Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Week One of School: Engulfed

The kids have been back to school for exactly five days now, and the sensation is a bit like the time I mistimed jumping up with a wave at the beach and instead of bobbing gracefully over the top, I got tumbled over backwards, ending up with a bathing suit full of sand and sinuses full of salt water. Despite my efforts to prepare over the summer I've made three trips to the office supply store in the last week alone, twice to get book covers because the first ones I got didn't fit son #1's textbooks. So far I can't get a feel for the shape of our weeks, and as a result I am reacting, just staying one step ahead of what absolutely positively must get done.

Son #1 started middle school last Wednesday. I'm trying to keep my own decidedly mixed feelings about middle school to myself so as not to influence his opinions, but I'm not sure I've got much of a poker face. The first day I went to pick him up I watched as enormous eighth graders poured down the front steps of the school. I tried to imagine my son, who is both short for his age and slender, navigating the halls amid this crowd. One girl sauntered by in a skin-tight getup that was only technically within the letter of the school uniform policy, reminding me once again why I'm glad my son is a geek who may take another year or seven to discover girls. Just when I was beginning to panic, wondering where he was, I spotted son #1 by the steps to the main entrance, cell phone out and beginning to text me, just as I had instructed him to do if he couldn't find me right away. Maybe if I can keep my own fears out of his way he'll be just fine.

Son #2 started fourth grade, which at our magnet elementary school is where they really ramp the homework policy into overdrive. Last night my son reacted to a heavier-than-usual homework load by deciding to see how little homework he could fit into the time available. (Which reminds me, I really need to get to the doctor and have my blood pressure checked.) My husband ended up on the hook to finish it with him after soccer practice, as I had to go to a board meeting of son #3's co-op preschool.

I love son #3's preschool, but the older I get the more I abhor meetings. Last year I attended four regular monthly meetings: elementary school PTA, magnet school booster club, elementary school fundraising carnival/bazaar event planning meeting, and the preschool meeting. I find it telling that the preschool meetings regularly clocked in at two-plus hours; since the population of the school is largely composed of first-time parents who haven't logged in hundreds of hours at volunteer meetings already, they are happy to sit and talk in circles for hours about the most mundane details of running a co-op nursery school. By contrast, the parents at the elementary school, especially those with fourth or fifth graders, often wonder aloud if we need to meet at all, and impatiently glance at the clock when a meeting is pushing the hour mark.

Theoretically this year I should be adding a fifth meeting--the middle school booster club--to my monthly list of meetings. I probably will, since parental guilt is a powerful motivating factor. However, I'll be the first to admit that I've exceed my mental bandwidth already. I have a pretty bad case of what a friend of mine calls "volunteer Tourette's" (defined as the irresistible compulsion to jump in and help out with any volunteer opportunity that presents itself, no matter how maxed out you are), and I know that if I show up to a meeting I'll walk out having taken on some new task, no big deal, I'll just give up sleep for a month or so to get it done.

So what does this all mean? I'm afraid that it means that the efforts I have made toward carving any kind of space of calm and sanity in my life, or to making progress in dealing with the backlog of junk cluttering my house, are about to be swept away in the relentless tide of the new school year. I really don't want to spend another year the way I did last year, treating each event (personal or school) as the next hurdle to be crossed on the way to the finish line. It's a great way to turn your existence into a perpetual to-do list, but a lousy way to enjoy life. Do I have an answer for how to avoid that? Not yet. But the first step is recognizing that you have a problem, right?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Progress at last!

The long-awaited trip to Goodwill finally happened today, as well as a trip to drop off hand-me-downs to a friend whose son is a couple of years younger than son #3. The 1,000-Pound Project, which had ground to a halt, is back in motion again! Here's a breakdown of progress since my last report:

7 pounds - Item given to my mom for the social group at her church to use as a door prize. Note to self: it doesn't matter who gave something to you; if you aren't using it, letting it sit around gathering dust isn't going to make you feel less guilty about not using it.
39 pounds - Several bags of toddler clothes given to friend's son
55.4 pounds - Goodwill donation of some of my clothes, some of my husband's, a few old toys, etc.
13 pounds - Old booster seat that I finally threw out (embarrassed to discover it actually said on the back "Do not use after December 2005," and even more embarrassed that I was immediately certain we hadn't; some consolation in that the plastic part of the seat was recyclable)
3 pounds - Trash and recycling from random bag of nonsense in the garage that I was inspired to sort through after disposing of all of the above

Total: 117.4 pounds

The good news: I am making up ground from the several frustrating weeks of no progress whatsoever.
The bad news: It doesn't actually feel like I'm making much of a dent in the mountain of stuff.

The project is now at the end of week 4, with a total of 185.2 pounds of stuff thrown out, recycled, or given away. That puts me about 15 pounds behind where I had hoped to be at this point.

Friday, September 2, 2011


So I had anticipated some return to normality around the beginning of this week. Our soccer trainer departed to head back to the UK on Thursday morning, and my in-laws picked up my older two boys to take with them to Palm Springs. My husband, son #3, and I were set to head out to join them for the weekend on Friday. I had planned that when we got back, this week would be dedicated to (1) helping son #1 complete his vacation homework, and (2) getting back to the 1,000-Pound Project, which had of course gotten thrown under the bus.

On Monday I began what is at least an annual ritual in our house: wardrobe review. I always start with son #3’s clothes, pulling out everything that no longer fits and/or is in poor enough condition to throw out. This usually leaves room to move in stored clothes from son #2 that now fit him. Then I move on to son #2’s clothes, pack away the stuff that doesn’t fit him any more and quietly “disappear” the stuff that looks only fit for costumes in a zombie apocalypse movie. (While I admire my sons’ distinct lack of vanity in their personal appearance, I wish that quality didn’t so often lead to them looking as if they get dressed in the dark every morning.) Finally, I tackle son #1’s clothes. Anything that doesn’t fit him can go straight into son #2’s wardrobe, since they are close enough in age that they tend to be only one size apart at any given time, and then I make a list of what necessities need to be purchased for him or to replenish his brothers’ wardrobes, and go from there. Things that can’t be used by any of them but are good enough to be passed on go to charity or to friends who can use hand-me-downs.

I got far enough to have a little humility lesson that day: discovering a whole trove of size 2T clothes in son #3’s bottom drawer. Since he is now four and a half years old and hasn’t worn 2T clothes for longer than I care to admit, I’d say I’m a little behind in wardrobe maintenance. I had planned to tackle the next stage of the job on Tuesday morning, after a session of monitoring son #1’s progress on the vacation homework. (The only person who likes this vacation homework assignment less than me at this point is my son. However, I have never let him blow off a school assignment and I’m not going to start now.)

As we were sitting in front of the computer Tuesday morning preparing to work on flow maps, son #1 started scratching furiously at his scalp, complaining that his head itched. I can’t say that I experienced a sense of foreboding. As I examined the hair behind his ears, I just felt numb. I already knew what I was going to find. Sure enough, there were lots of little tiny dark spots attached to the strands of his hair.

A word about head lice--okay, maybe kind of a rant. I never had them as a kid, so I have acquired all of my personal knowledge of them over the last six months. Our family had our first encounter with lice when my youngest son got them over spring break, when my husband was out of town. I got to experience the joy that is lice removal all on my own.

First of all, many descriptions of lice and their eggs (nits) claim that the eggs are white or a yellowish color. Bull****. Every nit I have ever seen personally was the EXACT SAME COLOR AS MY CHILDREN’S HAIR. And they are tiny. I found myself, the first time, peering at strands of hair with my poor eyes nearly crossing, wondering if that tiny speck I thought I saw was a nit or merely the result of eyestrain. Son #3’s nits that first time were a caramel color, and son #1’s nits were a darker brown. While I understand the practical value, to a louse, of camouflaging their eggs, I don’t really appreciate it. The lice themselves are much larger, but they don’t hold still for you to spot them; also a quality I understand but don’t appreciate.

Second, if there is any one stupid, time-consuming thing that can be guaranteed to increase the level of whining in my house to epic proportions, it would be lice. Wasting time and extra whining--pretty much the last two things I wanted to add to my dance card this week.

The only good (?) news is that our first Lice-a-palooza in the spring had left me well-prepared to deal with this challenge. Though I don’t believe in bubble-wrapping my kids away from all chemicals/additives/non-organic foods/etc. (we live in Los Angeles, for God’s sake, so if I were going to go nuts I’d have to forbid them to breathe the air), I’m not really a fan of dumping a gob of insecticidal shampoo on my kids’ heads to try to eradicate lice. Thanks to our earlier experience, I was armed with both a fabulous lice comb and a non-toxic method to get rid of lice. The trick to using these two tools wisely is being really REALLY thorough. That means combing. And more combing. And then combing some more.

Now, there are actually salons that will perform this task for you, for an amount of money that might not seem exorbitant if you are really creeped out by the notion of bugs in your children’s hair. I have two personal failings that make me balk at the idea of shelling out what would probably have ended up being in the neighborhood of $300 or more to get all three kids and myself checked and treated--a compulsion for DIY projects and a deep dislike of paying for any service that I can do for myself.

So, in this case, it meant most of the day sitting in the bathroom, saturating the boys’ hair with Cetaphil skin cleanser and then combing it out with the lice comb. (Sounds weird, but it works.) There are many things about being a mother that aren’t particularly dignified--having your toddler wipe his nose on your pants or throw up in your hand, having your children treat your purse like their traveling trash can--but this descent to monkey-motherhood, literally picking through their vestigial fur for evidence of insect life, felt like a weird leap backwards. My kids are all old enough now that my job is not primarily about regulating their bodily functions. If they want a snack or a drink, they can get it themselves, and thank God, nobody’s in diapers any more. To spend a day lice-combing them felt primitive. The rest of the day was spent in laundering bedding and clothes in hot water.

It doesn’t help that my boys hate to have their hair brushed, much less combed. By the end of the session with each kid, I was reduced to snarling at them, “Do you WANT to have more lice? Because if I leave those eggs in there, that’s what you’re going to have!” (I won’t burden you with the details, but I found enough lice and nits in their hair that I got a little compulsive in cleaning up the bathroom where I was doing the lice treatments afterwards, since I was so grossed out. I must have scrubbed the floor five times.)

I can only guess, since it was the older boys who had most of the lice this time, that they picked it up on their one overnight stay at camp this summer, and then later shared it with their little brother, who had only the daintiest little hint of lice on his head. This, however, means at least a week of daily lice inspections and then another treatment a week from the first one. Oh, and lots and lots of psychosomatic itching.

I suppose that the one positive is that sorting through clothes and boxes of old junk is going to feel like a vacation after this. Assuming, of course, that nothing else goes wrong the next time I try to get started...