Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day and beyond

Gold Star
I liked the Major League Baseball uniforms today, camouflage trim and hats for Memorial Day. Not the look--it was out of place, I think--but the message of support for military families. The Red Sox had a ceremony at the beginning of the game for the Gold Star Mothers and Gold Star Wives in the area, most of whom seemed to come after attending parades and other events honoring their loved ones who died while serving on active duty. One of the mothers interviewed said the Red Sox front office is always very supportive of their groups, which offer grief counseling and support, lobbying for military families, wreaths and flags for cemeteries, license plates and other benefits and honors. The cover story of USA Today this weekend focused on three boys who were in grammar school on 9/11 but because the war in Afghanistan has so far lasted 12 years, those boys grew up, and served, and died, and their families are now Gold Star families. They are amazingly articulate, and brave, and average, and proud, and sad, as should we all be. Though our collective grief and understanding and commitment is not always evident.  Military charities are not well-funded, and the needs of veterans and military families are not well-known or well-met.

USA Today cover story, 05/24/2013
President and First Lady spent the day with Gold Star families, first at a breakfast at the White House and then an afternoon service at Arlington National Cemetery. In his remarks at that ceremony, President Obama made this point by stating the following:

"Today most Americans are not directly touched by war," Obama said during a solemn ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
"As a consequence, not all Americans may always see or fully grasp the depth of sacrifice, the profound costs that are made in our name — right now, as we speak, every day,'' he said.
I think this is true. Those people I know who are committed to supporting veterans and military families are deeply committed, because they see the need and respond with every resource they can muster. They often know people in military personally, and know their problems and challenges in detail. Those who do not--they do little or nothing. It's an odd mix of total support and token support. But there are enough charities out there now for everyone to find one to support. Here are a few, and then a link to find others:

Operation Homefront  meets the needs of active military, veterans and their families both in housing and home-related needs like a car, home repair, kitchen supplies, and food. There are individual needs listed, by state. The average grant made by the organization to a family is 400 essential dollars.

Honor Flight  is devoted to bringing World War II veterans to Washington to see their memorial. They do so in groups, and provide bus and hotels for several days. Begun in 2006, they've so far transported over 100,000 veterans, and have a wait list that is fighting against time, since 800 WWII vets die every day. But they're trying their hearts out to get them all to Washington. They have groups arriving nearly every day (here is their flight schedule) but need help to do more.

The Wounded Warrior Project is focused upon recent veterans injured in action, whose numbers are huge:

 In Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, for every US soldier killed, seven are wounded. Combined, over 48,000 servicemen and women have been physically injured in the recent military conflicts.

In addition to the physical wounds, it is estimated as many as 400,000 service members live with the invisible wounds of war including combat-related stress, major depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Another 320,000 are believed to have experienced a traumatic brain injury while on deployment.

The Wounded Warrior Project sponsors 8k runs, Soldier Rides and other fundraisers to provide prosthetics, job training, support and connection for wounded soldiers and support staff. They give backpacks of supplies to every injured soldier who returns to the U.S. for medical treatment. They're a new group (founded in 2003) to try to meet the vast and overwhelming needs of some of our recent veterans.

Sew Much Comfort replaces hospital gowns with adaptive clothing using Velcro as needed to give recovering military personnel more personal choice and dignity both within the hospital and when they return home. It is essential for those who have lost limbs, and relies heavily upon volunteer sewers.

Veterans' Voices supports the creative and individual expression of both active military and veterans about their experiences. Through the Hospitalized Veterans Writing Project you can help an injured or ailing veteran document what they saw, heard, thought and felt through your scribing, or helping them record their story. The group publishes some of the works, and archives the rest. They are looking for volunteers to work with a local VA to reach out to the hospitalized veterans, as well as funds to support their work. is a centralized registry where you can look at what deployed soldiers are requesting, individually or in groups. They want letters, and emails, and prayers, and care boxes. Clif Bars are often requested, and energy drinks you can pour into water. One guy requested Muscle Milk, not for himself but his buddies who don't get care packages. One sergeant sought personal hygiene products for several female soldiers in his unit, including shampoo that smells good to cheer them up. A group of guys want socks, and shaving cream,and disposable razors, and M & M's and Starburst. One group asked for used DS's or other handhelds, and games. Another contact listed this:

we are in a flight company we need snacks, energy drinks for long flights. Something easy such as dry snacks and coffee for early mornings. also baby wipes would be useful. sudoku and crossword puzzles for down time. 

Coffee. For a pilot on a long flight.
It doesn't seem like a lot to ask.
I'm on it :)

Other charities can be found here on

Love, Lisa

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


I don't buy much clothing. My kids are almost done growing, I have a full wardrobe, my size is roughly the
same year to year, and I'm not a fashion chaser. We replace what wears out, less than $1000/year for the household ($100 per person), another $500 for shoes and cleats and sports uniforms and sweats. Food's a much larger portion of our household budget--$10,000/year ($1000/pp). Housing even more, in one of the most expensive areas of the country--$30,000/year ($3,000 pp).

But when our kids were younger, we spent much more on clothes. They grew out of them constantly, and every season there were new demands--back to school clothes, holiday clothes, summer clothes because last summer's didn't fit and, sadly, didn't fit anyone else either. To make it manageable, we went to the Children's Place. Their $6 shirts and shorts were a lifesaver to
our budget for eight children  The store offered credit, and points for using the card, that made the clothes even cheaper. Full outfits with socks were usually $10. Winter jackets $20, and the prices at the nearby outlet mall were even cheaper. The clothes were sturdy, and cute. Like Garanimals, they matched. Every season I toted out a big bag, a few outfits for each child, and we were all very happy with the deal.

Of course to get the $6 shirts and shorts, the Children's Place used cheap labor overseas. Like Gap and Gymboree (too
expensive for me :) or Old Navy (too adult-oriented then, though it's nice now), manufacturers have to pay next-to-nothing for labor in order to sell clothes at these prices, since the materials, the design, the corporate structure, the transportation, the overhead of the stores, the retail labor, are all based on physical product (i.e. oil for barge transport) or American prices (like minimum wage for the sales staff) and as such relatively fixed. Sure, you can be lucky on the cotton commodity market and save some production cost there, but cotton's relatively cheap in the largest clothing-producing countries--China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India. They're full-service manufacturing countries, complete with cheap labor. Here are the 2010 garment worker wage charts according to a global labor rights advocacy group, and after an 80% pay raise for Bangladeshi workers:

CountryHourly Wage
United States$8.25-14.00
United Kingdom$7.58-9.11
Costa Rica$2.19
El Salvador$0.92
Sri Lanka$0.46

So after the Savar building collapse in Bangladesh last month that has killed, so far as we know, more than 1,100 people, I heard people saying they'd buy more American-made clothing, which is great. Nothing
wrong with that. But the Bangladesh nation is a poor one, and doesn't want to lose your business. They ask for we Americans to help repair their system, rather than abandoning it. Totally understandable. The garment industry is their biggest employer. There's a commission set up to set a new minimum wage within three months, and another to oversee safety in manufacturing. Also good.

What I keep wondering is--what if clothing wasn't cheap?

I know some's not. I tend not to buy those goods--designer clothes and purses and shoes and sunglasses--but most clothing is relatively cheap in America, considering other expenses. An outfit is less than a dinner out, for example, though of course it's prom week so that equation's skewed. Definitely not the price of a meal.

But clothing is mostly cheap, and I've benefitted from that fact, and spent my money elsewhere. But if
clothing wasn't cheap, I'd buy less of it, and make it last longer, give less away. Spend less on food, and housing. I can't really make any more money than I do, so I'd simply spend less elsewhere, the beauty and curse of a budget. And in America, the cheap clothes we buy allows us to pay full-price (if we wish) on Uggs and North Faces and Nikes and Dooney & Bourke.

Am I the only one who wonders if it's better, ethically or even practically speaking, to spend $19 on a pair of Old Navy jeans so that you have the money to spend $81 on a pair of Raybans? Either way, you've spent $100. What if the equation was reversed, and you had to spend $81 on jeans? I'll bet you'd find some $19 sunglasses somewhere. It's just a different dividing of the pie.

As opposed to sunglasses, though, clothing is a necessity, like food and housing and health care. We'll buy it regardless. We'll just buy less, if it costs more. Go to Goodwill in a pinch. We'll get by, as Americans, without our $10 outfits from the Children's Place. That's all I'm saying. We're not overprivileged, well-paid, cheap-clothing junkies at the risk and cost of  underprivileged, poorly-paid human laborer lives.

At least I hope not.

Love, Lisa

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Down To Earth Mother's Day

My pie-in-the-sky Mother's Day goes like this.
The books I will not read today

I sleep in, maybe until 9:00, when my daughters bring me breakfast in bed and cuddle round for awhile. I then lounge in my favorite chair, reading my pile of library books before they're due back (those 7 day and 14 day books are rough when my greedy eyes have grabbed more than one) and writing a while. My sons come to visit and catch me up on little details of their lives. I nap, watch the Red Sox win, snack, come out for dinner with my family, then walk in the waning sunshine to the Walnut Beach Creamery for Mud ice cream.

In reality, this is how it goes, at least today.

My early risers Liz & Ava
I can't sleep. I can never sleep. I wake up at 2:00 hot, 3:00 because I heard someone else up, 4:30 thirsty, 6:30 for good. It's pouring rain. I make myself coffee and move laundry. My granddaughter's up and wanders down for food. By 7:00 my youngest is up and has flowers for me. Nice. My granddaughter wakes up her mother, and we give her a present. Also nice. We make a lot of noise and wake my husband, who's dead-tired after 36 hours of work in 3 days. He's lovely, sends me back to my room to read, but I've just piled laundry in my reading chair, wrapping all over my bed for my mother and mother-in-law's present, I've lost one of their cards, and my son Billy's knocking at the door to give me random Pokemon cards and a plastic bracelet he picked out of the dirt and washed after his Special Olympics swimming practice (this ended up being cute, he had a little speech and yes, I'm wearing the bracelet). I think I want a New York Times, but then forget to ask for it.

Breakfast a la Sheyanne
I start folding laundry to clear my chair to read and decide I'd rather be at yoga, maybe my chair will be cleared of laundry in my absence. Yoga is nice. I come home to an egg white omelette made by Shey and Lizzy with vegetables and cheese, chopped fruit salad and a gift bag from my daughters. Beautiful, delicious. Laundry's still on my chair so I fold it, my husband helps. It stops raining just in time for Ciara's noon soccer game in Wallingford to be called on, so we leave for that. She's upset she didn't get her favorite breakfast sandwich because I was getting another Mother's Day present (an incredible, $99 laser printer that prints 27 pages per minute) and fusses the whole ride. I read in the car until the game starts, then watch. It's fun, but we're gone 4 hours. I come home, exhausted. My sheets are the in the dryer. My husband is gone, the assistant manager working today at Walmart has locked all her keys in the electronics cabinet. Then, once he comes home, locks them again in the cash office. He sends Sheyanne, but in return we have to watch her daugher. Fine.

The chair I will not read in.
The laundry I will do.
The present-covered bed I will not lounge in
He helps me finish the bed and I take a 10 minute nap. See Ryan for less than one minute today, he's going to work at Jimmie's of Savin Rock. Watch the Red Sox totally blow the game for another 15 minutes. Come out for a 45 minute cookout in honor of my Mom. It's good food, my mom's happy with her gifts and cards but there's a few meltdowns, tears, tantrums over a Fudgie the Whale cake, I take a picture with 3 of my 8 kids and feel lucky. I look at it later and decide I look Stepford-blank so I'm not posting it--you can't make me. I'm so tired I can't form full words or sentences.A slew of things happen that I don't understand. My brain has collapsed unto itself, a tiny ball of Silly Putty where there was a full mass of clay at dawn. Mark asks which I'd rather do--finish cookout and clean up or go to the next game. I'm out the door in a heartbeat. I'm not sure I said good-bye to anyone.

Three generations (I'm the fourth. Taking the picture)
I'm going to another soccer game with Ciara in Guilford, she wants to practice driving, I'm glad because my exhaustion is such that my facial muscles are weighted and they might hit the steering wheel. Go to Starbucks for a chai, it's madness because there's a frappuccino special going on for another 10 minutes. People are insane for $1.50 savings. Ciara and I add up the calories consumed in the drinks prepared before ours. Fifteen thousand. I wait fifteen minutes, we're late for Ciara's game.

Ciara and Mariah rocking the defense here against Guilford
Her team plays well despite being down players a couple of players, and there's funny Jack Russell terriers running around with soccer balls. It's cold and windy, the field at the far side of an elementary school field up against a marsh. I come home, unwind with my husband for half an hour with a glass of wine in our bedroom, ignoring all the knocks on the door, say good-night to the kids, take a bath, and it's 9:30. I open the computer.

It was a good day. Down to earth. I saw all my kids for at least one minute. I read in the car for a few minutes before each game. I didn't cook, and beyond making my bed and folding a little laundry, I had it easy. I had fun with the other parents at the games, my brother and his family, my mom and pop at the picnic, I love Fudgie, and chai, and omelettes, and the sweet potato fries and shrimp kabobs at dinner, I love yoga and naps and watching the Red Sox and unwinding with Mark and that he got me a printer.

Lizzy bringing me coffee
And, besides the flowers and such, it was the same as any ordinary Sunday, except I had no sunday school or church today. I am treated well by my own family, and see extended family everyday. I feel loved every day and appreciated most. I find time to read, and get myself a coffee. My kids often do sweet things for me every day.

If those things did not happen, I'd feel more pressure for today to be more perfect, or different. But when I have felt that way--when my husband worked every weekend and I was home alone with 7 kids under the age of 10 with a full-time job and full-time grad school to contend with--I was disappointed. There's simply no way for one day to "make up" for being overstretched and outnumbered in your out-of-control daily life. It's just one day. And the cooking, laundry, bedding, meltdowns still have to be dealt with. They never end.

The "blue jeans" flowers
Still...I woke up with my dream day. I took a picture of it today. And, over the next week--I'll chip away at it. Read the books, take a quiet nap, walk for ice cream. Because moms need moments like these every day, or we drain ourselves empty, and angry. We need these moments to teach our kids our own value, and help them learn their own. We need them to survive our busy lives. We need them to be happy, and to love.

Happy Mother's Day with Love, Lisa

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Brain Mapping

Link to Site
Last month, President Obama committed $100 million in the next fiscal year to map the human brain the way we have mapped the human genome. Once private funds are included, and government funding over the next fifteen years it's considered about a $10 billion project. It's called the BRAIN Initiative, and its goal is to better treat brain injuries and diseases, from PTSD and concussions in war vets to Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. One goal is an effective treatment for Alzheimer's by 2025. By comparison, the Human Genome Project (HGP) cost about $3.8 billion, and took a little less than its 15-year estimate (about 12-1/2 years).

Even before it was completed,results of the HGP were used to test for and treat medical conditions with a genetic component, and the same is true for the BRAIN initiative.

I went to a talk last week by Dr. Steve Rasmussen, a professor in the Brown Medical School who has made strong inroads in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder, co-author of the most commonly used scale for monitoring symptoms, the Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale (Y-BOCS). But some people have multiple work lifelines, and for the past decade or so he's been concentrating on where in the brain OCD lives, and trying to find ways to disrupt the brain functioning in those areas to break OCD cycles, using either a gamma knife or a lesion. It's wicked expensive but at times highly effective.

I knew Steve in another lifetime, when I worked in the Bradley Research  Center  with a great team led by Ron Seifer that studied how mental illness is transmitted through generations, focusing upon mood and anxiety disorders since their development in children is likely a complex combination of factors between genetics and family environment. We observed kids, interviewed parents, videotaped and coded unstructured family dinners, and assessed family functioning. If we did the work now, we'd likely study their brains because Brown is deeply involved already in the Brain Mapping quest.

This project is going to be quite complicated, as you can imagine. One neuron can connect to as many as one million other neurons, and understanding those pathways and connections is complicated by the fact that we can't see a working brain easily, nor clearly see how it works. We rely on activity bursts visible on an fMRI or PET scan, and our knowledge of which parts of the brain typically do what. In high school I was taught there were 6 main parts, in college about 50, and now we know of more than 100 but there are as many neurons in one human brain as there are stars in the Milky Way--more--and mapping their pathways difficult. Scientists are beginning to use fluorescent genes inserted into a live, clarified mouse brain, as announced in Nature this week. Cool, but just a start. Finding solutions for degenerative neurological conditions like Parkinson's, ALS and Alzheimer's are still years away, tragic for those already in their grips. Hope for those of us with such tragedies in our futures.

There will be many announcements along the way, and if you're interested in following along, the best books I have found for understanding the brain and its pathways are both by Rita Carter. The Human Brain book is mostly pictures, and explains the structure and functions of the brain. Mapping the Mind is mostly essays, and explains the connections and the flow of information throughout the brain and body. Both are fascinating.

Especially to me, of course, living with a mild traumatic brain injury. I was seen twice last month by a team of clinicians at the UConn Speech and Hearing Clinic, who  ran me through a few hours of grueling tests and diagnosed an aquired auditory processing disorder, which is the most problematic of my postconcussive symptoms, in my estimation, because it affects my ability to function in the world.  I have a combination of acute sensitivitiy to sound (along with the other senses) and difficulty interpreting what is being said around me. There is a treatment recommended, pioneered at UConn, Dichotic Interaural Intensity Difference Training (DIID), which is quite hideous but often effective after 2-6 months of hard work.

You'll be hearing more about this from me, I guarantee.

This is how my problem plays out as of now (for reference in the future, when we see how much better I am):

When I am anywhere noisy, like my dinner table last night for my stepfather Fred's birthday, I hear odd words, and a lot of nonverbal sound--the laughs, the shrieks--but not full sentences. It's miles beyond nails-on-a-chalkboard irritating. I get headaches and then migraines quickly. I often think if they were speaking another language I'd be in similar straits. Last night, perhaps due to my facial expressions, or perhaps due to my intermittent requests that they all stop talking, my lovely stepdad initiated a "pass the candle" protocol, which was awesome. Only one person spoke at a time. I still couldn't pick it all up, because some of it was silly and nonsensical, and some of it slurred or mumbled, but I could participate. I stopped being irritated by the lot of them and vice versa. It felt good, until I got tired and threw them all out anyway with minimal grace but I was a wreck. It was a school night. They understood.

If you have someone in your family who is hearing impaired in any way, I suggest this for you too. They will love you for it.

But even in quiet, it's hard to listen to anyone discuss something new. Even my husband. Most of what he says is familiar and expected. We talk about the kids, money, funny stories, all stuff I know. After work he tells me familiar tales. These typically involve rude customers at his retail job, staff call-outs, conflicts between co-workers, hassles with the supply chain, and the messiness of his store. I can understand what he's saying quickly, because there's an overlap with what he said the day before, only half the words change. But if he's telling me something new, I don't understand what he's saying. At all. I have to hear it two or three times before I get it, a couple more times to remember it and even then I miss the subtleties because after the second time, he's talking in big-bold-black-and-white and not bothering to fill in the colors. It's annoying to us both. Actually everyone, because I ask people to repeat themselves all the time. Ironic, since I can hear a click on the dishwasher three rooms away from a dead sleep.

So, I'll try the DIID, which is considered a form of cognitive therapy rehabilitation. It involves strengthening the langauge processing in my right hemisphere, since testing showed the connectivity between what is heard on the right side, and the language processing centers in the left, is muddled, likely by sheering within the corpus callosum during my reverberation head injuries.

And it's good to get some answers. They're slow-coming for those with concussive symptoms that
persist for months and years. The book that is most helpful with the general post-concussive process is Mild Traumatic Brain Injury: The Guidebook, by Mary Lou Acimovic. She really knows her stuff. Lots of books will give a first-person account, as I do, in chunks and pieces, but she puts it all together, especially for adults.

For when you otherwise think you're going crazy, though soon enough there will be a brain scan for that and we'll have to live with the fact that we're all normal, in our own ways.

Love, Lisa