtual world. There are a couple of different modes in this game. In Survival mode, you start with nothing, and have to craft pick axes and armour and build houses.  Then somewhere along the way, they discovered Creative mode, where all possible objects are at your disposal from the get go (no more mining for hours looking for one lousy diamond).  My kids had played for several months in Survival mode before they discovered Creative mode.  They were all like, how did we not know about this sooner?!  Now they build all kinds of crazy huge structures, stores that sell vegetables and lumber, waterfalls from the clouds, lava filled tubs, and huge roller coasters. The level of imagination they display is incredible.  There is a magenta carpet path that connects their houses. This game allows for 2 players. When they stray away from each other, they use their maps to find one another. They make up little stories about their villagers.  All in all, I feel it is time well spent.  

     Skylanders will forever be an all time favorite in our house.  One of my favorite parts of this game, as a mother and an educator is how they speak the text, and highlight the words as they are spoken.  For emerging and struggling readers, this is a fabulous way to support their reading skills. In the most recent iteration with the addition of the Swap Force characters, my kids are learning about combinations and permutations. There are 16 guys, each with 2 pieces, and a total possible 256 combinations.  There is a chart in the menu that shows what combinations you have used.  My kids have made it their mission to try to get all 256 combinations.  

    Scribblenauts is yet another great game that game that allows for spontaneous learning.  In this game you let your imagination run wild, and insert whatever random object pops into your head into the scene. The trick is, you have to know how to spell the word.  After a dozen "Mom how do you spell. . ." I got wise.  Sound it out.  If they get close, autocorrect with in the game will do the rest and make suggestions.  They are all gaining confidence as spellers and as readers by playing this game.  

     Those are just our 3 favorite games of the moment.  Otherwise there are so many skills that are implicitly taught in the video games that they play.  For example, you need 50 whatevers to open said area.  My son learned to subtract at the ripe old age of 4 because he knew he had 39 whatevers, and needed 11 more to get to 50.  Physics is another biggy.  Your roller coaster can't make it up the second hill, try making the first hill taller. Can the motorcycle make it through the loop? No? Try going faster.  They may not know the terms momentum centripetal force yet, but they get concepts.

    In this era, there is so much great stuff out there.  It's not all like Grand Theft Auto (but don't get me wrong, I have played GTA and loved it, though my kids have not yet experienced it). Learning and playing are not mutually exclusive as any Kindergarten teacher will tell you.    

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Toilet Paper Bride Gone Bad

     My girls are now 8 and 5.  I have gotten to the point where I no longer micromanage bath time. I occasionally stick my head in to make sure they are cleaning what they are supposed to be cleaning, and not flooding the bathroom.  Mostly they are fine, but this past time they bathed together, not fine.
     Somehow they got the idea to play toilet paper bride in the shower.  They make veils out of the toilet paper, and pretend they are brides.  They didn't realize the toilet paper would dissolve when it hit the water.  Little pieces of toilet paper were stuck in their hair.
     Now, for those that don't know me personally, my girls's hair is the curliest of curly.  I should further add, I use Deva Curl's No-Poo, which is more of a conditioner specially designed to care for curls.
     My eldest tried to wash out the toilet paper with the No-Poo.  This had disastrous results.  It basically made a paper mache of little toilet paper bits that clung to their curls.
     My older daughter came down the stairs, towel on her head, crying. "You are going to be mad at me" she said.
     "What did you do, did you cut it?" I asked.
     "No" she sobbed.
     "Did you dye it?"
     "No" with extra sobbing now.
     At this point I thought, it can't be so bad if those more permanent options have been ruled out.  I went over to her and snatched off the towel, to reveal her white encrusted curls.  She wouldn't tell me what it was despite my prodding and repeated inquires.  Then the little one pokes her had down the stairs and I see that there has been a second victim.  The little one pipes up "It's toilet paper!" Lovely.
     I proceed to try to comb it out.  It's not really working. I figure it will be easier if it's dry, so I send them to bed.
     The next morning, we work on it, and get some of it out, but each and every individual curl is encrusted in white.  My daughters fight us as we attempt to brush it out, and this is taking a lot of time and it's soon to be time for school.  My eldest got sent to school with half of her hair still encased in white toilet paper mache.  (At least we know what to do for the next crazy hair day!)
     I continue to work on the little one, who is not yet in school.  I get the idea to flat iron it. Thankfully this worked beautifully. Once her hair is straightened, the little white flakes brush our fairly easily.  She was very pleased with her new do.
     Meanwhile, at school, the second grade teachers are quite concerned with this new hairdo.  They discuss it with her, and she refuses to tell them what it actually is, out of embarrassment. She doesn't know that what they are thinking is actually far worse.  The child gets sent to the school nurse for more questioning. I can only imagine what the nurse thinks. She does some more work on the rats nest of hair and toilet paper, and does a fairly thorough job.  
    When the bus arrives, I am please to see I don't have too much left to do on her head. This is a good thing, because it is time for dance recital dress rehearsal.  Of course these things always happen on days when they are going to be getting pictures of them taken.
     So the moral of the story is do not play toilet paper bride in the tub.  And don't use conditioning, non-sulfate shampoo to try to wash any foreign objects out of curly hair.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Tweenage Sexual Education

My eldest daughter just turned 8. We have had the "where do babies" come from talk.  The daddy puts a seed in the mommies belly yadayadayada.  Lately though she is asking more and more difficult questions, like how do some people have babies before they are married, while others do not. I do my best to be honest with her while still keeping the conversation age appropriate. I hope to do right by her, and prepare her well for the big scary world out there.

I think back to my own "talk" with my parents. As I started to show signs of puberty, my parents asked me if I knew the low down.  I had read plenty of Judy Blume, and had a general idea. I answered in metaphors and my father, a scientist, told me I had no clue what I was talking about. Looking back, it may have been overly poetic, but I was at least sort of right.  I was handed a copy of "Our Bodies Ourselves" and sent on my way.

While I did have a general sense of the biology behind the female cycle, there was so much that I did not feel prepared for.  The Sex Ed both at home and at my Catholic school were all about "DO NOT". There was no help for dealing with the finer subtleties of social interactions with the opposite sex. Like so many women, I had to rely on my peers for advice, not that they were any more knowledgable than myself. I was a source of information for my younger sisters, and I hope they found themselves slightly better prepared for the world than I was.

One thing about my coming of age in the midst of an AIDS epidemic, there was a lot of information about condoms all over the place.  "No glove, no love" commercials abounded, and there were many PSAs like this one with Johnny Depp.  When I was in 5th grade, the word condemn was a vocabulary word one week. Each week our teacher would have us pronounce the word and venture a guess at a definition.  When we got to condemn, the class fell silent.  We were all thinking the exact same thing.  The teacher was stunned by our silence.  She prodded for a few minutes. Surely someone must know this word.  Finally, knowing I was a voracious reader and may have an idea, she called on me.  I meekly said "condom". Thankfully she burst out laughing so I did not have to proffer a definition for the word.  Nearly in tears, she said, "No, they wouldn't put that on a 5th grade vocab list." Honestly though, I think we all could have benefitted from an explanation of what one was, just as we should have been instructed as to the correct spelling of the word condom.

I remember being asked by some older girls if I was a "virgin" when I was about 12.  I had no concept of what the term actually meant beyond reference to the Virgin Mother and perhaps the Madonna song.  Of course I was one, but I didn't really know what the question meant. I had not even kissed a boy at that point, but given the paradox that Mary can be a virgin and somehow end up pregnant, what sense is the word supposed to make to a kid?  

Fast forward 2 or so years to high school.  After years in a nice little Catholic School environment, I was thrust into a large, inner-city public high school.  The first week of school, an upper classman pinned me against a locker and said to me perhaps the dirtiest thing I have ever heard, even to this day. I had no idea what to do or what to say. This for sure would now be labeled sexual harassment, but back then, I'm not so sure that even if I had said something to someone that anything would have been done. Several male teachers and even the Vice Principal at the time were known for placing advances on young pretty girls.

I eventually found my way, though it took some trial end error, and a failed first marriage to figure it all out.  I'm hoping my daughters have an easier time of it.  I do hope to arm them with more knowledge than I had, and maybe even some vocabulary words. Otherwise they may turn to their friends, or worse, to the interwebs for answers.  God only knows what will come up if they search for certain keywords.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

In Defense of the Common Core

I hear a lot of Common Core bashing. My 2nd grader is one of the first to be educated with the Common Core, beginning from Kindergarten.  The math has changed from when you were a kid, we are aware.  Parents are frustrated.  I get it.  Not being able to explain things to your 7 year old who doesn't really want to do their math homework, and you don't get it put you in a less than ideal situation.

Half the parents I know posted this video when it came out, as a blow against the Common Core. In case you didn't watch it, here is the gist. There is a math problem.  The kids are expected to use a method that the mother in the video deems ridiculous.

Mr.Yamata's class has 18 students.If the class counts around by a number and ends with 90. What number did they count by?

Most reasonable people would simply divide 90 by 18 to get 5.  However, in this scenario, the kids are expected to draw 18 circles and make hash marks rather than treat this as a division problem. How ridiculous is this? Turning a one step quickie division problem into a 108 step problem.  What is the point of that? Let's throw out all the skills that are being taught and go complain to the school board.

The point of that is it teaches procedural knowledge. It gives them an alternate method to get to the answer. This may not seem important when we are talking about a simple division problem, but what if the problem is more complex?

In an Educational Psychology class I am taking, we were given a seemingly simple problem.  Here we are all graduate students. The majority of us have taken statistics in some form.  All but 3 of us took the NYS Math Regents Sequence. There were even 2 math teachers in the room.  So here is the problem:

You are making a fruit salad.  There are 5 fruits you can use - apples, strawberries, grapes, bananas, oranges.  The bowl you are using will only hold the salad if you limit it to 3 fruits.  How many different combinations are possible?

A. 10
B. 15
C. 20
D. 30
E. 120

The discussion begins. "Don't we use 5! and multiply out 5*4*3*2*1?" "No, you would would do that if the order were important." "I think she is right, but you have to divide it by something." "But what?  What do you divide by? Do you remember the formula?"

Then finally someone suggest we write it out.  A S G B O. Apple Strawberry Grape and so on.


So there are 10 combinations.  We as graduate students used a process very similar to drawing circles and making hash marks because not one of us remembered the formula to figure out combinations and somehow we got to the right answer.  Yes, if we could have recalled the formula it may have been quicker. Does that make our method less valid?

The point of the seemingly ridiculous exercise talked about in the video is to give the kids an alternate way to do the problem.  You can't always recall every formula for each problem by wrote. Occasionally you may need to figure something out using a less than ideal method, and that is okay. In this era of high stakes testing, it is important for kids to understand that there may be more than one method to get to the correct answer. You can also use a method like this to double check your work. So please, do all of the 4th grade math teachers a favor and cut them some slack.  They are teaching skills that will be useful in a variety of situations, even when you can't remember the formula.  

If you are curious the way you would do this problem follows.





120/12= 10

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Rules of Frozen Sheet Music

     I grew up playing Disney songs. I had a big thick Disney Songbook that I wore out, and had to replace because I loved it so much. I taught music lessons and often went back to the Disney songbook for various lessons.  I would teach Scales and Arpeggios from Aristocats as a fun way to teach modulations. Teaching music from Sleeping Beauty means you are actually teaching Tchaikovsky. "When I see and Elephant Fly" and "Cruella DeVille"are great songs to teach jazz patterns.

      When a movie like the Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast came out when I was a budding young pianist, one of the best parts was getting the sheet music and learning all of the songs.  Many happy hours were spent at the piano learning those songs by heart. So when Frozen came out, I knew that I would be buying the sheet music.  Somehow, now as a mother with children, my experience of the music was quite changed.

     First, when the book arrived, there had been milk spilled upon it within 5 minutes of it's entry into the house.  I should have taken that as an omen. I saw a post from Rants from Mommy Land on the Rules for Singing Frozen. I knew I had to put my own twist on the playing of Frozen songs.

1. There must be a child in my lap as I play anything from Frozen.  Playing piano around a child while also sight reading the music can prove challenging.  Sitting next to me on a piano bench is not acceptable.  Using pedals won't work either.

2. If it were up to me and my usual musical process, I would play the first song in the book, and then play through each one till I got to the end of the book.  This cannot happen. I have to play "Let it Go" first. Then there after some in fighting we may finally agreed on "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?"and then "In Summer" could be next. When I try to play "Reindeer are Better Than People" I was met with a chorus of nos.

3. The kids would be happy if I just banged out the melodies for their favorite songs. They really do not care if I play the chords and accompaniment or not.  When I try to play intros or bridges they get impatient.

4. If I miss a sharp or flat, they let me know "Mommy, you are not very good." They don't understand that the chromatics and modulations in "Let It Go" are a bit tricky, especially since the song is already starting off in A flat.

5.  I am not allowed to sing, ever, even if it is to help them with the words, or to correct their pitch.  Which leads me to -

6. Children singing Frozen are never off key, or at least you can't tell them that they are.  They can effortlessly sing a song that spans the entirety of 2 octaves, even if it means growling the low notes or screeching the high notes.

7.  I may not turn Frozen sing along time into a music lesson, in any way shape or form.  Frozen transcends notes and rhythms and any mention of "Peanut Butter" or "Every Good Boy Does Fine" will not be tolerated.

8. I can now only play Frozen songs.  Any attempts to play anything other than Frozen are met with booing.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Fairytale Journey

On November 25th, 2009, I was in a parking lot, waiting for my older son’s preschool class to be over for the day. Before I had to drag my sleeping toddler out into the cold, I spent a moment typing on my blackberry the first line of a story I had floating around in my head. “Much farther north than most humans would dare settle, December unleashed its relentless fury.” Until that day, writing as a career was just a far-fetched fantasy. But having one sentence down was a step I had never been brave enough to take before.

I didn’t always know that I wanted to be a writer. My experience was quite the opposite, actually. I never kept a diary as a child. I wasn’t even an avid reader. I preferred playing outdoors and I survived the long New York winters with Mario Brothers and Disney princesses. Reading and writing were both chores that went along with schoolwork.

By high school, though, I came to realize that my high grades were not due to brilliance, much to my dismay, but because I could write those thesis papers, expository essays, DBQs, creative projects, and get “A’s” on top of them. But I never had a passion for journalism, I despised all study of grammar, and I liked but didn’t love the “great” literature I was exposed to. And I was raised to be practical. I wanted to graduate from college and find a job. I was a true child of the Renaissance, good at everything, phenomenal at nothing, but I had to choose. So I picked biology as a major.     

College for me was like a day job. I never lived on campus. I would go to class, do the work, and when I went home, “life” began for the day. Again, writing was just part of work–lab reports, papers for my electives–and it helped boost my grades, but the bulk of my achievement was measured with exams.

I did pretty well in college with biology, so I assumed I had made the right choice. I never asked myself if I enjoyed the content. I did…enough, I thought. I would never love science as much as music, art, English, history, or psychology, but I didn’t see that as a problem. I believed I’d be able to pursue other interests in my “down time.”

Then came graduate school. I was doing so much science around the clock that I could barely stay awake in class. There was no down time. And here’s what happened. While trying to cram facts, theories based on facts, and theories based on theories into my head, the information just wasn’t taking root, and the creative side of my brain kept getting louder and more resentful. If any of my former co-workers ever looked over at me and thought I was in my own little world, I probably was.

           Thanks Eileen and Mike for your creative genius/computer wizardry 

The first “book” I imagined was a sci-fi thriller. I don’t remember the details. After I left school, I had to put the writing idea away for a while. Life intervened. I had a baby by this point and I was working in a genetics lab full time. By 9:30 at night, when my near sleepless firstborn FINALLY called it quits, I was too exhausted to watch television, so writing was out of the question. But, during those long experiments, my mind kept wandering to the idea that fairies seemed underrepresented in the fantasy world. And I knew why. Tinker Bell, circa 2007, was the fairy world representative, and what appeal did she have to an adult audience? Not much. And so, Christopher and Joseph MacRae were born. I had the basic storyline in my head for two years–two modern-day American brothers who believe they’re human, their missing fairy father, his evil fairy-queen ex-wife, and Cassiopeia, the fairy princess who thickens the plot in every way.

After I wrote the first line of Fairy Tale, the project idled until after the New Year. But then, thanks to improved cellphone technology, I could write anywhere, anytime. The true birth of “Pyxis” began in the microscopy “caves” of Skidmore College. By the third chapter, there was no turning back. I woke up before sunrise, went to bed late, and was chased in my nightmares by the very villains I had created…and they’re pretty nasty. In other words, the story wouldn’t rest, and essentially, it wrote itself. By August 2010, my rough draft was complete, and I was stoked. It was one of those “best day ever” feelings, something I had never experienced in all my years as a scientist.

After that, I tweaked, revised, trimmed and fattened the manuscript, and then had some family members help me out. I considered their feedback and revised it again. When I decided it was “finished,” I attempted to find an agent, and the process was heartbreaking, especially after one of my first letters received a promising response. But nothing ever came of it. And the rejections letters kept piling up at a time when my husband and I really needed a lucky break. I was also looking for a job again, in science. I had two major interviews, but they led to more rejection. By my thirtieth birthday (April, 2011), I was at an all-time personal and career low.    

Fortunately, my husband received a life-changing promotion at his new job. So we moved out of New York and left some of our problems behind. My career issues didn’t exactly go away, but the pressure to find employment was off. So I continued writing–I never really stopped–and I finished The Rising Star, the second book of the Fairy Tale series.

By 2012, I was pregnant (again), and spent my “free” time editing and entering book one, Winter’s Bite, into a few contests. Rejection then took on a new name. It was called “feedback.” It’s one of those things new writers can’t get enough of, until they do, and then they wish they could give it back in the form of some very choice words. Was it all bad? No. There was a fair amount of positive or constructive feedback. However, there were a few judges out for blood, and I overwhelmed myself with their reviews at a time when I was emotionally and hormonally unstable. The experience culminated in a disastrous meltdown at a Friendly’s in Bennington, VT. Luckily, my sister came to me with the idea of this blog at the perfect time. For my health and wellbeing, I needed a lightweight distraction from the series. So I spent the summer before Emily’s birth blogging about my pregnancy.      
                                              Emily Rose: A Pregnancy Story

Once life plus one stabilized to some extent, I revisited the contest feedback. I took what I could from it and ignored what I disagreed with. Then I embarked on the most ambitious revision project to date. The work was tedious and more challenging than I expected, and early on, I had doubts the corrections were necessary, or even possible in some cases. The point of view of my book (omniscient) wasn’t wrong, per se, but it didn’t meet “industry standards” (third person, limited). But I kept at it, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter, and ultimately fixed what I once worried wasn’t fixable. By the fall of 2013, I called the project “finished,” once again, and despite my initial qualms, it was better than ever.

So why did I continue with a path so full of rejection, self-doubt, and heartache? Why didn’t I just get a paying job, go back to school, or succumb to the mommy-brain-drain powers of Dr. Oz and Days of Our Lives? The answer is simple. Because in every Fairy Tale character there’s a piece of me–the brooding loner, the analytical smartass, the optimist who refuses to let darkness prevail. And so their story deserves to be told…

And while Fairy Tale: Winter’s Bite is in the hands of an editor, I’ve been wearing in my sexy sweatpants, firing up my Keurig with the dedication of an addict, and cranking up the heat both real and imaginary, all so I could take a trip back in time to Gloucester, Massachusetts, 1979. There, I met up with Scott MacRae, the patriarch of my fairy dynasty, and the one who started it all–an epic fantasy war and a forbidden love affair with a human–and I let him tell his own story in Disgrace. It’s free on Wattpad, http://www.wattpad.com/story/11656358-disgrace. You don’t need to join the site to read it, but feel free if you’re ready to catch the new wave in indie publishing. Plus, I’m always on the market for new groupies J.

For more information about the Fairy Tale series, check out my new author page on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Alicia-Britton-Author/351622061645290). In the “about” section, I’ve posted a summary of Winter’s Bite and a brief excerpt. Please stop by. Let me know what you think. And go ahead. Be a fan. I dare you!

Lastly, I want to thank my dedicated readers–Carissa, Eileen, Greg, Katie, Steve, Brooke, Janet, my editor, as well as Leo and Mike for taking a look at my synopsis. Without you, Fairy Tale wouldn’t be as grammatically correct (Carissa), romantically succinct (Eileen), action packed (Greg), or logical (Steve). And thanks to all my future readers, like you. Anyone who has read this blog post in its entirety must have some interest and you are certainly worthy of mention!



P.S. This photo is just for fun. Thanks again, Eileen and Mike. I think I laughed for a good ten minutes when I saw this for the first time...