Sunday, January 30, 2011

Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Bad Hair day is not a problem.

One of my kids told me this week that my hair looked awful. She was right. So I got a haircut today, and now it just looks bad. Bad haircuts (so long as they're not expensive) don't bother me too much. Why sweat a problem that will eventually disappear?

Okay, so I am obviously not the type of woman who reads Glamour. I never was, but when you've got five kids it kind of takes a lot for bad hair to qualify as a crisis. Everything gets channeled through Mom's triage station before it merits attention.

Got an issue? Here's how I sort them:

Inconveniences require unsophisticated treatment: I shrug. (Note to young moms: learn to shrug. Really.)

Temporary Problems call for endurance, and perhaps a Tylenol. Sometimes dark chocolate helps.

Real Problems require deep breaths, a bit of time to generate a calm mind, and doing something besides posting about it on Facebook.
Lemme tell ya, you can waste a whole lot of otherwise useful energy if you get these categories mixed up.

Lately I've been re-reading Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. Gosh, but it's a good book! I am appreciating one of the points the authors make: when we face a giant-hole-sized problem, we tend to look around for a giant plug to fit into it. That means most of the time we're in a panic, stammering that nothing will work. But most good solutions aren't giant, they're incremental; they fill the problem-size hole bit by bit, over time.

Now isn't that sensible and heartening? You don't have to solve the whole problem at once, with a single solution! And when you can't solve the whole thing, you can still do something. The more little somethings you do, the smaller that giant hole becomes. You make progress, AND you stop feeling quite so helpless. And that gives you the strength to do a few more somethings.

Go for it. Do something small. Take a step. And forget the bad hair.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Teaching Hi-ho, Hi-ho, instead of ho-hum

I don't know when I learned how to work. It wasn't in high school: my mother claims she never saw me bring home a textbook. I went off to college and found that getting straight A's required more than nominal effort, and opted for a less-strenuous B+ average.

After I graduated from college I spent a year working in Puerto Rico, building an interactive model of the economy for the Governor and his aides. I did have to scramble at first: I didn't know the computer language I was supposed to be programming in (didn't know any programming at all, actually), and econometrics had been my worst grade in college. But after a very steep learning curve, the job was rather relaxed.

Things changed the following year in Philadelphia, after my long-term boyfriend dumped me. I threw myself into my job then because it was like anesthesia, and because it gave me an illusion of purpose. There was nothing grand or noble about my labor, no deeply-rooted work ethic or redeeming social value. I worked because my job was the one place I could build something, or at least re-build my self-esteem. Maybe that was the start of what I now understand work to be.

Yesterday at my book group we discussed several of the biographies of 19th century builders within Brave Companions. Conversation drifted to how hard it is to teach kids the value of hard work these days. We've read the Little House books to our kids and pointed out the many chores Laura and Mary had, noting (for our kids' edification) how easy their lives are in comparison. We bemoan how our kids moan about being asked to clean the toilet, forgetting how little we did at ages 8 and 10 and 14. Then we storm about how important it is to get kids to do chores as if using a bit of cleanser on the indoor plumbing is just as important as hoeing the garden so the family will survive a bitter prairie winter without starving.

Note to self: Kids are smart enough to realize nobody's going to go hungry because there's a minor ring in the pot. When a child is hungry -- whether it's for attention or success or mastery of something or comfort or food -- he works with vigor and perseverance (and generally without persuasion) to get what he needs. Hunger teaches viscerally what we're trying to teach philosophically. And I wonder how we can adjust our lives so we feel more of that hunger, instead of just talking about it.

FOLLOWUP: I just read this post by a literary agent and it gives me ideas. Good ideas. Fear and hunger are closely related.

*       *       *       *       *
Tomorrow Eldest and I get on a bus; her winter break is over, and she's heading back to the high seas of schoolwork. She goes to a tough college, one where you hand in one mind-bending assignment only to get the next one in return. Even aiming for B's doesn't provide much of a break. Eldest is feeling a bit daunted at the prospect of re-entering the surf, and I understand why. It's a lot of work.

Staring at a mountain and knowing you'll have to scale it can be daunting. There are times when I'm exhausted and juggling butcher knives while running in circles blindfolded and it feels less impossible to keep going than to slow down, because if I stop I'll have to start again.

I don't really know how you teach a child how to deal with that, other than to tell her to focus on the trail at her feet instead of the minuscule line barely visible at the top of the mountain. So much of life -- including work -- comes down to focusing on what you have to do, when you have to do it. The other part involves figuring out what you're supposed to do, and deciding if you're going to say yes.

No answers here, but if you have ideas, I'd love to hear them.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Idealism as an antidote to anxiety

On Mondays the kids take an art class. Great teacher, beautiful space, close to home, quiet, inexpensive, focused -- and all three of my homeschoolers can go at the same time.

Yesterday Little Guy scowled, "I don't want to go today!"

I inwardly groaned, and ignored it, using the classic "Sorry, but it's already paid for" line.

A little while later Little Guy proclaimed, "I'm not going to art today!"

"Hmmm," I replied, "Sounds like you're unhappy about something."

"We have to draw our sculptures today, and I'm not doing it!"

"I'm sure you'll be fine," I countered, adding, "And besides, if you don't go to art, you don't go to soccer."

Soccer trumps all. Glumly, he put on his coat. As we headed to the train for our two-stop journey I commented, "You know, usually when people don't want to do something it's for one of two reasons. Either they're afraid they'll be embarrassed, or they're afraid they won't be able to something well."

Little Guy nodded. I knew he'd made an awesome Dr. Seuss-like paper sculpture the week before, and he was scared it would be too difficult to draw.

Around here, any time a kid digs in his heels, you can pretty much bet that anxiety is behind it. It often helps if I can put a name on that writhing, scrungy feeling that makes children not want to do things: it's fear. Knowing the name and shape of the enemy makes it a lot easier for them to avoid mistaking Mom for the enemy, too.

We chatted about other things on the train. As we got off to go to art I said, "Do you know how many drawings Picasso made before he even started to paint a picture? Dozens! And how many paintings he did before he got one he liked? And that was Picasso! It's okay if you don't get it right the first time -- or the twentieth time."

"Yeah," Little Guy grumbled, half-smiling, "And Picasso put the eye under the nose, too."

I laughed, and said, "All I care about is that you try. I know it's frustrating when it doesn't work out perfectly, but you can't get better if you don't try." He went into class without complaining.

As it turned out, they elaborated upon their sculptures this week, and will draw them next week. All I have to do between now and then is draw the path to confidence for him a few dozen times, and then perhaps a few more dozen times, and then maybe he'll get the picture. Maybe. For at least one class.

It reminds me of the quote by the famous Anonymous, who said, "An optimist is a person who sees only the lights in the picture, whereas a pessimist sees only the shadows. An idealist, however, is one who sees the light and the shadows, but in addition sees something else: the possibility of changing the picture, of making the lights prevail over the shadows.” Me, I aim for idealism.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Postponing worry, resolving conflict

I've been in the process of coming down with a cold. I mean, I have a cold, but since it keeps getting worse I've been waiting to see how far down it's going to come. Yesterday it moved into my chest, and when I coughed it felt like someone had rubbed my trachea with sandpaper. No fever, but still, not good. Especially since Eldest is going back to college later this week, and I very much want her to stay healthy.

Which way will it go? There's nothing worry finds tastier than ambivalence. So when it's not clear whether or not I need to worry, I set myself a check-in time and a next step, and then focus on something else. With my cough, the check-in was this morning: if the cough got worse over night (it didn't), I would go see the doctor. With Eldest, the check-in is en route to Boston on Friday. If she's coming down with crud, the next step will be to remind her that she has Mucinex, buy her a stock of juice, and give clear instructions on when to go to the infirmary.

I find that thinking through an action plan takes the teeth out of worry most of the time. But then I'm big on using if...then types of plans to simplify life. When the kids were little and one started screaming on the subway my rule was If you shout, we get out. It gave me something to do besides get frustrated, and taught the kids quickly that yes, Mom really would let the train drive away from the platform.  (It's fine to be upset, but disturbing others with loud crying is inconsiderate. That has taken some of my kids a looong time to learn!)

The corollary to this is that when I am facing a repeated frustration, it behooves me to think up an  if...then plan. If Little Guy doesn't get his socks and shoes on without repeated reminders, I need to note that we're dealing with a pattern, and that (as proven by ample experimentation) doing more of the same thing louder is not working. Therefore it's time to think through what's going on, and come up with a new approach.

The advantage of thinking through an if...then ahead of time is that it allows me to be way more rational about problem solving than I am when I have to problem-solve on the spot. I can weigh whether a carrot or a stick is more likely to be successful (duh -- the carrot), and I can think through my child's likely responses. I can explain the plan so the child isn't taken by surprise and knows what to expect. And if I take a rational approach to talking about it, e.g., "I've noticed that most of the arguments you and I have been having lately happen when we're trying to leave the house..." the child might eventually learn to recognize patterns to conflict himself.

An now I'm off to think up if...then number 257 for cleaning up after yourself. Wish me luck!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Things to like about apartment living

Yesterday I went down to our building's laundry room to put in a few loads of darks, and discovered that some wonderful person had folded the load of whites I'd forgotten about. Smile. I like mystery kindnesses.

While I was downstairs I scanned the books people had left on the giveaway table, and picked up a couple of things that looked interesting. I happily added My Name Is Red to the stack (a failure for me: either I don't understand Turkish thought or the author is way too smart for me or it's a bad translation or the book is obnoxiously, self-consciously complex), and left a few no-longer-wanted toys for whoever wanted them. I tossed a bag full of not-good-enough-to-give-away clothing into the fabric recycling bin.

Little Guy and Snuggler played soccer in the adjacent room. I was able to do five industrial-size loads of laundry in about two hours. I can't tell you how nice it is to wash clothes in bulk, instead of in an endless stream. Now I'm pretty much set until about Monday.

I think I would hate having my own washer and drier.


One of our family mottos is 'practice makes progress'. There are days I feel like I yap an endless loop of 'you'll only get better at it if you keep trying' and 'it's only too hard if you don't ask for help' and 'no, you aren't terrible at this -- you feel terrible because you're afraid you're not very good at it'. It gets tiresome.

And then once in a while there's a sign of progress. Yesterday when I took Little Guy to the library he confided, "Reading used to be my least-favorite subject, and now it's my favorite!" He borrowed seven A to Z Mystery books, one for each day of the week. He's reading. Not fast, but independently, and because he wants to.

He's also made progress on writing. This is a kid who was beaned by writer's block at birth, who freezes solid when given an assignment. He writes happily when he's relaxed and when it's a project of his own creation. So we've been working on writing on demand, even if I'm not demanding a whole lot. The other day I told him to write a 5-sentence story about losing a tooth. Thirty questions later ("Does it have to be about my tooth?" "Can it be about more than one tooth?" "Can it involve lots of blood?") he wrote a classic kid story about a boy who was crushed by a hippo and lost all his teeth. There was, indeed, lots of blood and the story concluded with "it was a tragic death". (We're working on punctuation and spelling, so I'll worry about the pathology later.)

Meanwhile, we've had some slippage in the math and mouthiness departments. I'm not quite sure what that's about, though I've long noted that when kids to spurt ahead in one area, they often backslide in another. Which means that sometimes parenting is like trying to keep up with an ice cream cone in July: just when you think you've smoothed out one side you discover the other side has gooed its way down your sleeve. Ah, well. It's still sweet, even if it's messy.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The road sometimes chosen (sometimes given)

Sunday afternoon I was surfing through high school web sites -- Dancer will be in 8th grade next year -- when I accidentally clicked on the name of a very good all-boys school. I'd been looking at girls' schools, so I stared stupidly at the photos trying to figure out what was going on. And then, just as I realized my mistake, an avalanche hit me: Big Guy belongs in a school like that. In a split second I tumbled down and over a slope of grief until I landed, huddled, snowed in by unexpected feelings. My very bright son will never attend any high school other than a therapeutic one.
When you have a child with significant special needs, every now and then you get mugged by what might have been. This happens even after you've learned to value what you have instead of mourn what you don't. It happens even if what you have been deprived of was neither a right nor a possession, but only a wish. I wonder if there are losses of omission as well as of commission, or if it just feels that way.

*      *      *       *       *
When Big Guy was five and things didn't go the way he liked, he wanted to rewind and start again. If we were walking down the street he'd literally run back to where the problem began. It was cute -- except after a while it wasn't. He was unwilling, or perhaps unable, to live with consequences.

Real life is different from reel life: our choices move us to new places, and although there are choices there also, they aren't always the same as the ones we had at first. We can ask what next? from wherever we are, but we can't rewind to where we were.

There are times we wonder, miles down the road, what life would have been like had we chosen another path. We ask ourselves whether, as Robert Frost said, another road would have made 'all the difference'. Given the odd turns and unexpected detours of life, I think it's pretty clear that no road leads us exactly where we think it will. When we consider the road we didn't choose, we need to remember there would have been other things on it to make us happy and unhappy, some dreams fulfilled and others unfulfilled, different joys and disappointments in ourselves and our lives. It's highly unlikely that choosing one road in the wood over another will bring us complete contentment. Roads aren't the route to peace; that journey only happens in our hearts.

*      *      *       *       *
I do wonder what our family would have been like had Big Guy not developed such serious problems. I can remember what it was like in the early years of his life, before his world cracked and crumbled. Eldest remembers, too, and surprisingly so does Dancer. Little Guy and Snuggler have not known life outside their brother's long shadow, except in these four months he has been away. It is interesting, and sometimes painful, to watch them discover a new definition of normal, one where consistent sibling behavior is a fairly reliable commodity.
  *      *      *       *       *

Life doesn't always hand us what's comfortable, or dole out problems at convenient times. The first time Big Guy was hospitalized his friend's mom said, "It's not fair that my son has to know about things like this at this age!" I stared at her silently, wondering how she expected me to respond. Is there a good way to learn about mental illness? Is there a right age to learn about it? Do we have a choice about the timing of crises?

Yes, I wish things had been different. I wish my other children had not had to suffer so much. I wish there had been other, less painful ways to teach them how to grow in compassion and coping skills and the ability to forgive. I wish life had been easier for all of us. I wish we'd had some way of knowing what the right thing to do was at each intersection of Big Guy's care.

And yet I don't regret anything. We have done the best we could. We have become more resourceful, more knowledgeable, more understanding, and more attuned to what's important in life with each passing year. I have learned where my weaknesses lie, both in my personality and in my faith. Perhaps an easier path would not have taught me these things. If I stood at the divergence of two roads in the wood today, one holding out the seeming promise of painless parenting, and one containing a rocky path to teaching my kids things that are really important, which one would I choose?

Which one would you?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King, Jr.

When I was growing up my brother had a small stuffed animal he called his Mississippi tiger. My father brought it home as a gift after a trip south in the summer of 1964. Yeah, I'm that old. And yeah, the reason Dad went to Mississippi was to help with the civil rights movement. I've occasionally wondered how my mom felt when Dad headed off to shoot-bomb-lynch land, leaving her at home with three kids under the age of five. But I never knew her to complain about it; I guess they both agreed it was the right thing to do.

I grew up knowing a lot about Martin Luther King, Jr. Between the ages of 5 and 11 I lived on a college campus, in the midst of civil unrest and Vietnam protest marches. We lived a couple of miles from Newark when it was burning, where I was a reverse minority, one of a handful of white kids in my public school. In later years, in American History class in a suburban high school, I was thoroughly shocked to discover that my age-mates had no personal knowledge of the social tumult of the late 1960's and early 70s. I daresay my essay about that got me into college.

Today we had a modified day off: math, writing homework, and then I read aloud some background about what the year 1963 was like, from Free at Last: The Language of Dr King's Dream by Michael Clay Thompson. The book discusses how the 'I Have a Dream' speech is written, pointing out metaphor and assonance and consonance and alliteration -- good stuff. So we pulled up the video of the speech on YouTube and watched it. Little Guy got a bit bored, but the girls paid attention. It's a good speech, worth watching. And it's worth remembering how the world was, and talking about how it is now, and thinking about what dreams we have (or still have) for the future.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Metabolism and its ilk

Eldest and I went to a spin class last night. For the first seven minutes I was sure I was going to die. By the time we hit the fifteen minute mark the burning muscles in my thighs had been cremated, and I decided that this near-numbness must be the exercise equivalent of frostbite. In this insentient state I figured I might be able to survive half an hour. To encourage that, I abandoned the sprints and focused exclusively on keeping the wheels of my stationary bike moving. I made the pretend hills I climbed very, very small. I've overdone exercise before, and though that was a few decades ago I wanted to reserve some strength so I could get out of bed today.

Eldest did much better than I did; I was impressed with her perseverance. We both made it through the full hour, and survived the stretching afterward, too. The reward was a neck massage by the teacher, which made me forget anything in my body had ever ached.

I am not accustomed to pain from physical exercise. That's a consequence of not exerting myself, ever. My upper-arm workout consists mainly of turning the pages of books; my abs get their strength from picking up after kids. Like all city folks I walk a lot -- I can go three or four miles easily -- but I don't go out of my way to induce muscle spasms. I paid my dues by going through labor five times, and that's enough muscle contracting for a lifetime.

But there's this unfortunate matter of the paunch that has become attached to my abdomen, and the odd addition of skin jello on my thighs. I'm not always sure this is me inside my body. Until I stopped nursing Little Guy, the most I'd ever carried on my 5'6" frame (pregnancy excluded) was 130 pounds.

And then my metabolism had a mid-life crisis. Maybe it got depressed, and wanted to do something different. Maybe it wanted to expand its horizons. Whatever the case, though my diet didn't change my waistline did: in the space of four years I went from size small to medium.  The last time I went to the doctor I looked at the weight chart and realized I was a mere five pounds from tipping into Overweight territory.

Hence the spin class. I woke up this morning wondering if one session had jostled my metabolism back into shape, or if it would take two. Somewhere in the back of my brain I know this is a longer-term endeavor than I want to grasp, but I'm going to take this one torture session at a time. The good news is that today I'm still moving and functional. Whew!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

People who've made a difference in my life

Unknown Woman, c. 1990
Back in the The Bonfire of the Vanities days, I worked at a money management firm. My boss was the managing director of marketing. I was a lowly assistant vice president. I got paid a fortune, but in my mind the real reason I was paid so extravagantly was that I had to put up with my boss. She was the type of person who, in the middle of a meeting would turn and say, "The problem with you, Julia, is..." She was not a pleasant person to be around. I quickly learned that my raison d'etre in the office had nothing to do with my clients, and everything to do with advancing her career. After an incident in which I'd forgotten a minor detail for a conference call she told me angrily, "Your performance is above and beyond anything I could expect 99% of the time. It's the other 1% that I can't stand!"

I arrived in the office each day at about 7:30am, often leaving twelve or more hours later. It was a time of stress and confusion; my self-confidence grew shaky, and I was more aggravated than I'd ever thought possible. One gray winter day at lunchtime I discovered a dark, neo-Gothic church tucked into an odd corner of midtown, and I took to retreating there daily to sit in mute agitation, letting frustration wisp its way out of my soul like incense. At the time I wasn't sure if I believed in God, but I pleaded with him for sanity, anyway.

One morning I got on the subway early, and found that the train was unusually crowded. I stood sleepily, swaying in the multitude, when the car suddenly jerked and I lost my balance. My feet shifted instinctively, and I heard a scream; my 2" heel had landed on the arch of the woman next to me.

Everyone in the car froze. This was New York, after all, and everyone watched to see what the woman would do next: would there be a fight? an argument? danger? I apologized profusely. There was a pause.

Blinking back tears, the woman looked at me and stammered in a lovely British accent, "Well... I suppose... I suppose that... if this is the worst thing that happens to me today, it will be a good one!"

I was in awe.

I'd never had my foot skewered by a high heel, and I never would have looked at the situation that way if I'd been the victim. This woman introduced to me a revolutionary idea: put inconveniences and frustrations and temporary aggravations into the bigger picture of what really constitutes a problem. Look at things from a different perspective. Flip the situation around until you find a positive way to handle it.

I don't remember the color of the woman's eyes, what she was wearing, or the length of her hair. I'm certain she doesn't remember a thing about me. But in one simple sentence she changed my life.

Life is like that: the little points of light that illuminate our path often come from others who are completely unaware of the gift they've given us. If you think back on the things people have said to you that have shaped who you are -- for good or for ill -- I'd be willing to bet that the vast majority of those people wouldn't recall the conversation. What a curious thing!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Left-handed losers

In which we prove that my family has an inexplicable propensity to misplace left gloves. (And yes, we own more orphan mittens than matched sets.)

On success in parenting

Our homeschool co-op is set up so that the moms while the kids are in class. Usually there's a time for coffee and chatter, then a presentation of some sort (a guest speaker, discussion of a get-me-thinking article or book). After that we break out into smaller groups. I'm part of the book club, which is now reading David McCullough's Brave Companions.

The book club is a phenomenal group of women. We laugh a lot, we pray together, we interject real-life concerns in the conversation. Today, in the course of talking about Humboldt, Louis Aggasiz, and Harriet Beecher Stowe the talk turned to breadth vs. depth of education, and the nature (and nurture) of passion. We talked about bravery, and what it means in parenting and in life. We veered off into a discussion of how envying the life of someone whose life is different from our own can show us where our fears lie -- and guide us toward accepting the choices we've made.

And we also talked about success, and what that means when we think of our kids.
  • Is it that our children become curious, engaged, passionate human beings? 
  • Is it that they have perseverance and grit, and the ability to overcome obstacles? 
  • Is it that they produce something of value, or contribute something of worth to the world? 
  • That they grow up to be true to themselves, honest and trustworthy and reliable? 
  • That they care deeply about justice, and do things to promote it?
  • Is it that they adopt our beliefs about what is right and wrong, good or bad?
It's hard to land on the moon under the best of conditions; it's impossible to land successfully if you don't know where you're trying to go. I think I have a pretty clear picture of what I hope for my kids, but it's always helpful to re-think things. Other aspirations have a way of creeping into my heart and clouding what I communicate to my kids.

In the wake of the Arizona horror I'm reminded that kids are not clay, subject to our control. We influence them, but our children are indeed separate human beings. They ultimately determine what advice they swallow, what guidance they tolerate, what help they accept, what medicine (at age 22) they take and how often. My friend Ellen from the book club forwarded this post this evening, which resonated deeply for me.

I pray for the parents of Jared Loughner. How one crawls through the situation they're in, I don't know. How could you ever go back to work and face people? How could you get over the fact that your child did this horrible thing? How could you live with all the if only I'd... regrets you'd face for the rest of your life? And how would you love your child, the one given to you as an innocent baby, the one you worried about through his teen years, and find the strength to forgive him?

And yet... we parents do have influence. We do have hope. We each have a long list of things we can do to make our children more stable, more balanced, more intellectually and emotionally rich, more capable of feeling loved. We can't do everything, can't control everything. But we can do what we can do. And we darn well better get around to doing it.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Politics and parenting

Politics is one of the few areas where I'm generally a cynic. I am about as interested in mud slinging between adults as I am in a yes-no tug of war between kids: as soon as someone calls someone else stupid, evil, or ridiculous, I tune out.When the finger pointing begins, I bow out. I go make chicken soup for a neighbor who has the flu, instead.

Some rare people -- Dr. Paul Farmer of Mountains Beyond Mountains fame, for example -- are able to balance the big and little pictures. Most of us, though, can only deal with whichever picture we're looking at. We're not very good at translating the real-life poverty of someone who lives in a rat-ridden tenement into effective social policies that are financially efficient and measurable. We're not even very thorough when it comes to finding out details that allow us to evaluate whether a given social policy is effective. So we tend to fill in the disconnect between the small picture (person suffering in slum) and the big picture (legislation or policy) with opinion.

Sadly, a lot of our opinions are based on a one-minute nightly news summary. We might supplement  with a quick look at an online news article, and a rare few doggedly buy a daily paper of quality and scour an article or two written by someone who did a few hours or days of research. The truth is, we often don't know what we're talking about.

One day recently Little Guy said something about Obama. Although it was a statement I agreed with, I looked at him and said, hopefully not unkindly, "When did you learn about health care policy?" And I realized two things: first, that I need to work more on helping my kids learn how to form opinions they can support with knowledge and facts. And second, that we adults need to be very, very careful what we say -- and how we say it -- when we voice opinions in front of our kids.

*         *         *          *          *

I saw the horrible news last night about the shooting of Rep. Giffords in Arizona. While my mind was reeling over six people dead, including a girl Snuggler's age, I opened Facebook and got another shock. There were several posts of breezy vitriol, most of the "Put Sarah Palin in the crosshairs" variety. (I have friends on both sides of the political divide.)

If we're going to take one lesson from the deaths of six people, I think it should be this: vitriol is vitriol. If you don't like the way someone talks, don't imitate it. No matter what your political bent may be, it's not okay to reduce the problem to someone else's stupidity, not okay to call your opponent a Hitler. When we vent with name-calling and heaping blame, we teach our kids that this is how we do things when we're upset: we attack.

We don't attack people. We attack problems. Kids need to know the difference. The strategy for dealing with problems like political vitriol and violence is, as my wise friend Elise put it, "Get sad, get mad, then get busy." If our kids don't see us sad but hear us mad, and then don't see us do anything about the problem, we've got a huge problem.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Last day of Christmas

Sustainable Marriages

One of the most-emailed articles this week over at The New York Times is titled The Happy Marriage is the 'Me' Marriage.

"For centuries, marriage was viewed as an economic and social institution, and the emotional and intellectual needs of the spouses were secondary to the survival of the marriage itself," the article says, "But in modern relationships, people are looking for a partnership, and they want partners who make their lives more interesting." It goes on to describe the findings from a study about "how individuals use a relationship to accumulate knowledge and experiences...Research shows that the more self-expansion people experience from their partner, the more committed and satisfied they are in the relationship."

Nice idea, but the way the article is written makes it seem like either you grow personally because of your spouse or you practice some degree of self-sacrifice. Either your spouse is introducing you to new people and ideas and that makes you happy or you're primarily in it for the economics or kids or because your religion says marriage is permanent.

Is this really an either/or thing? I mean, what about a situation in which your spouse becomes horribly ill and you have to live out that 'in sickness and in health' clause? There's an awful lot of self-expansion that occurs by being forced into a situation you don't like, and in learning how to love someone who can no longer do what he used to.

Or what about learning how to parent a difficult child? There's plenty of knowledge and experience couples gain that way. It just happens to be info that wasn't on your personal want-to-know list. You may end up a better person because of it, though. And if you figure out how to do it together, that can be a major plus for the relationship.

My guess is that the research study was designed to isolate the effect of the 'self-expansion' factor within marriages, because that's what studies usually do: study one factor at a time. Of course 'self-expansion' has a positive effect on the sustainability and happiness of a marriage. But it's probably only one of at least 20 major factors, the most important of which may be an openness to learning and growing in all kinds of situations -- not just the ones that are fun and intellectually stimulating.

(Posted with apologies to my husband, who took the stupid quiz linked in the Times article at my request.)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Welcome Daily Guideposts readers!

Daily Guideposts 2011 StatCounter shows a marked spike in the number of readers here in the past week. There have been somewhere between 150 and 200 extra people stopping by here each day. They're arriving via Daily Guideposts, which is a book of daily devotional readings I've contributed to for the past 14 years.

A warm welcome to all of you. You're free to drop me a line at LotsaLaundry1 AT


I've been reading The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. He's the surgeon who put together that simple checklist for hospitals that reduced surgical complications by a ridiculous percentage. And the book is about what kinds of situations checklists work best in, and how to develop and refine lists. It's more interesting than it sounds: he visits the guy at Boeing who put together a checklist for what to do if the pressure latch blows off at 20,000 feet and the oxygen tanks fail, too, and he writes about what he learned about how construction sites keep track of thousands of steps involving 16 subcontractors.

I'm not much of a list person, myself: I really do not want to itemize what I need to do. But there is one area of my life that I have created a checklist for myself, and that is in basic parenting. Sounds crazy, I know. But in the midst of a busy day it's stupidly easy to forget the obvious things, like showing your kids you love them.

I learned this during the worst of Big Guy's troubles, when things were pretty grim. Big Guy was erratic, explosive, unpredictable, dangerous. He was so difficult to deal with that one day I realized with horror that I hadn't voluntarily touched him in a week. So that became item #1 on my parenting checklist: touch Big Guy five times a day. Pathetic, perhaps -- but it helped me do something I needed to do that I wasn't doing because of stress.

Then I looked around at my other kids, each of whom was also stressed. (Sometimes the hardest part of dealing with having one kid fall apart is the effect on all the others.) I thought through the ways each one knew they were loved -- for one it was snuggling, for another one-on-one time, and another liked to talk -- and tried to come up with one thing to do each day for each child.

I used that checklist for a long time. I didn't always get to everything every day (and mercifully one kid's special thing was a once-a-weeker), but at least I knew what I'd forgotten.

Somewhere along the line, perhaps a year into using it, I forgot about the list. After a while I also forgot to do some of the things on it. But it's had a lasting effect on my thinking: when behavior around here heads south and everybody starts getting cranky, one of the first questions I ask myself is if I've neglected to do the things that make my kids feel loved.

It makes a huge difference to a child -- or to anyone, me included -- to be emotionally fed before  hunger starts gnawing at the heart. When Andrew arrives home and calls eagerly to Little Guy, "You ready for your story?" it means something different to my youngest than if Little Guy has to pester his dad to read to him. It's the same bedtime story, and there's good in it either way. But it's better for my boy's heart when Andrew remembers. Because he knows Daddy thought of him. And that matters.

One of the points of The Checklist Manifesto is that when we're busy or stressed or sick or tired, it's easy to skip the obvious stuff. A checklist reminds us to do the basics. And I think that letting our kids know that they're loved is probably about as basic to our long-term success as parents as washing your hands is to starting surgery.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Screen time

The kids had too much screen time over the break. The aftereffects are rather like eating too much sugar: headache-causing and fussiness-inducing. Too much screen time means my kids are far more likely to ask the forbidden question: "Mom, what can I do?" (Answer: clean the bathroom.)

We normally allow 45 minutes of screen time a day, with a movie alternative once or twice a week. I'm not sure if that's a lot or a little; it seems like a lot to me, but relative to the national average it's peanuts.

We limit screen time for a number of reasons:
  1. I want my kids to grow up to be producers of value, not consumers of fluff. Creativity and innovation emerge out of empty blocks of time, not out of entertainment. 
  2. It's easier to set boundaries with real kids than with TV characters. My standard for behavior is the same for media as for people: if you're rude, you can adjust your attitude or  come back when you've learned better manners.
  3. I'm too lazy to screen everything. When my kids are busy coming up with shows and art projects and messes, I discover what's going on in their heads instead of having to sift what's going into their heads.
  4. Screen time is a parental slippery slope. It takes energy to be even a half-good mom, energy I don't always want to expend. If I don't set conscious limits on how often I pack my kids off to la-la land, I fall into bad habits.
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The move to a residential facility included a big shift for Big Guy: he has nothing but screen time at the place he's living. It's a mystery how hospitals and mental health centers (the very places research is done) provide a diet of almost entirely TV and video games. You'd think if research shows that too much screen time leads to depression and obesity, health care folks would at least have books and games on hand. 

Since there's no ready reading supply at his place, and nothing else to do, Big Guy's Christmas gifts were almost entirely books. These ranged from the last in the Dune series to Michio Kako's Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century to the very good Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory. Some light stuff, some good reads, and one or two thick tomes to plow through. I would have loved to get him a robotics or electronics set, but his patience and self-confidence are insufficient to make that kind of activity fun right now.

Big Guy can now read instead of constantly hang around the TV room getting into arguments. However, he also came up with another activity: he recently bought himself a DSi, a gaming toy I know nothing about, and about which no one at his facility thought to ask my opinion. I'm not a mental health professional, but my parenting instinct tells me that shutting oneself in one's room to play games in isolation is not ideal for building social skills. But given the lack of guidance and supervision on healthy ways to interact, I suppose that removing yourself from the fray is a better option.

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As a gesture of generosity, Big Guy gave his ancient DS (bought 'refurbished' last summer, and never played) to my younger kids. Snuggler and Little Guy were very excited. They pooled their funds to buy a game to play, and petitioned their me to take them to a Game Stop. It was a whole new world, one which I was not happy to enter. Given the expense relative to my kids' budgets, however, I am reasonably confident that this will be a short-lived phase.

With more forms of media in the house it's getting harder to hold the line on time limits, or even keep track of them. And since we had more free time than usual over the break, I've been admittedly lax about enforcing the rules. (There was also some disconnect between the adults on what's allowed; Andrew's far more likely to let the kids enter the hypnozone than I am.)

After our screen time gorge, though, an attitude of entitlement seemed to set in. I understand, at least intellectually: it's more work to entertain yourself than to let a computer chip do the work, and there's great reluctance to go back to the work of thinking up things to do. So to assist with the readjustment, yesterday I revamped our screen time approach.

We start with a small base of entitlement: 20 minutes. All screen time after that is earned. The work goes two ways: I have to dig myself out of the trap of taking away screen time for misbehavior, and figure out other ways to handle problems.

I expect we'll have a few days of misplaced expectations; my kids do occasionally fall into the misconception that boredom is something Mom's supposed to banish. I'll let you know how we do.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Emotional noise

It was a busy week. My parents were here to visit for four days, and that overlapped with a few stressful home visits from Big Guy. The machine that charges up my laundry card broke (we pay for the wash with a debit card of sorts), so we're knee-deep in piles of the to-be-washed. The pipe under the kitchen sink is leaking badly. Snuggler was crushed that she didn't get a part in Seussical, and required a great deal of extra love. I learned that there was a mis-typed lecture date in a newsletter I wrote, which was not entirely my fault, but the problem still needs a solution. We're hamster-sitting for a friend, and my eyes are itchy from rodent dander and my annual allergy to the drying Christmas tree. I've eaten too many cookies.

All this -- ranging from the mildly inconvenient to the rabidly stressful -- clamors for mental attention. Sanity has consisted of stapling a mental note to my brain that says

This moment only feels like forever: it isn't. 

Enough water has passed under the bridge of my life that sometimes I remember that many of today's woes will be gone tomorrow or Tuesday or a week from Sunday. This cacophony of needs and problems will be replaced with others, and life will go on.

My mom -- who has had an empty next for decades -- commented mildly while she was here that the general noise level at my house is higher than she is used to. She marveled that I can work or read a book when the kids are playing loudly nearby. I react as badly to excess noise as the next over-stimulated person -- when it's not of a type to which I'm accustomed. My ability to concentrate in the midst of family chaos is a survival skill: no one's going to give me peace and quiet, so I've have to find it within myself. I've learned to tune out some things in order to focus on others.

I wonder if there's an equivalent to that for emotional noise. Sometimes we feel every stress on the horizon, and many smaller stresses don't need the amount of attention we give them. Maybe there are ways to nourish peace in our hearts, even in the midst of life's emotional mayhem. 

Here's hoping the new year brings you insight and wisdom, and a life that is more focused on the things that matter most.