Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Trouble with the Rat Race

It's the season I have come to dread as a Los Angeles parent: magnet season. In our byzantine school system, parents spend an inordinate amount of time parsing the difference between magnet schools and SAS programs, charters and academies, trying to find the perfect school for their child. Some are looking for the right middle school or high school; some are merely looking for what seems like a better alternative than their local elementary school, or trying to position their kids to have more options later on down the road. I've had enough conversations to last me a lifetime about the ins and outs of applying to our local elementary school's magnet (a gifted/high ability magnet, which requires a teacher recommendation or other formal recognition of giftedness) and about the art of applying to magnets in order to be rejected and get wait list points to help your chances of getting into the school you really want later. And this year it's even more fun--we have to find Son #1 a high school for next year.

I absolutely hate this process for two reasons. One is that the plethora of confusing choices obscures a central fact that I feel all parents should be aware of: there are no perfect schools. And the other is that I get sick of the atmosphere of competition involved in trying to make sense of this morass. For once in my life, I'm deliberately opting out of much of the competition, and while I feel like I'm doing it for the right reasons, I kind of feel like a slacker.

For starters, my husband and I both want to avoid putting Son #1 on a bus. If you live outside a certain radius of the magnet school your child gets accepted to, your child can ride a school bus. Due to budget cuts over the years, though, what this means in practice is schlepping your kid to a nearby school at some ungodly early hour so that they can spend upwards of an hour on the road before they get to school, and then spend a similar amount of time on the road coming home again. Add that to a high school homework load, and poof!, there goes any chance of Son #1 having a semblance of a life outside of school. Plus, with three kids in three different schools next year, it doesn't require much imagination to figure out the kind of logistical problems having Son #1 in a distant school could present.
I'm reasonably sure LAUSD's school buses are better than this.

So we're looking as close to home as we can manage, which still leaves a fair number of choices. Next comes the round of school visits, where we get to try to parse the college-admissions-like rhetoric of each school to figure out what it means in practical terms for our son. The local high school that sports three magnets with impressive API scores? Son #1 liked the presentation they made at the recent meet-the-magnets night we went to, but I worry about exactly how lost he might get in their relatively large student body. I liked the homey feel of the smaller journalism magnet's presentation (and their much smaller size), but had to concede that their program didn't seem to offer as much as I'd like for my math/science-oriented boy. And we both came away overwhelmed by the highly gifted magnet's presentation, where the coordinator boasted of the kids' taking sixteen AP classes and staying on campus late into the night on a nearly daily basis. Granted, the teenage years are already showing promise of being trying for all of us, but as this earnest man tried to sell his program I couldn't help but think, I'd like to see my kid sometime while he's in high school. Many considerations to juggle, and we haven't even toured any of the charters on our short list yet.

The problem with opting out (sort of) is that you have to have a pretty strong stomach for the endless questioning that comes with it--both from others and occasionally from yourself. When it was time for Son #1 to go to middle school, I didn't even consider applying to the most popular local magnet. Its performing arts focus was definitely not his bag, and the thought of putting him in classes of 40 students each made me cringe. Instead, we applied for and got him into an even closer math/science magnet on the campus of a decidedly Title-I middle school with a largely Hispanic student body. One friend of mine, who also sent her son there a year after me, drolly and accurately remarks that people look like they're about to throw up in their mouths when she tells them where he goes to school. But she did the math the same way I did and came up with the same result: responsive and wonderful magnet coordinator + school-wide grant for small class sizes + school within walking distance + small, personalized magnet program + sane homework load = school worth sending my kid to. It's far from being the most popular magnet program, and most people who haven't truly considered it assume the school campus is somewhere buried deep in the hood, presumably next to gang headquarters where tattooed thugs cook up batches of meth to sell to the students, when in fact it is in suburban Sherman Oaks, across the street from a very posh assisted living facility. Given that Son #1 has had a great middle school experience and is developing the independent organizational and study skills he's going to need for high school, I wouldn't change our choice even if we could. I doubt he would have done as well in a school that piled on the work or slammed the gas on an accelerated curriculum. (AP classes in middle school? Maybe that works for some kids, but I confess that I fail to see the point.) But boy, do I get tired of patiently explaining again, and again, and again, why I put him where I did.

B.S. aside? I resemble this remark.

The conversations swirling among the parents looking at high schools are already shaping up along lines like the ones we used to have about middle schools. Is my son preparing audition pieces to go to the latest hot performing-arts charter school? Hell, no; he couldn't care less about performing in anything. Does he currently complain that his work load is too easy, and lobby to be put in a tougher program? Hell, no; he's grateful to have time to talk to his best friend on the phone and to play Xbox. Let the kids who really have the ambition for those programs go for it. I'm already warning Son #1 that life is going to be different in high school, but I'll be honest; I'm not looking for the toughest program out there for him and I'm not angling to get him into the Ivy League. I'm not going to drive him to the ends of the earth in the hopes that a particular high school's name on his transcript is going to impress some future dean of admissions. I want to teach him instead that there is such a thing as "good enough," and that he's better off doing a few things well than trying to pad his resume with accomplishments that are only there to impress other people. His habit of writing fan fiction may not be as easy to brag about as if he was, say, inventing cold fusion for the science fair, but it is something he cares about. I want him to have time to write; I want him to have time to talk to his friends; and I want him to go to a college that he wants to attend for reasons other than its ranking in U.S. News & World Reports annual list. And if he isn't ready for a four-year university at the end of high school (as one friend of mine confessed she thinks her kid might not be)? Then I hope I'll be clear-sighted enough to see it and help him find a path that works for him. But boy, sometimes I do wonder if I'm making a huge mistake--that all of the frantic parents with the insane enrichment-class/tutoring/music lessons/sports team schedules had it right all along and my son is going to be left behind.

Burnout. It's not pretty.

Above all, I want my kids to be good people. I want to encourage them to excel but not to push them. I want the kid who stands on the stage accepting his high school diploma to be smiling and excited to go on to the adventure of college, not burned-out and exhausted at the thought of having four more years of education to go. I want his high school years to be filled with fun, and yes, some youthful stupidity, not anxiety over how many AP courses he's taking or how much tutoring or test prep he needs to boost his scores or his grades. As it has been said, the trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you're still a rat. Here's hoping I have the wisdom to know the difference between encouraging my boy to be the best he can be and pushing him to become a rat.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

World's Worst Soccer Mom

I will freely admit it--I am the world's worst soccer mom. All three boys play soccer with AYSO. My husband volunteers for our local AYSO region the way I volunteer for the school, obsessively and irrationally. They love going to see the LA Galaxy play. And yet every year the approach of the coming soccer season fills me with fear and loathing.

Why, you might ask, if I dread soccer so much, do my kids play? Soccer does have many positive points. I do want my kids to play some sport, so they don't succumb to their natural tendency to be electronics-obsessed morlocks. In terms of providing an aerobic workout, soccer is a good sport, because even kids who don't have the ball tend to do a lot of running throughout the game. AYSO has a good ethos as far as emphasizing inclusion and good sportsmanship (versus winning-uber-alles), especially good because none of the boys can bend it like Beckham. The kids enjoy soccer. Practicing soccer in the back yard has a much lower likelihood of ending up with broken windows (ours or our neighbors') than, say, practicing baseball. And there are no swingable implements with which to bash one's brothers. And yet...

The fact is, I just can't bring myself to love soccer. So here, in no particular order, are all the things I hate about the soccer season, and why I think I'm entitled to be considered World's Worst Soccer Mom.

Three boys equals six cleats and six shin guards, three jerseys, three sets of uniform shorts, and six game socks. Odds of locating all of these items exactly when you need them in the course of a week: zero. Plus, by the end of the season, housing these items indoors makes the house smell like a gym.

Dry conditions equal dust. Wet conditions equal clods of dirt. The park is slowly migrating into my house, one cleatful at a time.

Scheduling Games
Soccer games in AYSO are always on Saturday. With three boys playing, this in essence means that from September through November, we live in the park on Saturdays. These Saturdays can feature any of the following scenarios: two boys playing at the same time, so that my husband and I have to split up; eight a.m. games, which means no sleeping in for anyone; or three games spread out in such a fashion that we have plenty of gaps long enough to be tedious but not long enough to allow a dash home to actually get something other than soccer accomplished. The one scenario unlikely to occur: three games spaced out so we can go to all three back to back with no wasted time.

Bonus: This season we have eight weeks (out of twelve total) where at least one of the boys have an eight a.m. game.

Scheduling Practices
Sons #1 and 2 have two practices a week. Son #3 (in a younger age group) has only one. Guess how many weeknights we had soccer practice last year? The answer is, I might as well have pitched a tent in the park for the whole season.

Soccer season kicked off yesterday with highs over 100 degrees. My job was to watch Son #1's game (since it conflicted with Son #2's game--see Scheduling Games, above), and I sat in my folding camp chair absolutely stunned into immobility by the baking heat, wondering how on earth the boys could be running around in the sun. From past experience, the first part of the season will feature ridiculously high temperatures. As soon as we all figure out some reasonable solutions to deal with it (pop-ups or umbrellas for shade, frozen water bottles, chilled towels, frozen grapes, etc.), then the weather will switch on us, and it will get cold and windy. It will not, however, get reliably rainy, partially because this is Los Angeles, but most importantly because rain might result in cancelled games if the field conditions get bad enough, and my luck doesn't run that way. (Though late in the season I have been known to consider researching how one does a rain dance...)

Our park features two terrible, inadequately sized parking lots. The long, skinny nearer lot, the one I have to park in most frequently when dropping off the boys for practice, has entrances at one end and in the middle. There is nothing quite like having to make a three-point turn in the end without an exit onto the adjacent street while an SUV is obliviously trying to crawl up your tailpipe. I can neither confirm nor deny reports that F-bombs have been dropped under those conditions.

Picture Day
All of the above plus an extra hour and a half in the park so you can wait in line for pictures. Bonus: your team doesn't get photographed until all of the players are there, so you are at the mercy of the most flaky member of your team.

Other Parents
Not all soccer parents are bad. In fact, many of them are nice. But others come in a plethora of irritating varieties, such as:
Yelling Parents: Let the coach direct the kids. Seriously. And no, the ref isn't blind. He or she is a volunteer. Sit down and shut the f*ck up, dude. This is a kids' game.
Clueless Parents: If you ever read any of the emails from the region, or the coach, or your team parent, you would know where and when the game is. Or where and when the practice is. Or when it is your turn to bring the snack.
Dietary Purist Parents: I respect your right to make sure no Dorito ever crosses your special snowflake's lips. When you impose your dietary choices on the entire team by insisting that no team snack be less than 100% healthy and organic, though, expect me to be just as cranky as our team members. A little variety won't hurt anyone (nor will the occasional Dorito).
Complaining Parents: Don't like the coaches? Don't like the refs? Think the snack bar line is too long or the information tent is understaffed? Did you volunteer for any of that? No? Sympathy is in short supply.

A houseful of mopey boys lamenting their soccer losses is a barrel of laughs. Really.

Too much winning means an extra two weeks in the season.

So I'll own it--I'm the World's Worst Soccer Mom. I'll be getting a lot of knitting done on the sidelines and demonstrating my complete ignorance of the game my kids love. (For example, I think I understand the offside rule after a lot of patient explanations from my soccer-obsessed husband, but I'll be damned if I can ever spot it happening in the course of a game.) I don't expect a trophy for showing up--that's what the kids get. I appreciate all the hard work that all of the volunteers at all levels do to enable a park full of uniformed kids to play every Saturday. But I'm counting down until the first day I don't have to worry about the whereabouts of cleats or negotiating the parking lot without a road rage incident, and the first Saturday we can all sleep in.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Waiting Game Sucks

So when last I ventured onto my blog, we had just successfully survived Son #1's bar mitzvah. The news of my husband's layoff was still fresh, and it seemed like my husband could land another job before the severance period from his old company ran out. Lots of resumes sent out, lots of networking lunches and breakfasts and whatnot (and if there is anything my husband, Mr. Congeniality, does well, it's networking), and even a few interviews. Is there a full-time job on his horizon? No.

What it seems like is going to happen instead is that he is going to be an independent contractor, like many workers in this brave new employment world. One of his many connections (through a cousin who we mainly see at the major Jewish holidays) ended up producing a one-day-a-week gig at a fashion company. The same cousin put him in touch with a company that matches general counsel attorneys with companies who need legal help, but not on a full-time basis, and that has the potential to bring in more work. He may even end up working a couple of days a week for his old company on a contract basis. It's all going to be a major adjustment (not least because we will have to think of his employment more like he's running his own business, with all the attendant headaches of managing quarterly tax payments and obtaining benefits that that will entail), but at least it won't be the kind of adjustment that ends up with our house in foreclosure.
Bet the cats are happy we don't have a dog.

In the meantime, I've been doing more work as well, both proofreading and editing. I was offered a part-time job at Son #3's school starting in the fall, as an assistant in the office. (This, interestingly enough, will be the second time in my life I've moved from volunteer work into an actual job. Ironically, both times meant going from a job that literally pays nothing to a job that virtually pays nothing. But the difference between literally and virtually in this case will help to pay the bills, if only a few of them.) I'm actually pretty excited about it, since I'll be able to do all of the stuff I wasn't allowed to do as a volunteer (which often meant I could only help out with about a third of any given task), my work hours will mean I don't have to worry about child care (or the expenses thereof), and I will be getting regular work experience back on my resume.

So why I have been alternating between freaking out and feeling slightly numb? Probably because I'm not sure I believe any of this is really going to work. His gig with the fashion company is new enough that he hasn't gotten a check yet. And who knows when he will be getting work from the general-counsel company? They're excited to work with him because it is opening up new territory for them, but what that means for us is that they don't have any clients to match him up with in this area yet. And his soon-to-be former employer may decide to stick to their original thought, that a pet lawyer is just too expensive. The only thing we have to show so far for my husband's foray into self-employment is one small check for a trademark application he did and a big bill for the laptop he needed to buy so he would have a dedicated work computer.

I'm trying not to be negative, because he is actually excited about this kind of work. He's much less risk-averse than I am, and I can tell from the snoring that the thought of how we'll pay the bills in a few months, if the income doesn't materialize and our savings melts away, isn't keeping him up. (Not that he should be, really. I worry enough for both of us, and for the kids' sake it's better if we're not both sleep-deprived.)

I'm waiting for the universe to tell me it is going to be all right. Which is a little silly. I don't really believe in the kind of God who answers prayers the way that Santa theoretically answers little kids' wishes. I don't believe that God gives a rat's ass about the outcome of any sports game, no matter how widely televised, and I have a really hard time with the idea that he would choose to save some cancer patients because they have a bunch of folks praying for them while others surrounded by just as many loving, hard-praying people die anyway. Sorry. I simply believe that we are on our own, and jokes about karma aside, I think that who we're born to and what advantages we start out life with is largely a matter of chance. There's no deus ex machina coming to make sure my husband has a paycheck.
Doesn't work this way, either.

However, it does sometimes seem like the universe sends us messages. Like the other day, when I was moping around the house, contemplating our impending lack of regular income, as well as the approaching end of the uncharacteristic spate of freelance work I've had lately. I was feeling rather sorry for myself, I'll admit, dragging around the house feeling overwhelmed by my lack of power to do anything about our situation. Then I got an email from a client who hasn't sent me any projects for a year and a half, due to lack of anything to send me. They had a rush proofreading project to send out; could I take it? Of course I said yes. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but it felt like a message. Something like the universe smacking me in the back of the head and saying, Snap out of it! The best I'm going to get is opportunities--it is up to me to take them. I'm not going to get any guaranteed happy endings, no matter how long I wait. Likewise, I can't expect that I'll be able to see where the path my husband is setting on right now is going to lead. In life you don't get to skip to the last chapter to see how it ends.

So yeah, the waiting game sucks, which is why I need to stop playing it. I need to focus on what I can accomplish today (like my latest editing project) and let tomorrow take care of itself.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Universe Giveth...

The last few months have been rather busy, and despite my best intentions, I stopped blogging, stopped jogging, stopped doing yoga, and essentially stopped doing anything except getting through the biggest, scariest event I have encountered in my time as a mother: Son #1's bar mitzvah. As someone who was not raised Jewish, I wasn't sure what to expect. The fact that everyone around me (in-laws, parents of other bene-mitzvah-aged kids, etc.) approached the topic with a mixture of dread and seriousness convinced me that I had to clear the decks and focus; the fact that I had only the vaguest sense of what I was doing didn't exactly instill me with confidence, either.

So for those who are unfamiliar with the concept, a bar mitzvah isn't just a fancy thirteenth birthday party. In fact, Son #1's bar mitzvah was nearly two months after his actual birthday. It is a coming of age ritual, where a boy becomes  responsible for following the commandments; in practice, this meant Son #1 spent many years in religious school learning Hebrew, and the last year learning prayers, his torah portion, and a haftarah portion so that he could lead the service. (For a girl, it's called a bat mitzvah, and at our temple, which is Reform, it is exactly the same as a boy's service.)

Thankfully, Son #1 took his responsibility to study very seriously, and stayed on top of what he had been assigned to learn each week. This meant that all I needed to gnaw my fingernails over was planning the celebration afterward. My husband's family all lives in town (or within an hour or two's drive), so we anticipated a cast of thousands. We needed a venue that could accommodate them all and feed them well. We needed a DJ who could keep a large roomful of people from toddlers to octogenarians entertained. And I needed to find a dress with a neckline high enough and hemline low enough to be tasteful in temple, and yet did not make me look as ancient as I felt (hanging out with a thirteen-year-old who rolls his eyes at every third thing you say can do that to you). It already seemed like an impossible quest.
Did I mention I got to put three boys in suits? They enjoyed it this much.

And of course, then I made the process even more fun by deciding that I was going to do a bunch of things myself. Why hire someone to make centerpieces or party favors when you can do it yourself? Why hire someone to make a slideshow of cute pictures of Son #1 through the years when you can do it yourself? Why get a photographer to make a sign-in board when you can design one yourself and get it printed at the local printer's much more inexpensively?

I'm a little surprised that D-I-Yism hasn't made it into the DSM as a diagnosable mental disorder yet, but my husband can tell you that I definitely made myself crazy over the months leading up to the bar mitzvah. I had to scale back my design for the centerpieces when I realized that my original plan would require roughly sixty hours I didn't have, and by the time I got done with folding and stuffing 180 favor boxes, I practically cheered when I found square labels at Staples that I could print out instead of then making 180 tags to adorn said boxes. I spent hours considering and rejecting songs to accompany the slide show, not to mention paring down the thousands of cute photos we have of Son #1 through the years to a streamlined selection that would not make our guests nod off in their chairs. (And no, I did not embarrass him with any nude baby pictures. I'm saving those for when he starts dating.)

And then in the midst of all of this, as we were chasing down the last RSVPs less than three weeks before the bar mitzvah, my husband got bad news. His company had decided to phase out his job, and after a few more months, he would be unemployed and our family would be without an income. I'd like to say that I handled this with calm and grace, but in truth I handled it with lots of swearing and some hysteria. If I hadn't been eyeball-deep in finishing up the aforementioned DIY projects, I probably would have been trolling Pinterest for voodoo-doll designs to use on my husband's soon-to-be former employers. I was bitterly sure that my enjoyment of my son's hard work would be overshadowed by the anxiety I now felt about my family's future. I felt like an idiot for essentially opting out of the workforce for thirteen years, knowing that no effort of mine could replace my husband's income.

Sometimes, though, the universe throws you a bone. That same week, when I was barely keeping it together, keeping my tunnel vision on the bar mitzvah to keep myself from freaking out about everything else, I got an email that my former employer had recommended me to one of their clients who was looking for a freelance proofreader. And then a regular proofreading client of mine asked if I would be interested in doing some editing for them. My freelance income isn't much; in a good year it covers things like summer day camp for the boys, and in a bad year, it provides an excuse for having something other than "housewife" on my resume. But knowing that I'd be able to bring in something at that moment was enough to take me a healthy step back from the edge of the ledge.

And ironically, having the minor crises of bar-mitzvah planning to fret over helped to keep my mind off of the larger crisis of my husband's impending joblessness. I probably vented more than a proportional amount of steam over the flakes who contacted us at the last minute--oh, I know I said we were coming, but we can't make it for reasons we absolutely could have foreseen when we sent our response card in--but I was able to keep my anxiety over his job hunt to a few dozen daily reminders to email everyone he knew to let them know he's looking. (Hey, for me, that's good.)

The day of the bar mitzvah came. Son #1 did a beautiful job, if I do say so myself, and I was able to shrug off my worries and enjoy the day with our family. (Seriously, though, the people who RSVP'd "yes" and then didn't show the day of with no warning--I'm keeping a list, man.) Watching Son #1 calmly lead the service, and then enjoy himself at his party, reminded me that there are bigger things in the world than making a paycheck--like learning that hard work pays off, and experiencing the joy of knowing your family and friends are there to cheer you on. The glow of happiness on his face made all the months of anxiety and hours of crafting worth it.

But if any of you know of a twelve-step program for DIYers...Son #2's bar mitzvah will be in about two years. I'm not sure I'll survive another 180 favor boxes...

Friday, February 15, 2013

Growing Older

Last year I turned forty. It shouldn't have been any big deal for me. In fact, I spent most of my youth wanting to be older than I already was. Adulthood meant that I would be able to leave crooked teeth (and the vast array of embarrassing orthodontic devices meant to correct the problem) behind, that I might actually grow taller and develop a figure (that only sort of happened, on both counts), and that somehow, someday, I might actually get to make my own decisions and be taken seriously.

That or reading the Beloit College Mindset List.

So believe me, I was as surprised as my poor husband was when, a few weeks shy of the fateful day, I burst into tears over the idea of turning forty. It had come out of nowhere. What did I have to cry about? By almost every measure, my life was exactly where I wanted it to be. I have a happy marriage, and a nice (though perpetually messy and in-need-of-repair) house in a good neighborhood. My boys are reasonably well behaved and do well in school. I have work that I enjoy doing, even if the amount of it that I get qualifies it more as a hobby than an actual career. Of course, last year I was still massively overcommitted to volunteering, but even then I knew it wasn't going to last forever.

It took me a long time to figure out what was going on in my subconscious. I had actually left all the awkwardness of youth behind me. Adolescence was a hell I would never need to return to. I could fondly reflect on the days when my husband and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment filled with a collection of hand-me-down furniture that looked like it had been picked at random from the nearest Goodwill and know that all the inconveniences of sharing one coin-operated washer and dryer with the residents of five other apartments were behind me. I could even look back on my days of early motherhood and laugh indulgently at the young woman who thought it would be a good idea to re-read The Feminine Mystique while eyeball-deep in postpartum hormones, and who lugged around a diaper bag full of enough supplies to get Son #1 and me through the first week of a natural disaster in comfort. (For the record it is a horrible idea to re-read The Feminine Mystique when you have a newborn, unless you like sitting in a rocking chair clutching your baby and sobbing hysterically. And overloaded diaper bags are a good way to mess up your back and lose your favorite baby outfits because they get buried in the bottom of the bag.) So why the tears?

I think the first part was due to a quirk of timing in my life that yields much-deserved karmic lessons on a regular basis. You see, my mom had me when she was twenty-seven. I had Son #1 when I was two weeks shy of turning twenty-eight. So now when I look back on my childhood and think of how I viewed my mother at whatever age Son #1 happens to be at the moment, I am struck with the inescapable fact that he is probably seeing me the exact same way I saw my mom at the same time of life. When he was in early elementary school, this view was mostly pretty good. To my elementary-school self, my mom seemed both old and ageless. She was capable of anything in my eyes, and was always there when I needed her. And she always knew when I was trying to pull one over on her. I could tell by the confidence with which Son #1 expected me to be able to solve his problems that he saw me the same way, though on the inside I felt not terribly organized, just one step ahead of his needs. Hell, there were even days I felt as though I were the babysitter, and wondered what moron had decided to leave me in charge. And I discovered that the secret of my mother's seeming omniscience was that kids are really, really, really bad liars.

That started to change when Son #1 hit adolescence. It's obvious to him now that I don't know everything--all he has to do is ask for help with his math homework in order to find my Achilles heel. I am regularly treated to eye rolls and exasperated sighs, and as often as I am taken for granted as a source of solutions (i.e., clearing my calendar on a day's notice to help chaperone a middle-school hike) I am also taken as an impediment to the life he would like to be leading (how desperately unfair that I will not let him play the Xbox until his eyeballs bleed). I wonder if I am going to be paid back in kind for each eye roll and exasperated sigh I directed my mother's way, because if so I've got a long row to hoe yet. And is he looking at me with the same unsympathetic adolescent eye I turned to my mother, when she gazed in disappointment in the mirror? I'm sorry, Mom. Now I get it. I'm not sure where my crow's feet came from, or the cellulite on my butt. And why the hell am I still getting zits? I bet you were thinking much the same kind of thing back in the day--little did I know at the time that my day would come.

The other part was a far more sobering realization. It's that I have hit the point in life where I have to acknowledge that not everything is truly possible any more. Some options I don't care about now and never did--I never wanted to be an athlete (of any kind), and my efforts at exercise are just about evicting the aforementioned cellulite and keeping myself healthy. As fascinating as I find science, I know I don't have the math chops to be anything more than an interested observer. I'm too claustrophobic to go deep-sea diving and too prone to motion-sickness to ever go up in space. But some realizations are more painful. I know that taking thirteen years (and counting) out of the regular work force means that I will most likely never have a high-powered career of any kind, and there are times I feel like I let my own potential down by opting out. Despite my best intentions, I gave up writing for about eighteen years, and I'm not getting that time back. I will never have a daughter. As much as I used to enjoy the adventure of moving to a new place, I will most likely never live anywhere other than Los Angeles again. In other words, the life I have now is pretty much it.

It's not that I'm sorry to have the life I do (see paragraph two, above). In the grand scheme of things, I know how lucky I am, and how much of the good things in life I have in abundance. But now I think I get why people have mid-life crises. If I had looked around and been truly unhappy with what I saw, I might have felt desperate to start changing that right now. Instead I shed a few tears over the dreams that will stay dreams forever and moved on. The plans I make now will have to stick a little closer to reality, and that's okay. And if Son #1 is looking at me and thinking that I'm hopeless--well, someday he's probably going to have a teenage son who rolls his eyes over his receding hairline and horrible taste in music.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

My Kid with Asperger's Syndrome

Today's post is something a little different from my usual (and not because I don't have plenty of material for the next chapter of minor domestic disasters). Recently I was asked to do a guest blog post by teacher Danielle Filas, a woman who has taken her fearlessness, intelligence, creativity, and energy and applied them to the classroom. She and I became friends and roommates in college, and I'm happy to say that although we are now separated by several time zones, our friendship knows no distance. (Though I do occasionally pout that it is highly unlikely any of my boys will have the privilege of being in her classroom.) I was honored to be asked to write this post about Asperger's Syndrome, which Son #1 was diagnosed with at the age of four. I highly recommend following Danielle's blog, EduNerd, for thought-provoking insight on teaching, learning, and infusing education with passion and creativity. (Did I mention I'm bummed she doesn't teach my kids?)

I'm cross-posting here because I think that while my post was originally written to offer some insight to teachers, the information in it can be of use to anyone who knows someone with an autistic spectrum disorder.

My Kid with Asperger’s Syndrome

My oldest son is twelve, and he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at age four. I’ve got plenty of stories about how this has affected his time in preschool and then in school, but I decided I would start by asking him what he thinks teachers should know about kids with Asperger’s. He thought for a second, and then said, “I think they should know that it makes them more emotional.”


People with Asperger’s are often thought of as emotionless: flat affect, no empathy. The truth (as I see it, anyway) is that the problem is one of communication. My son didn’t come with the wiring that allows him to automatically understand the meaning of nonverbal gestures, tone of voice, or body language. But he himself has all the feelings that those things express. And he empathizes strongly with other people. His difficulty with nonverbal communication makes him slow to pick up on the nuances. The contrast between his own feelings (like everyone else’s) and his ability to tap into the sea of nonverbal communication that we are all awash in every day (slow compared to everyone else’s) tends to make him anxious.

So he reacts differently than other kids his age might. On the last day of school before winter break, I came home to a message from the coordinator at his magnet middle school. My son had misplaced his lunch box, and was upset. The coordinator assured me that they would make sure my son had a lunch. I could imagine the scene: my son hyperventilating, probably crying, sure the problem couldn’t be fixed because his emotions were overwhelming his ability to problem-solve.

This kind of meltdown is fortunately less common with him these days, thanks to techniques his teachers have used throughout the years to not only help him get past difficult moments, but to keep them from occurring in the first place.

"Clouds" by C. Frank Stramer
The most important thing to know about an Asperger’s meltdown is that you have to let it pass before you can deal with the problem that triggered it. Period. No exceptions. (For an inside perspective, read this take written by an adult with Asperger’s). My son in non-meltdown mode is sweet, compliant, logical, and thoughtful. During a meltdown, he and all of those wonderful qualities have left the building. The best thing you can do is to provide a safe spot (maybe even just a chair in a quiet part of the room) for him to calm down. This includes keeping well-meaning classmates away, because even their attempts to soothe him (“Are you okay?”) can add fuel to the mental fire. He’s not throwing a fit to try to manipulate anyone, and yes, he really is out of his own control. My son describes it as “losing his thinking,” and that’s exactly what happens to him.

Unfortunately, my son has experienced a couple of spectacular fails in regard to this principle in his school years. His first grade teacher never could quite understand that if he had done something wrong, she had to wait until he was done freaking out over how horrible he was before she could impose a consequence for his behavior. She unwittingly made more than one meltdown worse than it needed to be, and he left first grade anxious about school in general. In fifth grade, when he had a meltdown on the playground and lashed out physically at his then-best friend, a well-meaning school administrator tried to get the boys to reconcile while my son was still freaking out. Instead, my son told the other boy that he hated him and never wanted to be friends again; he repented less than two hours later, when he had his emotions under control, but by then it was too late. It would have been much better to separate my son from the other student than to attempt a technique that may work well for typical students, whose emotions cool faster and may not completely overwhelm them in the same way.

Fortunately, the highlights of my son’s education vastly outnumber these sad chapters. His second grade teacher was militant about making sure my son had an undisturbed place to calm down if he needed it. In fourth grade and up he had a break card that allowed him to go sit outside the classroom for a moment, no questions asked, if he felt that he was getting overwhelmed and needed to calm down before he hit meltdown stage. (The ironic part is that by fifth grade, just knowing that he had the option to take a break was almost always enough to calm him to the point where he didn’t need to actually take one.) Using self-checklists, where my son took a moment to monitor his own emotions and behavior, or talking to him directly about the things that can influence our moods (such as being hungry or tired), helped him to be more in tune with his own emotional state.

One of the best ways to keep him (and other Asperger’s kids) on an even keel is to make the school environment as predictable as possible. His teachers through the years have made smart use of calendars, schedules, and visual aids to ensure that my son knew what to expect out of each school day. (This is something I think most teachers do anyway for all their students, but Asperger’s kids eat it up.) The less uncertainty my son has about what is going on, the happier he is. Right now his favorite teacher is his algebra teacher, who structures his class the same way each day and makes his expectations clear. My son repeats one of Mr. R’s favorite catchphrases: “No surprises!” as if he has won the lottery. Having a generally stable environment helps him to “roll with it” when something unexpected does happen.

Jay's Thought Stream
My son is an individual, and his experience in school and with Asperger’s is unique. Each student you have with Asperger’s will also be a unique individual. They will be impressively capable in some areas and bafflingly behind in others. Their skills are real and their deficits are real. The little things you do for them, like making sure they have the right seating placement in the classroom, can make a huge difference. My bright, beautiful boy has grown into a thoughtful and responsible young man under the care of his teachers (and a moment to brag: he brings home excellent grades!). As a parent whose child has benefited from the help given by thoughtful teachers over the years, I want to say thank you for taking the time to read this; I hope it helps you develop great relationships with your own Asperger’s students. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Enjoying the View of a New Year

So it's about that time when those earnest New Year's resolutions start dropping like flies, we're all just getting the hang of writing "2013" on our checks, and regular life is taking over from where the holidays dropped us off. I can't say that I really made any specific resolutions this year; at age forty, I know all of the things that I should do (exercise more often, drink more water and less alcohol, write in months other than November [speaking of which, I made my word count in NaNoWriMo, thanks for asking!], read more good books, be less cranky, etc.) and I also know at times this year I will do well in some of those areas and poorly in others. The best I can do is try to make good choices when I can, one decision at a time.

What I found myself thinking, though, was how much better I felt at the start of this year than at the start of 2012. When 2012 dawned, I was still neck-deep in a series of commitments that I had started with enthusiasm in previous years but which taken together were overwhelming me. I knew an end was in sight, but it was many months away. In the meantime I was waking up with panic attacks nearly every day and spending much of my time being irritable and distracted. (Okay, much MORE of my time. I'm not exactly Ms. Warm and Fuzzy most of the time, but when your family starts to treat you as if you're going to go off at any moment like a carelessly handled tube of nitroglycerin, you know you have a problem.) I like being busy, accomplishing things, being responsible, and making a difference, but I had overextended myself so far that my life had become a to-do list, and I barely felt like I was staying one step ahead of what I needed to do.

This year, many of those commitments had been handed off months before. Admittedly, I woke up with a panic attack on December 26th thinking about all the undone tasks related to Son #1's rapidly approaching bar mitzvah, but it has been several months since a panic attack was my regular alarm clock. I've taken up some regular exercise (well, semi-regular over the holidays while the kids were home), given up Diet Coke, and revived this blog, which I had started the summer of 2011 in a burst of what I thought was optimism but which was actually desperation. I curbed my volunteerism at school somewhat, choosing tasks where I can help but where I don't have to call the shots. I've made some progress at getting the house in order, though admittedly a lot less than I had hoped to. I'm not exactly where I want to be yet (maybe not even in the same time zone), but I feel like the road I'm on is taking me there for a change.

It's nice to start a new year feeling happy about the steps I've made in the right direction instead of dwelling on the multiple areas in which I have failed. It almost gives me hope that this will be the year I find the floor of my garage, get rid of every unnecessary piece of paper in the house, succeed in getting my boys to put their dirty socks in the hamper every single time...and win the lottery. Okay, maybe not. But at least I'm starting this year in the sure knowledge that the light at the end of the tunnel I was stuck in at the start of 2012 was not, thankfully, an oncoming train. Here's hoping that your 2013 is full of positive potential too.