Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Adapting to change

I took Big Guy to the pediatrician yesterday; his body is covered in a fiercely itchy rash. Benadryl and hydrocortisone hardly make a dent, and Big Guy has scratched off sections of skin though his fingernails are always bitten to the quick. We now have a prescription for a steroid that hopefully will help. Big Guy's had weird reactions to steroids in the past. Like, really weird. So we've alerted his school, and are on the que vive.

All of that is just stuff to deal with, not a crisis. Oddly, what feels like a crisis is that this was probably the last time we'll see our pediatrician. One of the casualties of Andrew's job loss has been our health insurance, and though we've gotten State-funded coverage, Dr G doesn't take the new plan. We've been with him for 15 years, and I ache with the loss. Dr. G made me a better mother.

When I told Dr. G that we probably wouldn't see him again he looked stricken. And he told me that if we needed him, he would see us any time, with or without insurance.

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A decade ago I fell on the sidewalk and left a coating of knee there, and I have never again pooh-poohed a skinned knee. I am uniformly sympathetic to bitten tongues, and am generally accommodating of hormonal moodiness, too. These are uncomfy things about childhood and adolescence which I remember vividly. And though I daresay my children often feel just as misunderstood as anyone else's, it helps, I hope, that there are some areas in which I can be counted on for empathy.

As I go through the steps needed to reinvent our life and keep us afloat (find decent schools for the kids, look for work, consider the logistics of full-time employment, deal with the grief of giving up the family closeness of homeschooling), I remind myself to hold in mind how difficult change can be. Right now the changes are abstract; eventually they will affect my kids directly in one way or another. I try to make transitions as seamless as possible, but one item on my long-term to-do list is "help kids adapt". I don't know how to do that. Yet.

*        *        *         *         *

A neighbor is nearly two weeks overdue with her second child, and anxious. I saw her in the hallway today and told her all the wrong things, then emailed her to say some of the right ones. I have vivid memories of being at that point in my life. I was afraid that somehow I'd ruined my life. How would I ever manage with a second child?

And the things is: you do manage. You sputter and stumble a bit, and then get better at the logistics, and it doesn't take long before you start to grow in ways you never knew it was possible to grow. Your comfort zone grows along with your competence. And you stop worrying about the how can I ever? aspect of life, because you learn to trust that somehow you'll figure out how do what you have to do.

He's ready for his bedtime story

Chemistry goggles, 
bike helmet, 
bowler hat, 
Nerf gun, 
metal detector,
sports coat and 
Star Wars jammies. 

Not quite sure what this has to do with Tom Sawyer, but hey, he's ready.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Questions, questions

It's quiet this morning. I got up early, because I'm teaching a class for kids today on how animals in our local park get through winter, and needed to do a bit more thinking.  
      Why do some birds migrate, and others stay?
      Well, what do birds need to stay alive?
      What do birds eat?
      Are all those things around now?
      So which birds can stick around? The ones who eat...
      We see geese flying south, but not songbirds (even though they migrate). Why?
      How do birds know which way is south?

I like this kind of work, because it pushes me to think like a kid, and to break info down into questions which get kids thinking.

There are other kinds of things I don't like thinking through so much:
      Why is this child this upset?
      What would help him most?
      Is what's best for the short term the same as for the long term?
      What can I do that will make things better? Worse?
      Am I solving the problem for the child, or helping the child solve the problem?
      He's not hearing what I'm saying. What's another way of saying it?

Do you sometimes wish you could press the MUTE button in your brain?

Friday, November 25, 2011

The annual cookie project

I'm writing up the email to my neighborhood announcing this year's cookie project, and thought I'd link to last year's post about it, in the event you want to set up something similar in your part of the world:

The Awesome Cookie Project.

Easy. Helpful. Fun.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thanksgiving thoughts

I have a blog post scheduled for tomorrow over at Seeds of Devotion about being thankful for bacon. Ironically, over the weekend (I wrote the post a week ago) a chef in our building gave us several pounds of pre-cooked bacon. It's probably the equivalent of 15 pounds of raw meat. So now we have bacon in abundance.

*        *        *        *        *

It's gray and drippy this morning. I've noticed the weather lately, because we have to walk the dog. I've also noticed how odd it is that, in an era when we are almost completely protected from the elements, complaints about the weather pepper the conversation as much as they do. Perhaps our idea of hardship has been reduced to a scale that ranges from comfort to inconvenience. You'd think we'd simply be thankful for warm homes and good coats and umbrellas, but getting more doesn't seem to make us thankful at all. We adjust our expectations instead of our level of gratitude.

*        *        *        *        *

I went down to Trader Joe's yesterday to do some of my Thanksgiving Dinner shopping. On the way back, a young woman (maybe mid-20s) offered me her seat on the train. I demurred and stood, rather stunned at the thought that I've aged enough that people think I need to sit down. Then I laughed: life is good when people are thoughtful enough to offer you a seat on the subway. Regardless of the reason.  

*        *        *        *        *

I noticed a sign at a clothing store near Trader Joe's about a Black Friday sale that starts at 4am. 

Really? People do that? Wow. 

For the record, I'm thankful for online shopping. 

*        *        *        *        *

There is no toilet paper in the house this morning. I am not thankful for this, but I do realize it's a first-world problem which I have the financial resources to remedy. Which is better: to focus on the annoyance, or put it in perspective?

I'm beginning to think paying too much attention to minor woes causes us to lose the emotional muscle we need to deal with bigger things. We focus our energy on finger exercises, and hence when we come to the times in life when we have to lift weights it feels impossible.  

Some of us look at the glass as half empty, others as half full. But even a half-empty glass has water in it. Just sayin'.  

Sunday, November 20, 2011


It is interesting what happens when you go into a situation with listening as your goal. A lot changes. 

We arrived on Friday afternoon, after a train ride up the river.

I moved into my little room. Very simple, mildly frumpy, yet comfortable.

I went down to dinner, and met the other women on the retreat. Most were substantially older than me, and at first I thought I didn't fit in. Then I realized that was a ridiculous thought: how can one not fit in at a weekend focused on prayer and silence?

After dinner we went down to the meeting room for evening prayer. It was our main gathering place; we met four times a day (all optional) for prayer and for "conferences" designed to give us food for thought and meditation. This is what it looks like during the day:

(Well, except it's not crooked.) I spent a lot of time sitting in a chair gazing out at the pine trees, thinking. I was quite struck by how different the world looked when it was framed by window panes than when one was out in the real thing. Here are my favorite trees, from outdoors:

I spent a ridiculous amount of time pondering how the needles all drooped down, and how the only part of the branches that pointed upward was the portion with new growth.

I went for walks in the woods. I spend time alone in the tiny chapel.

 (There was a church, too. Two, actually. They were open but I didn't go there, because the chapel was more convenient.)

I didn't even try to pray until halfway through Saturday. It took that long for my heart to become silent.

Other than prayer with the group, I didn't really talk out loud until today at lunch. I'd rotated between tables at meals, then today learned the names of some of the woman with whom I'd shared my silence. I liked them. 

I probably won't see them again, ever. Unless I go on the same retreat next year.

I did text Dancer early Saturday morning, before her audition for the big performing arts high school. She got herself up and out the door and to the audition alone. She texted me later to say she got a call-back. That was good.

I called home briefly last night, to ameliorate the missing-ness of the kids.

And I arrived home this evening, in time to take Little Guy up to his play rehearsal. Andrew was bringing Snuggler there from her post-soccer game pizza party. So we met up and walked the mile home together. By the time we arrived Dancer was home from Nutcracker rehearsal.

I admired the soccer trophies. I heard all the stories about the dog's adventures. I made people take showers. And now they're all in bed, and it's silent here.


Thursday, November 17, 2011


Tomorrow I am going on retreat. Two and a half days of silence.

Imagine it.

I imagined it for fifteen years before I actually went, and then it was only because Dancer's godmother made a reservation for me a year in advance. I didn't go last year, and am looking forward to it, desperately. If you've got prayer requests and send me an email before noon on Friday, I'll bring'em along.

I'll be bringing paper and pencil and not much else.

See you on Monday.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A walk in Times Square

My wonderful friend Magpie took me out to dinner on Monday. It was in a real restaurant, and frankly I hadn't eaten anything of that quality in a very long time. What was even more delicious was spending a couple of hours with someone I've known for over half my life. There is comfort in conversation with friends with whom you don't have to reveal history, because they are part of it.

Afterwards, I walked across town to get to my train. The weather was balmy, and I strolled along 42nd Street past the main library, past the Zamboni clearing the ice in Bryant Park, past someone dressed as Grover of Sesame Street who asked, in a clipped Pakistani accent, "Want to take a picture with me?"

The streets were Monday-night-off barren, but busy by any other city's standard.  I walked by Madame Tussaud's, and wondered if she would recognize any of the (wax) people in her window; in America, in Times Square, history extends back a mere decade or two. Ripley's Believe It or Not was next, with its mechanical bearded lady. A street artist sketched a young couple, making a nice-looking picture that would cause each of them to wonder, Do I really look like that? (No you do not.) Then came the suburban multiplex movie theaters and chain restaurants that fit in only by dint of the accretion of neon.

I thought back to my childhood, when coming to a Broadway show meant parking in the very-iffy Hell's Kitchen and navigating one's way pseudo-graciously around streetwalkers. Back then the flashing lights illuminated dark corners, and after the show one was shocked to see little kids playing on stoops at 11pm as their families hung out and drank beer. One wondered about the people living there, then. Now the neon is a zoning requirement and there are upscale apartments and fancy food stores in the surrounding areas. You no longer feel you are walking through the set of West Side Story. Though I suppose you could still get mugged, if you weren't paying attention.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Battle of Fort Washington

The year when Big Guy was five it was the 225th anniversary of the Battle for New York. Our neighborhood happens to be right where the worst defeat of the Continental Army took place in 1776. And because every other major battle site was having a re-enactment, and because my son was utterly passionate about history, I did what is, in retrospect, perhaps the most over-the-top thing I've ever done: I decided we should have a commemorative event here, too.

The Americans advance, but are ultimately defeated
Mind you, I was seven months pregnant with my fourth child when I decided this was a good idea. And I'd never organized any kind of event before. Ever. And by the time the day rolled around we'd gone through 9/11, and I had a newborn. But I'd figured out some craft activities and commandeered some costumes and found myself a re-enactor or two and learned how to get park permits and even got a band to lead us in a neighborhood parade. And my son wore a tricorn hat made of cardstock, and breeches made of cut-off khakis (we cut a slit up the outer seam and then laced up the pant legs using shoelaces) and carried his musket proudly as he marched up the street.

There's a small campsite to explore, to see how soldiers lived
A decade later, the Commemoration of the Battle of Fort Washington has long since been taken over by the Parks Department as an annual event. It now features a blacksmith, a regiment of re-enactors (representing both the British and American sides), a lecture by a historian, activities for kids, and an actress dressed as Margaret Corbin who leads tours and explains how she became the first woman injured in battle in the Revolutionary War.

My only remaining responsibility is to run the hat-making table. Today we went through 40 sheets of 22"x28" posterboard. Some kids wore their hats over bike helmets, yarmulkes, or do-rags. Little Guy ran around in an outfit that included a red Chinese vest, a cape, a rucksack and a tricorn, narrowly avoiding (numerous times) whacking people in the face with his rifle. 

The city buses always slow down to see what's going on
The British won the battle, as they do every year. On the day of the real fight, 235 years ago, nearly 3,000 soldiers were captured, along with the bulk of the American army's artillary and munitions. Because New York City (which only occupied the bottom part of Manhattan) had been burned after the American retreat, there were not enough jails to hold the captives. Most were consigned to the notorious prison ships stationed in the harbor, and only about 800 survived the hideous conditions there. Fortunately, we chose not to re-enact that particular portion of the story.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A newly-minted teenager

It's Dancer's birthday today, and now I have more teens than non-teens. This morning she opened a Facebook account; this afternoon she had a salon cut and got her ears pierced. Then it was off to ballet, with a batch of Death By Chocolate cookies to share with her friends.

Happy 13th Birthday, Dancer. I love you!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Love That Dog

A boy and his dog, with Dancer taking pix
I ran into a friend last night, the dad of one of Dancer's friends, whom I haven't seen in perhaps six months. I was heading out to buy milk and eggs around the corner; he was parking his car in front of the school across the street. We chatted on the sidewalk, updating each other on our lives. I mentioned the recent acquisition of Amsterdam, and my friend gaped and said, "Really?" I could see him doing the mental math: another large body in the apartment, more food, extra responsibilities. On the surface it's insane. Then I mentioned how much Big Guy loves dogs, and how therapeutic having one is for him. Light dawned, as the full mental math problem became clear: all those negatives are more than outweighed by the positives.

You may recall that last year when Big Guy was at the residence he had a problem with falling asleep in school. I'd tried to institute a Big Cookie test to get a read on the nature of the problem: was it physical? emotional? possible to overcome with great effort? Unfortunately, too many elements were out of my control at the time to do a good job of it. But when Big Guy moved home in September, we made a deal: if he put in good effort at school and stayed awake in his classes, at Christmas he would get a dog.

Yeah, I know it's not Christmas. But Big Guy is doing his share, and I wanted to start the adoption process early, because I knew it most rescue operations require a home visit and reference checks and applications. And most of them are run by a handful of volunteers, who have limited time to get around to doing all that needs to be done. Plus, given the preponderance of pit bulls in the shelters here -- a breed not on my list of possibilities for adoption, since wannabe drug dealers get them in order to look cool, then give them up -- I figured it might be some time before a gentle, therapy dog-type dog would pop up.

So I started early. I asked on our local parent listserv (pop: 1200+) for referrals to quality rescue groups, and one of the responses I got was to a place where I distantly knew someone on staff. That group had just gotten Amsterdam, and I knew at a glance that he was the dog for us. What I didn't know was that the long-ago connection with the staff person would translate into overnight approval. And so we went to meet Amsterdam on Friday, and brought him home Saturday.

As I write, at 7am, Big Guy is out taking his dog for a walk. I can't count how many times he's said to me this week, "Mom, he's a really good dog." To which I reply, "He's a great dog." And he is.

There is something wonderful about having someone who's happy to see you every time you walk in the door. There's joy in starting the day getting whacked by a wagging tail. I know the dog walking will get harder to do when it rains or snows. But for right now, life is good. Very good.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Deadlines, deadlines

My triple witching hour of weekly/monthly/quarterly deadlines has passed, and yesterday I felt remarkably free. There was bandwidth for new ideas and for getting Little Guy to write with punctuation (and without cApitAl letTerS in the middle of words). Relieved, I took Amsterdam for a walk in the crisp fall air, and felt as if all was right with the world. It sure is nice to see the good things that are hidden from my heart when I'm stressed or sick; it's not that they don't exist when I'm preoccupied, just that I don't see them.

And then the phone rang last night, and it turned out that the biggest piece I'd turned in was for the wrong month. Oy! It wasn't possible to tweak what I had, either. And so I had 24 hours to come up with an entirely new piece on a different topic, 1200 words long, with at least 10 quotes and a handful of anecdotes. Polished.

As I staggered to my computer an email came in, ALL IN CAPS, alerting me to the need to invoice something within 24 hours or I wouldn't get paid. Now it's not hard to write up an invoice, is it? So I started to do that, hoping my brain cells would kick into gear while I was typing.

Then I discovered that the invoice had to include specifics about each of the six programs in a winter nature program for kids that I'm going to do. Erp! Hmmmm. I hadn't planned those out yet because, well, y'know, the first one doesn't take place for another three weeks.

By the time I'd designed the programs and hammered out the invoice, my brain was so fried I needed a synapse infusion. None was forthcoming, so I went to bed. Got up this a.m. and started grinding out the big piece. It felt like traveling cross-country by pushing a car.

But now it's done, or at least done enough to be in the review phase, and I am heading out to a book reading about Catherine the Great. I don't know much about ole' Cath, but I do know the author, and that's good. I'm taking Big Guy and a friend's child.

Revisions will await me upon my return. I'm hopeful that hearing about Catherine will stimulate activity in at least a few brain cells, and perhaps even re-awaken my desire to write. If I don't fall asleep while I'm there, that is. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


The latest addition to our family. He's half-lab, half-golden. Ten months old, about 50 pounds, pretty mellow but very affectionate. And housebroken!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Catching my breath

I've been having trouble breathing the past two nights. Albuterol helps, though it wears off at 3:30am, and I awaken, gasping, from dreams of boa constrictors or being trapped under wreckage. I get up, cough fitfully for a while, find the inhaler, fix myself a hot water bottle to lie on, and eventually drowse off until  the alarm rings at 5:30.

I'm not sure if lack of sleep is swiss-cheesing my brain, or if it's that I've hit the wall on how much I can handle at once. There are school searches for three kids, doctor searches for Big Guy, falling-in ceilings that lead to breathing trouble, stressed out children, an unemployed husband, bills, homeschooling and overlapping deadlines when I'm sick. And a few other things I don't write about here.

I've learned to be resilient, but I'm actually not invincible. Every now and again I find myself in a situation where I need to put on my own oxygen mask first. Got there today, for sure. Had to breathe deep (as deep as my sticky lungs would let me) and pray to be filled with peace.

There are times like that. Times when the very best thing you can do for the world is to breathe deeply and slowly and be very, very still for five whole minutes.

You can bring a lot of oxygen into your life in five focused minutes. Try it.