Sunday, October 28, 2007

Kids grow out of Halloween -- sigh

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 28, 2007)

With Halloween such a significant date on the family calendar, I had no idea that someday the 31st of October would arrive with no accompanying fanfare.

This year it has happened. My youngest child has outgrown trick-or-treating!

Halloween has always been our family's favorite holiday. Ever since the kids were toddlers, we would dress up in crazy outfits and try our luck begging for sweets. I made costumes out of cardboard, paint and papier-mache.

We fashioned mimes, gypsies, witches and ghouls out of old clothes, scarves and hats. Everything was impromptu and thrown together, but it always worked. The last day of October was a much-anticipated time of fun and candy, in that order.

Of course, half the fun -- maybe more than half -- was sorting out the bounty once it was gleaned. After a night canvassing a nearby neighborhood, (that's what you do when your own abode is out in the sticks) we would return home with bulging bags of goodies. With costume parts strewn around the living room and makeup barely removed from little faces, each child would spread out a large towel on which to empty his or her weighty bounty.

Stacks were created -- sucking candies in one section, candy bars in another, a third pile for Smarties and another for Tootsie Rolls, M&Ms and assorted chocolates. There was even a separate section reserved for rejects -- candy too yucky for even sugar-deprived kids to find appealing.

Once each child had his or her stash sorted, the true action began. Trading.

So serious were the transactions being negotiated that you would think you were on Wall Street instead of a candy-cluttered living room.

"I'll give you two Reese's Peanut Butter Cups for five packages of M&Ms," someone would offer.

Swift came the reply, "Throw in a Mars Bar and you've got a deal."

When the kids were young enough to be tempted, we would offer up coins in exchange for their sugar-laden treats.

"I'll pay you a nickel for every piece of candy you give me," my husband would suggest.

That worked for a few years, but eventually candy trumped cash. When you live in a household where foods containing refined sugars, artificial colors and preservatives are usually taboo, a chance to eat quantities of forbidden fruit is difficult to resist.

My husband and I were hardly uninvolved observers during Halloween activities. Not only did we sample the collected spoils, but we also enthusiastically participated in their gathering.

We would dress up in silly costumes and accompany the children on their door-to-door rounds. Most of the time, I'd be a witch -- my alter ego. But during years when my husband came along, my costume was designed to complement his. I would dress up as a businessman, complete with painted-on mustache, beard, briefcase, suit and tie. My husband, whose real beard and mustache cover most of his face, would spend a few hours once a year as a woman.

On top of his mop of unruly hair, without making any real effort to conceal his own dark brown locks, we would place a platinum-blond wig. With a significant amount of effort, he would squeeze into a gaudy flower-print dress that fell just above his hairy calves. Stuffed into the bodice were two plump, round and strategically placed beanbags. The costume was completed with his white socks, sneakers and a large purse to hold any candy he was offered.

The treats poured in -- literally as well as, um, "figure-atively." Ralph's get-up never failed to elicit a reaction. With shy giggles and suggestive cat whistles, an evening spent canvassing suburbia in his company was anything but dull.

But that was before our youngest son turned 15. It's not cool to go trick-to-treating with your family when you're 15. Duh. Anyone knows that.

Whoops! My bad. Add it to the list of other infractions I've committed as a parent of a teenager.

The way I see it, I'm at the edge of a precipice -- steps away from falling into yet another parenting abyss. My kids are no longer little, but young adults. But they're not yet parents themselves, which means no grandchildren are in the picture. Without little kids to legitimize play, certain types of cavorting feel inappropriate and out of place. Trick-or-treating on Halloween, an activity that has defined our family for a quarter-century, will be put on hold this year.

That's OK. It's only temporary. And sometimes, it's good to take a break from tradition. Besides, why pound the streets in search of candy when there is so much sweetness in our everyday lives? Happy Halloween, everyone! Enjoy your treats.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

'Green' product hype can be tarnished with experience

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 21, 2007)

Green is everywhere. It's the buzzword of the moment -- a media darling that, when attached to a product, is a surefire ticket to increased sales. The use of the label "green" has become so ubiquitous that you can find "green" offerings in everything from meat to moisturizers, tea to toiletries, beer to light bulbs.

I'm suspicious.

As much as I am an environmental advocate, I can't help but wonder how much hype is being mixed with fact to produce a green slush of misinformation.

Consider compact fluorescent light bulbs.

About a year ago, after repeatedly hearing how inefficient incandescent lights are -- they use only about 10 percent of their consumed energy to make light -- our family began to consider alternatives. The most highly touted option was compact fluorescents (CFLs), an improved type of light bulb that drastically reduces carbon dioxide emissions because it uses 75 percent less energy and lasts up to 15 times longer than its incandescent cousins. Although initially more expensive than regular light bulbs, CFLs' long life makes them not only a "green" choice but an economically viable option for consumers.

"Just do it," we reasoned and went on a spending spree at The Home Depot's lighting department.

How pleased we were with our "green-ness." What a good deed we had done for the planet, for Mother Earth.

But was it? Are CFLs really the panacea they're purported to be?

When our family unscrewed all our old light bulbs and replaced them with compact fluorescents, we had no idea we were inviting a toxic chemical into our home. Do you know each CFL bulb contains about 4 milligrams of mercury? What happens five, seven or 10 years from now when these save-the-Earth bulbs finally burn out? Or worse still, what happens not if, but when one breaks?

The Environmental Protection Agency cautions consumers to leave the room immediately if a CFL breaks and to stay away for at least 15 minutes so the mercury vapors will have a chance to dissipate. When you return to clean up the mess, you'd better not use your bare hands or a vacuum. The EPA advises against it. Wear gloves and use cardboard and sticky tape to clean up fragments of glass. When you've done all that, put the remains into a plastic bag. Put that plastic bag into another bag and take the whole toxic, dangerous mess to a CFL-designated recycling center. What? You don't know where a CFL-designated recycling center is? That's not surprising, because such disposal sites are few and far between.

Gosh, I wish I had known this before I went out and retrofitted my entire house to make it more "environmentally friendly."

Would I still have done it? I'm not sure.

Weighing the pros and cons of incandescent versus CFL bulbs in relation to the environment is confusing. The inefficiency of incandescent bulbs causes more carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere, and that's a bad thing for the planet. But CFLs contain mercury, and that's bad for the planet too. Broken or used CFL bulbs that don't get recycled will wind up in a landfill where they have the potential to contaminate water, air and eventually the food chain. And what about the threat presented if a CFL bulb breaks at home? Will exposure to 4 milligrams of mercury harm an adult? How about child or infant?

About 30 years ago, when the whole-food industry was in its infancy, the words natural and organic began to attract the same type of media attention green does today. Back then, my husband and I owned a small country store in Wellfleet, Mass., where we sold an eclectic array of whole foods and healthy-lifestyle products. We strove to stock the store with the best products available -- unadulterated, minimally processed grocery and nongrocery items. It was always a challenge. There were constantly companies eager to thrust the latest "miracle food" on the unwitting public, claiming to be one thing when they were actually another. We saw our job as shop owners to separate the proverbial wheat from chaff in a constant effort to uncover the truth.

The same thing needs to be done now in our rush to save the planet.

For a quick buck, charlatans will eagerly attach themselves to whatever cause strikes the public's fancy. In the 1970s, it was health foods. Today, it's the healthy-planet movement. The question is, how do you separate truly good products from impostors? The wheat from the chaff?

By realizing that there are shades of green.

When I go for rows in the early morning, I'm constantly struck by how many different shades of green frame the water's edge. From slash pine to willow to water oak to persimmon, no two types of tree are quite the same color. That's how it is with products too. Instead of accepting at face value whatever a manufacturer claims, it is our job as consumers to do our own research and ask questions. Anyone who stands to profit from selling you a product should be listened to with caution.

I have no doubt that our planet is in a danger, and I believe we all must do our part to lessen our impact on the environment. But before we rush out in an effort to retrofit our lifestyle, we should make a point to investigate the facts. Just because a company says its product is green, that doesn't make it true. There are shades of truth as varied as the shades of trees. Sometimes green is not nearly as eco-friendly as it seems.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Oh, to end years of nap-envy

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 14, 2007)

I'm jealous. I have been for years.

It's all because of my husband and our bed -- but wait, it's not what you think.

There's no Other Woman involved. My nemesis is that elusive seductress Sleep.

My husband has the uncanny ability to take naps whenever he's tired. It's a "gift" he has nurtured for as long as I've known him. And, for all those years -- 37 come December -- I have been envious.

How does he do it? More to the point, why can't I?

We lie down in the afternoon together -- the same bed, the same time. We're both tired. We both close our eyes. He falls asleep. I get up.

In our many years together, I can count on both hands the times I've successfully taken a daytime nap. When it has happened, I've either been overwhelmingly exhausted or on the edge of illness. You could persuasively argue that those times didn't really count, and I'd agree.

Suffice it to say, daytime sleep doesn't come easily to me as it does to my dear husband.

How I wish it did.

Ralph wakes up from his midday siestas totally rejuvenated, bursting with energy.

"I feel like I have two days in one," he often proclaims. "I wish you could take a nap, too."

So do I, Ralph. So do I.

When I lie down during daylight hours, my head barely touches the pillow before waves of data ripple through my mind.

I try to rest. I really do. I close my eyes and nestle into the pillow. But my mind wanders, curling around thought after thought after thought. I'm more likely to mentally sketch out the first chapter of a book during naptime than surrender myself solely to sleep. Thinking about napping, assuming a prone position and closing my eyes is about as far as I ever allow myself to go.

Not Ralph. He gives himself over completely to the goddess of dreams.

Lie on bed. Put head to pillow. Close eyes. Sleep. It's his no-fail formula.

It must be genetic. Of our four children, two have inherited their father's uncanny ability to catch forty winks at the proverbial drop of a hat.

The other two are more like me. They find it nearly impossible to enter dreamland when the sun is shining. Let it be noted that we're not a family of insomniacs. None of us has trouble falling asleep at night. It's just pre-dusk slumber that some of us find elusive.

That doesn't mean we get enough rest.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, 50 million to 70 million Americans suffer from inadequate sleep, and I'm probably in that category.

Experts say adults need to consistently get seven to nine hours of sleep at night in order to function at optimal level. Unfortunately, the norm is 6.7 hours of nighttime rest. Because so many of us don't get enough sleep, we are often tired in the daytime. Without a nap to refresh us, that weariness takes a toll.

A study done in 2005 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration attributed 100,000 car accidents to sleep-impaired drivers.

The NHTSA reports at least 1,550 deaths and 71,000 injuries caused by driver fatigue -- probably more because it is difficult to document.

I can't help but wonder how many tragedies could have been prevented if more of us had prioritized sleep or allowed ourselves to take regular naps.

Recently, much research has touted the benefits of nap-taking.

In 2002, Sara Mednick and her colleagues in Harvard University's psychology department discovered that people such as my husband, who take 60- to 90-minute naps, gain the same degree of learning and performance improvement as someone who has had an eight-hour night's sleep.

Four years later, Mednick published a book on the subject: Take a Nap! Change Your Life (Workman Publishing Co.; 2006).

In it she explains how napping "increases alertness, boosts creativity, reduces stress, improves perception, stamina, motor skills and accuracy, enhances your sex life, helps you make better decisions, keeps you looking younger, aids in weight loss, reduces the risk of heart attack, elevates your mood and strengthens memory."

That's a long list of benefits. Even if only a few of the 14 perks Mednick attributes to napping occurred, some daytime shut-eye would be a worthwhile use of time.

Not for me, though. Not yet anyway.

If I'm a dedicated student and practice the 16-step relaxation techniques Mednick explains in her book, and if I take to heart the encouragement my husband offers, perhaps one day my "in-nap-ability" will be a thing of the past.

Maybe then I'll finally experience the exuberant sense of renewal Ralph feels after his midday siestas.

When that day comes -- if it ever does -- I'll be joining the ranks of illustrious individuals such as John F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Bill Clinton and Lance Armstrong who credit much of their boundless energy and ability to cope with responsibilities to regularly scheduled daytime snoozes.

When I learn to nap, I'll no longer need to feel jealous of my husband. Thirty-seven years is a long time to harbor sleep-envy. The time is ripe to put that bad baby to bed.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Health takes birthday breather

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 7, 2007)

I just finished eating several walnut-raisin rugallah, a gift to myself for my birthday. It's not actually my birthday -- that happens a few days before Halloween -- but about five years ago, I decided that birthdays were too important to warrant only a single-day celebration. They deserve an entire month.

So, that's what I'm doing.

On Oct. 1, to kick off the festivities, I bought a small box of rugallah, a cream cheesy, buttery pastry with far more saturated fat than I'd normally permit my ingredient-conscience self to sample. Not only did I savor every bite of the white flour, flaky treats, I did so without worry.

That's part of the deal. No fretting about empty calories or the buildup of artery-clogging fats is allowed. Such concerns are not permitted in October, the month of my birth.

The banishment of bad feelings is a co-tangent to my monthlong celebration. Along with permission to eat anything I fancy comes a pass for guilt-free indulgence. That means that many foods I love but no longer eat because I know they're not good for me are up for grabs during October.

High on that list is Brie cheese, another heavy-fat food with few redeeming qualities other than its sublime texture and nirvana-inducing taste. For the past few Octobers, I've purchased a wedge of Brie to eat with slices of crisp new apples. Usually, thanks to judicious nibbling, one wedge will last for several weeks.

The same is true of maraschino cherries, another treat on my bad-for-your-body-but-good-for-your-mouth list. Red Dye No. 3 is the culprit there but, for an entire month, I turn a blind eye to cancer-causing chemicals and savor the flavor of juicy red cherries popped into my mouth straight from the bottle.

My final indulgence is candy apples. I don't mean the caramel kind, but the real thing -- bright red, shiny and extremely sticky. There's no denying that candy apples are a terror to teeth. Made of sugar, sugar and a bit more sugar mixed with some artificial colors and, oh yes, an apple, they may not be high on the good nutrition list, but they sure are yummy. Not only do they tickle my taste buds, they trigger fond memories that transport me back to my childhood in Bucks County, Pa.

When I was little, my parents always took me to Styer Orchards in October. There, among freshly baked pumpkin and pecan pies, were barrels of fragrant apples fresh off the tree. If I close my eyes now, I can almost smell the aroma that used to fill that open-air farm stand.

High on a glass counter where the cashier waited, stood the candy apples, lined up like glimmering gems on a stick. My mother always let me pick one as she paid for our other purchases and I would eat it in the car on the way home. That was back in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Thanks in large part to Styer Orchards and candy apples, I perfected the ability to make sweet treats last for as long as possible. Often I was still licking the apple's candy exterior when our family's Rambler sedan finally pulled into the garage.

It is much harder these days to find a good candy apple. Especially in Florida. The prepackaged ones in the grocery taste terrible. A candy apple is nothing if the apple inside is not fresh, firm and crispy.

Years ago there was a confection shop in Church Street Station -- back when there was a Church Street Station -- that had wonderful red candy apples. But that store is long closed. Since then, I've only found tasty candy apples once or twice at carnivals or county fairs.

I'm not fond of birthday cake, and could care less for champagne or fancy wines. My idea of a celebratory treat is to indulge in the foods that fill me with pleasure, and part of that pleasure is the memories certain foods invoke.

Most holidays celebrate events or accomplishments made by other people. There's nothing personal about them. That's not how it is with birthdays. It doesn't matter how old you are or how much you dread the adding on of years, a birthday is your day -- the only one you have.

So, take my suggestion and give birthdays an extension. Permit yourself a treat and then give yourself another one. Indulge in the little luxuries that are normally denied. For me it may be edible treats, but for you it might be something entirely different -- a spa visit, a weekend getaway, a relaxing massage, a new book or jewelry.

Everyone deserves a free pass now and then to do whatever the heart desires. What better time for personal pampering than during the month of your birth.

For the next few weeks, that's what I'll be doing. Birthdays come but once a year, but there's no law saying they have to end in 24 hours. Savor the moment. Make it last.

After all, it will be 11 more months before another year passes, and that's simply too long to wait for a bit of rugallah, Brie cheese, maraschino cherries and a bite into a perfectly delicious candy apple.