Friday, September 29, 2006

Epilepsy Drug Warning

There are so many risk factors to take into account when deciding to have a baby; the need to take medication for a chronic condition adds an unavoidably stressful element to the mix. We went through this, knowing that the medications Cheryl was on added to the risks of birth defects to a non-trivial degree. We wrestled with the issue before having the kids, knowing that we were taking larger chance than normal of bringing children into the world who would have special needs. A very unfeeling genetic advisor with whom we met several years before Kelly came along was particularly harsh in her assessment of our chances of having a normal baby. Cheryl left that meeting in tears, and I with a rock in my stomach, considering the future with fear rather than hope.

Nevertheless, we took the chance, and Cheryl and her doctors chose medications that were the least likely to cause defects. Cheryl loaded up on folic acid to enahance early embrionic development and avoid spina bifida, a common affect of certain anti-seizure medications. Cheryl also went through lots of extra tests during both pregnancies (although no amniocentesis either time), and everything always turned out the way it should. Still, we held our breath all the way through until we could hold the kids in our arms and see for sure that they were healthy and normal. Because Downs Syndrome is another one of the primary birth defects caused by Cheryl's medications, seeing Kelly's red hair gave me a real scare until the APGAR tests came back perfect a few minutes later. Thankfully, both Kelly and Michael arrived in perfect condition, and they have been nothing but a blessing to us ever since.

Over time, Cheryl's old medications have lost their effectiveness. She has been on a slow crossfade to a new medication over the past couple of years. Our lives will probably follow that pattern: use a new drug for ten years or so until her body no longer responds to it, then transition to some new drug that was developed during the course of those years. I am glad that our child-bearing days are over, though, as word has just come down that Cheryl's primary drug now, Lamictal, is showing evidence that it causes birth defects to a significant degree. While nearly every drug carries with it an elevated risk of birth defects, these recent findings appear to be new and more serious than the usual increased risk.

Pregnancy, while usually a joyous time, is stressful enough without the mother knowing that something she must ingest for her own well-being could harm that young life growing inside her. We held our collective breath through both of our pregancies and were blessed with no complications. If we were in the position to have kids now, knowing of these elevated risks, I think the decision to proceed would be much more difficult than it was, and the pregancy itself would be much more scary. I feel bad for other women who must face these questions.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Objects On Your Shelf May Be Smaller Than They Appear

It has been a major peeve of mine over the years that the products we buy, particularly at the grocery store, have become smaller without an attendant reduction in price. It is a relative of the classic drug pusher scenario: you get hooked on the good stuff, then they go on to charge you more for less.

The first experience with this that I recall had to do with Kudo bars, the chocolate covered granola-ish snacks. These things were a revelation when they appeared in the 1980s: candy bars that Mom would put in your lunch! I have no hard evidence to back this up, but my subjective impression has always been that a few years after they were introduced, the size of the bars was reduced. They still packed the same number of bars in the box, but each had gone on a diet.

Ice cream has quite clearly gone on the product decontentization program. Remember half-gallons? The standard, rectangular box of ice cream? The freezer section of your local grocer still holds those, but the trendy brands like Breyers and Dreyers put out their product in little boxes that look like half gallons ... but are not. Like my favorite here:

It comes in the handy size of 1.75 quarts. The silent switch away from the half gallon has apparently been going on for a little while now. The manufacturers are pretty blunt about their motivation. The linked article quotes a spokesman as saying "do you raise the unit price or reduce the unit?" Brilliant! Pay more for less.

It seems someone else is interested in silly marketing techniques as well. This site tracks what it terms "mouseprint," the too-small-to-read fine print found in just about every product advertisement these days. I like the toilet paper package that promises the same number of squares as before, but doesn't mention that each square is smaller than it used to be. Or the "quart" of mayonnaise that is now 30 oz. rather than 32 oz. This post, in particular, describes clearly the phenomenon I'm talking about.

The manufacturers continually claim that these measures are taken to avoid a price increase. Really? Does that mean that no price increases will follow for a while in the future to make up for the reduction in product? Certainly not. The standard upward creep of pricing can continue without pause, not giving a break to the buyer, while the manufacturer can reap the benefit of the big jump in profit margin.

We are all just grocery-buying frogs in the big stew pot, failing to notice how warm it's been getting lately, while clever marketing wizards stand at the controls, turning up the heat ever so gradually while telling us that they are giving us what we really wanted.

What I want is my missing .25 quarts of ice cream.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Happy 5th Birthday, Michael!

This is one of those years when we lost our sanity and invited everybody Michael knows, or has met, or has seen from across a street somewhere. Thankfully, these days parents can relieve themselves of the burden of organizing clever games to entertain a score of restless pre-kindergartners by ordering a jumphouse. A portable amusement park that we did not have as kids, the state of the art of bounce houses has advanced significantly in the five years since we had one of these kinds of parties for Kelly (after which we vowed never to do it again. Short memories.). Whereas Kelly's bounce house was a basic square, Michael's had a main bounce area, with an interior ladder that led to an exterior slide. Very slick, and amazingly effective at keeping a whole bunch of small children occupied for more than an hour.

(The weird light is due to the large quantity of smoke in the air from our regional fires.)

Then a quick stop for pizza and cake before more bouncing. No untoward reappearances of dinner were reported.

After everyone left (and left Michael's loot), it was family time for opening presents. The force was clearly with Michael this year.

And for a final demonstration at how much the big media companies control us, here is Michael, courtesy of Disney, Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox:

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

An Overdue Memoriam

I believe that most people can identify at least one teacher in their educational experience who had a particularly notable impact on their lives, whether in the academic arena or simply in growing up. I was fortunate to grow up in an area that was famously and rightly proud of the quality of its public education system, although I think the district's successes had as much to do with the importance placed on education by the many highly educated parents that lived there, in what was only beginning to be known as Silicon Valley. We are told that iron sharpens iron; I believe that it was the high standards and motivational level of my classmates, particularly in high school, that shaped much of who I was as a student. Our efforts were matched, however, by many of our teachers, who fed off of our competitiveness and pushed us to achieve great things. For some reason, I managed to avoid several of the duds my sister had.

One teacher has always stood out in my mind as one who gave me confidence in myself that, as a 13 year old, I did not come by easily. Jim Grayson was my seventh grade English and History teacher at Cupertino Junior High School. Our class, if I remember correctly, met for a double-length period in an unusually oversized classroom. Mr. Grayson enjoyed engaging his students in large, creative projects. One of those projects, something that I doubt would be attempted today due to the subject matter, was an essay assignment entitled "Fight After School." (I suppose the assignment was in conjunction with life lessons about how to deal with difficult social issues, although I do not recall that specifically.) Mr. Grayson set up the scenario, which I think involved a bully, and we were to finish the story.

I dutifully produced my story, which was takes a surprisingly violent turn. It makes me wonder just a little about my view of the world at the time. The basic storyline was that the big confrontation with the bully ended prematurely when the scared, pick-on kid accidentally stabs himself with the knife he had hidden in his pocket. I think I was intrigued by how difficult it is to project force when you are not accustomed to doing so.

The amazing development for me was not just that I received an A+. Mr. Grayson also selected my story to be the one that the class would film, for which I worked as an assistant director of sorts. While immensely flattering, I remember nothing about the filming, other than the fact that he used Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die" as the theme song. It was the first time I had ever heard the tune; I thought it was a pretty weird choice at the time, but I have had a soft spot in my heart for it ever since.

What I will never, ever forget, though, were the words he wrote at the top of my paper in clear red ink: "Someday I will pay to read your writing." To be shown that kind of esteem by an adult was a very new experience at the time, and humbles me to this day. Does any teacher know the full extent of their potential impact when they write something like that? It is life-changing. I had been a successful student writer to that point already, having participated with some success in Brotherhood Essay contests and young writers' fair events, but Mr. Grayson's words solidified something deep within me. That I instantly acquired an unshakeable confidence in my own ability to write was only part of the story; Mr. Grayson also solidified something about my own view of myself. (Of course, the wit in me says Mr. Grayson could have been proven correct if he had just paid my retainer fee, but somehow I don't think that is what he meant.)

Society at large today frets often about the eroding self-confidence of young people. Yet, there is perhaps nothing an adult can do to prepare an youth to be the confident adult we all hope he will be than to express genuine admiration for something that child can do. I refer not to the all-too-common practice now of giving out real or virtual trophies to everyone for just showing up. Kids see through that; they know that when everyone is special, nobody is special (one of the best lines of the excellent movie "The Incredibles"). What everyone craves is for someone they respect to respond positively, genuinely, to something they do. Whether it is solving difficult math problems or setting the table just so, the payoff of the heartfelt approval of an adult can be felt far out of proportion to the effort required of the adult to give it. (Sadly, the same principle applies to mean-spirited cricism.) I was very lucky to have Mr. Grayson give me that kind of boost.

I ran across a box the other day that contains a lot of my old schoolwork, including my "Fight After School" paper. I had not remembered that I still had it in my possession, and was suprised and delighted to see it again. It got me to thinking about Mr. Grayson again, and how much he deserved to hear how much his words, which took him only a few seconds to write, influenced the rest of my life. Unfortunately, it turns out that I'm almost seven years too late. Mr. Grayson passed away after a quick fight with cancer in February 2000. Reading about him in the local paper, I see even more clearly how he could have a lasting impact on a student's life. He was a life-long teacher, he mentored other teachers, and was named Teacher of the Year for the district the year before he died. According to the article linked above, his friends remembered his teaching style: "He told kids they would succeed, and they believed him and performed up to his standards." Quite true.

What I find equally amazing about all of this is that at the time I was his student, he was the age I am now. First, I thought he was a pretty old guy (whoops). Second, would I have the sensitivity, foresight and wisdom to nuture a student the way he nutured me, if I were in his shoes? I would like to think so, but that seems to have been his unique talent.

Sorry I'm so tardy, Mr. Grayson, but thank you.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Yeah, What Have You Done Lately, MIT?

Proving yet again my prescience for choosing the university on America's Riviera as my institution of higher learning, UC Santa Barbara announced today that it and Intel have developed the world's first hybrid silicon laser. I'm not exactly sure what that means, but it says "hybrid" in there, so it must be cool and trendy.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

People Braver Than I, In A Totally Useless Way

Have you ever struggled to understand performance art? Does it usually involve too much self-mutilation and/or debasement for your taste? Did you not quite "get" Andy Kaufman? There is a group of clever hipsters out there who make it okay, even fun, to enjoy bizarre, semi-comedic performance art.

This troupe of loosely affiliated comedians calls itself Improv Everywhere. Their gig is performing benign, amusing acts in the middle of ordinary places, usually by engaging in slightly odd behavior while appearing to be otherwise quite ordinary. The joke comes from how unsuspecting civilians react to them. It will take you some time to read these accounts, but I assure you that you will find at least one of them at least slightly amusing. In one "mission," a guy gets lost on his way back to his seat at a baseball game, much to the eventual concern of most of the upper deck at Yankee Stadium. In another mission, the troupe amusingly invades a Best Buy. In another harmless assault on a big retailer, the troupe infiltrates a Home Depot; don't miss the video clip with the action accelerated. I believe I may have actually heard of these folks last year when they put on a faux rooftop U2 concert.

I have to admit that I love the creativity and generally harmless sense of mischief that these "missions" involve. I also have to admit that there is no way I would be inclined to participate. I'm sure that reveals some deep psychological truth about me, but that's okay. That's why these people exist to do these things, so I don't have to.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Where Were You?

September 11 is a hard date. On Sunday, our pastor aptly said that that no matter how we are getting along now, a shadow falls on that day. I was not around for Pearl Harbor, or the Kennedy assassination. Until 9/11, the most profound moment of shared memory for my generation was the Challenger explosion in 1986. I still vividly remember where I was and what I was doing at that time.

9/11 is, of course, more akin to Pearl Harbor in that it is not just tragic, but scary in its implications. Plus, 9/11 took place on the continental soil, in heavily populated areas. Worst of all, thanks to television and the internet, we all had front row seats to the destruction, in vivid color. The information overload softens the edges of my memories, so that there is very little that sticks out other than recalling that I spent hours in front of the TV that first day, and the many days of hitting the "refresh" button on internet browsers to get the very lastest from CNN or MSNBC.

The one clear, specific memory I have, though, is of turning on the Today show at about 7:26 in the morning and the very confusing scene that came up. We couldn't tell immediately whether what we were seeing was in LA or elsewhere. Right about the time we figured out that this was New York, and that it was big, the second tower came down in front of our eyes. That's an image that will not go away. Even all of the video disclosed later, dramatic shots of airplanes inexplicably flying into buildings, cannot compare to my memory of looking at the TV in confusion and disbelief, which was closely followed by the realization that this was going to be a very different kind of day.

I was reminded this morning of the other strong memory I have of those days, something I hadn't seen in a while but which was common five years ago. Today, someone put up an American flag on a pedestrian overpass over the freeway. Simple, unadorned and a little sad.

And beautiful.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

School's In

Kelly, in her year round schedule sort of way, is well into her second month of fourth grade. Michael, having a traditional schedule with a long summer break, headed back to school this week for pre-kindergarten:

He fell right back into step with all of his friends from last year: Isabella, Emily, Natalie ...

Yes, he is already a bit of a lady-killer.

Soccer Morning in America

AYSO's season started this morning. Our region supports more than 3,000 kids, so the minivans were out in force today. There wasn't a large patch of grass anywhere within a ten mile radius of here that didn't have brightly garbed tykes roaming around in chase of a ball while parents screeched from the sidelines.

Today was the inaguration of our latest family insanity: two kids on soccer teams.

The logistics of game attendance, snack duty and banner toting are dizzying. Today, the two of them had games that started half an hour apart on fields half a mile from each other. Michael's division, Under-5 boys, is comprised of five person teams that play three players at a time, and spend half of the "game" time in practice mode with a master coach on the field. The actual gameplay then follows for a short while, on a tiny field with little goals and no goalies. By all accounts, a fine time was had by all, especially since Michael's best friend was added to the team today.

Kelly is in her second year of the Under 10, so she is now one of the big kids on the team. You may recall that her team went pretty far in the playoffs last year, but that she didn't see much of the field other than her own goal box. This year, she is off to quite a different start. She played center forward the entire game and had a good (if tiring) time doing it. Unfortunately, the other team had the next iteration of Mia Hamm, who scored on our inexperienced defense three times within the first five minutes. Much cringing among the parents.

Then, Kelly scored our first goal of the season on a breakaway, following up her own shot that had bounded away from the keeper. That seemed to inspire everyone. We put in our "star" player for the second quarter, and she scored three more goals, at least one of which off an assist from Kelly. The star for the other team also scored two more, though, and the 5-4 score at halftime held through the second half. The girls started to figure out how to play as a team by the fourth quarter. Our defenders became more tenacious, our goalies became very aggressive, and our forwards started passing the ball instead of swarming to it. We had a great opportunity to tie the game late when one of our wingers sent a ball forward through the defense to an open area off the corner of the penalty box. Kelly outran the defense to it and attacked the goal. Unfortunately, her sharp angle approach to the goal caused her shot to bounce off the far post. She followed up her shot (as dear old Dad had coached her to), but missed on the rebound. As is often the case at the beginning of the season, the girls were all a bit timid, but there is reason to believe that they will do just fine this year. The parents also seem to be a friendly, cohesive group, which makes the year much more fun for us sideline dwellers.

After watching Kelly trudge to the goal quarter after quarter last year, it was thrilling to see her break free into the opposition's zone a dozen times. She is soaking this stuff up and having a great time. That's what it is all about.

Well, that and winning a whole bunch of games.

No! Kidding! Winning is just secondary!

(Kind of...)