Archive for ‘Every Day’

May 13, 2015

Little Dancer

Degas

He was already a well-known painter when he started having eye problems at age 36.  He first thought it was due to the cold weather and later the bright sunlight to which he was exposed while serving in the National Guard.  Eventually he found that working indoors was more soothing; he loved the dark environment of the theater, and his paintings of the ballet and opera became famous.

“I still have a spot of weakness and trouble in my eyes,” he wrote to a friend in Paris.  “It made me lose nearly three-weeks being unable to read or work or go out much, trembling all the time lest I should remain that.”

Within three years, he believed he was going blind.  The tell-tale grey spots of macular degeneration were appearing in the central part of his vision.  Small and cloudy at first, they gradually increased in size. Painting became difficult.  He couldn’t see the colors on his palette, and asked his models to identify them.

By the time he was 57, he could no longer read.  “Whereas you in your solitude have the joy of having your eyes…” he wrote to a friend, “Ah! Sight!  Sight! Sight!…the difficulty of seeing makes me feel numb.” He abandoned painting with oils and turned to pastels, which he found easier to work with and requiring less precision.   As his artistic options diminished, he increasingly turned to sculpture.  Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.  Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot.   Little Dancer.

Today Edgar Degas is regarded as one of the greatest artists of the 19th century, and one of the founders of Impressionism.

Degas’ courage and resourcefulness as he coped with a debilitating disease is inspiring.  But today we know so much more about how to prevent and slow the progression of eye diseases such as macular degeneration, and while there is no cure, we do know that eating certain nutrients can stave off or slow the progression of this disease that is the #1 cause of legal blindness in the United States in people over the age of 55.

Baby boomers, here’s something to ponder: in just ten years, there will be six times the number of baby boomers in the U.S. as there were in 1990.   You’ll hear a lot more about age-related macular degeneration – which has been in the media of late with news that Roseanne Barr and Judi Dench are afflicted – as it reaches what some fear might become epidemic proportions.

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” wrote 18th-century French lawyer turned epicure Brillat-Savarin.  Nutritionist Adelle Davis picked up the torch in the 1960s and ‘70s  in the U.S. with her slogan “you are what you eat,” advocating for unprocessed foods and vitamins on the road to good health.  Johanna Seddon – a coal-miner’s daughter from Pittsburgh– was encouraged at an early age by her father to take a holistic approach to nutrition and health.  He showed her an early news article concerning a Canadian doctor who was testing vitamin E as a treatment for a specific eye problem. She went on to become the first ophthalmologist with a graduate degree in epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.

At the Harvard School of Public Health, colleagues gently ribbed Dr. Seddon as she researched nutritional studies of macular degeneration and cataracts.  They didn’t laugh when in 1994 she reported that specific antioxidant nutrients, along with omega-3 fatty acids, could reduce the risk of macular degeneration.   You are indeed what you eat.   And what’s good for your eyes is also good for the rest of your body – your eyes, lungs, heart, and circulatory system.  While I don’t have macular degeneration (and there’s no history of it in my family), I teamed up with Dr. Seddon to write EAT RIGHT FOR YOUR SIGHT, I was so impressed by the findings.

So, in a nutshell, what should we eat?   If nothing else, try these simple steps:

  1. Eat three colors of vegetables and fruit every day. The nutrients for your eye health come from the pigment in vegetables and fruit – the deep reds of beets, the gorgeous yellow of bell peppers, the eye-popping blue of fresh berries.  Mix it up.  In the ‘60s we served a meal of meat, starch, and vegetable; the new holy trinity is three colors of fruit and veggies – daily.
  2. As a rule of thumb, when it comes to eye health, the darker the better. Go for an orange pepper over a yellow one, kale (now there’s a superfood!) over lettuce, blueberries over cantaloupe.
  3. Get the yolk? The dark yellow marigold of an egg yolk is packed with nutrients you need.  Fresh eggs from well-fed hens produce darker yolks than the insipid yolks you’ll find in ‘factory’ eggs from grocery stores.  Go for the best, and eat them often.  Eggs are loaded with protein, vitamins, and minerals; the yolk also boasts carotenoids, including lutein and zeaxanthin – which are just fancy words for nutrients.
  4. Sometimes the sum is more than the parts, especially in food, where certain foods help you absorb nutrients more readily. Good food combos include iron and vitamin C (make a spinach salad and add orange segments), vitamin D and calcium (found in fortified milk and canned salmon), and vitamins A, D, E, and K (found when you pair an avocado with grapefruit, salad dressing with greens, or broccoli rabe with pine nuts).
  5. Look for foods with vitamin C, which fight those free radicals and are powerful antioxidants: red and green peppers, fruit, cauliflower, green cabbage.
  6. Incorporate vitamin D3 into your diet: fortified milk, mackerel, sardines, egg yolks, beef liver
  7. Omega 3 fatty acids are important to healthy development of your brain, nerves and eyes: they are found in salmon, sardines, mackerel, flaxseeds, walnuts, squash, tofu
  8. Deep-colored antioxidants charge directly to your retina: eat blueberries, grapes, pomegranates, cranberries and other dark foods

Other factors contribute to eye health as well.  Summer’s almost here – don’t forget your  UV sunshades (for yourself and your kids.)  Exercise regularly.  Don’t smoke.  Maintain a normal weight.  All these factors can help slow the progression of eye diseases such as macular degeneration.

This Memorial Day weekend, try out this tasty smoothie.  After all, we only get one pair of eyes.

Banana-Blueberry-Pomegranate Smoothie

This drink sneaks in a lot of bang for the buck—carotenoids from the kale, lutein from the blueberries, vitamin C from the pomegranate juice, and potassium from the bananas, plus fiber.

1 ripe banana

2 kale leaves, stems removed

1 cup blueberries

2 cups pomegranate juice

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice

Combine all the ingredients in a blender and purée until smooth, about 45 to 60 seconds.
Chill briefly if desired. Serve immediately.

Serves 2

Recipe from Eat Right For Your Sight: Simple Tasty Recipes That Help Reduce the Risk of Vision Loss from Macular Degeneration by Jennifer Trainer Thompson and Dr. Johanna Seddon. Available wherever books are sold.

I'm Blogging for Eye Health, #EatRightforYourSight

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May 5, 2015

Our Guardian Angel

grandma2

I always thought my mother’s mother was the closest thing I’d know to a saint.  Of course, kids have a limited perspective of adults, and there are many types of grandmothers — loving, adventurous, remote –and even the shrewdest of women can melt into a maternal dumpling when presented with a first grandchild.  But I was not alone in this opinion: everyone who knew Betty Burnett thought she was preternaturally patient, non-judgmental, and kind.

When my grandfather died from a stroke at age 73, we moved in with my grandmother.  It made sense all around: we’d just moved back East from Indianapolis, my father was starting a business, my mother was in graduate school, I was an only child in 8th grade, and my grandmother didn’t like living alone. Plus, none of us had much money.  A year later, when my aunt Natalie came down with cancer and decided to fight it the Christian Science way, my grandmother invited her to move in, too.  When one of my mother’s other sisters died, my cousin Sue moved in as well.  The household consisted of 5 women, a female dog, and my father.  He jokingly threatened to get an old male tomcat.

We cherished our grandmother.  She smelled like talcum powder, baked the best brownies, sewed our rising hemlines, and truly cared about all our victories and tribulations.  When we came home from school, she’d sit in the living room, overturned library book on her lap, legs crossed at the ankle, listening to Sue and me recount our days.  My cousin Sue, who wasn’t a touchy-feely kind of gal, would roll up her sleeve and have Grandma  run her fingers gently up and down the inside of her arm, stroking it in a way that Sue – who’d lost her mother at age 15 — found incredibly soothing.  We’d three sit in the late afternoon sun, talking, content as cats.  Grandma wore wool hounds tooth suits in the winter and cotton dresses cinched at the waist in the summer, pearls from Filene’s around her neck.   She hailed from stock that arrived from England in 1634 (her ancestor Nicholas Easton governed the Rhode Island Colony in 1672 after being banished as a rogue minister from Massachusetts Bay) but,  like many swamp Yankees, she was long on heritage and short on cash.  When she died, she left a few antiques, first edition books that you’d expect from someone who had graduated from college in 1913, and a moral compass that guided the ship of her six children, ten grandchildren, and many great-grandchildren who remain close to this day.

I still marvel that my father, grandmother, and I played Scrabble at least 3 nights a week.  My father loved her, and would joke that if he and my mother ever got divorced, they’d have to fight over custody of her.  In many ways my grandmother was the opposite of my mother, who while loving, smart, and attentive, never baked a dessert, couldn’t sew a stitch (she stapled the badges onto my Girl Scout sash), and liked to tell the story how, during World War II, after knitting socks for soldiers as part of the war effort, she was asked whose side she was on when she turned them in.

Unlike many in our family, Grandma didn’t have a nautical bone in her body.  She mistakenly referred to my father’s Herreshoff  Beverly Dinghy as his Beverly Dinghus, and he hooted with laughter when – after she overheard us discussing an upcoming sailing trip and making the tricky passage through Quick’s Hole to the Vineyard –later asked how our trip to Martha’s Hole turned out.

The only time I ever saw her perturbed –it was a subtle but angry pursing of lips – was right before her husband’s funeral.  My grandfather (an interior decorator who during the Depression resorted to selling Fuller Brushes door to door) had a business partner in his interior decorating business: Flora Porter, a coiffed older woman with brocade suits, rouged cheeks and heavy perfume.  When my grandmother said in a hushed tone that she didn’t want “that woman” at the funeral, her five daughters crowded around her like bees and shut us grandchildren out.  When years later I asked my mother – a direct straight-shooter who always answered my questions honestly – about it, she said, “Jenny, it’s just too painful for me to talk about.”

That was that.  We moved (she came with us), and just as we took care of her, she took care of us. She asked my father to take her canoeing on the Nemasket River (which he did forevermore every spring, she in the bow in her wool suit and stockings, our dog midship, he in the stern).  She was always being visited by her children and grandchildren, and, like a silent winking star, was the center of the constellation around which we spun.  With her deeds and traditions – Christmas together, summer family parties, making grape jelly in the fall – she had subtly stitched the fabric of our big multi-generational family.

When she died, I think it’s fair to say that we all thought a saint had died.  It wasn’t veneer; she had such nurturing kindness and love in her heart.  I adored my other grandmother, but she was so different – irreverent, proper, scotch & soda in hand, bracelets jingling at her wrist, travelling and making room for you when she could.  When I became a mother and tried to model Grandma Burnett’s behavior (falling short of course), I didn’t regret that I’d never see my grandmother again; rather, I considered myself lucky to have been blessed by her presence and example.

Years later, when my mother died one June after a lengthy illness from cancer, within six weeks my father was dating one of my mother’s good friends.  My mother had suggested it –my father had a frail ticker and she wanted him to be happy – and, as he said to me, at his age he had a shortened timeline.  I really liked Peg – she was kind, sensitive, and loving — but she wasn’t my mother, and both Sue and I had difficulty with the relationship at first, and we felt guilty about that, too – we could see my father was so happy, and there was absolutely nothing to dislike about Peg.  When he told me in October that he wanted to marry Peg, and asked what I thought (I so appreciated his doing so), I told him I just didn’t want him to marry in the year of mom’s death.  So he waited until January 2.

Peg is a marvelous baker.  My father would rave about her desserts, and though my brain knew my father had loved my mother, silently I’d grouse that he never raved about my mother’s cooking like that. They clearly were in love.  They kept both their houses (3 miles apart) and Sue’s daughter Lee and her young son moved into his house, continuing a bond our family has of taking care of one’s own.  I became so close to Lee that it felt as if she too were a sister- cousin.  The three of us – Lee, Sue, and I – wrapped ourselves around my father’s failing heart and Peg’s love like strands of a braid, intertwined with caring and concern.  They were the sisters I never had.  We hovered over my father as he got frailer and frailer from congestive heart failure and came to deeply appreciate how Peg took care of him, loved him, was loved by him, and kept him happy until the end.  I hated calling her my “step-mother” because the Cinderella connotation didn’t do justice to this warm, intelligent woman.  The mother of three sons, Peg joked she married my father and acquired three daughters.

Last month Sue learned she had kidney cancer.  Silently our minds zeroed in on the fact that Sue’s mother had died at age 43 of pancreatic cancer.  Two nights before Sue’s surgery, Peg, Lee, and I had dinner with her and reassured her and ourselves that she had caught it early, and the prognosis was good.  And it was.  Back in the Berkshires this week, I waited for the call, knowing that Lee and Peg were at the hospital during the 2 hours of prep, the 6 hours of surgery, the minor complications that resulted in them not seeing Sue until 9 pm.  I got the call from Lee that all was well – Sue is now cancer-free – at 10:30 pm.

In conversation, Lee told me that when Sue came out of surgery, Peg – age 90 – sat by her bedside, stroking her forehead gently, pushing the hair away from her brow.  When the heart monitor clip fell off her middle finger, Peg gently held Sue’s hand, reached over, and put it back on her middle finger. Peg’s hand lingered on Sue’s arm.  I felt so comforted by that.  I knew she’d be OK.

This morning it dawned on me that Peg is Grandma Burnett reincarnated.  We’ve been blessed with two saints in our lives. Two guardian angels.  How did we get so lucky?

March 25, 2012

Traditions

Best time to plant tree, one hundred years ago.
Second best time, today.

– Chinese proverb

The search for meaning through ritual is ancient, though perhaps more important now than ever before.  Family traditions do so much more than commemorate a milestone; they can serve as guideposts along the way, helping us to shape our daily lives and foster values—indeed, they can be an oasis in an increasingly hectic and busy world.  Traditions can help us grow and flourish; they reflect and inspire the way we parent and how we honor the passage of time, achievement, and meaningful moments in our lives. In a society that is increasingly chaotic, wired, and weird, they offer a way to connect with a spiritual dimension, a way to feel the embrace of a quieter world, and a chance to teach your children well.

Traditions are comforting and predictable. They also involve a sense of history, sometimes generational, that affords a strong sense of self and one’s place in the family and the world, both morally and spiritually. They ground us. They are a way to mark passages, be it a birthday, holiday, marriage, or death. We impart them to our children, but we also partake for our own sake.  Plus, they’re fun!

What Shall I Leave My Children?

The open sky, the brown earth, the leafy tree,
The golden sand, the blue water, the stars in courses
and the awareness of this.

Birdsong, butterflies, clouds and rainbows,
Sunlight, moonlight, firelight.

A hand reaching down for a small hand,
Impromptu praise, an unexpected kiss, a straight answer.

The glow of enthusiasm, and a sense of wonder,
Long days to be merry in and nights without fear.

The memory of a good home.

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