Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Picky, Picky

It’s been a while since I’ve done an advice post. So, inspired by a few inquiries from friends, I bring you the following public service post.

Are you a face picker? Are you obsessed with removing every little imperfection in your complexion? Do you spend a half hour at a time sequestered in the bathroom, up against the mirror, scanning every inch of your skin, imagining defects if you can’t actually see them? Do you inevitably make things worse, leaving yourself with an angry bleeding crater where there was nothing before but a slightly tender little bump? Do you promise yourself you’ll never do this again, only to be back at it the very next day?

I’m here to help.

I’ve known a lot of you. Under times of stress, I’ve joined your ranks. I’ve see many patients, almost always young women, with the telltale red marks fanning out across their cheeks. It’s never their reason for the doctor visit, and I know how painful it is for them when I bring it up, uncovering their shame. But there are things that can help you, if not stop, at least minimize the carnage.

Rules to Pick By
  • Don’t think you’ll be able to stop through willpower alone. Habits like this—nail biting, hair twirling, face picking—are notoriously hard to break that way, at least in the long term. You need a strategy.
  • The simplest trick of all, yet the one that is most resisted: Wherever it is that you’re doing it, switch the light bulb for one of exceedingly low wattage. When you can’t see the “problems,” one of the triggers is gone. Stop arguing about this one. Just try it. You can always switch the stupid bulbs back again.
  • Get a face care regimen, and stick with it. It doesn’t really matter much which one. Most of them are based on one of four ingredients: benzoyl peroxide, retinoids, antibiotics, or salicylic acid. Some are over the counter, some are prescription. They all work ok, but none of them work overnight. You need to give a product at least a month to see if it agrees with you. (This is probably why the Pr0@ctiv system is successful. Although it’s just benzoyl peroxide, it gets you to buy into the regular use for a month thing. You can get similar “systems” for much less at the drugstore.)
  • Consider investing in one of those electric pimple-zappers. These are pricey, but can be worth it. They ostensibly work by heating the blemish, and are meant to be used on the deep painful kind of blemish. This may or may not be effective at curing the pimple, but is definitely effective at hurting like hell. This is psychologically quite useful, because it gives you something serious to do. Take that! You can think as you hear the zap and feel the pain. If you can transfer your compulsion from picking—which is especially counterproductive with this kind of pimple—to zapping, you may be able to short-circuit the impulse to try and “fix” it by squeezing.
  • When a pimple is healing—whether you picked at it or not—it usually flakes. Do NOT pick at these flakes with your filthy fingernails. Get a flat-tipped tweezer, and remove the dead skin with those. And don’t peel the skin back—pull forward, to pull off just the dead part. Scraping at the skin with your fingernails will grind bacteria in, and then you’ll get all sorts of nastiness.
  • In fact, never scrape at your skin with your fingernails ever. If you end up with a blemish that MUST be manually removed—you know the ones I’m talking about, the kind that you avert your eyes from if you spot one on a stranger and wonder how on earth their loved one let them leave the house like that—do NOT pick at it with your fingernails. Use a washcloth, a cotton pad, almost anything but your fingernails.
  • If you should end up with something on your face that is bleeding—which should only happen if you’ve ignored one or more of the instructions above, but whatever—I have a neat trick for stopping the bleeding in time for you to get to work. Remember how I said you should never use decongestant nasal spray for decongesting, but you can use it for a nosebleed? Well, you can also use it for other kinds of bleeding. A few drops on a bleeding wound constricts the blood vessels and stops the hemorrhage.
  • Never use antibiotic ointments on any wound, but especially not on the face. About a third of folks who use these for any length of time develop a contact allergy to them, and the result looks just like an infection. So you keep putting the ointment on, and make the allergy worse, and put even more on, etc. … plain Vaseline is good for wounds, but use sparingly on your face, since if you spread it around, it’ll make you break out more. A tiny dab will help keep a lesion from looking quite so crusty.
  • When you need camouflage, Dermablend is amazing stuff. Unfortunately it’s almost impossible to figure out which shade is best for you on line, which really sucks. If you can find a store that sells it, that’s probably the best way to find out, but I’ve never had the guts to approach one of those white-coated cosmetics ladies at the department stores myself. I’m not sure what I’m afraid of, but it has something to do with the thought of someone peering at my skin under bright lights and then gasping in horror. My skin is ok, but they’re paid to make you think your skin is only fit for a freak show.
  • Try to remember that the vast majority of blemishes do not contain anything that has to come out. Yes, there is the odd whitehead or blackhead that can be easily removed, and very rarely an exceedingly ripe pustule that can be released, but most of the time, thinking that there’s something there that you can get out and thereby fix the problem is the path to madness, and to the wreck of a perfectly nice complexion.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Answers and Updates

Just got done with an enormous project and a sticky personnel issue. So it’s back to the rest of life.

Re: $
Q: Why, exactly, are you sending HB to private schools?
We live in a city where the public schools are unfortunately very bad. Not “bad” as in the SAT scores are lousy—bad as in kids get shot at in school, and teachers have been so assaulted so severely that they end up crippled. If we lived somewhere where the public schools were so-so but safe, I’d send HB there; I’m no snob. But we are very committed to city living. And I’m hoping we’ll find a school that will be a good, granola-ish fit. No prep schools for HB. He can stay where he is through kindergarten, which is another two years.

Re: Running
Q: How do you run once the sun sets so early?
Find a well-populated and well-lit path, and wear a reflective vest.

Q: What's the best way to cool down? A hot, lukewarm, or cold shower?
My favorite thing to do is to wait to shower until I’m actually chilly, then take a hot shower. This is a rare luxury, however. If I have to shower soon after a run, I take as cold of a shower as I can stand. I have the unfortunate capacity to continue to sweat for hours. I have this patch between my shoulder blades that is like the core of a nuclear reactor.

Re: Driving
Q: Care to share your thrifty driving techniques?
It’s called hypermiling, and here’s a site that explains it. I always thought I was not an aggressive driver, but turns out, boy was I was wrong. I used to get 27 mpg in the city, and after only my third tank of using many of these techniques, I’m getting more than 32—which is higher than the rating on my car. It’s really fun, too—it’s a challenge. Some people take this to extremes. I’ll admit to squealing my tires a bit coasting down the parking garage if I’m leaving late and no one’s around, but I’ve never drafted an 18-wheeler.

Re: HellBoy
He’s been SO much easier lately. Because I’ve been calmer? Because he’s getting older? Because I’ve been even more careful about picking my battles and sticking with no if that’s what I’ve decided? Because he’s started telling us exactly what he wants us to say when we’re playing with him?* I really have no idea. But the amount of time he spends angry and crying is dramatically decreasing. Hallelujah indeed. (By the way: yes, that song appears in Shr-k. In the movie, John Cale sings it, but for the CD, they used the Rufus Wainwright version. HB prefers John Cale, though he does like other Rufus Wainwright songs—his favorite is Across the Universe, which for a long time he called “Nothing’s Going to Change My Worm,” and would explain, “Because my worm is perfect!”)

*Sample script:
HB: I’m John Cale. (aside:) Say, “Here comes someone who knows the words to Hallelujah!”
ME: Here comes someone who knows the words to Hallelujah!
HB (walking slowly onto the “stage”): Now I’m going to play a song that was written by Leonard Cohen. (aside:) Say “That’s my favorite song!”
ME: That’s my favorite!
HB: No, no, say “That’s my favorite song!”
ME: Oh, sorry. That’s my favorite song!”

Monday, October 01, 2007


Such an uncomfortable topic for me. When you grow up poor, money takes getting used to.

I was told back in the spring that I was probably going to get a raise, but I didn’t hear anything else until recently, when my new contract showed up. The raise was nice, and nicer was that in my next paycheck, I got something extra: back pay—my raise was back-dated nine months, to the beginning of the year.

So I ran right to my checkbook and took care of one of my higher-interest student loans. This is what I’ve done with every influx of cash I’ve had since starting a “real” job five years ago, and yet it was only recently that my student loans got below $100,000. When we married, TrophyHusband and I were in debt for about a third of a million, with no assets to speak of aside from our degrees. His loans are being whittled away by a program for physicians who devote their time to research (research being much less remunerative than clinical work, the government tries to lure folks into it this way). Mine I’m chipping away at—$1300 a month, plus extras. I’m also putting the maximum into the various retirement accounts available to me, as is TH; the Alternative Minimum Tax rakes us over the coals every year; and of course there’s daycare. So our bank account isn’t enormous.

But we don’t have to worry. It is highly unlikely that we will ever have to worry again, at least not the way I worried growing up. After my father died, we had no income; my mother had three kids and no degree. I was placed in Head Start. We lived in a tiny apartment—we owned the house, but rented out two-thirds of it. We had an old car that broke down a lot. I wore a lot of hand-me-downs. I had two Barbies, while my friends had dozens (though I don’t recall wanting Barbies, or any toys really; all I ever wanted was books).

I didn’t really mind any of that. It felt normal to me. And I wasn’t truly deprived; I did have music lessons, and our local Y had an awesome array of classes priced on a sliding scale—I took pottery, trampoline, gymnastics, magic, swimming, even horseback riding. I mostly made friends who didn’t have much more than we did; the richer kids just seemed to live in a different world. But I did hate the worry. My mom was not good with money. Bounced checks were routine, every single month. There were always stores we couldn’t shop in because her name could be found on the handwritten list above the cash register: DO NOT ACCEPT CHECKS FROM THE FOLLOWING … Having people show up to cut off the gas or electric was not uncommon (though I learned that if you tell them you have a sick baby, they rarely actually do it). We lived in the poorer section of town, and when I went to junior high, I had to ride the “bad” bus, where you risked getting assaulted if you tried to sit in one of the tough kids’ seats, and sometimes even if you didn’t. A couple of times I went home after school with friends from one of the fancier suburbs, and I was astonished at how nice their buses were. I did whatever I could to avoid my bus—rode my bike, begged a ride, even walked the three miles.

Finally, when I was about twelve, I said to my mother, “This is ridiculous. We shouldn’t be bouncing checks. We should only spend what we have.” This was when I found out that a) my mother was unsure as to just how much money was coming in and b) didn’t really know how to balance a checkbook. So I sat down and figured those things out, put us on a budget, and took over the finances. I didn’t let my mother go to the grocery store without me, because she was liable to throw all kinds of pricey crap in the cart instead of the perfectly good store brand stuff. And it was a beautiful thing—no more bounced checks, and I finally knew just how much I could spend on new shoes for school. As soon as I could earn a little money babysitting, I did it as much as I could (in fact, I was regularly sitting for a family of three boys under 4 from the time I was twelve—no wonder I didn’t want to have kids too young). In high school, I saved enough money to pay for all of my own stuff, plus get myself to Europe two summers in a row. (My mother eventually married my stepdad, who is a perfect balance for her—he’s so frugal that he has been known to pour cheap wine into expensive bottles for her, and she can’t tell the difference, so everyone is happy.)

Frugality has a hold on me that I’m not sure will ever loosen. Oh, I’ve relaxed some—we go out to eat a lot, we take a vacation here and there, I get my family nice gifts for birthdays and Christmas, and I’ll buy myself fun stuff every now and again. We give a lot of money to charity. GoodCat recently had to have some teeth pulled out, and when they said that they could pull out two extra that looked iffy for about $60 more or wait and see, meaning it could be an extra $500 down the road to redo the sedation, I let him keep his teeth. But I’ve never bought a fancy car (I drive a Scion; TH almost exclusively rides his bike and will probably sell his car soon), we resisted our real estate agent when she suggested we look at the biggest house we could qualify for (three times as much as the house we bought), and the most I’ve spent by far any item of clothing was the $300 I dropped for my wedding dress. We never carry a credit card balance. Our house has one and a half bathrooms and two and a half bedrooms, no garage. I almost never buy my son clothes that are not on sale, and I certainly buy him nothing from any boutiques. His equipment is all of the good-enough brands. I recently learned how to drive my car so that I get more than 31 miles per gallon in the city, and this pleases me enormously.

Right now I tell people that I’m cautious with money because of the student loan debt, but there’s more to it than that. Buying things that cost a lot when you can get something much less expensive that works just as well just seems, well, stupid if you don’t have much money, and immoral if you do. My in-laws redid their kitchen using a special kind of granite that had to be imported from Brazil. It looks no better than the home-grown stuff, but cost something like five times as much. This just seems wrong to me. But then, I guess we don’t really need to live in a 1300 square foot house either. We didn’t have to use real tile when we redid our bathroom (though we did have to redo it; it was crumbling to pieces and flooding the downstairs). And one of these days I am going to have someone out to repair all the holes in the plaster …

Anyway, what I really meant to talk about when I started this is, I have no idea how to raise my son when it comes to the whole money thing. I feel very uncomfortable about the fact that he will be in such a different position than I was. He’ll be going to private schools pretty soon. When he asks for money, I won’t be able to say “we don’t have it” honestly. I’m not sorry that he won’t have to scrub other students’ toilets in college like I did, but I also don’t want him to be like the rich kids I hated. Or did I just hate them because they were rich?

I can already see some of the ways I’ll be mortifying HellBoy when he’s a teenager ...