Tag Archives: Boston

Sunscreen–and a father who cared

August is on its last legs, but the sun’s rays are still potent. Potent enough to require that we use sunscreen. Especially those of us whose skin is most vulnerable to those rays.

I’ve been vulnerable to the harsh effects of the sun since birth.  And I now apply sunscreen religiously to my face, hands, and arms whenever I expect to encounter sunlight.

When I was younger, sunscreen wasn’t really around.  Fortunately for my skin, I spent most of my childhood and youth in cold-weather climates where the sun was absent much of the year.  Chicago and Boston, even St. Louis, had long winters featuring gray skies instead of sunshine.

I encountered the sun mostly during summers and a seven-month stay in Los Angeles.  But my sun exposure was limited.  It was only when I was about 28 and about to embark on a trip to Mexico that I first heard of “sunblock.”  Friends advised me to seek it out at the only location where it was known to be available, a small pharmacy in downtown Chicago.   I hastened to make my way there and buy a tube of the pasty white stuff, and once I hit the Mexican sun, I applied it to my skin, sparing myself a wretched sunburn.

The pasty white stuff was a powerful reminder of my father.  Before he died when I was 12, Daddy would cover my skin with something he called zinc oxide.

Daddy was a pharmacist by training, earning a degree in pharmacy from the University of Illinois at the age of 21.  One of my favorite family photos shows Daddy in a chemistry lab at the university, learning what he needed to know to earn that degree.  His first choice was to become a doctor, but because his own father had died during Daddy’s infancy, there was no way he could afford medical school.  An irascible uncle was a pharmacist and somehow pushed Daddy into pharmacy as a less expensive route to helping people via medicine.

Daddy spent years bouncing between pharmacy and retailing, and sometimes he did both.  I treasure a photo of him as a young man standing in front of the drug store he owned on the South Side of Chicago.  When I was growing up, he sometimes worked at a pharmacy and sometimes in other retailing enterprises, but he never abandoned his knowledge of pharmaceuticals.  While working as a pharmacist, he would often bring home new drugs he believed would cure our problems.  One time I especially recall:  Because as a young child I suffered from allergies, Daddy was excited when a brand-new drug came along to help me deal with them, and he brought a bottle of it home for me.

As for preventing sunburn, Daddy would many times take a tube of zinc oxide and apply it to my skin.

One summer or two, I didn’t totally escape a couple of bad sunburns. Daddy must have been distracted just then, and I foolishly exposed my skin to the sun.  He later applied a greasy ointment called butesin picrate to soothe my burn. But I distinctly remember that he used his knowledge of chemistry to get out that tube of zinc oxide whenever he could.

After my pivotal trip to Mexico, sunblocks became much more available.  (I also acquired a number of sunhats to shield my face from the sun.)  But looking back, I wonder about the composition of some of the sunblocks I applied to my skin for decades.  Exactly what was I adding to my chemical burden?

In 2013, the FDA banned the use of the word “sunblock,” stating that it could mislead consumers into thinking that a product was more effective than it really was.  So sunblocks have become sunscreens, but some are more powerful than others.

A compelling reason to use powerful sunscreens?  The ozone layer that protected us in the past has undergone damage in recent years, and there’s scientific concern that more of the sun’s dangerous rays can penetrate that layer, leading to increased damage to our skin.

In recent years, I’ve paid a lot of attention to what’s in the sunscreens I choose.  Some of the chemicals in available sunscreens are now condemned by groups like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) as either ineffective or hazardous to your health. (Please check EWG’s 2018 Sunscreen Guide for well-researched and detailed information regarding sunscreens.)

Let’s note, too, that the state of Hawaii has banned the future use of sunscreens that include one of these chemicals, oxybenzone, because it washes off swimmers’ skin into ocean waters and has been shown to be harmful to coral reefs.  If it’s harming coral, what is it doing to us?

Because I now make the very deliberate choice to avoid using sunscreens harboring suspect chemicals, I use only those sunscreens whose active ingredients include—guess what– zinc oxide.   Sometimes another safe ingredient, titanium dioxide, is added.  The science behind these two mineral (rather than chemical) ingredients?   Both have inorganic particulates that reflect, scatter, and absorb damaging UVA and UVB rays.

Daddy, I think you’d be happy to know that science has acknowledged what you knew all those years ago.  Pasty white zinc oxide still stands tall as one of the very best barriers to repel the sun’s damaging rays.

In a lifetime filled with many setbacks, both physical and professional, my father always took joy in his family.  He showered us with his love, demonstrating that he cared for us in innumerable ways.

Every time I apply a sunscreen based on zinc oxide, I think of you, Daddy.  With love, with respect for your vast knowledge, and with gratitude that you cared so much for us and did everything you could to help us live a healthier life.


In Praise of San Francisco’s Weather

I moved to San Francisco eight years ago, and there’s much about the city that I truly love:  the breathtaking vistas, the natural beauty surrounding the city, the warmth of its inhabitants, and the rich assortment of parks, museums, theaters, concert halls, movie houses, restaurants, and shops.

There’s one more thing:  the weather.

I revel in the weather I’ve encountered in San Francisco.  After decades of living in a cold climate (mostly in Chicago), dealing with snow and ice for much of the year and heat and humidity for much of the rest, I relish the sunshine and cool breezes that San Francisco offers year-round.  People who’ve never lived in a cold climate can’t begin to imagine how difficult life there can be.  On many cold mornings I found myself crossing the bridge over the Chicago River, headed from the commuter train station to my office, snow and sleet blowing in my face.  No matter how many warm layers of clothing I’d wrap around my body, my face was largely exposed, bearing the brunt of the cold wind that persisted in hurling snow in my direction.

If you’ve never confronted them, let me assure you that icy sidewalks and streets are extremely treacherous.  Many of those attempting to walk on icy sidewalks have slipped and fallen, breaking bones and suffering concussions.  Driving on icy streets is equally hazardous, resulting in countless collisions.  Luckily, snow and ice are non-existent in San Francisco, relieving us of the challenges and pitfalls of negotiating on ice both on foot and in a vehicle.  Even rainy days don’t bother me, and locals who complain about the occasional chilly weather strike me as almost comically unaware of the reality faced by Americans in almost every other region of the county.

Unless you love hot weather and can’t wait to hit the beach, summers in San Francisco are delightful.  The temperature almost never rises above 80 degrees, and humidity barely reaches a noticeable level.  The contrast with places like Chicago, Boston, and New York is striking.  On recent trips to those cities, I encountered uncomfortably high humidity, thunderstorms, and temperatures in the 90s.  Extreme heat and humidity has plagued much of the nation this summer, but here in San Francisco, we’ve been as cool as cukes.

Air conditioning?  In San Francisco, we almost never need it, while most other regions of the country, including many parts of California, rely on air conditioning to survive.  I remember some vivid examples.  On one sweltering summer day in Ann Arbor, Michigan, my husband and mother joined me at Ann Arbor’s famed outdoor art festival.  I was surveying the artwork when l glanced at my mother’s face.  It was bright red. The thermometer on a nearby building read 99 degrees, and the humidity felt just as high.  We quickly abandoned the art festival and fled to our air-conditioned apartment.  On a recent trip to Boston, I was barely able to drag myself from the Harvard Square “T” to my daughter’s air-conditioned Cambridge apartment just a few blocks away, when both the temperature and the humidity hit 90-plus.  And don’t get me started on places like Arizona and Texas.

Here in San Francisco we save the financial cost of air conditioning, not to mention any feelings of guilt arising from  its demand on our energy resources.  And we don’t have to suffer the physical jolt of going from intense heat to intense cold every time we enter a super-air-conditioned building.

Our weather has another stellar feature.  Because San Franciscans can revel in sunshine and moderate temperatures all year long, we can spend much more time outdoors than most other Americans.  We’re not confined to exercising in sterile gray-walled fitness centers.  We have much better options.  I wake up every day almost certain that I’ll be able to take a walk, hike, or bike ride before the sun sets.

I don’t even mind the San Francisco fog that occasionally envelops the city.  Au contraire.  I think it creates a kind of magical aura over the city.  So long you remember to carry a light jacket, and drivers are careful maneuvering their vehicles in the fog, it really doesn’t have much of a downside.  Besides, if you want to escape the fog, you need travel only a short distance from the city in any direction.  The microclimates surrounding us are almost always fog-free.

Of course, life in San Francisco has its flaws.  For one thing, housing is more expensive than that in other cities (with the possible exception of NYC).  Rents are high, and on the rise as the city’s economy gets better and better, while buying a house in the most desirable neighborhoods has become more costly than ever.  And San Franciscans are constantly under the shadow of “The Big One.”  Perched as we are on the Pacific Rim, the threat of a major earthquake never really goes away.

But those of us who live here are willing to take those negatives along with all the positive features of life in the city.  Count me in.  I’m genuinely happy in my new hometown and especially delighted with its weather.  And when I recently came across the following story, reprinted from the San Francisco Chronicle of July 15, 1937, I realized that my reaction to the city’s weather is very much like that of a famous writer’s over 75 years ago.

The Chronicle reported:

Ernest Hemingway arrived in San Francisco yesterday ‘to get cool.’ On his first visit to [the city], he gulped in a few cubic yards of fog shortly after stepping from a …plane at [the airport] and sighed: ‘Say, this is great. After frying in New York, stewing down in Florida and sweltering in Los Angeles, this is something….  I can’t for the life of me see why anybody would ever move out of San Francisco, particularly in the summertime.’

Hey, Papa, when it comes to weather, we’re on the same page!