Happy Birthday! (Hold the Cake…)


A highlight of a child’s birthday is bringing treats to school.  The interruption of the school routine for personal attention, a “Happy Birthday” serenade complete with “Cha-cha-cha’s” and a decadent treat to eat drive my kids to plan this particular event not days, but months in advance.  Despite their intense pre-planning (motivation I wish would spill over to doing homework, cleaning their rooms….) the request from mom’s kitchen is predictable:  cupcakes with sprinkles or fancy toothpicks, please.  However this year my daughter threw a sweet curveball.  As some of her friends are on a gluten-free diet, she wanted gluten-free brownies to take to her class.  With her name “written” in M and M’s, please.  I love her unprovoked thoughtfulness on a day when most young kids develop an unsurpassed narcissism and was more than willing to indulge her request.  Plus these brownies are literally to die for.  No one misses the gluten-y goodness.

When I brought the treats to my daughter’s second grade class, two children rushed up to ask what was in the brownies.  A third child informed me he was wheat- and dairy-free.  Yet another announced he “couldn’t have M and M’s.”   In all, four kids could not partake of birthday treats.  That’s 20 percent of the class.  That surprising number made me think back to when I was my daughter’s age and the number of students who missed out on celebratory treats was…zero.  Rare was the allergic child and no one had ever heard of being “gluten-free.”  Sometimes nuts made their way into brownies, and no one batted an eyelash.

But times have changed.  There is published evidence to support the limiting of sugar (obviously), wheat and even dairy in our diets.  Unfortunately there seem to be more nut allergies and the idea of walnut brownies must be oh-so carefully considered.  Despite modern diet considerations, even a birthday treat sans nuts and gluten prevented several kids from participating in the centerpiece of a school birthday celebration.  I felt sad for them but also proud of these children (seven and eight years old!) who were so fully aware of their dietary restrictions they honored them under the temptation of a chocolatey sugar rush.  And it was impressive to see so many families embrace a contemporary dietary consciousness.  But I kept thinking about the little boy who said he “couldn’t have M and M’s.”  I wonder if what he really meant was “shouldn’t.”

When I worked in healthcare an important, routine question I asked all my patients was “Are you allergic to anything?”  The answers were many, varied and sometimes puzzling.  For example, the mother of a pediatric patient mentioned her son was allergic to a particular brand of jarred spaghetti sauce.  Which makes absolutely no medical sense.  But no matter, as the follow up question to a stated allergy is “What happens when you eat/are exposed to (fill-in-the-blank)?”  And in the case of my avoider of pasta sauce, the answer was “He throws up.”

Ok.  No wonder he steered clear.  Food aversions are strong and lasting (eggs still kinda gross me out, after my mom fed me one as a toddler and I, that’s right, threw up.)  But this boy doesn’t have an allergy.  Plus kids who don’t like certain foods often state matter-of-factly, “I’m allergic to cheese, brussel sprouts, water….”  The list could go on.  But they aren’t faced with a life-threatening condition if exposed.  They are describing dislikes or even intolerances.  Not allergies.  And the line between the last two gets blurred all the time, so that many of us think they are one and the same.  So to clear the air (Sorry, no pun intended.  Really.) here’s the difference between a food intolerance and a food allergy:

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology website, a food intolerance (also known as a sensitivity):

“…occurs when a person has difficulty digesting a particular food. This can lead to symptoms such as intestinal gas, abdominal pain or diarrhea.  A food intolerance is sometimes confused with or mislabeled as a food allergy. Food intolerances involve the digestive system.”

And a food allergy affects:

“…the immune system. With a food allergy, even a microscopic amount of the food has the potential to lead to a serious or life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis.”

Anaphylaxis is a fancy term for symptoms that include, but are not limited to, difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing, hives and swelling.  People who develop these potentially life-threatening symptoms following an exposure to a food item (like nuts) or an environmental insult (bee sting) carry injectable epinephrine, which stalls the symptoms until they obtain further medical treatment (which they should seek immediately).

Just to be sure, I don’t bring this up to advocate for eating of junk-food or to dismiss dietary choices…far from it.  What’s important is to make sure a child’s food avoidances are classified in the right way.   Parents should discuss concerns with their child’s pediatrician, obtain a correct diagnosis (intolerance vs. allergy) and relay the appropriate information to school.  The school must obviously know about a true anaphylactic reaction (allergy), with doses of epinephrine provided and readily available should a child have an exposure.  However, an intolerance or preference is a gray area and can cause an undue ruse if mistakenly referred to as an “allergy.”  If your child has a special diet, clarify any restrictions with your child’s teacher and indicate how the teacher should handle the parade of birthday and party treats that inevitably pass through the classroom doors.  Then provide the teacher with an appropriate stash of snacks for your child, so at the very least your little one won’t be left out and can eat something with their classmates.  Because, as in the case of the disappointed little boy who “couldn’t have M and M’s” the teacher was scrambling for an alternative snack for him, and the best she could do was a rather tired-looking peach.

Above all, keep an open dialogue with your child’s pediatrician.  Ask questions about any and all reactions your child has to food and anything else in his/her environment.  And as for all the “free” diets out there…some make sense, others do not.  And some may or may not be appropriate for a growing and developing weed like your child.  Before trying out a diet that limits or emphasizes any food group, ask your doctor and/or a registered dietician.

Eat smart, eat well, eat healthy.  But don’t forget to indulge once in awhile, it’s good for the soul.



Sorry, Mr. Robbins, My Mind Just Doesn’t Work That Way

Good Wisconsin cheese, local coffee and a new book.  I almost put my ski boots in the picture but thought that would be weird.  Not weirder than riding in a roast turkey, though.

Good Wisconsin cheese, local coffee and a new book. I almost put my ski boots in the picture but thought that would be weird. Not weirder than riding in a roast turkey, though.

Life is short.  Too short to drink bad coffee (as is advertised by the coffee shop I’m sitting in right now), eat processed cheese and to not give downhill skiing a second chance (God help me).  Well, I tried and tried to get into Nurtured by Love, the account by violinist Shin’ichi Suzuki on his “talent is learned” philosophy, but have struggled through the first third of his 142-page book.  As my frustration grew with trying to learn valuable insights on our son’s violin method my husband told me

Life is short.  Read something you enjoy.

His advice got my attention.  Because when I tossed aside How the Mind Works after wading through a dry first chapter on mental neurology, he said I didn’t give the textbook-sized volume enough of a chance.  And when a Tom Robbins novel opened with newlyweds roaring down the highway in a roast turkey, I thought that was the dumbest thing ever (bye-bye, book) and my husband rolled his eyes.  So when his newfound live-in-the-moment-life-is-short perspective gave me permission to close the cover on yet a third book, I did.

And I started reading Growth Hacker Marketing by Ryan Holiday.  I was no more than five pages into this “primer on the future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising” when I could feel the difference in this month’s nightly reading ritual.  I was relaxed, eyes not straining to focus on the typeset, and before I knew it I had read 20 pages.

Do not get me wrong, I think Shin’ichi Suzuki’s philosophy and musical methodology are significant.  So simple and, frankly, genius.  Is Suzuki’s book a bad book?  No, not at all.  Neither were the other two books I gave the punt.  I think this talented man’s account was simply written in a way I could not appreciate.

In other words, my mind just doesn’t work that way.


The Principal Always Rings Twice

What do parents and doctors have in common?  Call.  Which means we must have some sort of electronic gadget within easy reach (surgical attachment, anyone?) so the school or the sitter (or the hospital) can get ahold of us at a moment’s notice.  The only difference is parents must take this responsibility round the clock, not every third weekend or weekday (which, don’t get me wrong,  is plenty tough).   But like doctors, we parents can have a degree of superstition about how to ward off bad news delivered by phone.  For me, my mobile is always in my pocket or purse…even when I meet my kids at the bus stop after school.  Because inevitably, if I leave it on the kitchen counter, the school calls.  Without fail.

But doggone it,  the school has found a loophole in my strategy:  call while I am brushing my teeth in public. Continue reading



My younger son loves to play games.  And not surprisingly, he loves to win.  He is so driven in fact, that he is a flagrant, and I mean flagrant, cheater.  As in he grabs a handful of cards from a deck and chooses the one he wants, right in front of his opponents.  Or he tries to break the rules by announcing just that and then shoots us the I-am-so-guilty-but-maybe-they-won’t-notice look.

Therefore, my son has been dubbed “Sir Cheaterpants.”

Fortunately he is a good natured boy and takes the ribbing well.  But his inclination to “stack the deck” in his favor has me thinking:

Should we let our kids win? Continue reading

Runway Model?

My daughter running full "tilt" down the hallway of the gymnastic center annex.

I am barely five-foot four.  There is nothing in my closet with a designer label (unless Osprey and Merrill count).  I firmly believe my own flesh-and-blood heels belong no higher than a couple centimeters off the ground.  So I doubt anyone would mistake me for one of the genetic enigmas we call “runway models.”

But the other day, something happened that could change that. Continue reading

Learning the Language of Music (Yes, There are Strings Attached)


I first heard about the Suzuki method of musical instruction when my sons voiced respective interests in learning violin and classical guitar.  After we talked with both instructors, and observed their differing styles in response to our inquiries,  I grew curious about the methodology that tied these teachers together.  So enter the book for October 2014:  Shin’ichi Suzuki’s book Nutured by Love.  Suzuki was an accomplished Japanese violinist who astutely observed that children learn their native tongue through simple repetition.  He felt that by using the same approach, with an understanding that ability is learned and not innate, children could learn a musical instrument.  So over the course of many years he cultivated the Mother Tongue Method of music teaching.  This style of music instruction does come with “strings attached:”  parental involvement and presence during lessons is required.  This a given, I hope this month’s book will help me I gain a better understanding of how my son is learning violin so I can become a better support to his at-home practice.

Nurtured by Love discusses Mr. Suzuki’s process through his personal experiences as a musician and teacher.  And if he can shed any light on tuning a violin without breaking a string, I hope to learn that as well.  So far I’m only on Chapter two of his book, so stay, ahem, tuned…

Overscheduled, Underworked


My son left this note for me at breakfast. But I guess he was willing to wait a day so he could practice with his biking team…

I’m just going to come out and say it:

Kids need to work more.

They need to scatter legos and build, build, build.  They need to challenge each other with board games and don old clothes, pretending to be a Spy Kid, Dorothy from Kansas or Captain America.

If play is a child’s work, why don’t they get to do it more often? Continue reading

For the Remaining 88 Percent

In my last post “Twelve Percent of You Really Need to Read This Post” (September 25, 2014), I wrote briefly about what to say when someone confides they are struggling with infertility.  As I thought more about it and received some feedback, I’d like to expand on what I said.

We humans want to fix problems.  We become uncomfortable with the unfamiliar.  That’s just the way we are.  And when a loved one comes to us revealing a painful ordeal, we want to help and make things better.  But some things we cannot change or influence and infertility is one of those situations.  Even if we have been there ourselves.  So a conversation can be very hard to have.  And in the fight-or-flight response of helplessness,  it can be so easy to make a verbal misstep.

But remember, we are only human.

So let’s give ourselves a break.  Not try so hard.  If your sister, a cousin or a friend comes to you and needs to talk about their struggles to conceive, just be honest.  It’s okay if your response is I’m not sure what to say.  But I am sorry.  Think of it this way.  If someone has the courage and the honesty to come to you with such a personal frustration as infertility, they are giving you permission to also be honest.  Just listen.  Be upfront.  Be supportive.

That’s all you have to do .

Twelve Percent of You Really Need to Read This Post

Actually everyone should read this post.  But of course, I am a bit biased.

No.  More than a bit.

Twelve percent of couples struggle with the inability to conceive naturally.  That number may seem small.  But even smaller is the number of women who break the silence on their sadness and frustration.  So when someone has the courage to broach the painful topic of infertility, it can be an awkward conversation.  For example, the course of three days I learned a new friend is expecting her first baby, another friend delivered her second baby, and yet another is facing…infertility.  The words of congratulations and expressions of joy come so easily with the news of baby tidings.  But even after a four-year struggle with infertility and the wisdom and emotional growth earned, I found myself struggling for words during the conversation that began with, “You had your twins by in-vitro…right?” Continue reading

Several Thousand “Octibels” Above the Ground

If you ever ride in this...

If you ever ride in this…

with a few of these...

with a few of these…

it never hurts to be prepared.

it never hurts to be prepared.

Not unlike many infants, my younger son at six months old had a penchant for squealing.  His whole body shook with unbridled glee as he opened his little mouth wide and let loose, eyes shining with the head-ringing volume he attained.   As proud as he was, and even though he was making the happiest of infant sounds, few others were as pleased as he was at his ability.  Case in point:  the crabby fellow air traveler who had the nerve to tell me he didn’t like being seated next to a mother and her baby on an airplane.  So I, not knowing what else to do with my happy child, went the passive-aggressive route, turning my squealing son right at him.  I realize that wasn’t the most mature move but a baby’s self-gratifying peals are no match for a mother’s feeble attempts at shushing.  The ear-piercing decibels stand.

Fast-forward nine years and my son still has pipes.  His twin brother less so, only because he is not as verbose.  His younger sister…let’s just say she has the range and volume of a velociraptor.  How my husband and I got kids with such robust vocals, I’ll never know, but it doesn’t change the fact that in an enclosed space, such as a thrumming turbo-prop airplane, my kids can raise a roof.

Take for example our family’s recent trip to visit the kids’ great grandmother.  Not only were they getting to see her and their grandma and grandpa, the kids were missing school to do so.  Needless to say, their own landing gear was at the ready as we made our final approach to our destination.  Of course my husband and I tried to tone down their excitement, given the kids were old enough to understand the reminder use-your-inside-voices.  But as all parents know, it’s hard to turn the tide on enthusiasm.  At least we tried.

But attempting to make our kids  be considerate of others simply did not cut it.   My husband may need reading glasses but he otherwise has the eyes of a hawk as he saw the lady in front of him type out this text message on her phone:

This flight is kaos.  There are three kids who are too many octibels too loud.  

Word for non-word, that is what she typed.

Spelling and grammar aside, was she right?  Without a doubt, yes, she was.  The kids were loud.  She was trying to watch CSI on her laptop.  And without another doubt, she was bothered.  I wish I knew, without her silent complaint, how our family could have been less disruptive.  Unfortunately the confined cabin space coupled with a turbulent ride made it impossible to remove the kids from their seats, even if to just the lavatory, for even a brief moment of relative quiet.  So our only option was making reminders about volume. Which only go so far.  At least the kids were happy and not motion sick and not kicking the seats in front of them.  Compared to what it could have been, was a pretty successful flight with three kids.

But that is my husband’s and my perspective.  We could have addressed our unhappy neighbor directly and apologized to the travelers around us as we deplaned.  We could give visibly unhappy seat mates permission to ask our kids themselves to talk more quietly (that actually happened once with my daughter and it worked).  Hearing from mom and dad that their behavior “might be bothering others” is nothing like hearing from the affronted individuals themselves. ( We also could have said to this lady, “By the way, chaos is spelled with a ch and I think you mean decibel, not octibel…” which my passive-aggressive side would have found terribly gratifying.  But that would have been rather rude.)  We certainly understand not everyone is enamored with our kids’ volume of enthusiasm and we can at least acknowledge to those around us how disruptive it can be. Next time we fly the friendly skies, we will be prepared to try to keep them that way.

But in another vein, shouldn’t autocorrect have changed the messy text above to:

This flight is laos.  There are three kids who are too many october too loud?

That’s what mine did, anyway.