Dear 16-Year-Old Me

This is a video that everyone should watch, but it is specifically addressed to teenagers because their behavior puts them at risk for skin cancer either now or later. And few people realize how deadly melanoma can be.

Genderless Child-Rearing II

Almost two years ago I wrote a post about genderless child-rearing which introduced a Swedish child named Pop who didn’t even know what sex s/he (it?) is. Now that s/he’s almost two years older I wonder how that’s turning out for him/her. Of course, s/he still hasn’t started school yet. That’s when it will really get difficult to maintain the pose that this child is genderless.

Yes, I wrote “the pose.” I could as easily have written “the fiction.” Because I think that’s all genderless child-rearing will ever be: a social experiment where one’s own child is the guinea pig.

Now there’s a new family in the news, this one from Toronto, Canada, which has decided to raise  its newest child gender-free. See the video below:

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89% of over 52,000 people who responded to a poll about this story thought that genderless child-rearing is a terrible idea. That doesn’t surprise the expert who was interviewed on the show because “most of us are conventional and like to put things in a box.” But is that the only reason we think children should be raised according to their genitalia?

You’d think a feminist would be all for this idea. After all, the most radical among us have argued that gender is nothing but a social construct. The logical conclusion of this belief is that a child who is raised gender-neutral will eventually pick his or her own gender identification. That’s what baby Storm’s parents believe. They got the idea to keep Storm’s sex a secret from the way their older children are responding to their parents’ willingness to let them decide what they like to do, wear, and play with. Their oldest son sometimes wear dresses. The youngest is often mistaken for a girl. The kids don’t seem to mind.

I might be a feminist, but I’m uncomfortable with this. Just because we often go too far in shaping gender identity (forcing trucks and baseball on boys and dolls and dance lessons on girls, for instance) doesn’t mean that knowing which sex you are is not an important part of your development. I think it’s enough to teach our boys that they can be  nurturing and our girls that they can be aggressive. To blot from our vocabulary the phrase, “Little boys/girls don’t do that.”

At the same time, I recognize that it’s awfully easy to slip into gender-imprinting behavior. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to. And the fiction won’t be sustainable once children hit puberty.

The real problem is that in our attempts to teach our children to identify with their sex, we teach them to dislike the opposite one. The worst epithet that males can hurl at each other is, “You’re such a girl.” Girls are taught that boys are smelly and dirty and loud  and that they in turn have to be fragrant, clean and quiet. If we could somehow convey to our children that the opposite sex is just as important, interesting and acceptable as they are, we’d go a long way toward erasing sexual discrimination.

In a way it’s easier to raise a child without gender than it is to teach our boys and girls that the opposite sex is not some kind of alien condition that they cannot possible relate to.

Let’s raise our kids to respect and enjoy each other no matter what sex they are. We need to prevent them from thinking that one sex is better than the other. If our kids ask, “What does it mean to be a boy/girl?” we can tell them that there’s very little difference between the sexes, except for their role in reproduction.

We don’t need to obliterate gender identity; we just need to expand it.



Types of Breast Exams

A week after my recent mammogram I received a letter from my doctor telling me that she had scheduled me for a breast ultrasound. Apparently I have some kind of abnormality that she doesn’t think is cancerous but needs to be looked at more closely. I had a breast cancer “scare” about fifteen years ago which turned out to be nothing, so I’m not particularly worried. But I did think that this might be a good time to brush up on breast disease and abnormalities, diagnostic tests and treatment.

I decided to start with types of breast exams, since this is the first line of defense in detecting and treating breast cancer:


One way to find breast cancer in its earliest stage is to complete monthly self-breast exams. Because breast tissue changes at different times of the month, these exams should be done at the same time of the month if you are still having periods. The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation recommends that every woman over the age of 20 check for any change in the normal look or feel of her breasts. You should look and feel for a lump, hard knot, skin thickening, or dimples. Any changes should be reported to your doctor or nurse. Ask your doctor for information on completing your routine breast self-exams. You may also contact the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation at 1-800-462-9273 for a card to hang in your shower to help you complete your monthly exams.


Every woman should have her breasts examined by a healthcare professional at least every 3 years, starting at the age of 20, and yearly after age 40. A physician can tell a lot about a lump simply by feeling it and the tissue around it. Non-cancerous lumps often may not feel the same as cancerous lumps. They can be harder and may be stuck to surrounding tissues rather than freely movable. Additional tests may be prescribed, including mammography, digital mammography, ultrasonography, or MRI.

If a lump feels like it is a cyst filled with liquid, the doctor may try to remove some fluid with a small needle. This is called aspiration. Based on these exams, the doctor may decide that no further tests are needed and no treatment is necessary. In such cases, the doctor may check you regularly to watch for any change.


The most common procedure used to diagnose breast cancer is the mammogram, an x-ray of the breast that uses a very low dose of radiation. It can look at the tissues within the breast. A special machine holds the breasts in place with pressure (compression). This simple procedure can reveal cancerous growths that are too small to feel. Although it may feel a bit uncomfortable, it takes only a few minutes to complete. Good compression of the breast is important because it reduces radiation exposure and gives the doctor a better view of abnormalities, which might be hidden behind normal breast tissue. Compression does not harm the breast tissue. If you have breast implants, a special mammography technique pushes back the implant to look at the breast tissue more completely.

The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the American Cancer Society recommend annual screening mammography for women, starting at age 40, and a baseline exam between 35 and 40.

Special recommendations are made for women who have a strong family history of breast cancer or have been diagnosed with cancer at an age younger than 40. Women with a family history of breast cancer or who have personal concerns about their risk should talk with their doctor about when they should begin having mammography.

Annual screening mammograms in women age 40-49 have been shown to lower a woman’s chance of dying from breast cancer by 17%. For women between the ages of 50-70, a 33-60% reduction in mortality has been reported.

Mammograms are able to find lumps at a smaller size than we are able to feel.

The smallest tumor a mammogram can identify .2 inches to .4 inches
The average size lump found by yearly mammograms when the woman has had previous mammograms to compare the lump to .43 inches
The average lump found by first-time mammograms .59 inches, the size of a dime
The average size lump found by women through their monthly breast self-examination .81 inches (the size of a quarter)

The initial diagnosis of breast cancer may come from the breast self-examination, the physician’s clinical breast exam, or screening mammography. The gold standard continues to be the mammogram. Other tests that help in the diagnosis and staging of breast cancer are listed below.


Ultrasound is also called sonography. This procedure uses sound waves far above the range of normal hearing to view images of the body. No radiation is used in this examination and there are no known health risks. If a suspicious area is identified by mammogram, an ultrasound is often used to explore that area more thoroughly. Ultrasonography can distinguish between a fluid filled cyst and a solid mass (which may or may not be cancer). The American College of Radiology (ACR) suggests that women with dense breasts may benefit from the use of ultrasound.


Magnet Resonance Imaging (MRI) is one of the most advanced diagnostic imaging tools available in medicine today. Using magnetic fields and radio frequency coils, remarkably detailed cross-sectional images of the body can help your physician diagnose your cancer. MRI does not use x-ray or radiation. Currently, an MRI is used to further assess a suspicious area; it is not used as a routine screening procedure.

The MRI may be more accurate than mammography in the early detection of malignant breast tumors in women with a hereditary risk of developing breast cancer. It might be the preferred test for younger women who have dense breast tissue. Physicians may also order an MRI for women who have a genetic linkage to breast cancer, as they are BRCA1 or BRCA2 positive. It is an appropriate test for women who have breast cancer and need further evaluation. It is also used for women who have implants that need to be checked for possible leakage.

An MRI is more than ten times as expensive as a mammogram. It also has a high false positive rate. This means that it may incorrectly identify breast lesions as being a cancer 20-50% of the time, when in fact the lesion is not cancerous. Thus, the MRI is not yet ready to be used as a screening test for most women.


The CAT scan uses x-rays and combines the use of a digital computer and a rotating device to make cross section photographic slices of organs and parts of the body. Not used as a screening tool, the CAT Scan is primarily used to evaluate deeper structures in the body for the presence or absence of metastatic disease, or spread of breast cancer to distant sites.


This nuclear medicine technique can actually make an image of the internal organs based upon their metabolic activity. Radioisotopes (compounds containing radioactive forms of atoms) are introduced into the body to evaluate organ function or localize disease or tumors. The radioisotope is injected into a vein. In breast cancer, the PET scan is used for staging distant metastases, restaging patients with recurrence, and/or monitoring the response to treatment.


Scintimammography is a nuclear medicine test. A small amount of radioactive tracer (dye) is given through the vein. The dye travels to the breast tissue. Scans are taken and the radiologist can differentiate between benign and malignant lesions. This procedure is used in addition to a mammogram and ultrasound. It can assist the surgeon with planning the biopsy.

SOURCE:’s Guide to Breast Cancer

More Poetry: Family Relationships

After Making Love I Hear Footsteps by Galway Kinnell

For I can snore like a bullhorn
or play loud music
or sit up talking with any reasonably sober Irishman
and Fergus will only sink deeper
into his dreamless sleep, which goes by all in one flash,
but let there be that heavy breathing
or a stifled come-cry anywhere in the house
and he will wrench himself awake
and make for it on the run – as now, we lie together,
after making love, quiet, touching along the length of our bodies,
familiar touch of the long-married,
and he appears – in his baseball pajamas, it happens,
the neck opening so small
he has to screw them on, which one day may make him wonder
about the mental capacity of baseball players –
and flops down between us and hugs us and snuggles himself to sleep,
his face gleaming with satisfaction at being this very child.

In the half darkness we look at each other
and smile
and touch arms across his little, startling muscled body –
this one whom habit of memory propels to the ground of his making,
sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake,
this blessing love gives again into our arms.


Death in the Family by Julie Hill Alger

They call it stroke.
Two we loved were stunned
by that same blow of cudgel
or axe to the brow.
Lost on the earth
they left our circle

One spent five months
falling from our grasp
mute, her grace, wit,
beauty erased.
Her green eyes gazed at us
as if asking, as if aware,
as if hers. One night
she slipped away;
machinery of mercy
brought her back
to die more slowly.
At long last
she escaped.

Our collie dog
fared better.
A lesser creature, she
had to spend only one day
drifting and reeling,
her brown eyes
beseeching. Then she
was tenderly lifted,
laid on a table,
praised, petted
and set free.


Wishes for Sons by Lucille Clifton

i wish them cramps.
i wish them a strange town
and the last tampon.
i wish them no 7-11.
i wish them one week early
and wearing a white skirt.
i wish them one week late.
later i wish them hot flashes
and clots like you
wouldn’t believe.    let the
flashes come when they
meet someone special.
let the clots come
when they want to.
let them think they have accepted
arrogance in the universe,
then bring them to gynecologists
not unlike themselves.


My Mother’s Body by Marge Piercy


The dark socket of the year
the pit, the cave where the sun lies down
and threatens never to rise,
when despair descends softly as the snow
covering all paths and choking roads:

then hawkfaced pain seized you
threw you so you fell with a sharp
cry, a knife tearing a bolt of silk.
My father heard the crash but paid
no mind, napping after lunch

yet fifteen hundred miles north
I heard and dropped a dish.
Your pain sunk talons in my skull
and crouched there cawing, heavy
as a great vessel filled with water,

oil or blood, till suddenly next day
the weight lifted and I knew your mind
had guttered out like the Chanukah
candles that burn so fast, weeping
veils of wax down the chanukiya.

Those candles were laid out,
friends invited, ingredients bought
for latkes and apple pancakes,
that holiday for liberation
and the winter solstice

when tops turn like little planets.
Shall you have all or nothing
take half or pass by untouched?
Nothing you got, Nun said the dreydl
as the room stopped spinning.

The angel folded you up like laundry
your body thin as an empty dress.
Your clothes were curtains
hanging on the window of what had
been your flesh and now was glass.

Outside in Florida shopping plazas
loudspeakers blared Christmas carols
and palm trees were decked with blinking
lights. Except by the tourist
hotels, the beaches were empty.

Pelicans with pregnant pouches
flapped overhead like pterodactyls.
In my mind I felt you die.
First the pain lifted and then
you flickered and went out.


I walk through the rooms of memory.
Sometimes everything is shrouded in dropcloths,
every chair ghostly and muted.

Other times memory lights up from within
bustling scenes acted just the other side
of a scrim through which surely I could reach

my fingers tearing at the flimsy curtain
of time which is and isn’t and will be
the stuff of which we’re made and unmade.

In sleep the other night I met you, seventeen
your first nasty marriage just annulled,
thin from your abortion, clutching a book

against your cheek and trying to look
older, trying to took middle class,
trying for a job at Wanamaker’s,

dressing for parties in cast off
stage costumes of your sisters. Your eyes
were hazy with dreams. You did not

notice me waving as you wandered
past and I saw your slip was showing.
You stood still while I fixed your clothes,

as if I were your mother. Remember me
combing your springy black hair, ringlets
that seemed metallic, glittering;

remember me dressing you, my seventy year
old mother who was my last dollbaby,
giving you too late what your youth had wanted.


What is this mask of skin we wear,
what is this dress of flesh,
this coat of few colors and little hair?

This voluptuous seething heap of desires
and fears, squeaking mice turned up
in a steaming haystack with their babies?

This coat has been handed down, an heirloom
this coat of black hair and ample flesh,
this coat of pale slightly ruddy skin.

This set of hips and thighs, these buttocks
they provided cushioning for my grandmother
Hannah, for my mother Bert and for me

and we all sat on them in turn, those major
muscles on which we walk and walk and walk
over the earth in search of peace and plenty.

My mother is my mirror and I am hers.
What do we see? Our face grown young again,
our breasts grown firm, legs lean and elegant.

Our arms quivering with fat, eyes
set in the bark of wrinkles, hands puffy,
our belly seamed with childbearing,

Give me your dress that I might try it on.
Oh it will not fit you mother, you are too fat.
I will not fit you mother.

I will not be the bride you can dress,
the obedient dutiful daughter you would chew,
a dog’s leather bone to sharpen your teeth.

You strike me sometimes just to hear the sound.
Loneliness turns your fingers into hooks
barbed and drawing blood with their caress.

My twin, my sister, my lost love,
I carry you in me like an embryo
as once you carried me.


What is it we turn from, what is it we fear?
Did I truly think you could put me back inside?
Did I think I would fall into you as into a molten
furnace and be recast, that I would become you?

What did you fear in me, the child who wore
your hair, the woman who let that black hair
grow long as a banner of darkness, when you
a proper flapper wore yours cropped?

You pushed and you pulled on my rubbery
flesh, you kneaded me like a ball of dough.
Rise, rise, and then you pounded me flat.
Secretly the bones formed in the bread.

I became willful, private as a cat.
You never knew what alleys I had wandered.
You called me bad and I posed like a gutter
queen in a dress sewn of knives.

All I feared was being stuck in a box
with a lid. A good woman appeared to me
indistinguishable from a dead one
except that she worked all the time.

Your payday never came. Your dreams ran
with bright colors like Mexican cottons
that bled onto the drab sheets of the day
and would not bleach with scrubbing.

My dear, what you said was one thing
but what you sang was another, sweetly
subversive and dark as blackberries
and I became the daughter of your dream.

This body is your body, ashes now
and roses, but alive in my eyes, my breasts,
my throat, my thighs. You run in me
a tang of salt in the creek waters of my blood,

you sing in my mind like wine. What you
did not dare in your life you dare in mine.


Where Are the Female Buddy Movies?

There’s nothing I like better than female friendship movies. If only there weren’t so few of them.

The quintessential female buddy movie is “Thelma & Louise.” Come on, people! That movie is twenty years old this year. Isn’t there anything a little more recent?

Movies about friendships between women are few and far between. I found a couple of articles that contain lists of movies that supposedly qualify and I have to tell you: I am not impressed. Here are some of the candidates:

  1. 9 to 5 (1980)
  2. Beaches (1988)
  3. Mystic Pizza (1988)
  4. Steel Magnolias (1989)
  5. Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
  6. A League of Their Own (1992)
  7. Waiting to Exhale (1995)
  8. Boys on the Side (1995)
  9. The First Wives’ Club (1996)
  10. Set It Off (1996)
  11. Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997)
  12. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002)
  13. Calendar Girls (2003)
  14. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005)
  15. Sex and the City (2008)
  16. Baby Mama (2008)

“Sex and the City” is a bit of an aberration because it owed its success to a television series. In my opinion, TV has a worse track record than film as far as having main characters who are female and best friends. “Friends” comes to mind. So does “I Love Lucy.” But look at “Seinfeld”: of the four friends, only one is female. No gal friendships there.

So why does this matter? It matters because, for one thing, it reflects the fact that there aren’t all that many strong roles for women out there, either solo or ensemble. But more than that, it teaches women that their world is focused on men. Either that, or they go it alone. How many women sit at home while their husbands and boyfriends go out with the guys? How many of them say the hell with it and go out with the girls?

The picture we get of males and females in movies is made up of generalizations like: Women and men tend to bond over different things. Women’s interests revolve around men and children for the most part. Even the “Sex and the City” story lines almost always had to do with what the men in their lives were up to, although they probably came the closest to showing what women’s friendships can be like outside of whom they’re dating or marrying. The only way that men’s friendships focus on the women in their lives is when they’re talking about sex.

Women’s friendships are thought to be more “touchy-feely” than men’s are. Guys don’t talk about their feelings. (Think “City Slickers.”) Men tend to like to just “hang out.” That’s the message we get from the movies. Where are the women who get together just for companionship? Or the women who let down their hair with each other?

Women are afraid to show their dark sides to each other. They’re afraid to get mad at each other. Men can get into a fight and be best friends as soon as the fight is over. Women carry grudges and have high expectations. Men tend to live and let live.

The visual media are probably the biggest influence that any of us have on how we relate to each other. But they obviously don’t feel a responsibility to show strong female relationships. Movie and television executives have this crazy idea that so-called “chick flicks” don’t sell, so they don’t produce them. And the cycle of misreading and misguiding men and women continues.

It just occurred to me that one movie that could go on the list is “Mamma Mia.” It’s all about long-term, supportive, fun-loving friendships between three strong women. I highly recommend it.

For more examples of female buddy movies, go here and here.

MGM/Everett Collection

Read this article about “Thelma & Louise” at 20.