27 August 2012

Fruit-Flavored

I had my (what's supposed to be) annual mammogram today.  I'm really glad that it's only annual, because I will tell you honestly that it's a painful experience.  Everyone always talks about how great and important it is to get a mammogram on a regular basis.  No one ever tells you how much it hurts.  Now, there are a lot of things that hurt and are nevertheless necessary and worthwhile, and I would venture to say that a mammogram is one of them.  But still.

Unless there's something very interesting going on in the news, I almost never watch television at home.  This morning, however, I was in the Breast Center waiting room with a bunch of other women, all wearing the same bathrobe, and the television tuned to ABC's The View, which is a sort of female-hosted, female-oriented talk show dressed up in a news costume.  I'm not going to talk about Rielle Hunter, the guest on today's show, because I have enough to say about her that I think I might want to save it for another post.  Instead, I am going to talk about a commercial that came on in the middle of the show.

This is a show by and for women, and it's on in the middle of a weekday morning, so I am guessing that the target advertising audience is some combination of stay-at-home mothers and retirees.  (The undressed-to-the-waist crowd at the hospital is just incidental.)  Accordingly, most of the ads were for soaps, diapers, snack foods and drinks, and cleaning solutions, and they featured cute but grubby children and pets.

The particular ad that caught my eye was for Betty Crocker's Fruit Snacks.  In it, a young child accompanied his mom to the supermarket, and as young children tend to do, he announced in the middle of the shopping trip that he was hungry.  Mom quickly wheeled him to the fruit snack aisle, where she was able to get him a package of these fabulous little brightly-colored gummy treats.  The announcer praised her for her choice in a rich, avuncular baritone, noting that Fruit Snacks contain fewer than 100 calories per serving, are low in fat and gluten-free, and are made with real fruit.

Just like, well, real fruit.

This woman was in a supermarket with a small child.  She could have theoretically bought him anything in the store to assuage his hunger.  Why did she run for the packaged Fruit Snacks instead of, say, the produce aisle?  Because, after all, an apple, peach or pear is also under 100 calories, is entirely fat- and gluten-free, and (here's the kicker) is made entirely with real fruit.  No carrageenan or partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil (unlike the Fruit Snacks).  Also, a piece of real fruit probably costs about half of what a package of Fruit Snacks costs.

Don't get me wrong. I am not a health-food freak by any stretch of the imagination. My kids eat sugary cereals from time to time, and they usually prefer macaroni and cheese from a box over my homemade version.  Fresh fruit sometimes goes begging in my house.  Just yesterday, while I was out, my daughters went to the store and bought bottled spaghetti sauce and canned chicken soup, even though the refrigerator at home was stuffed with my homemade (and healthier) versions.

I'm just interested in whether this commercial works.  Does it make people think that Carageenan Fruit-Flavored Oil Gels are a good snack choice for a toddler when anything else is available?  This kid was not trapped in a car seat on a cross-country drive with limited stops, and his mom was not rummaging through her bare cabinets in a snowstorm, looking for something - anything - to feed her hungry child.  There was no mention of food allergies, and the kid didn't even appear to be throwing a temper tantrum or demanding the Fruit Snacks in lieu of other options.  He was just happy with what he was given, and his mom was smug in the knowledge that she had made the right choice.

Every once in a while, the food marketing machine presses my buttons, and I guess it happened this morning as I was sitting there with all these other women, undergoing a very important basic health screening test.  I guess that intelligent women, watching this ad, are perfectly capable of making their own nutrition decisions for themselves and their families.  I just wish, sometimes, that the marketing machine would treat us more like the intelligent women that we are than like the hungry children we are trying to feed.

25 August 2012

Giant Leap

When I was in Mrs. Cushman's third-grade class at Meadowbrook School in Hillsdale, New Jersey, we learned to write business letters.  We practiced putting the date and the return address in the upper right corner, and then the inside address on the left, above the salutation.  We learned to spell "sincerely" and to distinguish "dear" from "deer."  Most letters were handwritten back in those days, and we practiced our cursive handwriting diligently, to make it neat and legible for the strangers who would receive our letters.

The assignment was to write two business letters: one to a favorite author, and one to another celebrity. I initially chose Lois Lenski as my author, and I was saddened when Mrs. Cushman told me that she had recently passed away. My second choice was Sydney Taylor, author of the "All Of A Kind Family" books.  I'm glad that I chose her, because she responded to my letter, and we began a back-and-forth correspondence - a long-distance friendship - that lasted for the entire school year.  Her kind encouragement made me decide for sure that I wanted to grow up to be a writer.

The celebrity recipient of my second letter was Neil A. Armstrong, astronaut and first man to set foot on the moon.  I chose him because I was captivated by the idea that someone had actually walked on a celestial body other than the earth.  To my great delight, Mr. Armstrong responded to my letter with a handwritten note and a huge manila envelope full of 8x10 glossy photographs from the 1969 Apollo 11 mission: pictures of the moon, of the earth from the moon, and of himself.  One of the photographs was, as I recall, autographed.  In his note, he told me how proud he was of me for learning to write such good letters, and he encouraged me to continue to be curious about all things scientific.  Mrs. Cushman let me read his letter aloud to the class, and the beautiful pictures were handed around for all to see.

Mr. Armstrong made a huge impression on me at an early age.  He was one of the great idols of my childhood, but he wasn't too busy to take a moment to write to a schoolchild and to make her day by enclosing some beautiful photographs with his letter.  I don't have his letter or the pictures anymore; they have gone missing in the nearly forty intervening years between then and now.  I have not lost, however, the memory of his kindness and his caring response.  As a result, I have always thought of him as not just a great scientist and astronaut, but as a great role model and human being.

Mr. Armstrong died today at the age of 82.  I've lost a childhood friend, and the world has lost an icon of an age gone by.  I'll always think of him as I look up at the sky.  My memory of our brief interaction will always be high up in the sky, and deep down in my heart.

18 August 2012

Numbers

A few years ago, when she was getting ready to enter high school, my eldest daughter began considering applying to the elite girls' school that I had attended in New York City.  My daughter is dyslexic; we have known about and have been dealing with the dyslexia since she was in preschool.  Though her academic career got a slow and bumpy start, by eighth grade she was an outstanding student, bright, creative, and talented.  There was no reason why she shouldn't explore all her options.

While I was a stay-at-home mom, I had dedicated a significant chunk of my free time to volunteering on behalf of my high school.  I was class secretary, which involved corresponding with my classmates on a regular basis and compiling those once-yearly columns that appear at the back of the alumnae magazine, detailing what everyone has been up to over the past year.  I also volunteered in the archive room at the school for a few years, spending one day a week filing and organizing under the watchful and friendly supervision of the school's professional archivist and historian.  I was an active and involved alumna, and I wrote and spoke enthusiastically about the school and the important role it had played in my life.

When the time came for Sarah to apply, I picked up the phone and called the admissions office.  "My daughter will be submitting an application this fall for entry into the ninth grade next year," I told the admissions director.  "Can we set up a time for her to visit the school?"

"Not yet.  The first step," the admissions director said, "is for her to take the SSAT [Secondary Schools Admission Test, a standardized test required by all the elite New York private schools].  Have the scores reported to us as soon as possible, and when we receive them, we'll be in touch with you about whether she should go ahead and submit an application."

Whether she should submit an application?  Of course she was going to submit an application.  I arranged for her to take the test, and I had the scores sent to the school, as I had been instructed.  After a few days, I got a call from the admissions director.

"Her scores are not as high as we'd like to see," the director told me.

"Well," I replied, "she is dyslexic, so standardized test scores are not really the best indicator of how she performs in a classroom.  Once you get her application and have a chance to meet her, I think you'll be impressed."

"I'm actually going to advise you not to apply," the director said.  "I don't think this school would be a good fit for her."

"You're making that decision based on one test score?  You haven't even met her.  Wouldn't it make sense to have her visit the school and meet you before ruling it out completely?"

"No.  She's not likely to be admitted, so there's no point in bringing her in for a day and setting her up for disappointment.  We'd be happy to meet with you and discuss some other options that might be better suited to her."

I was surprised and hurt, and as the news settled in, I even became a little angry.  All that time and effort, all those dreams of passing the tradition along, were for nothing.  My daughter was not a number, but numbers were all the school cared about.  We went ahead and applied to some other elite private schools, and she was admitted to several of them, but they did not hold the pull for me that my own alma mater had.  In the end, we decided to send her to our own local public high school, one of the top three in the state.  She has excelled there.  Her grade point average puts her near the top of her class, and she is planning on taking AP English during her senior year, which begins in a few weeks.  (If you are familiar with dyslexia, you can appreciate what an accomplishment it is for a student with that particular challenge to participate in an AP English class.)

We have spent the last few months putting together a list of colleges to which Sarah will be applying for next year.  The list includes several highly competitive schools, some of which we have visited and toured in the past few weeks as we try to make use of the free time we have before school starts.  We have discovered that, with the exception of a very few of the most competitive schools to which she plans to apply, college admissions are "test optional."

"Test optional" means that a school does not require a student to submit, as part of his or her application, scores on the SAT or ACT (the traditional standardized tests that are used by colleges and universities to evaluate academic potential).  As one college admissions officer put it, "I'd ask you to send me your scores if you think they will tell me something about you that is not otherwise apparent from your application.  If they will help me make a decision about whether to admit you, I'd like to see them. If you do not think they will be helpful to me, then send something else that will."

Even the colleges that require test scores are very circumspect about the role the scores play in their decisions.  When questioned, admissions officers deny having a minimum cutoff score, are reluctant to divulge the average scores of admitted students, and are quick to turn the direction of the conversation elsewhere.  As I compiled a list of application deadlines this morning, I noted that none of the college websites I peeked at contained any information about the test scores of admitted students.

I am delighted to see this movement away from reliance on test scores.  Though my daughter has taken the SAT twice to date and has done quite well, several of her contemporaries have scored poorly and, as a result, are starting to judge themselves.  "I'm not going to be able to apply to any good schools," I overheard one of them saying.  Another - a talented and promising young person - is actually toying with the idea of not going to college at all.  It absolutely distresses me to see 17- and 18-year-olds writing themselves off based on an objective criterion that may or may not have anything to do with their chances of success in life.

Every college I have visited, "test optional" or not, has emphasized to me the importance of considering the whole student, and all of his or her accomplishments, in making admissions decisions.  I applaud that approach, and I hope the young people I know will take seriously the schools' pledges to follow it.  These young people are at a crossroads in their lives, making decisions about their own education that will have a tremendous impact on the adults they will become.  No single number should rob them of their ability to make that decision.

07 August 2012

Guest Post

Presenting Still Life With Crockpot's very first guest post, by Katie Treadway.*


Life has been stressful lately. I thought I was handling it well. At our house closing last week, I signed all of the sale papers, as did my dear husband, and then I walked outside, hoping to be relieved that we had purchased our first home in years. 

But instead there was this large obstacle that stood in front of us. The Move. We had to wait 6 days before we could actually take possession of our new place, and in that 6 days we had to not only pack up the old house, but also have it completely cleaned top to bottom, inside and out so that the old house could go on the market. 

Apparently my kids thought I wasn’t handling the stress too well. Every time I talked to them it was about “packing” or “the new house” and really they just wanted me to spend time with them talking about anything other than the impending reality that was upon us.

Being the procrastinator that I am (and because the two weeks leading up to the move consisted of a week as a camp counselor and a week directing Vacation Bible School), I didn’t really have the time to talk to them about anything other than the move. So my children did what normal and healthy children will do. One packed up her room and then went to spend some time with a friend who was enjoying a normal summer-y life. The other asked to be dropped off at the pool each day. 

We did, eventually, get the whole house packed up and cleaned thanks to the attentive work of many wonderful friends and church members. They not only delivered boxes from one house to the other, but they also brought us food and cheered us on. But I have very little memory of any time with my kids over the past week. It’s a blur. And to make it worse, I had to return to work this morning.

My friend drove over from NJ to help us out as we began to unpack the house. But she did something even more special today. She took one of my daughters on an outing. They went an hour up the road to the lake and enjoyed life. She listened to my daughter’s hilarious sense of humor and she appreciated it. And then later in the day, she wrote about it as if it was the highlight of her day. And that’s when I realized that it really had been stressful for me and that I truly wasn’t handling the whole “move thing” very well. I was missing the very thing that I loved the most – my family. 

Why it took someone else driving across a couple of states to spend time with me and my family before I realized what an awesome family I have, I really don’t know. Sometimes life does that to us. It just keeps going and we get caught up in our own impending obstacles, not to mention the expectations of others in our lives until we finally just stick our fingers in our ears and shout at the top of our lungs, “LA LA LA! I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” which, in real life, happens much more subtly like an image blurring before your eyes when you’ve stared for so long that you can’t make out anything more than a puddle of color. What I do know is that I had stopped hearing and stopped seeing, and now I want to hear and see again. 

My 11 year old is currently snuggled next to me on the couch, trying to settle down before bed. I can feel her wiggling around as she remembers the drive and fun times today with my friend. My 13 year old is texting friends and looking forward to the back-to-school shopping I promised her today. My husband spent a lot of time laughing today, thanks to my truly awesome friend, and he actually took the time to put his arms around me tonight. And I am sitting in the dark choosing to pay attention to my life rather than get lost in some poorly written fantasy book that numbs my senses from the present reality. It’s like my friend blew in to shake us out of our numbing stress-mode and it worked. The thing is . . . I don’t want her to ever leave.


*Katie is a 39-year-old woman living in a house full of boxes of items that were not left behind in the apocalypse that was the move across town. She has incredible friends and an amazing family when she takes the time to look.

06 August 2012

Eleven

Still in Ohio visiting my friend and her family.  Today, my friend had to work, so I grabbed her eleven-year-old daughter, who had been sitting around watching television, and the two of us went for an hourlong drive together up to Sandusky, on the shore of Lake Erie.  We walked along the waterfront and looked in the shops; then we found a shopping mall and wandered a bit in there.  We got ourselves some cold lemonades for the ride home.

There is something absolutely wonderful about eleven-year-olds.  They are old enough to be articulate and to have a sharp wit, but they're not sullen or teenagery yet.  The young lady who was my companion for the day was absolutely delightful company.  I just want to share with you some of the great things she said.  (I'll refer to her as Elf, because of how cute she is. I'm not sure she'll take that as a compliment, but it is absolutely intended that way.)


(In the car on the way to Sandusky)
Elf: Nothing interesting has ever happened to me.
Me: Lots of interesting things are going to happen in your life. You're only eleven, so you're just starting out.  Give yourself a little time.
Elf: I have already waited for eleven years.  Exactly how patient do you expect me to be?

(As we are parking at the mall)
Elf: I have never been to Macy's.
Me:  Really? Never?
Elf: Well, I was there once, but we only bought something for my sister, so it doesn't count.


(Walking in the mall)
Elf:  Ooh, look!  Victoria's Secret!
Me: Yup!  Would you like to go in and look around?
Elf (stricken): God, no. That place terrifies me.

(Smelling a sampler of lotion at Bath & Body Works)
Elf:  Gack. This smells like my grandma.

(Looking at the GPS instructions)
Me:  It wants me to make a right onto Milan Road.  (I pronounce it Mill-AHN.)
Elf:  It's pronounced MY-lin.
Me:  Oh, sorry. I mispronounced it because, you know, there's a city in Italy called Mill-AHN.
Elf: Well, this is a city in Ohio and it's called MY-lin.

(And finally, at dinner, Elf collapses in a giggling fit.)
Elf's dad:  Goodness. What's gotten into you?
Elf (still laughing hysterically):  I am just SOOOOO TIRED!

I just love that little girl.  And that's all the news from rural Ohio today.  More soon, as it unfolds.

04 August 2012

Road Trip

I drove from New Jersey to Ohio today, all by myself.  It should have taken about seven hours, but I managed to get here in just under eleven.  How someone misplaces four hours behind the wheel is a sort of complicated story that has to do with placing too much trust in Rand McNally and Google Maps.

But that doesn't matter.  What matters is that I got here safely and had a beautiful drive along the way.

I am here visiting an old friend whom I met nearly fourteen years ago in an online pregnancy support group.  We chatted online as we gestated, and she and I hit it off wonderfully.  And then, as if by part of some grand master plan, we had our babies on the same day.  Her daughter is just a couple of hours older than my son.  We have met in person before, but it's been many years.  I am very happy to be in her company again.  Maybe I'll tell you more about her later, if it's okay with her.  But right now I am just going to tell you a little about my drive.

In case you don't have a map in front of you, New Jersey is on the eastern coast of the United States, and the town I'm in in Ohio is just south of Cleveland, about halfway between New York and Chicago.  In the middle is the great state of Pennsylvania.  I have spent fair amounts of time in Philadelphia, Easton, and Bethlehem, all cities in the eastern part of Pennsylvania, but I have never really spent any time in the rest of the state.  (I did spend a night in Pittsburgh once.  That's for another post.)  Today, I drove the length of Pennsylvania for the first time by myself.

What I want to say is that I had absolutely no idea what a beautiful state Pennsylvania is.  I drove over deep river gorges and through mountain passes.  Because I was alone, I made very limited stops.  My husband, convinced there was a real chance I could starve on a seven-hour drive, had packed me a cooler full of food and drink. I brought my iPhone adapter and listened only to music that I love.  I have a terrible habit of listening to songs that I like over and over again, until I know the tune and words by heart.  This drives my husband insane, and it is the single biggest reason he hates Taylor Swift.  But, all by myself, I listened to all my favorite songs as much as I liked, and no one changed the station.

Also, I am one of those people who is always freezing, so I'm not a fan of tons of air conditioning.  I like air conditioning a lot when it's very hot outside - don't get me wrong - but I don't love the sensation of cold air directly against my skin for hours and hours at a time.  In charge of the thermostat today without having to cater to anyone else, I managed to achieve and maintain the perfect temperature inside my car all day.  I didn't need a sweater or a blanket, as I usually do; I was perfectly comfortable the entire time.

I made bathroom stops whenever I wanted.  At a gas station in rural Pennsylvania, the attendant urged me to drive on to the next exit, where I'd find cleaner bathrooms than his workplace offered.  He told me exactly which restaurant to look for, and what to order for lunch while I was there.  It was a pleasure to be in a place where strangers are kind and friendly, for no particular reason.

On my arrival, I had a great dinner with my friend and her daughters, and now I am watching the Olympic swimming events on TV and listening to a severe thunderstorm outside.  The storm is packing 70-mph winds.  We don't get that kind of storm too often back at home.  I'm glad it waited to start until I was safely ensconced in my hotel room, but I am enjoying the light show and the calming sound of the rain.

It's wonderful to have eleven hours all to oneself every once in a while, and to end the day in a big, comfortable hotel bed with a raging thunderstorm outside.  I'm here for four days, and I look forward to telling you more about my adventure as it happens.