Tuesday, September 27, 2011

You may recall that I've been staggering along with my laptop, which was suffering from having a cracked case even before its coffee catastrophe. The lid frame eventually broke off, such that I had two separate pieces of laptop, held together by two thin wires. The top couldn't be propped up at all -- it lay flat on the table. And then last night, in a poltergeist moment, my cup of coffee which was on the other end of the sofa fell over without provocation and spilled over two full cushions and onto the $10.59 replacement keyboard I'd jerry-rigged onto the limping laptop.

I looked at it. I mopped up the mess with a towel. I tested the keyboard.

It was broken.

The thought of buying a new laptop so that I could meet my month-end deadlines left me speechless.So I sat, fish-like, in the sea that poured from my eyes, and let the salt water pour over the wounds of bad luck and bad timing.

Today, after an entire morning and afternoon of going without writing, I went and bought a laptop. The salesman asked me what I was looking for. I replied, "My needs are pretty simple. I'm a writer. I need a box -- preferably lightweight and rather small -- in which to carry around my words. And I'd like it to be pretty indestructible."

I came home with this. With the service protection plan. And I am happy. Poorer, but happy. It works! And now, so can I.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Good Things

  • The Starved for Attention exhibit on malnutrition to which I took Snuggler and Little Guy yesterday, after (coincidentally) a very large lunch of West African food with my friend Monica. Scroll down on the web site and you can watch several compelling videos.
  • I noticed this morning -- at the last minute -- that I'd pulled out a bag of frozen peas instead of blueberries to put in the muffins.
  • The building manager is coming today to look at the hole in our bathroom ceiling. It turns out the plumber replaced the wrong pipe. We know this because the other pipe is still leaking. Fortunately the leak falls directly into our bathroom sink.
  • Part of soccer (practice today, or one of the games this weekend) might get rained out. Free time! Or at least conflict-free time; I was double-booked both Saturday and Sunday.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Things fall apart

I haven't had enough sleep lately, and I've had a cold, and we've had a lot to do. And then there are kids going through rough spots and a husband who is unemployed and depressed and there are worries about budget and health care coverage and such.Toss in a touch of PMS and yesterday -- not surprisingly -- was one of those rare times when life threatened to overwhelm me.

I took the kids down to our homeschool co-op for the first day of classes. I headed up to the co-op moms' meeting, where there were a dozen or so wonderful friends I hadn't seen all summer. And I thought I was going to cry. You know how it is when you're feeling fragile and find yourself in a situation where people would gladly offer a shoulder to cry on, but you're feeling too sad to fall apart because if you did you'd have to talk? That's where I was.

There are days when articulating anything is more work than it's worth. So I was as sociable as I could manage (which involved a lot of joking, because laughing is so close to crying), and pre-empted inquiries into my life by asking how others were doing. And then periodically I zoned off into the sad space that surged up within me. People either didn't notice, or were gracious enough to realize that I'd talk when I was ready. I love those ladies.

After co-op was over the kids wanted to head down to the playground with everyone else. Sigh. Okay. More social time. I briefly considered going for a walk to be alone, but talked to two moms about high school applications (it's an ordeal here in the city). I talked to another about her mother-in-law, who is showing signs of short-term memory loss (my father-in-law suffered from dementia, and lived with us the first year we were married). Sometimes the best thing to do when you're feeling low is to help someone else. It gives you something constructive to focus on.

We got home at about 3:45. The clean laundry was still sorted in piles on the living room floor, waiting for kids to fold it. There was no milk in the house, so I couldn't have coffee. We had plenty of veggies but no protein to make for supper.

I headed out to the grocery store. When I returned ten minutes later, Andrew was pacing in the building lobby, talking on his cell phone. That was weird; we don't leave the little kids alone with Big Guy. Andrew covered the mouthpiece and said, "The bathroom ceiling fell down."

Even *my* kids don't make this big a mess!
Oh. Of course. There'd been a water stain and we'd had the building manager come look at it and they were going to replace the 1933-era drain pipe in the upstairs apartment. Which they'd apparently done that day. But in the banging to loosen the plaster upstairs they'd apparently loosened the plaster in our ceiling (it's the real stuff, with sheetrock on the outer layer) and it came down with a roar.

I went upstairs and looked. It wasn't the whole ceiling, but it was a big enough hole to climb into, if one had a pressing need to explore the inner structure of an apartment building. The rubble fill the sink and covered the floor around it. I could see the shiny new brass drain pipe. It looked happy up there. My own sentiments were less glittering. They were so much less cheerful that Andrew suggested perhaps it might be better for me to go out and pick up Dancer (who has four hours of dance on Wednesdays, and gets out late) than to stay home with the other kids.

The hole eventually grew...
That was a good idea. By the time I got home the building super had been up and cleaned up the rubble. The hole still gaped, and Little Guy needed Benadryl because the mildew in the joists made him cough. The kids brushed their teeth in the other bathroom (I spent $16 on new toothbrushes, since all of ours had been buried in ancient plaster) and went to bed.

But the day was over. I'd made it through. And life hadn't fallen apart, except for the ceiling.

Some days, if you set the bar low enough, it's possible to succeed.

And today is a new day. I hope no ceilings fall down. I don't think they will. And if they do I won't be here to see or hear it, because the kids start their construction class today, where they will learn how to frame a playhouse. It strikes me that this is a skill that could come in handy around here. Because building and rebuilding are part of life.


Monday, September 19, 2011

Big Guy update

Big Guy goes through periods (sometimes for an hour, sometimes an hour a couple times a day, sometimes not at all) when he has intense feelings. Things that might make someone else a bit cranky feel catastrophic to him.  What (to me) is a twinge of disappointment is like heat on a raw nerve for my son. And like someone in extreme pain, he is too lost in the feeling to articulate anything. Embarrassment, regret, annoyance, and fear all trigger his fight-or-flight reflex. He becomes a vortex of emotion, sucking everyone around him into his reaction.

It is labor to get Big Guy out of the house, but he needs exercise and conversation and new experiences. We plan outings for him which he agrees to, and then he utterly refuses to go. He has been unhappy lately that his younger siblings have activities (soccer, birthday parties, play dates) when he feels like spending time with them. Then when they come home they are tired, and don't necessarily want to do what he wants to do. He is too anxious to try activities where he might make friends with similar interests. He finds kids his own age scary.

Big Guy has no things he likes so much that they can be used as either carrot or stick. When he starts to blow, sometimes he responds to a firm, assertive voice. Sometimes that makes him angrier. Sometimes he responds to statements like "You seem upset"; other times that makes him more upset. When he is in the midst of a wave of feelings, reason is ineffective. It's... challenging.

It is important to know when to back off. I have planted a red flag in my head that waves whenever we hit the point that anything I do only causes things to escalate. For it's a fact of parenting -- anyone's parenting -- that even when Mom can't make things better, she can always make them worse.

I do not always see that red flag waving, but I have gotten better at it with time.

Big Guy is big. He is 180+ pounds of 15-year old. I am not afraid of him, though I know he will hurt me if he is angry enough. And so life here is a constant measuring act, gauging where he is with his feelings, trying to provide trust and support while keeping people safe.

*       *         *        *        *

How does one teach a young child to stand up for himself/herself in the presence of someone like Big Guy? It's a question the professionals can't answer. They can't tell me how an adult can consistently manage Big Guy's meltdowns effectively, either. 

Little Guy has been showing OCD-like symptoms this weekend. I told him it's probably his body's response to anxiety. That helped; it is hard, when you are seven, to understand that weird feelings in your body are signs of stress.
*       *         *        *        *

I know that Big Guy is struggling right now because he has to hold himself together at school. New situations are hard on anyone, and they are especially hard for my son. He has new teachers, new classmates, new subjects, a new routine, a new school, a new social worker. Soon he will have a new psychiatrist.

It is 'safer' to fall apart at home, where he knows people love him, than it is to fall apart at school. Safer for him, anyway.
*       *         *        *        *

Andrew asked last night, before we fell asleep, "Do you ever think about what will happen longer term?" Yes, I do. I think about possibilities and probabilities, and then I go back to today. Today is the day I can do something about. Today is the day I have been given to love my child. So I'm going to try to do that.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


I am a lousy consumer. Oh, I covet books and I wish I could buy a new laptop or send Little Guy to the fabulous robotics class, but years of extreme medical bills and generic belt-tightening have reduced my desires to pretty simple things. I would love, for example, to have a $200 a week food budget.

And then, every now and again, I find myself hit from behind by a desire so incredibly strong that it leaves me stunned. And it's usually something off-beat and ridiculous. Like this make papyrus at home kit. I mean, how cool is that? (I found it while searching for "make Egyptian boat", which is next on Little Guy's wish list.)

Ok, so I'm a bit on the nerdy side. As soon as I saw the word papyrus I remembered the hippo exhibit in the natural history museum (which has papyrus plants growing alongside a model Nile) and the gift shop at the art museum (which sells individual sheets of papyrus to color). I scratched my brain trying to recall whether or not there are live papyrus plants in the greenhouse at the botanical garden, but couldn't remember.

Yeah, this is the kind of heady stuff that fills my brain, along with the lyrics to the Gilligan's Island theme song. It's why I can't remember anyone's name any more. I know where to buy moccasin-making kits and reasonably priced replicas of Rev War clothing. I can find esoteric ingredients for recipes from any culture or time period. Just don't ask me to go shoe shopping or enter a department store. 

At any rate, I've already found one friend who's interested in splitting the cost of the papyrus-making kit. If you want to join in, let me know.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Filter Bubble

I'm reading an excellent book right now called The Filter Bubble, by Eli Pariser. It's about why, if you and I enter the same search term into Google, we end up with different results.

What's riveting is how the 'personalization' of the web can be both helpful and harmful. Heaven knows that with the amount of information available out there we need to reduce things to a semi-manageable flow. But search engines and commercial web sites adjust results so they reflect what we've clicked on before. If you buy classical music, iTunes isn't going to show you acid rock on your front page (unless, perhaps, other people who buy Beethoven have an inexplicable preference for it). If you frequent news articles that have a liberal bias, you're never going to even see most articles that discuss things from a conservative point of view.

It's convenient to narrow the world somehow, but on the web we're not always even aware that it's happening. We may end up living in a universe of our preferences, rather than living in the real world.

Filtering on the basis of our likes means we lose access to diverse opinions, which erodes our motivation to reconcile different perspectives or even engage them. (How many "Can you believe those [right wing/left wing] morons said this" posts have you seen lately on Facebook?)

We lose an understanding of where the other side is coming from. In essence, we surround ourselves with the virtual equivalent of yes-men.

We also lose exposure to the randomness of life, to serendipity. That dramatically decreases the amount of discrepancies our brains have to grapple with -- and learning is a matter of trying to fill in gaps between what we understand and what we don't. It has an impact on creativity. Why? Because while search engines answer the questions we have, they don't necessarily push us to think of the questions we don't know to ask.

I'm not saying (and the book isn't, either) that the web is bad, or that it's wrong to have easy access to answers. We do need to be aware of how that kind of focus changes us, though.

Definitely a book worth reading.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Learning about Egypt

We're doing ancient history this year, and have started with Egypt. The topic of how one irrigates the fields in a country with no rain was right up my intrepid inventor's alley. Hence Little Guy's been on a shaduf-building spree the past few days.

As we walked up to the library on Monday he collected sticks in the park for building a working shaduf. We discussed whether the counterweight should be greater than, less than, or equal two the weight of the water in the bucket.Then there was the question of where the fulcrum should be. And whether or not one lashes the lever to the crossbar; the idea is to scoop up the water, pivot the lever, and pour out the water on higher ground. That's hard to do if the lever has to stay in one spot.

When we got home, Little Guy got out his K'Nex and made a model. "What should I use for the bucket, Mom?" he asked. I shrugged, and said what I usually say: he'd figure it out. Not surprisingly, he did.

Yesterday we mixed up some plaster of paris as a base for the shaduf made of sticks. We've bought an aluminum tray in which to place the finished model; Little Guy wants to put soil over everything and plant grass, so he has something to actually irrigate.Who knows? It might work.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Public school started last week, and over the weekend I checked in on friends whose kids started in new schools. Some kids had great experiences, some had bumpy ones. I wrote to one friend, "I knew she'd come home with a smile! She's the adventurous type!"

After sending off the note I thought, I don't have any adventurous types.

I have a mathy type and a couple of anxious ones and an artist and a gregarious dancer. I have a writer and a poetry-lover and a singer and an inventor and several dramatic personalities. I have introverts and extroverts, pessimists and occasional optimists, impatient and persevering kids, a naturally generous one and one who gets jealous easily. I have one with a mood disorder and one with ADD and possibly a dyslexic. But I don't have any children who thrive on adventure and crave thrills.

I'm not complaining. It's kind of humbling how many kinds of kids I don't have: no one's chronically ill  or disabled, mellow and laid-back, flighty, a Queen Bee, a jock, a daydreamer, type-A, a psychopath (whew!), drop-dead beautiful or handsome, craftily manipulative, or a natural networker.

All of which tells me two things:

1. My life isn't as complicated as it could be, and
2. There are a lot of moms out there whose challenges I don't fully appreciate.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Books for teens

If you've read this blog for any length of time, you know I have rather eclectic taste in reading material. I tend to like anything that stretches my brain into new ways of thinking. Right now I'm enjoying Stumbling on Happiness, which I began after watching Dan Gilbert's fabulous TED video on how bad we are at knowing what will bring us happiness. And as it occurred to me that Eldest would enjoy this book, it occurred to me that over the years I have fed her a large number of books that have helped (I hope) to broaden her understanding of the world.

Hence a partial list of good books for teens, in no particular order. 

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard - Incredibly helpful stuff that will shift the way you think about how to approach problems.
Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

How to Lie with Statistics - because people do.

The Numerati - or any other book on data mining. A current issue that also paints a picture of why it's worthwhile, career-wise, to be adept at math.

The Design of Everyday Things - This book changed my life. The surface topic is how and why certain objects are easier to use than others, but at heart it's about communication. Why do we push doors labelled PULL? Is there an intuitive way to communicate which switch on the stove lights which burner? Very thought-provoking.

The Design of Everyday Things

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World - incredibly inspirational story of a man who has truly made a difference.

Made You Look: How Advertising Works and Why You Should Know - or any other similar book that raises awareness of how the media manipulates us.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story - a great book about creating the plot in your life.
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story

A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative - a classic. Substitute another problem-solving/creativity book if you want (Edward de Bono has a bunch), but make sure there's one on your list.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success - the Carol Dweck manifesto, based on all her research about how what we think affects how much we grow and succeed. The classic Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (Seligman) is also worth reading.

Non-Designer's Design Book - a friendly introduction to the basics of layout and typeface use. Since everyone ends up designing something at some time, this is both interesting and useful.

Safe People: How to Find Relationships That Are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren't - a Christian perspective, but I'm sure that if you're looking for a secular one, there's a similar book.

On Writing the College Application Essay - a tedious title for a truly excellent book. Written by a former admissions officer, this has probably the best example of how to edit that I've ever seen in a book. Read it at the beginning of junior year.
On Writing the College Application Essay: The Key to Acceptance and the College of your Choice

The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World - a rather uneven book, but worth reading. The author ended up founding the Acumen Fund, a microfinance group that helps people in third-world nations.

If you've got more ideas (or comments on these), speak up!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Normal thankfulness

Yesterday was Big Guy's first day at his new school. It apparently went pretty well. No overwhelming work, and he had a sense that he'd learn things he didn't already know.

Am I relieved? Yes,every mother who gets too many phone calls from school is relieved when there's no bad news. And no, because the fact that the phone doesn't ring today says very little about next week. And maybe, since he's started out on the right foot. I'm pretty good at covering the whole spectrum of responses at once.

Yet it occurs to me that what I'm not good at is appreciating that a normal day is a gift. I detour readily around thankfulness onto the This is the way things are supposed to be! road. And while it's true that life ought to be peaceful and smooth and bump-free, it isn't. (There are reasons for that. Some of them even have to do with me.)

Why do I think the default condition of life is that it should be pleasant? Is it because I think of myself as a more-or-less good person? I could be a good person starving in the Horn of Africa, or a good person living in a war zone. I could be a good person whose farm was destroyed in the hurricane, or a good person whose child was killed by a drunk driver, or whose child or spouse or parent has a debilitating disease. Good entitles me to a clean heart and a clear conscience, a vision of who I hope to become and an awareness of where I fall short. Being a good  person contributes to making the world more like it ought to be. It doesn't exempt me from heartache or hardship.It doesn't even exempt me from continual heartache or hardship.

And so I am struck by this irony: for all the times I've cried, I need a break! I still do not appreciate the respites when they happen. I take 'normal' days as entitlements rather than as answers to prayer.

Do you think that's normal? 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A tale of many very wet tomatoes

Tuesday is our CSA day, the day fresh fruits and veggies arrive from upstate. A neighbor and I split a share, and I get a full share in exchange for being a manager for eight shifts. Yesterday another neighbor asked if I could pick up her share for her today, since she had a medical test and is very pregnant, and of course I said yes. Because it is good to be able to help people when they need it.

It was raining when I left home at 4pm with my aging granny wagon. I steered it up the street to the park where our CSA delivery is, golf umbrella held awkwardly in the other hand to keep me dry. The truck with the delivery was stuck in traffic somewhere. I settled in to wait. It poured and poured. At about 4:45 a man who had been standing around anxiously asked, "If I can't come back, do I lose my share?" Well, yes, you do. Seeing that he was stuck -- he had to go teach a piano lesson -- I offered to bring his share to my house, so he could pick it up later. I had the granny cart, and it really didn't make all that much difference to me to get one more share.

It rained some more, and some more, and some more. Finally, around 5:15 or so, the truck arrived. Everyone helped unload it. There were five kinds of tomatoes, which seemed a bit excessive, so we had to make a second aisle of produce. But then people could select their tomatoes from that aisle while waiting for others to finish getting their vegetables. And by then there were a *lot* of people waiting around.

And it rained even more. I'd put my umbrella down somewhere during the unloading, and was completely drenched. And then by the time the bins were set up it was time for the second shift to start, so I stayed to help get them started. Because when it rains, that's what you do, no? You help others out.

Eventually I started collecting the items for the four shares I was picking up.
20 ears of corn
4 red onions
8 yellow onions
12 peppers
4 celery, 4 lettuces, 4 bunches of chard, 4 bunches of basil
8 yellow paste tomatoes
16 red paste tomatoes
8 'mixed' tomatoes
100 small yellow tomatoes
28 juliet tomatoes

Oh -- and fruit and eggs, too.

Almost everything fit into my family-of-seven size granny cart. There were a few things sticking out of the top, and I had a bag over my shoulder. I found my umbrella and started to leave, but then --oops! -- the cart hit a bad bump and fell over. Crash. Out rolled the tomatoes, smush went the lettuce. My shin stung, and the granny cart wobbled. Nothing was too bad, though, and I figured my family could eat the damaged goods.

So I packed everything back in. I tried to leave a second time. I pushed the cart carefully over the curb, and promptly stepped in four inches of water. The cart veered crazily, axle all but gone, and another rib of the umbrella snapped. But no cars whizzed by to splash me, and I was quite pleased with myself for making an entire block's worth of progress before abandoning the umbrella into a trash can.

With two hands free I was able to wrestle the granny cart down the street, past cars chassis-deep in water from the rain. I arrived home, soaked to the skin, and sorted through the produce.

I was missing a dozen peaches and half a dozen eggs.

And so I headed back out into the rain, back up to the park, to retrieve them. Because if you're going to do other people a favor, it's not good to forget their peaches and eggs. I smiled a soggy smile on the way. They'd increased the tomato and corn share in my absence, realizing they had way too much on hand. So I took home more of each.

When I got back I changed my pants, wryly hoping they would not dry at their new fit-a-basketball-player length. I was so wet that I didn't even notice that my sweater was damp until an hour later. The kids clamored for supper, I tossed something on the stove, and the phone rang. It was the piano teacher, wanting to know if he could stop by. Of course.

And so the man came by. I handed him his bags and bags and bags. And then I handed him his fresh-cut flowers, still glistening with rain. "No, we'd like you to have those," he said, "In thanks for helping out."

My granny cart is dead, my shin is bruised, my clothes will take a week to dry, and we ate dinner at nearly 8pm. But I am stupidly happy. It's not even the flowers. But the flowers make me happy, too.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Moving forward

It's back-to-school week in our neck of the woods, and we'll be starting... um... soon. While I figure out the logistics of that, I'm mindful that the changes in schedule in the first week of September cause lots of kids (not just mine) to get cranky.

We've already had some major changes this weekend, of course. Eldest has been safely deposited in her dorm, and Big Guy arrived home this afternoon with bags full of belongings, mostly books and dirty clothes. I spent much of the afternoon making an attempt to re-establish order.

Later the kids complained (can you imagine?!?) that I was being negative about their football league of stuffed animals. They divvied the toys up into teams, cut up old socks to make mini-jerseys, left the scissors and scraps on the floor, and then started a round-robin that covered the entire living room. Scads of Playmobil figures watched from the sidelines. I had a few thoughts about the mess, which I shared with my offspring. They thought they'd heard that particular speech before. I keep thinking I could make a fortune if I recorded all the classic parenting rants on a CD, so that moms could hand their kids the disk and say, "Track Seven. Twice." It would certainly save us all some breath.

Ah, well. Ye Olde Choice of "You can put it away. or I'll take it away" made relatively fast work of the disaster.


Tomorrow Big Guy starts at his new school. We've promised that if he is responsible about schoolwork and chores and how he handles his feelings, he will get a dog for Christmas. One of the things on my to-do list is to make that promise into a specific contract, so that we all have the same expectations.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Takin' it one thing at a time (sorta)

Today:         +one boy, - one dog, + 2 deadlines, + 1 math camp, + 1 choir concert
Tomorrow:   - one boy, + 1 math camp, + 1 deadline, + 1 ballet performance
Sat:              - 3 girls (1 to college, 2 to sleepovers)
Sun:             +4 girls (2 returning from sleepovers, 2 coming for a sleepover)
Mon:            -2 girls (going home from sleepover) + 1 boy (moving home)
Tues:            can't process that far in advance