Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tooth fairy has toughest job of all magical beings

I couldn’t look at her.

Just the sight of Ittybit wiggling her loose tooth made my stomach flip on end.

With the crooked tooth dangling mid-mouth, she resembled Tow Mater from the movie "Cars" as she gazed into the bathroom mirror. She sounded Muppet-like when she asked me to pull it.

It had been hanging by a proverbial thread for days and she was ready for it to come out.

"Please?" she begged, hoping to expedite the process as well as add to her already bloated bank account. Three previous teeth have greatly inflated the piggy bank.

Our Tooth Fairy — thanks to the combination of poor financial forethought and a surprise tooth loss — set a payment precedent with a five-dollar bill.

(Had it not been for the Tooth Fairy’s desire for a chi-chi coffee drink the day Ittybit’s first central incisor came out, the damage could have been worse).

"Let’s just let it fall out naturally," I said to her stocking feet, thinking about the dust in my wallet and my desire NOT to think about the tiny bit of flesh tethering the tooth.

It also reminds the squeamish me about all those dreams I’ve had in which I spit out every tooth, one by one.

I’m told I shouldn’t worry about loose tooth dreams. It’s just the mind’s way of dealing with anxiety and aging and saving face. Perfectly natural.

I mean, it’s not as if I fear my twice annual cleanings.

I like my dentist. He calls my teeth perfect, even though I have the tell-tale coffee stains of adulthood and an acquired lower-tooth overlap. He has a similar smile.

My orthodontist, however, would cringe if he saw me now. All that work to correct my bite lost because of vanity and the desire to stop wearing a retainer.

Our Tooth Fairy, I told myself, should save her money for the dental bills.

After all, the poor girl got saddled with her mother’s crowded bite and her father’s susceptibility to cavities. One look in Ittybit’s mouth revealed her future will be filled with tinsel and rubber bands. Not to mention drills and fillings.

Ittybit cares about none of that. The fact that a space will appear where her tooth is now dangling is omnipresent. She plays with her toys and wiggles her tooth. She colors a picture and wiggles her tooth. She pets her cat and wiggles her tooth. She dances around the room, and stops only to wiggle her tooth.


Breakfast will do it. She eats some toast, dozens of apple slices, even a bagel with butter … still the tooth hangs on.

"Why doesn’t the Tooth Fairy bring a new tooth brush and floss," I wonder aloud. "Probably for the same reason she has run out of singles," I answer under my breath.

"What?" asks Ittybit.

"Oh nothing."

"You know," she says, her tooth flapping as she talks, "I’ve always wondered how the Tooth Fairy gets into the house?"

I wonder why it doesn’t worry her that some strange sprite will break into our house in the dead of night, steal into her room while she’s sleeping and extract a tooth from under the pillow beneath her sleeping head.

I suppose the ‘loot’ is worth the looting.

"Oh," I wave, matter-of-factly, "It’s just magic," as if magic was something one could just grasp from the air whenever it is needed.

And with that Ittybit starts to scream and dance about.

In her hand is a tiny square, and her smile is filled with gaps.

It’s the best sight ever.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Before we cast stones, let’s look at science

Whenever something new challenges conventional wisdom or standard practice, sparks will fly.

That’s what happened this week after a federal panel advised against routine mammograms for women under 50.

The initial reaction was quick and explosive. The government, skeptics say, wants to save a dollar at the expense of women’s health. Some even smelled the putrid waft of insurance companies trying to keep more of their premium pie as they lurk in the shadow of health care reform.

Healthcare providers say the recommendation could set women’s healthcare back decades as those who would rather avoid the discomfort of a mammogram forego the test. Everyone predicts more women will die unnecessarily.

It’s understandable. We all know someone under 50 who was diagnosed with breast cancer. It may have been our mothers, our friends, ourselves or even our daughters.

We have been told time and time again that our best defense against disease is early detection.

Screening, the way we’ve always done it, we believe saves lives.

But what if it doesn’t?

What if instead, the amount of radiation healthy women accumulate from a decade of better-safe-than-sorry screenings, in fact, makes us more prone to cancer?

What if the type of cancer has more to do with our survival outcomes than just the size of it?

What if improving routine care was better?

While each of us has a story about a woman diagnosed with cancer after a routine mammogram, how many of us know people whose cancers the mammogram missed?

It happens, especially in younger women because their breast tissue is dense, making reading the tests more difficult.

According to a German study published in the British Journal of Cancer in 2007, while it appears more cancer cases are found within quality screening measures, the correlation to better outcomes couldn’t be made. The study also found that a similar amount of breast cancer cases are detected outside of mammographic screening.

While it seems true that highly technical and scientific standards in diagnostic mammography, including expert reading can improve detection of cancers, fully two-thirds of all cancers are found initially through standard care – namely clinical examination and self breast exams.

No one wants to think of their health in terms of risk and reward. No one wants insurance companies to start barring women from potentially life-saving screenings.

But by the same token, we should be pushing the scientific envelope and finding better diagnostic tools, not just tools that are good-enough.

After all, it’s not uncommon to find women who fall outside of all guidelines — in their 20s and 30s — being diagnosed with breast cancer. By sheer virtue of that, one might think we should roll forward the age of screening instead of shoving it back, yet we must ask ourselves what are the risks? What are the rewards?

It seems pretty clear that mammography has been a good diagnostic tool to detect breast cancer in women since its invention in the 1960s, but it shouldn’t be the only tool in the arsenal.

Would we fear this if we didn’t all picture our insurance carriers foaming at the mouth and planning their Christmas bonuses at the savings they’ll reap at our expense?

I don’t think any of us should jump to conclusions just yet. We keep asking questions and have an open mind. If we don’t we run the risk of shutting down scientific advances to keep status quo.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

We all have a little ‘Max’ inside

In the dark, I sat next to my daughter, hissing a threat:

“If you DON’T calm down, I WILL take you out of this theater and we WILL go home.”

The constant motion of her anxious body continues, as does my threat:

“AND if we leave here now there will be NO MORE MOVIES until you can BE STILL.”

Her feet stop kicking the empty seat in front of her. She stops bouncing and the annoying squeak of the generations-old theater seat beneath her falls silent.

I mean business.

The irony that I want her to have self control for a screening of “Where the Wild Things Are” — Maurice Sendak’s classic tale of childhood angst and imagination, made larger than life in Spike Jonze’s latest movie — isn’t lost on me.

Nor is the fact that I’m taking my five-year-old daughter to a PG-rated movie on a school night.

I knew the movie would have tough subject matter for a kid her age.

I knew that, unlike the original book, the cinematic exploration of Max’s psyche would delve more deeply than might seem necessary for a small boy who willfully chases a dog, clashes with his mother over eating supper and disappears into a land of makebelieve.

I knew some details would go right over her head. I also suspected other details might be surprisingly different than what I had anticipated.

I knew the movie, with its larger than life characters and special effects, might be frightening.

But I also know my daughter and her love of excitement.

And I believed Maurice Sendak — who was involved in the retelling of his beautiful and lyrical allegory — would protect his work, thus protecting his readers and the audience.

I believe. I believe. I believe.

When the lights dim and the film starts, we are introduced to Max — a 12-year-old boy in a wolf suit, brandishing a fork and chasing a cairn terrier around the living room.

The hand-held camera adds terror as Max wrestles the pet.

I am quick to doubt my inner parent.

He seems too old to be in a wolf suit. He seems too angry, too violent, too frightening.

I look at my husband. I hope this wasn’t a mistake.

I am suspending disbelief. I am suspending disbelief. I am suspending disbelief.

As I expected, Ittybit is on the edge of her seat asking questions: “Why is he doing that? He didn’t hurt the dog, did he? He’s just playing, right?”

I assure her it is the story of the Max she knows from the books. I tell her Max is a boy who gets angry and frustrated just like she does. He’s a good boy who has bad moments.

Then Max is outside, having a snowball fight with his sister’s friends. He is smiling in his war effort. He becomes the child we all wanted to be, in a childhood we all wanted to have. He is joy personified.

For the next hour and a half we were unable to look away from the screen. She kept asking questions at every scene.

“What did he say? Why did he do that? Why is he so mad?”

She connects with Max as a child would while I see him the way a mother might. For a time we are both afraid for him.

“What will happen next? Why is he crying?”

There are no easy answers. “Just because” won’t cut it. You lived it, too.

“You know how it feels when you just want to play, but no one will play with you?

“Or when your brother wrecks something you worked really hard to build? How unfair it feels when people expect you to be a big girl, and not be angry? It’s frustrating.”

She nods.

“You feel invisible.”

That can make people even more frustrated.

She knows about that, too.

Like Max, she is every child. She knows what it’s like to be told to ‘Be Still.’

Sunday, November 08, 2009

When in doubt, blame the cat

My father phoned the other day to report on a report about my son that he’d gotten from his town’s librarian.

Every Wednesday, you see, our babysitter takes The Champ to the library for story time.

"He used to be so quiet. So shy," the librarian laughed as my dad probably sniggered silently (and uncontrollably) before emitting the short blast of "HA!" It is a laugh trait I never really noticed before my son inherited it.

I also happen to know that my son likes to sit as close to the librarian as physically possible without actually sitting in her lap. (I’m certain he didn’t get this from my dad). I get reports, too.

But I digress.

"Now it is pretty clear he has an opinion about everything and he’s not afraid to share it," the librarian continues.

He’s been known to storm clear across the room so he can lay his random* thoughts on some unsuspecting kid, who was just patiently waiting for the craft table to open up, and bellow in his big-boy voice: "MY MOM IS WORKING!" or "MY SCHOOL BUS ISN’T COMING."

He gets his randomness* from me I’m afraid. But I submit there’s a reason why I’m suddenly talking about the cat while discussing the disappearance of The Champ’s hand-me-down yellow and blue winter coat.

"Oh, glad you found it. Yes, yes. I was wondering what happened to his coat. … That STUPID cat!" (*It’s not really random. I blame the animal for its vanishing.)

My son’s communicative skills are blossoming with such speed I think it’s forcing him to stutter:

"My-my-my-my dad is working," he says with a smile, pointing as we pass the garbage hauler. "He-He-He-He drives that truck."

I try not to worry about the repetition. Ittybit did the same thing. And the glint in his eye with his devilish grin leads me to believe all is well.

Not to mention the slight tinge of Eddie Haskellism he shares with his sister.

"He was so cute, today," the librarian tells my dad. "A little girl started crying and he went over and put his arm around her. ‘It’s ok, It’s OK’ he said."

I could hear my dad’s pride swell.

"Yeah, but what she doesn’t know is that he spent the morning trying to balance things on her head while she screamed for him to stop."

Sweet, adorable, amenable Champ, who quietly goes about doing whatever it is he wants to as the rest of the world spins on three feet above his head.

He’s already figured out we’ll blame the cat.

"MOM! RAT!!!" screamed Ittybit one morning as we were ready to leave the house.

"Wha ….?" I stammer as I tug my attention away from trying to pull both of the boy’s lower limbs out of his left pant leg.


I hulk over to the place from which she’s jumped three feet. The place where she found what appeared to be (from my viewing of it) the headless, tailless torso of a squirrel wedged between the cushions of a chair.

I jump back four feet.

"That's no rat."

My mind races with squirrel-like precision: Wha? Oh my g… I don’t want to touch … How am I … Cat. Outside. Call husband … double bag my hands? What kind of sick, twisted pet hides their kills in a chair? What do I do … the body? Uh .... CAAAAAAAAAAAAT!

After pacing back and forth, I find plastic bags and make my approach. I peel away the cushion and the thing flops lightly onto the seat.

Weightless and airy -- like bread gone stale overnight. ... Just as if it were the last crust of olive bread the boy begged for the previous night.

… When he was sitting in that chair.

I turn around to see The Champ all squinty-eyed and silly, looking right at me:


Sunday, November 01, 2009

Imaginations made doll larger than life

Barbie qualified for her AARP card this year and so many people wish she'd just retire already.

Feminists I know have told me that Barbie is as diabolical today as when she was introduced in 1959.

They say she is a blonde bombshell that has a figure no human woman could (or should) achieve.

They blame her, in part, for the self-loathing women of a womanly size have manifested in these last five decades. They say she trivializes, objectifies and subverts women and reinforces superficial goals: Fun, sun and plastic surgery.

Her critics have long portrayed her measurements, if recreated in a flesh and blood woman, would create a freakish fem unable to support the weight of her own top half.

The argument over a doll with a perpetual smile and vaguely vacant gaze has been so intense that social scientists have subjected her to formal study.

Turns out that while it may be true a real-life Barbie would be roughly 6 feet tall and 100 pounds, it isn't true that her human-scale proportions — 39"-22"-29" — would make it impossible for her to stand without toppling over. Barbie the doll may not be able to stand without a pre-adolescent girl clutching her around the middle, but her human equivalent would certainly be able to stand unaided, provided she was capable of walking in heels.

Scientists also claim that the likelihood of a real-life Barbie existing is one in a million, which means there are at least eight of them in New York City alone.

Of course, I never really thought I'd be defending Barbie.

I wasn't a childhood fan. In my teenage know-it-all-ness, I likely spewed the same unverified facts in pontificating my self-righteousness.

But I did have a use for Barbie. Many of the girls I wanted to be friends with loved her. They had collections and clothes and whole little worlds mapped out in their tiny bedrooms. Barbie was a model, a veterinarian, a rocket scientist and a teacher. Ken was on the periphery, an accessory, a eunuch.

Yet, aside from bottle-blonde hair and the trappings of financial wealth — the condos, the cars, the Malibu excursions — Mattel didn't really sell what Barbie was to so many girls who loved her: imagination, catharsis, escape.

When our parents argued with one another; when our best friends forever found new best friends forever; when everything seemed to be going haywire, Barbie was stable and unchanged. Barbie, with her beatific gaze and perpetual smile, was safe.

She was more than a model, a career girl or jet-setter of our imaginations. She was the inanimate friend who sat with us and took us places as our own tiny worlds were temporarily on hold.

I look over at my daughter as she sits buckled into her seat on the plane holding the pink, ballerina Barbie she begged me for at the terminal. For the entire flight the leggy, plastic beauty danced on the tray-table stage in front of her.

I can only imagine, as these girls grow into adulthood, there will come a time when they'd like to just go back to their childhood rooms and just sit and "play Barbies" for a while.