Why My Six-Year-Old Isn’t Getting A Star Wars Blaster For Christmas

For the last two years, my six-year-old, Fletcher has been coveting a certain Star Wars blaster. It’s hard to tell the differences among the assorted Star Wars weaponry, but I think it’s one of the models the rebels use in the Clone Wars series. His older cousins have one, and he plays with it at their house every chance he gets. The last few times we’ve ridden the Buzz Lightyear ride at Disney World, which conveniently spills you out into the gift shop, he’s gone right for this particular weapon, touching it with the kind of reverence normally reserved for holy relics. He knows better than to ask me for it outright because the answer to his perpetual Can I have a gun? question has long been a flat No.

It’s challenging to be anti toy-gun when you’ve got a boy. The fascination must come with the Y chromosome because Fletcher’s been enthralled by toy guns since he could pull himself up and grab what he wanted to play with from a toy chest. I could refuse to supply him with toy firearms, but that doesn’t stop others from gifting him with water shooters. Or stop him from playing with toy guns at other kids’ houses. Staying with friends on a family trip to Denver when Fletcher was 3, I discovered my child had unearthed a substantial cache of toy guns that even my shocked girlfriend didn’t realize her son had.

As any parent knows, kids’ persistence is a force to behold. Over time, their repeated pleas can wear you down like water smooths a rock. And so it was that a few weeks ago, I reluctantly reversed my No Toy Guns policy and allowed Fletcher to purchase a stylized flintlock pirate pistol with his allowance. After that, the proverbial barn door was wide open. So when I saw the Star Wars blaster at Target, and it was on sale, I thought, Oh, what the hell. That’ll make his Christmas.

It was upstairs in the guest room closet with the rest of the toys, waiting to be wrapped in festive Christmas paper and tied with a bow. But after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut on Friday, I took it back. After seeing the pictures of those 20 murdered children, most of whom were exactly my son’s age, the idea of feeding my own child’s perception that guns are just big boy toys and the violence they can do is just a game made me physically ill.

And I say that as someone who’s not opposed to reasonable gun ownership. Though because the word reasonable has been so perverted by the NRA and their rabid devotees, let me explain what I mean by that. Years ago — long before Fletcher was born — when I lived off-grid on a remote mountain in Nevada, in an area where it could take 20 to 30 minutes for police to respond to a 911 call, my husband kept a 12-gauge shotgun, a .22 rifle, a 9-mm semi-automatic handgun and a HK91 assault rifle in the house. “I like to shoot things in the desert,” he said a little sheepishly when I asked him why on earth he needed a stash like that. They were his guns, and I wouldn’t touch them. But my husband traveled frequently, and I was often home alone. After an unnerving encounter with one of the other mountain residents (who I presumed was making meth in one of the lonely double-wides loosely scattered over the desert), I wanted to be able to protect myself if I absolutely had to. So I learned how to load and fire a Glock. At the time, I considered it a necessary survival skill.

Now we live in the Greater Orlando suburbs. The guns are gone, and we leave it to Orlando’s Finest to respond quickly if the need arises. No one in suburbia (or a city for that matter) needs that kind of weaponry. Ever.

On the afternoon of the Sandy Hook shooting, Lisa Belkin, the Huffington Post Parentry blogger, wrote that “guns are a parenting issue.” She said our job as parents is to keep our children safe, and “easy access to guns keeps us from doing that job.”

Of course, as many, many people have said in the wake of this horror, any real change in our nation’s gun culture has to start with petitioning our lawmakers and holding President Obama to his promise to “use whatever power [his] office holds” to pass gun control legislation that actually bans these weapons of mass slaughter. The same goes for demanding more resources to make mental health services readily accessible to those who desperately need them, and so perhaps prevent the kind of off-the-charts violence these tortured souls can commit. But closer to home, especially with Christmas approaching fast, perhaps it’s also time to think about the messages we send our children when we allow them to play with — and indeed give them — toy models that look so much like the real thing. However unintentionally, that tells our kids that that gun violence — killing — is appropriate imaginative play for children to engage in.

Telling a kid he/she can’t have toy guns isn’t easy. Believe me, I know. But tell me, what part of parenting ever is? Teaching that gun violence is abhorrent has to start somewhere, and maybe it starts with banning the plastic toys that glorify gun ownership in our households … as well as the shoot-em-up video games that I’m just as guilty of allowing my son to play from time to time.

Truth told, I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do about the super-soakers and pirate pistol we already have. Though I’m sorely tempted to do a full toy purge, I’m thinking that doing so may actually create more desire for the forbidden playthings. Better perhaps is to simply let them gather dust on the toy shelves and refuse to replace them when they break. Already, that pirate pistol has been forgotten as other toys from Chanukah have commanded my son’s attention. But this much is certain: I won’t be adding to the arsenal on Christmas. Over the weekend, I replaced the Star Wars blaster with a telescope. Rather than pretending to shoot at people and our long-suffering cats, I’m hoping it inspires my son to shoot for the stars.

Illustration: Jessica Ziegler

My Bout With Gout

James Gilray

At first, I thought that, somehow, I’d broken my big toe. Not that I could recall any trauma, but our family had spent the afternoon mini-golfing. Instead of wearing sneakers like a practical person, I’d roamed the hilly course in strappy sandals to show off my newly pedicured toes. So when a sudden stab of pain woke me later that night, and my foot had tripled in size by morning, I figured the vanity gods were punishing my poor choice of footwear with the kind of torturous pain that would keep me in sturdy cross-trainers from now on.

My father, a doctor, told me that there wasn’t much to do for injured toes beyond toughing it out with ice and ibuprofen. Free advice is always good, but after a few days of hobbling around the house, unable to put any weight on my foot, which also meant I couldn’t drive, climb the stairs to my office, or exercise, I was more than ready for another opinion. Or at least some stronger meds. The last time I was in this much pain, I was given an epidural.

Instead, I got the surprise of my life.

“That –” said my primary doctor, giving my foot a quick glance, “is textbook gout.”

Gout? Seriously? I have gout? Isn’t that something fat, boozy, old codgers who never leave their Barcaloungers get? What kind of cruel joke was this? Yeah, okay, women do get gout. BUT NOT TILL AFTER MENOPAUSE! The last time I checked my driver’s license, I was still in my mid-forties. I had years before The Change really factored into my health. Besides, I’m healthy (or thought I was). There’s no family history. I’m reasonably active. I eat a near-vegetarian diet. I’m a size 0 for chrissake. Even the nurse was perplexed. “Damn!” she marveled. “We never see skinny people with gout.”

Thanks. Now I’m a medical oddity. This way to the Freak Show. Honestly, I could not be more embarrassed if I’d brought home herpes. I’d rather cop to that than admit to this stodgy ailment. At least that would suggest I’d been out there having some fun. Stupid, dangerous, fun. But still. What did gout suggest? Nothing sexy, that’s for sure. I have a healthy lifestyle. How do I have a lifestyle disease?

A quick Google search told me gout was a type of arthritis, so I contacted Nathan Wei, MD, a rheumatologist and director of The Arthritis Treatment Center in Frederick, Maryland, to find out more. (One of the perks of being a health writer is that you can call up random specialists for advice under the guise of “research.”)

“That is very, very weird,” he says when I explain my situation on the phone.

Nice. I can see my second career now: Gout Girl.

Gout develops when your body either makes too much uric acid or your kidneys aren’t very good at flushing out the uric acid your body makes. Either way, it’s an overabundance that causes urate crystals to form in a joint, usually at the base of the big toe (though they can also form in other parts of the feet, hands and elbows). Those babies are sharp, which is why gout feels like someone’s playing voodoo doll with your toe.

Doctors are seeing a lot more gout these days. Though it’s still very much a man’s disease — three to four times more guys get gout than women — women’s gout rate, while comparatively low, has nonetheless doubled over the last two decades, according to the Mayo Clinic’s Rochester Epidemiology Project. Dr. Wei thinks part of that is better detection. “We’re looking for it more,” he tells me. And a big reason docs are looking for and finding more gout is because it’s one of the many conditions that go along with being, well … fat. “The U.S. population is obese,” Dr. Wei says. “You see a fat person with high blood pressure, diabetes, elevated lipids, and they get gout. That’s all part of the package.”

The other reason: Age and meds. “Women are living longer,” he explains. “More women are entering menopause. And there’s tighter blood pressure control, so a lot of women are on thiazide diuretics to control hypertension, and that bumps uric acid up.”

That all made sense. But it still didn’t explain why I, a slender, active, premenopausal woman with blood pressure so low I could probably eat a salt lick without much fallout, have been so afflicted. I don’t get to say this about too many things these days, but I really am too young – about 15, 20, maybe even 25 years too young – for this. Estrogen, which helps the kidneys eliminate uric acid, is thought to be so protective, gout doesn’t really start to bother women till we hit our 60s.

Since I wasn’t a fat old man or a postmenopausal woman, Dr. Wei started quizzing me about my diet. As with many lifestyle diseases, diet is a huge factor in gout. Once upon a time, gout was even called “rich man’s disease” — payback, essentially, for overindulging in rich foods and drink. It’s the breakdown of amino acids called purines in things like organ meats, beef and pork that boost uric acid levels and lead to gout. But that didn’t apply to me — and not because of my tax bracket. I’m a low-fat dairy, whole grains and vegetables kinda gal. I don’t eat fast food. I don’t eat junk. For years, I was a near-vegan — till wild pregnancy cravings drove me to cross six lanes of traffic to get to Tony Roma’s for ribs. Post-baby, I ditched the meat, though I still eat fish. But c’mon. Low-fat dairy, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins — that’s the foundation for good health. You want to live a long and healthy life and prevent things like heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes? That’s where you start.


“You can also find purines in some vegetables — ” Dr. Wei was telling me.

Wait … What?

“…beans, peas, spinach, cauliflower, asparagus …”

Hold up a sec. I eat those vegetables every day. I can go through a bag of spinach, sautéed in garlic and olive oil, in one dinner alone.

“What about shellfish? You eat shellfish?”

Uh-oh. I nodded unhappily, thinking about the softball-sized crab cakes I’d devoured every night on a recent trip to Baltimore. Crab cakes. Shrimp. Scallops. These are my go-to foods when I’m tired of salmon. Turns out, tuna, another diet mainstay, is also brimming with purines. Come to think of it, in the weeks before my midnight gout flare, I’d gone on a bit of a tuna-polooza binge: tuna steak, tuna salad, tuna sushi rolls, seared ahi. Talk about payback for dietary excesses. I’d been practically mainlining purines. The way I’d stacked it, my “healthy” diet was as gout-promoting as gorging on sweetbreads, chopped liver and bacon-double-cheeseburgers.

“How about alcohol? Beer, hard liquor and wine, in that order, can elevate uric acid levels,” Dr. Wei continues.

Strike three. I admit, for a fortysomething mom, I can drink like a party girl.

And there it was: Through blind luck, I’d managed to cherry-pick enough “healthy” foods that, mixed with a few cocktails, added up to a big fat gout diagnosis. A “perfect storm” of factors, and I was the Andrea Gail. Jeeeez. How come I don’t have that kind of luck with lottery numbers?

“You know, if you just ate the shellfish and vegetables, you’d probably be okay,” Dr. Wei says delicately. “Maybe what tipped you over the edge was the alcohol.” He pauses. “It doesn’t take that much, really.” He’s trying to be diplomatic. But the data is on his side. Earlier this year, researchers at Boston University Medical School analyzed Framingham Heart Study data and found that more than five drinks a week – barely even the one cocktail a night that most health experts say is okay for women – will triple a woman’s risk for gout. Apparently, even before menopause, vodka can trump estrogen.

Sigh. Nearly 15 years of meticulously careful eating undone by dirty martinis. Woman plans; the body finds a way to sideline you on the couch, foot packed in ice, mumbling vague excuses about an old Jazzercise injury. (Like I want to be the poster gal for premenopausal gout?!?)

A day after my diagnosis (and three powerful anti-inflammatories — including a big ol’ shot in the ass — later) I was back on my feet.

But like anyone diagnosed with a chronic disease, I’ve had to make some lifestyle changes to avoid future flare-ups and the medications I’ll be forced to take if I get more than one or two attacks a year. Because apparently, I’ve already reached my quota for one year. A few months back, another mysterious injury to the same toe had me limping around for a day or so. I’d chalked it up to too many miles on the elliptical machine, popped some ibuprofen and promptly forgot all about it. Now, I realize, that was a warning.

So I’m trying to follow the rules. While I’m delighted to finally have a medically sanctioned excuse for the three mugs of Italian roast I drink in the mornings (coffee is associated with lower uric acid levels), I’ve also had to give up a few things too: asparagus, seared ahi, any kind of tuna sushi. And, oh yes, I finally accepted that I had to give my well-worn cocktail shaker a rest and climbed (albeit reluctantly) on the wagon. As a result, in the 18 months since my diagnosis, I haven’t had a single flare-up, not even a twinge of toe pain.

I believe that calls for a drink. Shirley Temples, anyone?

A version of this essay appears in the December2011/January 2012 issue of MORE magazine.

Double Shot Tuesdays

282238_shot_glasses1 It’s Tuesday, and that means … time to dip into the blog archives for a double shot of some old favorites.  This past weekend my youngest cousin got married in Denver. Being surrounded by my other cousins’ new babies — seems everyone had babies all at once! — put me in mind of my very early baby experiences. So without further ado …

My Misadventures In Breastfeeding … Or How I Learned To Love Baby Formula

“So, are you breastfeeding?”

When I was a new mom, I got asked that a lot. It’s the kind of question — along with How much weight did you gain during your pregnancy? and Are your nipples chapped? — that even complete strangers feel is well within their rights to ask if you’re toting around a baby. And given everything we know about the health benefits of breastfeeding — the higher IQs, the lower risk for infections, allergies, and a host of other problems including obesity and diabetes — the expectation was that I’d say Yes. Because of course I’d be foolish . . . make that down-right selfish, to deny my baby the precious elixir of breast milk.

Until . . . I couldn’t do it. Read more …

(Did anyone else have trouble breastfeeding? Please post a comment or email me!)

Boy Toys

When I was pregnant, I was convinced — 1000 percent positive, actually — that we were having a girl. My husband Stewart would refer to my growing belly as “he” … and I’d routinely correct him. “No — She.” These back-and-forths usually played out when we were in a department store’s baby section, and I was mooning over some ridiculously frilly powder pink dress that no baby could conceivably be comfortable in.

Not that there was any rationale to my insistence that there was a girl baby cradled in there. My thinking ran along the lines that my sister already had two boys, and I figured, with the kind of twisted logic that makes Lotto addicts play the same combinations day after day, convinced their numberswill come up … someday, that it was simply time for our collective family to have a girl. And thus I was carrying her. So certain was I, we’d already picked out her name — Quinn. I wasn’t even thinking about boy names, because … well, why bother? Obviously, we were having a girl.

And then around about 14 weeks, I had my amniocentesis. Read more …

(Anyone else get “surprised” by their baby’s gender? Please post a comment or email me!)