Friday, December 21, 2012


Our bank funds are back! They appeared in chunks, half yesterday and half today. I can pay bills! I don't have to ration coffee! I can think about something besides every penny again! Ahhhhh. Bliss.

*        *        *       *

Went to a great funeral today. I sat there thinking about how Fr. William Shelley had lived his entire life wanting to be with God forever, and how good and right it is that now he has gotten to do that. I have never known anyone so utterly holy and yet so utterly and fallibly human. He was a good, crotchety, honest man whose presence in my family's life brought only good. The baby I lost five years ago would have been named after him. I'm completely grateful for Fr. Shelley's life, and wishing I were half as faithful as he was.

*        *        *       *
The wonderful Magpie sent me three pounds of fine coffee for Christmas. It is delectable, especially when brewed up in the French press gave me when I went out to the estate sale for her mom's home. Sometimes you have no idea what luxury really is.

*        *        *       *

I have this book on my Christmas list, and you should, too. 
How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character  

Required reading. Great stuff.

*        *        *       *

It's a mixed blessing, but I've become the editor of choice for really bad writers of masters' theses at a certain college. Income, yes. But mind-bending, convoluted sentences with jaw-dropping non-logic comes with the territory.

*        *        *       *

School is out! I don't have to force anyone out of bed for the next 10 days!
Ten days! 
Ten days!
Oh, wow.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

I woke up today to find there was only one cup of coffee's worth of beans. I ground them and made coffee for Big Guy, who tends to sleep through first period if he doesn't have a cuppa Joe.

When I turned on my laptop, I got the black screen of death. Andrew later tried all the usual fixes, but no luck.

I got an email (on the kids' clunker) that my uncle fell and fractured four vertebrae.Then I received a phone message that our favorite priest died last night.

When I took the dog out for a walk he started to frolic and pranced away. I was going to prance along, but tripped on a piece of bluestone, skinned a knee, and wrenched my right wrist so badly that I spent the evening in the ER.

The bank still hasn't reimbursed us for the stolen money.

Enough of that. There's also this: someone wrote to me out of the blue to ask me to edit a thesis, Andrew gave me his laptop to use while mine gets fixed, I somehow met a deadline this afternoon typing with only one hand, and Eldest came home. I may succeed in meeting tomorrow's deadline. A very sweet acquaintance sent us a check, just because. And I baked chocolate chocolate-chip-peppermint-stick cookies, which were very, very good.

Bad things happen. Good things happen. Life happens. Extrapolating from the current moment is kind of silly. I haven't quite figured out why we do it.

My wrist isn't broken. We found the missing load of wash. Little Guy has finally used up the package of 260 twist-into-animal balloons, so the sound of screeching plastic will coming to an end before my sanity expires. Origami Santas litter the floor. I located the missing file of medical forms. All the kids are in bed. Alive.

If you had a bad day, it's come to an end. If you had a good day, there's hope for another. Goodnight, friends.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

wonderful people, beautiful things

Last year I got to chatting with a neighborhood mom, and discovered she taught dance at a local middle school. Dancer's ballet school had been looking for a way to do some outreach, so I offered to connect the mom and the school. Unfortunately, by the time I did so the mom had been laid off.

This September the mom started a new job in an elementary school in the South Bronx. It's a tough neighborhood, the poorest in the nation. This time I succeeded in setting up a meeting to see if her school and the dance school could develop a partnership.

In November a group of our ballet students trekked out to the South Bronx to do a lecture-demo for 3rd, 4th and 5th graders. Dancer loved doing it; the kids were fascinated by the demo, and Dancer said they were funny and charming and totally entranced. The ballet mistress who went along said it was a magical experience.

On Monday night, 38 of the kids came into Manhattan to observe a dance class, have pizza, and watch the final dress rehearsal for Nutcracker. Most of them had never been in a theater before; none had seen a ballet. It was fabulous. They cheered and giggled and smiled and smiled.

Sometimes the best gift in the world is to be able to give to someone else. Monday was a gift.

*         *          *         *

Dancer has feet that are hard to fit for pointe shoes. Last year one of her teachers, who used to dance with a major ballet compay, noticed that Dancer's feet were similar to her own. Miss Natalia gave Dancer a few pairs left over from the days when her company had them custom made for her. Lo and behold, the shoes fit better than anything else Dancer had ever tried.

Standard pointe shoes cost a good $80. Dancer goes through a pair every few weeks. Miss Natalia had a closet full of the specially-made shoes, some of which she graciously sold to us for $30 a pair. Even that has been brutal on our non-existent budget.  And Natalia is reaching the bottom of her bottomless closet. 

I don't write much about our financial hardships. I'm adept at making-do; I'm good at bartering services; I know how to stick to a budget. Dancer is blessed with scholarships at both her high school and ballet. Over time I have learned to pull my attention away from the things that seem unfixable, and to focus on doing whatever the next thing is that I can do. There's a lot I can contribute to the world even if financial ends don't meet.

Tuesday while I was working backstage -- something I can do -- Miss Natalia came over to me, smiling widely. She showed me an email on her phone from a famous ballerina who happens to use the same custom shoes as she does. Natalia had written to her about our pointe shoe dilemma. The ballerina wrote back, "Of course I'd be glad to donate some of my shoes to your student!"

Sometimes the sheer goodness of people astounds me. Stunningly beautiful things happen when people choose to live generously. Some of those people read this blog, and have done beautiful things in my life. I cannot begin to say how thankful I am. 

Dancer on opening night

Monday, December 10, 2012


At midnight tonight Eldest's two final projects are due. We haven't heard from her in a week; she's pretty much incommunicado in times of stress. I doubt she's had much sleep, and she's a kid person who needs her shut-eye.

A while back I read Dreamland by David Randall, and learned all kinds of tidbits about sleep. There was a whole chapter on insomnia, another on the relationship between sleep and aha! moments, another on apnea and sleep disorders. Apparently the research shows that the number one factor in how many fights a couple has is how much sleep the wife got the night before. And the number one cause of friendly fire in battle is sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep affects our judgment in significant ways. But apparently the professors at Eldest's prestigious institution haven't read up on this particular body of research.

There's not much a mom can do to make life easier for her stressed-out offspring from a distance of several hundred miles. I've been thinking of her for days, knowing... well, knowing that I don't know how she's doing, and praying for the best.

*        *        *         *

Not-knowing is a maddening thing. Then again, there's a lot less uncertainty in life these days than there used to be. When people left Europe to immigrate to America, the family they left behind didn't know for months, perhaps years, what became of them. If someone headed west to the prairies, there was no way of knowing how they fared. Goodbyes in those days were truly goodbyes; you didn't know if you'd ever see that person again.

Last week I went somewhere with Snuggler and Little Guy, and forgot my phone. Snuggler wailed, "But what will we do if..." I looked at her kind of oddly, realizing that being a digital and cellular native has its drawbacks. "We'll do what we would have done 15 years ago," I replied, "We'll figure it out. If we need to."

*        *        *         *

Dancer called this morning at 7:50; her express bus broke down on the highway, leaving the passengers stranded on the desolate fringe of East Harlem. I told her that as long as she stayed with the other passengers while walking to whatever other bus route was nearby, she'd be safe. It was inconvenient and scary, and she was likely to be late for school, but hey -- she was safe.

Dancer was already walking with other people. In truth, she would have been okay even if she hadn't been able to call me. She's resourceful and sensible, and I think being in this kind of situation is how one becomes resourceful and sensible. Travel is one of the very best tools there is for learning how to come up with a Plan B. Buses and trains break down, get delayed, cause missed connections. It's nice to be able to call Mom, but after you've gone through that kind of thing a few times you stop calling and just figure out how to handle the situation. You realize you can deal with that level of uncertainty.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Odds and Ends

Little Guy and I went down to Lincoln Center this morning to see the dress rehearsal of Babes in Toyland. Getting out the door was a challenge, since I had a project that HAD to go out before I left. So I said to Little Guy, "I need you to be self-running today. Here's your school list. You do your job, so I can do mine."

He was pretty good about it. As we got close to departure time and it became clear I would need every possible second, I said, "Can you get me a pair of black socks and my brown shoes?  And find my keys and my cell phone and put them in my purse." He did that. Then I told him to pack his bag with everything he'd need (we were going to do math on the train), and to get himself ready. I sent off the project with no time to spare and we ran to the train. And we made it to the show. I felt like we'd made it somewhere else, too, perhaps to a higher plane of cooperative living. At least for a morning.

*        *        *        *        *

Dancer's Nutcracker opens on Wednesday. Tonight she is going to see a friend who has the lead in a different Nutcracker, and tomorrow night she'll see a teacher dance in a still different version. From there on, she will practically live at the theater through December 16.

We were pleased to see a nice article about Dancer's ballet school the other day. If you are interested in coming to see her dance, tickets are available here.

*        *        *        *        *

Andrew spent most of yesterday at the police precinct filing a report about the bank fraud. He came home with many stories to tell. You can learn a lot about your neighborhood by sitting around the police station for a day, y'know.

The money that was stolen has not been refunded by the bank yet. Our new accounts, however, are functional, and my new credit card arrived today. I can sense that fiscal functionality lies somewhere in our future. The bank says it needs the police report and various affadavits before they can reinstate the money (though they do know it was fraud), and for some reason seem to think seven to ten business days is a reasonable timeframe for approving the refund. 

I remind myself that this is a three-week liquidity issue, not a permanent loss. That means this is not a crisis, just a massive inconvenience. I can make it into a crisis if I allow myself to panic or stress. But stressing too much over a temporary problem is likely to do more long-term damage to my mental and physical health than the actual fraud. 

*        *        *        *        *

It's been a month since the hurricane. Yesterday Little Guy and I walked through our local park. The cleanup is mostly finished. As you can see, a lot of trees had to be removed:

Unfortunately, the trees can't be reinstated in three weeks. The damage is done, and the best we can do is replant. It makes me sad. But it also reminds me that most of the problems I face in life are pretty small compared to a hurricane.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Fraudulent activity

I've spent a good amount of time on bank-related activity this week, since someone managed to add a name to our bank account, transfer our meager savings into our checking, then transfer the whole caboodle to themselves.

As I sat in the bank, waiting while various accounts were cancelled and new accounts were set up, I chatted with the bank officer. I commented that fraud was certainly an odd but effective form of economic stimulus: it keeps lots of people employed, ranging from the bank officer to the bank's entire fraud department, and gives jobs to  people at the Attorney General's office and credit agencies. The ripple effect is impressive.

Earlier that day a friend had emailed me the link to the FTC's page on identity theft. I'd also recalled that a friend who had gone through this last summer said it's necessary to extend the credit protection beyond the free 90-day period, since people who steal information have every incentive to sit on it until no one is paying attention any more. And so, as I sat in the bank chair, I had time to be grateful for that information, since it makes life a bit easier to manage.

Someone who had just given me a check for helping her daughter write college essays, texted me to say, "I'll bring you cash, instead." Several other people immediately offered cash advances, should we need liquidity. Sitting in the bank, I had time to be mindful of how many good, helpful people I know. That helped to keep this event, caused by someone who doesn't know me and certainly doesn't care, in perspective.

Also on the plus side: I will have no trouble staying within a Christmas budget this year.

I told the bank officer that I think the best possible defense against the bad guys is simply to be aware, each and every day, how many good people there are in the world, and to choose to be one of them.

Here's why I think that's true: when I consider the things people said that made a difference in my life, I can pretty much guarantee that not one of those people has any recollection of the conversations I recall so well. That tells me the most important thing I can do is to be the best person I can be in each and every interaction I have each day. Because you never, ever know whose life you're going to change with what you say.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Problem solving, yet again

Years ago, Dancer had a ballet master who, while normally excellent, was downright brutal during tech week. He was pretty good about not blasting the younger kids, but the things he'd say to the older ones -- oh my! Jaw-dropping. It was as if he thought tearing down a soul could build up a dancer. I had serious qualms about letting Dancer stay there when she got old enough to be vented upon.

So as I walked Dancer down to rehearsal, I'd say, "You know he's likely to be stressed, because he wants you all to look your best for the performance. If he screams, what are you going to tell yourself?" We'd review healthy self-talk; sometimes a reminder of what to expect and how to handle it is good, prophylactic medicine.

Ballet is an art learned through mistakes; students learn to consider it an honor to be given a correction, because it means you've got enough potential to be worth correcting. But when you're dealing with a highly emotional director, there's a fine line between taking correction and taking abuse. For a long, long while I wondered how to teach Dancer to be strong enough to withstand the kind of blast that was likely to come her way some day.

And then one day light dawned: this wasn't a problem of strength, but of discernment. What we need when dealing with difficult people is the ability to distinguish between the seed of useful truth they can offer us, and the gale in which it travels. We need to grab that seed, plant it, use it -- and let the rest pass by.

Fortunately, that ballet master has moved on. Dancer's school now has incredibly supportive teachers. And we've all learned a little bit more about how to take criticism constructively, even when it's not given that way.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

It's not all about me

It was good too have Eldest home for 48 hours. The kids were ecstatic: Eldest is a terrific big sister, one who takes time to give attention to each of her siblings individually. Mostly, though, the five of them hung around and giggled about plays and shows they'd made up in earlier years, singing the lyrics to ridiculous parodies they've invented, laughing and laughing and laughing. In its own weird way it is nice to know that what they will remember most about their childhood is their time together. It's not all about me.

*        *        *        *

And then -- she was gone. She wasn't eager to leave, especially with three more weeks of a brutal semester awaiting her back on campus. She has multiple, overlapping projects due between now and December 10. We are embarking upon a 'Keep Her Healthy and Sane' campaign, which consists of a daily missive and a bit of extra prayer. If you're a praying person, please toss up a prayer for her. That kid works so hard.

*        *        *        *

One reason Thanksgiving went well this year was that everyone helped out. The boys dusted and tidied while listening to HMS Pinafore; Dancer baked pies; Andrew cleaned the bathroom; Snuggler set the table. We got started ahead of time, so there was no rush. Hard work is a lot more palatable when everyone's contributing to getting the job done.

I had a momentary thought that perhaps we're finally over the complaining-about-helping hurdle, and then laughed at myself. Some of my kids may never clear that hurdle consistently. Others clear it all the time. It's not all about me and my parenting.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Problem solving, again

About a week ago I came home and Andrew sat me down and said sadly, "I broke your computer." It was the sort of news that leaves one stunned; there was nothing to say, nothing to feel. It just was. He'd tripped over the adapter cord and the laptop became a floortop. The cord separated from the adapter, leaving part inside.

I do have laptop insurance. I've had enough laptop woes in the past four years that I paid the ridiculous fee to allow me to take the machine in and get it repaired locally, free. But having to use the insurance was too depressing a thought; I let the laptop sit for a day or two before doing anything. I pounded out the piece for which I had a deadline on the kids' clunker.

Then one afternoon I had a bit of time alone in the house (alone in the house!) and I picked up the laptop. It occurred to me that the only known problem had to do with the power source. So I got a pair of needlenose pliers and with a surgical attitude eventually succeeded in removing the piece jammed into the laptop.

I looked at it, and looked at the adapter. I tried putting the pieces together, but no dice. And then it dawned on me: I did not have a broken laptop, but a broken adapter.

I looked up the cost of a new one. It was under $20.

Sometimes, y'know, problems aren't as big as you think they are.

*        *        *        *

On Saturday I went out to Long Island to help my college roommate with the estate sale for her mother's house. It's the kind of house I always dreamed of growing up in: huge and old and full of odds and ends that appeal to one's sense of quirky beauty. The mom, Dot, was a character. Her basement was a giant workshop, complete with barrels of wood and power tools. There was a separate sewing room on the third floor, and large bedrooms for each child (my roomie's had its own bath), and hallways that must be at least eight feet wide. I have fond memories of staying overnight after going to the ballet with Magpie, and of being retrieved from the clutches of Kennedy Airport when a standby flight to Europe didn't happen. Dot's guest room was a massively better choice than hanging out overnight in an empty terminal.

Magpie has been my friend for decades. She is, in fact, the person who taught me how to stay in touch with people. She was persistent in calling or writing a few times a year, even when we were in different cities or countries. It took a long time before I came to appreciate this. I was content to wander through life being friends with whomever happened to be sharing my current path. It hadn't really occurred to me that long-term friends are different than short-term friends. My life is much richer because of Magpie.

Sometimes, y'know, we don't know we've got a problem until we discover the solution.

*        *        *        *

Yesterday I received a distraught phone call; it was Eldest, who had just awoken. Unbeknownst to anyone else in the family, she was scheduled to come home for a surprise Thanksgiving visit. Her bus was at 8:30am. It was 8:08. 

"Are you packed?" I asked. No, but her needs for a 2-day visit were minimal. 
"Do you have cash?" Yes.
"Go down to the street and get a cab to the bus station. There won't be any traffic, and you just might make it."
She texted me at 8:34 that she was on the bus. Whew!

I have missed Eldest terribly this fall. She has had a difficult semester. There are some courses at her school which should be labelled "ALL CONSUMING" in the course catalog, and she has two of them this term. So she hasn't called much. At the same time, I've had my own stresses, and have wanted to hear her voice more.

Yesterday the family sat down to eat, and Andrew was in the process of giving thanks, when the doorbell rang. Andrew asked, jokingly, "Did you invite a guest I didn't know about?"

I grinned and said yes, opened the door, and Eldest walked in. There were gasps of joy, and the entire family got up from the table to hug her.  Seeing her here and seeing how ecstatic everyone was made it the best day in a long, long time. 

Sometimes, y'know, we can solve problems, at least temporarily. That is a very wonderful thing, a thing to give thanks for and rejoice in. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


I had to go for a second-round mammogram the other day, since my annual one showed some possible abnormalities. The place I went was one of those all-in-one centers, the kind you go to when you've already had suspicions aroused, and where you find out your results the same day. The place goes out of its way to make the experience as comfortable and pleasant as possible.

After I'd handed in my paperwork, the friendly receptionist handed me a large, pastel-colored nail file and said cheerily, "This is for you, for breast cancer awareness!" I took it, thinking, Ummm, I think every woman here is already quite aware of breast cancer! And then I got to wondering what, exactly, one is supposed to do with a flowered nail file in order to raise awareness of breast cancer. Wave it around and chant something? Tape it to my chest? Poke random women with it on the subway? File off the lump?

What a mystery. My mammogram was okay. But just so you're aware...


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Odds and Ends

Sunday was Dancer's birthday. We all got up early-ish for a nice breakfast, because various kids had to be in various places at times which didn't correspond to our regular church schedule. Dancer had Nutcracker rehearsal from 11-6, Snuggler had a soccer game, and Little Guy was marching with the scouts in the Veteran's Day parade.

In truth, it's hard to believe Dancer is 14. She seems older.

*        *         *          *

One of my kids didn't do all of the homework assigned for the long weekend. It was not the child who doesn't care; it was one of the ones who cares a lot. This morning there was great wailing and  gnashing of teeth over the prospect of showing up at school without the homework. I was asked to write a note, excusing the child. I replied, "What would I say in a note?" The child said, "That I was unable to complete the homework." To which I replied, "That will be obvious. You don't need a note for that!"

*        *         *          *

I am scheduled for a routine colonoscopy on Friday. That means that starting today I am forbidden to eat fruit, vegetables, nuts and beans. Thursday I have the all-clear-liquid diet. Little Guy, mildly alarmed, said, "Well that stinks!" I replied that hopefully I am mature enough to view a three-day change in diet as an inconvenience rather than a burden.  

*        *         *          *

Marching up 5th Avenue

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Almost feels like normal

Somewhat miraculously, three of my kids went to school today. It was Big Guy's first day back (his school lost power because of the storm, so he had a 10-day vacation) and Snuggler's second (she went on Monday, then had off yesterday for election day). Dancer's school had scheduled a W-F vacation last week anyway, so her school only lost two days. But she started trekking down to ballet on Thursday, walking nearly a mile to the working subway. Full subway service here was restored yesterday.

In another miracle, I have completed four projects that, because of the hurricane, all ended up due at the same time. And aside from minor issues, like the snowstorm whistling outside our window, life suddenly seems very quiet and simple.

*        *         *         

When the kids were little, once a year or so I'd borrow It Could Always be Worse from the library. It's based on a Yiddish folk tale, and is about a peasant with six children whose too-small house is chaotic. So he goes to the rabbi, who asks, "Do you have any chickens" Well yes, he does. So the rabbi tells him to bring his chickens, ducks and geese into the house.

A couple of weeks later the poor peasant is going nuts, so he returns to the rabbi. This time the rabbi tells him to bring the goats and pigs into the house. After several more visits, in which the rabbi always tells the man to add more livestock or people to his house, the peasant is completely on the verge of a nervous breakdown. So the rabbi says, "Go home, and put all the animals outside, and get rid of all the people except your wife and children."

The peasant does this. And life seems utterly peaceful and manageable. Because, you know, it could always be worse.
*        *         *         

With the kids' play over, we suddenly have 8.5 hours a week of free time. Not only that, but soccer ends next week. That's another four-hour slot on Saturday, and a three-hour slot on Sunday. It's almost scary. Free time. If feels more than free -- it feels like winning the lotto!


Saturday, November 3, 2012


Snuggler and I headed uptown today, to the northernmost part of Manhattan, to help clean up a park affected by Hurricane Sandy.

Our team had about 50 volunteers, and was assigned to rake and bag the debris from the salt marsh that overflowed. We filled 300 bags in two hours.

That's Snuggler in the red and white coat
It was good work. The debris was 3" to 6" thick, and it was nice to work with people you'd never met. There was a natural rhythm to it, where one person shoveled debris into a bag while the other held it, and then we reversed roles. All that bending over is a bit hard on the back.

The low white building in the distance is the nature center where my kids have taken classes in the past. It flooded badly; the dock floated away and is now somewhere on the Upper West Side.

I'd guess 200+ people turned out to help at this one park. There were similar cleanups at other parks. I couldn't help but think how long it would take a handful of Parks Department employees to clean up what we were able to clean in two hours.

Meanwhile, this is what our park up the street looks like:

Photo: FORT TRYON PARK WILL REMAIN CLOSED due to fallen trees and hanging limbs. Thank you for your offers of volunteer help.  Once tree hazards are removed and the park reopens, there will be ample opportunities for volunteering.  You can support the storm clean up and park restoration efforts by making a donation at

It's closed to the public until the heavy-duty work can be done, and it's safe to enter.

Monday, October 29, 2012

This is not my street

We are safe and sound and have baked whole wheat bread and a raspberry custard tart. This picture is from a friend several miles south of us. I know that elsewhere in the country "several miles" seems like nothing, but here the whole island is only 12 miles long.

This is not where we live, either:
Source: NBC New York
But we do have some friends who live across the street from the beach there, who chose not to evacuate. 

I did not get a picture of the big flashes of colored light across the river. They would flare for a minute and then go dark. We finally figured out that they were the transformers blowing on some of the big apartment buildings. It was impressive. They lit up the whole sky a mile away.

We are on high rocky ground. We still have power, but the lights flicker occasionally. The wind is whistling, though not nearly as loudly as usual, because the storm is coming from the east tonight instead of the west.

Time for bed.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

15 things I know about parenting a difficult child

  1. You can't always make it better, but you can always make it worse.
  2. Progress is measured relative to where you were, not relative to where others are.
  3. What people think only matters if it helps you become a better parent.
  4. Reinforcing the positive works way better than punishing the negative.
  5. When you're overwhelmed, clean the bathroom. 
  6. Beating yourself up over your failures is the same as letting someone else beat you up. 
  7. When your child pushes your buttons, you need to take a good look at your buttons.
  8. A daily snuggle helps, if you keep your mouth shut.
  9. Consistently working on one behavior is better than trying to make progress on several fronts at once.  
  10. Despair over what might happen in the future detracts from the need to parent in the present.
  11. Yes, you are working harder than other mothers.
  12. It's okay to say that awful thought, but not where your child will hear it.
  13. You must, must, must put on your own oxygen mask first.
  14. It's worse to be the disliked, flawed, not-understood, yelled-at child than to be the frustrated adult.
  15. We are stronger than we think.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Speaking of...

My dear friend Kate is in town this weekend, and we met up yesterday to have lunch and go to a museum. We never got to the museum. I mean, we only had four hours, and by the time we were done talking and walking there was no time for art.

You would like Kate. One of my fantasies in life is to have a monthly salon in which I invite three or four women I like (but who don't know each other) to dinner.  I'm blessed to know a lot of interesting women, people with disparate backgrounds and ideas, and I think it would be extremely wonderful to bring them together.

*        *         *         *

Speaking of interesting women, I went to a PTA fundraising committee meeting at Snuggler's school on Wednesday. I really, really like meeting people from completely different backgrounds who think in ways I haven't thought of and who have a bedrock assumption that we're all working together.

*        *         *         *

Speaking of Snuggler's school, thanks to my daughter's longstanding interest in providing clean water for kids in Africa, a woman from WaterAid Uganda is coming to talk to the 6th grade classes next week. WaterAid has some good, free educational materials you can use with your kids, and they also have a way to set up a personal fundraising page. Snuggler set up a page in first grade and raised over $1500 to build wells.

*        *         *         *

Speaking of water, my kids have been on a milk-drinking spree, making milkshakes and smoothies and Ovaltine. Usually we limit milk to a glass or two a day, and the rest of the time we drink waster. Tap water. It's free, you know. When you're going through a gallon or more of milk a day, you quickly notice that milk is not free.

Part of the milk thing is my fault, because I obsess over protein. Snuggler takes medicine that makes food distasteful to her, which means she generally doesn't eat between 7:30 am (when she takes the meds) and 4pm (when she walks in the door). This creates a food challenge, since low blood sugar = banshee, and she can't think clearly enough to know she is hungry. So I cram in the protein at breakfast and hand her something with protein (usually a smoothie or something sweet with extra protein added) as soon as she walks in the door from school.

It's occurred to me that people who live through famines must be really, really cranky with each other a lot of the time.

*        *        *        *

Speaking of milk, the other reason to limit milk intake for the kids is so that when I get up there is still some milk for my coffee.


*         *         *        * 

Speaking of things to keep you awake and happy, Snuggler and Little Guy open in Stuart Little tonight. Snuggler is Snowbell the cat. Little Guy is the snotty rich kid at the sailboat pond.

Somewhat miraculously, Snuggler's speech impediment has improved dramatically this year. After all the non-progress with speech therapy, the thing that seems to have worked is improving core body strength. Does that make sense? Yes, in a way I think it does. Because when her core body is strong and coordinated, the peripheral things (like keeping her jaw from sliding around when she speaks!) fall into place.

If you're around and want to see the show, their cast runs today at 7pm, next Saturday at 3pm, and Sunday the 28th at 4pm. Email me for details.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Problem solving (or not)

I was at the dental clinic last week, willing myself not to be aggravated by the long wait for the dentist (aggravation is a choice, though habit makes it feel it isn't), so I lay back on the examination chair and closed my eyes and listened to myself breathe. I've recently discovered that the best way to breathe for relaxation is to lie on my stomach on the floor, since it forces my body to use stomach breathing. But since I couldn't lie on the floor of the clinic without creating a non-restful scene, I did what I could. (I also find that when I'm trying to talk sense into myself it really helps to close my eyes. I hear my calm voice better that way. Just sayin'.)

I promptly fell asleep. Or I fell almost-asleep; it didn't really matter, because I'd slept only four hours the night before, and any rest was better than nothing. You know how it is: even when you're no longer a preschooler, life always looks better after a nap. I take'em when I can.

No sooner had I drifted off than the dentist arrived. He had what he thought was bad news, but since he'd told it to me the week before I did some more deep breathing, did some more waiting, and was eventually told to go for one of those panoramic x-rays, as prep for oral surgery. (The surgery, which was Monday, was successful but painful.)

While I was waiting for the x-ray I thought, You will always do something. This was comforting. You see, when I feel panicky or on the edge of despair the real issue often isn't whatever it is I'm worried about. The real issue is that my head is screaming I don't know what to do! It took me a number of years to figure out that what panics me is not knowing what to do. It makes me feel trapped, as if there's a cliff mere inches away and a tiger is approaching.

But not knowing what to do is usually not deadly. And most of the difficulties that come my way are not tigers. I do face difficult and unpleasant situations which involve major unknowns and logistical impossibilities; there is no certainty that things will work out; I have limited time and energy and money. And yet none of that means that if I tumble off what feels like a cliff, I will tumble into helpless oblivion. I am not helpless. And unpleasant change (or enduring unpleasant circumstances) does not equal oblivion... unless I let it.

The response to I don't know what to do! is to remind myself that no matter what happens, I will do something. Even if I don't currently know what that something is.

*        *        *         *

If I were to ask people to provide three words that describe me, I would guess (I could be wrong) that they would say I am resourceful and resilient and well-grounded. I am a practical person, a problem solver. I have taught myself to assume one can make progress on almost anything.

That attitude works well 99% of the time, maybe more. But once in a while I encounter a problem that doesn't have a solution. I try plan A, then B, then C, and then I head on to D-E-F and G-H-I and so on. I tend to be a little slow on the uptake when it comes to problems that can't be solved.

When I finally admit that I'm dealing with an unsolvable (or something for which progress is so glacial as to have the appearance of being unsolvable), I have one of two reactions. The first is to shrug and say, "Eh -- can't be solved! Oh well!" That's my go-to response when I'm dealing with logistics or planning.

My other response is an aghast, "But I can't live with that!" followed by several rounds of running in increasingly panicky mental circles. Eventually I realize I can't sustain that level of hysteria (what I really can't do is live in a state of persistent anxiety) and I correct my thoughts. This often requires an addendum to my recurrent But I can't live with that! thought: I can't live with that with my current mindset.

There are other options besides letting something make me crazy.

There are other ways to respond.

There are other possibilities for how to look at a situation.

to be continued....

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Hard times

There are people in my life who keep me sane. They are not the people you'd expect: the tiny Peruvian woman in her dark skirt and bowler hat, who appears briskly on recycling days and skims the trash for bottles; the ancient lady with her sheitel askew, who shuffles to the grocery store so bent over her walker that she can see only the sidewalk; the weary mom patiently taking her physically and mentally disabled adult son out for a walk.

I've never spoken to any of these people. I smile at them when our paths pass, nodding my appreciation of their existence, being neighborly without being intrusive.

Life is richer when you acknowledge that the world consists of more than your own difficulties. For me it's not a "there but for the grace of God go I" kind of thing. It's more like, "Here by the grace of God go I, and there by the grace of God go you, and yes -- there are hard things in life."

*        *        *          *

Recently PBS ran a show based on the book Half the Sky. I didn't watch the show, because I don't have a television that gets reception, and because I'm not sure I really want to see the stories in the book. It's the kind of stuff that sticks with you viscerally: stories of women whose faces were burned with acid, of girls sold into prostitution by their families, of married women shunned and abandoned because they had fistulas.

It's terribly grim stuff, and yet it's a surprisingly heartening book. It's heartening because these women didn't give up -- they survived. And you've kinda gotta think Well if she could get through that, what am I complaining about!

*        *        *          *

Someone wrote to me recently and said, "It seems like something is going on in your life right now that you aren't writing about."

Well yes, there is. There is a big thing, a heavy burden which I've been carrying for a very long time that has never made it into these pages. I do not write about it because I wish to respect another person's privacy. I have a handful of friends who check in on me regularly to offer support. But I have been really struggling in recent months. I am worn out and tired and... it's hard.

For those of you who are praying people, I could use your prayers.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Minor losses

Kids lose things, y'know. And sometimes they don't find them for a while. But since I'm kind of new to this school thing, there are contingencies I didn't think of. And in case you didn't know, stores that carry lunchboxes in August don't sell them in October.

*         *          *          *

Little Guy and I are learning to solder. We have a kit with a small PC board, but so far we've just done practice work putting wires on and such.

We're also building a go-cart from the Dangerous Book for Boys. We spent half an afternoon getting the wheels and axles off of a collapsing granny cart, and Little Guy has successfully sawed up a hardwood bookshelf into pieces for seat, axle covers, etc. We'll probably put it together next week. Once we find the pieces of hardware that have disappeared while preparing the rest.

*         *          *          *

Every time I see one of those news articles about how much it costs to raise a child I think they've got it all wrong. The issue isn't diapers and food (unless your boys are teens and then it's ALL food). The real cost is replacing all the stuff that gets mislaid or broken.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

King, the snake

About a decade ago we visited some homeschooling friends who were going to move cross-country, because they needed to divest themselves of some of their menagerie. I was thinking we'd adopt their frilled lizard. It seemed to be a cool kind of pet to have.

When we arrived, we had a change of plans. It turned out that our friends had mail-ordered 500 live crickets (food for the lizard), and the night before one of the boys had knocked the box over. My friend had vacuumed up hundreds, but the apartment still crawled... and hopped... and jumped.

And that is how we acquired a snake, Because although I have never liked snakes, at least they eat frozen mice. And if you knock over a box of frozen mice, they do not jump around the living room.

The snake's name is King, because he is a California king snake. He was officially Big Guy's pet, though I'm not sure Big Guy ever handled him. Once, about three years ago, I succeeded in persuading Big Guy to give King some water. But in his nervousness, Big Guy put the water bowl down on top of King. And snakes, believe it or not, do not like to have heavy water bowls placed on top of them. That was the one and only time King ever bit anyone.

In recent years I have fed King only minimally. He'd grown, you see. When we'd gotten him he was perhaps a foot long; today he's at least three feet. He would consume a rat a week if I supplied it, but that was expensive and only caused further growth. I looked up how long king snakes in the wild could live without food, and based my rat purchases on the minimum. (While I was looking that up I learned that the lifespan of a king snake in captivity can be over 20 years. Yikes!)

For eons I've wanted to hand King off to someone else. Two years ago I was sorely tempted to let King loose in the woods behind our house. I couldn't, of course, because he's never lived in the wild, and this isn't his native habitat, and it would just be wrong. Then this year a new science program opened up in our neighborhood. I spoke to the owner, and she agreed that her place could use a snake for kids to look at. Wahoo! Not only could I offload the snake, but I could feel virtuous about it.

Today some teenagers arrived to transport King to his new home. But before King left, Little Guy wanted to pet him. For the first (and probably last) time ever.

Goodbye, King. My tour of duty as chief snake-charmer here is done.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Bits and pieces

Off to a funeral this a.m., for the dad of a homeschooling family we've known for more than a decade. .

*         *          *          *

Casting is out for this year's Nutcracker, and Dancer scored excellent roles: snow, flowers, pigeons and lead Chinese. (It's a NYC-themed show, so of course there are pigeons.)

*         *          *          *

Speaking of pigeons... yesterday I walked crosstown to get to a dental appointment, and saw a crowd of people. At first I thought it was yet another movie-star sighting (yawn). But it was a red-tailed hawk, a good 20" tall, finishing up a pigeon lunch.

*         *          *          *

Speaking of dentists, I'm probably going to lose the tooth. But the dentist said I have remarkably good and strong teeth. Well, except for this one and its match on the other side, which is already gone. And their mates on the bottom.

*         *          *          *

After going to the dentist I had a block of time before I needed to be at Dancer's meet-the-teacher night. I meandered northward, through a part of town I hadn't been in for a while. Around 5pm I found myself near Grand Central, admiring the Art Deco buildings (I love Art Deco). Then it dawned on me that I was near the church where Big Guy and Dancer were baptised, so I stopped in. There was a service that was about to begin, so I stayed. It was quiet and lovely and peaceful and calming. I do think that one of the best things about living in the city is that the churches are open during the day, and you can go in and rest.

It turned out that Big Guy's godmother was there. And then when I was leaving I ran into Ms. Dober! 

*         *          *          *

While I was getting drilled, Andrew took Little Guy on a field trip to the Ukrainian Museum. They learned about kilims and then got to weave a bit. The two guys are taking field trips every Thursday this year. It's a win-win-win plan: they get out of the house, have bonding time, do something interesting... and I get a day to work, uninterrupted.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Blue day for the blue chair

Nearly two decades ago, when Andrew's father came to live with us, we purchased a blue recliner. It was not my favorite piece of furniture, but Dad was housebound and watched TV most of the day, and he needed a comfortable place to sit.

When Dad died, mere days after Eldest was born, the recliner became part of the general pool of furniture. And when we moved to our present apartment sixteen years ago, the "blue chair" took up residence in our bedroom near the window overlooking the river. In the evenings the kids would snuggle in to hear bedtime stories. Sometimes, when a child was sick, he or she would set up camp and sleep there.

Our friend Ms. Dober reading to Eldest (6),
Big Guy (4) and Dancer (2) in the blue chair
It was pretty ratty. There were holes in the arms, and the arms kind of slid around. I suspect that somewhere in the chair's innards are the half-digested remains of Andrew's missing house keys, not to mention a goodly amount of spare change. If we had a furniture budget, the recliner would have been replaced five years ago. But we don't, so it stayed.

In the past 18 months, Andrew has practically lived in that chair. He worked from it, job-hunted from it, and surfed the internet in it. And slowly the blue chair completely and totally collapsed. It was awful. Ugly. Broken. Dead. Not to mention that the hardwood floor under it was scratched badly, and the radiator beside it unredeemably dinged.

The other day I thought of a way to re-arrange our bedroom that would allow us to remove and dispose of the blue chair. It was actually a workable idea, and so Andrew and Big Guy hauled the broken remains of the recliner out of the apartment. At which point Little Guy broke down in hysterical tears. That evening when Snuggler came home from school she discovered the loss and was a wreck, too.

Oh, dear. I grew up moving just often enough that I thought of home as the place my family was, rather than as a specific house. I did have favorite pieces of furniture; there was a wingback chair where I read a lot, and I liked the ladderback dining room chairs. But I'm not a person who forms particular attachments to things. Rearranging the house or tossing something that's in tatters has never bothered me. I can look at the blue chair and say, "Well done!" and feel no qualms about the fact that the poor thing's days are over.

But my children are not me, and their emotional landscape is different than mine. They have a genetic tendency toward being packrats, inherited primarily from their father (though I think my own father still owns the leather jacket he wore in high school). They do not want to discard anything.

I held Little Guy (and later Snuggler) for a long time, trying my best to provide comfort. Snuggler wailed, "You don't understand what it's like!" She is right, of course. And then again, she isn't. I do understand what loss is. I also understand that we all have to learn to let go and move on, treasuring people and experiences and even a few things in our hearts.

I am sure that, with time, my children will adapt to having Mom and Dad's room look different. And I am sure that, with time, I will adapt to having offspring whose way of looking at the world is different than mine. And maybe next time I will plan ahead, so the change won't seem quite so sudden.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

To sleep, perchance to cope

A few months back Big Guy went to an allergist, who proclaimed him severely allergic to dust. Coincidentally, someone put a portable HEPA filter on the giveaway table in our building's basement, which we promptly installed in Big Guy's room. And, remarkably, Big Guy has stopped sleeping in school.

I think now that Big Guy can actually breathe, he sleeps better. Sleep is good, on a whole lot of fronts.

*        *        *         *

When a baby cries, you check the usual things: whether he's been fed, needs burping, has a burning desire for a new diaper, or it's simply time for a nap. When preschoolers have meltdowns, we immediately consider when the child ate and sleep. But as kids get older, we sometimes forget that moodiness is strongly correlated to diet and sleep. Sleep matters, enormously.

*        *        *         *

I had a miserable day yesterday when the world seemed to be working against me, and everything seemed impossible. Dumb stuff made me cry. All day long I reminded myself that I was just having a bad day (it would pass), and I was overtired (I'd slept four hours the night before), and life couldn't possibly be as impossible as it felt.

During about the 726th self-pep talk of the day I thought, I have a very low tolerance for despair. That was followed by, Maybe that's why I've become adept at resisting it. For I am not naturally tenacious or resilient or optimistic. Like most people, I've learned coping skills as a survival mechanism, because I've had difficulties with which I had to learn to cope.

Getting a good night's sleep truly makes a huge difference in how we see the world. Today is infinitely better than yesterday, if for no other reason than that I'm not battling physical exhaustion.

Monday, September 17, 2012


I went to Trader Joe's yesterday, which is always a mistake on a Sunday afternoon, but a double mistake when Rosh Hashana is heading in at sundown. I don't know how I'd forgotten about the holiday, since in the morning our Jewish bakery had shelves were piled high with tempting raisin-studded challah, and the counters were covered in boxes of honey cakes. And the public schools are off today and tomorrow. Which I knew. But I forgot.

So there I was, in Trader Joe's, along with several hundred other New Yorkers, with a line that extended back to the entrance to the store. And because this is New York, the store is mostly about three carts wide, which, when you factor in two lines of people waiting to get to the checkout, makes it rather hard to maneuver. It was a game of bumper carts and patience.

But nobody was complaining yesterday, at least out loud. And a surprising number of people were not alone, and not-texting, and not-on-the-phone, but actually talking to whomever they were with. Or even talking to others in line. It was gratifying. Human.

Then I walked up the street to the good produce store, and the sidewalk was filled with people yapping on their cell phones about where they were heading for the holiday dinner, and what they were bringing, and who else would be there.

It made me happy to see people excited and looking forward to doing something together to celebrate the new year. It reminded me of my dear and generous friend Liz, and of All of a Kind Family, and of How Firm a Foundation. And, too, of Kaaterskill Falls, which Magpie sent me this summer, and is delightful reading if you live in my neighborhood (or even if you don't). 

So welcome, Days of Awe. A shana tova to all. And may 5773 be a good one.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Survivable discomfort

One evening more than a decade ago, I had a hard time getting to sleep because I was going to take Eldest and Big Guy to gymnastics for the first time the next day. I'd never been to the place before, and for some reason kept wondering what it would look like. After 20 minutes of maybe it'll look like this scenarios I got irritated with myself, and chided, "Julia, there's only one thing you know for certain: reality will never be the same as anything you come up with!"

It was true. That simple thought has released me from untold hours of needless wondering in other situations, too. In its own weird way it's liberating to admit that although we can sketch a rough outline of a few items in our future landscape, we can't draw a true picture. You see, it's okay not to know. It's normal not to know. And in most cases, we don't even need to know all that much to cope with what comes next.

*         *          *          *

A few weeks back as I thought about the start of school, I put a mental flag on the first two weeks of September: EXPECT BUMPS. It does help if you're not caught off guard. When you know stress is heading your way, it's a good idea to fortify your patience and shore up your determination. When I'm yearning to know what lies ahead, one thing that makes a functional difference is focusing on gathering my inner resources.

I remind myself, for example, of the symptoms of stress in each of my kids. That way when one child suddenly turns into a screaming mimi I have a shot at handling the situation as a stress reaction instead of a discipline problem. (This is not to say I always remember this at the moment of meltdown, but at least I can smack my forehead afterwards and do a little better half an hour later, when the next meltdown hits).

It's helpful to think ahead through what I'll say and do when the inevitable complaints and arguments surface. (I do have other options besides feeling aggravated.) I remind myself not to expect gratitude or cooperation or thoughtfulness, so that I don't feel put-out when others, in their stressed-out stressiness, neglect to return kindness with kindness.

When you're heading into a stressful time, it's good to think ahead to how to modify your expectations.

*         *          *          *

am not immune to the modern disease of wanting to protect my children from pain and suffering. I find that I need a clearer boundary between a) being a necessary buffer from unnecessary harshness and b) being a coddler who seeks to protect my children from any hardship. So I've been focused lately on what I call survivable discomfort.

We can live through an awful lot that we think is unbearable. The acid test is this: what would you do if you had no choice? Could you that thing you think you can't? Would you do it?

We intensely dislike discomfort, but the truth is that we can survive it. And we are immensely stronger once we discover this. Our children are stronger once they know that somewhere deep below their fears and likes is a core strength that often goes untapped.

So sometimes (perhaps more often than we think) it's best to offer no more than empathy when a child is unhappy or upset. Sometimes (perhaps often) the right thing to do is to teach the child how to handle his unhappiness, and simply provide support and a few ideas as he figures out what to do.

Yes, we need to watch, surreptitiously but alertly, to see whether the child is sinking or learning to swim. We need to watch carefully, and distinguish between our fears that the child will sink and the real signs of drowning.

*         *         *         *

All of which is to say that I think we will eventually survive going back to school.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Anxiety and stress

The past week has been stressful. It was stressful in the normal everyone's-undergoing-a-massive-schedule-change way, and it was stressful because several of my kids are anxious kids. New situations make them boink out all over the place. Some had nightmares or simply couldn't get to sleep, one didn't eat (at all) for a whole day and got exceedingly cranky, others over-reacted to that crankiness. The domino effect of snarliness was in full force. Once it's started, it's hard to stop.

I spent a day or two trying to clamp down on the behavior before remembering -- duh! -- my checklists. When you do the little things that help people feel loved and safe, their anxiety drops. When anxiety tapers down to a more manageable level, they can think. And when they can think, you've got a flying chance of getting them to be civilized again.

*       *        *        *

Yesterday's agenda called for church, soccer, and play rehearsal back-to-back, filling the 11am-7pm timeframe for Snuggler almost completely.  I made the executive decision to skip soccer. Instead, after church she and I went out to Starbucks, just us two, where she did homework and I hammered out an almost-overdue project.

We had a comfortable couple of hours, and then time to spare to get to play rehearsal. It was a far better way to spend the day than rushing about. We don't really have to submit to all the stresses we've signed up for.

*       *        *        *

When some of my kids are stressed they have a tendency to scream, "I hate you!" There is no point in trying to correct it in the middle of the scene, because if the child were on the same continent as reason he or she wouldn't have been screaming in the first place. Correcting a child in the midst of an argument is a red herring. It does nothing except divert the argument into a new stream.

When I'm rational myself, I find it better to address the issue later on, when hearts are calm and words are heard. I have been known to put my hands on the child's shoulders, look him or her in the eye and say,"Honey, I'm not the enemy. Your fears are the enemy. You and I need to be on the same side to defeat them."

*       *        *        *

Even the apartment has been under stress. We've had a series of things fall apart lately, so I was exceedingly glad when the refrigerator started behaving itself again on Saturday. The coffee maker is dead, though. I jerry-rigged the old basket and managed to brew a pot using boiling water I heated on the stove. I looked grimly at the contraption and reminded myself, It's not the enemy. Exhaustion is the enemy. Caffeine and patience and perseverance and perspective and faith and raw determination and I are on the same side, and we're all going to make sure that we defeat stress, together.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Wonder and wondering

I took Dancer to a podiatrist today. Her infected toe was becoming an infected foot, and despite our no-insurance situation it was clear we needed to tend to this ASAP.

Dancer was heroic about the procedure used to drain and excise the yuckiness. She flinched a bit at times, but otherwise managed to look normal and pale. After she was disinfected and gauzed and given prescriptions and foot-care instructions, I took her to the waiting room and went to pay. She said she was okay, but a bit woozy.

She was the last patient of the day, and we went down in the elevator with the doctor. He looked at Dancer a bit curiously, and inquired how she was feeling. She said she was okay. Her foot didn't hurt much. She still looked pale.

We reached the ground floor, and as we came off the elevator Dancer suddenly reached for me and said, "I feel sick!" I stopped and put my arm around her. We moved carefully toward the front door. Outside, I looked for a cafe where she could sit down, but there were none nearby. She was sweaty and gray and clearly heading into shock. Then she said, "I think I'm going to pass out!" And there on the sidewalk of lower 5th Avenue in the middle of rush hour, she did.

I stood there, arms gripped around my insensible teenage daughter, thinking Hmmm. Never done this before! I looked around for a place to lie her down, but there was no bench or building ledge in sight. I didn't want an ambulance -- I already knew why she'd fainted -- so I stood there as if slow dancing. A woman passing by thought I was giving my daughter a hug and said, "Aw, how sweet!" It was such an incongruous comment that I almost laughed aloud.

As some point while wondering whether the faint would last longer than my arm muscles, I was able to rouse Dancer a bit. She'd been out cold for (I think) a bit less than a minute, and couldn't bear weight on her legs for another couple. When she was able to lean on me and move, we slo-mo'ed ourselves back into the building. We went back up to the doctor's office and I sat her down in the air conditioned waiting room. I don't think the receptionist quite got it when I told her what had happened. She showed me where to get water, but then went back to her work.

Dancer sipped the water and I wiped off her face. She slept/drowsed for half an hour. Her color returned. When she seemed stable we went around the corner to find some juice. And then we came home. Slowly.

There are many things in life that happen that you've never considered could be on your to-do list. Slow dancing with my daughter during rush hour certainly hadn't been an idea I'd knew was possible.

Oddly, it reminded me of an event on the train down to the doctor's office. Two ancient Chinese men got on and rather impishly said they'd like to "do their show". The one warbled in Chinese, while the other stomped his cane down the aisle, reaching out with his free hand as if to grab his way up from drowning, making tortured faces. It was oddly charming... and thoroughly entertaining. I've seen a lot of subway performances in my day, but never anything remotely like this. (Afterwards the singer launched into "My Old Kentucky Home".)

I wondered where the men had come from, and why they came to this city. I wondered about their wives and children and grandchildren. I wondered at the sharp sense of humor that led them to take a lead from the hip-hop dancers who fill the train with "showtime", and at whatever poverty it was they were trying to escape. I dearly wanted to take a picture of them, but didn't want to offend.

It's kind of marvelous when unusual things lead you to think, Hmmm. Never saw that before! And while I do hope that I don't ever have to do the Fainting Foxtrot on Fifth again, in truth it wasn't an utterly awful experience. Not nearly as bad as changing the bandage on Dancer's toe tonight. Urp!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

First week of school jitters

Walking down the street this morning at 8am I wondered how many children in this city were starting school today, and what the anxiety quotient of the day would be. Figure a million kids, minimum, all beginning something new under the aegis of someone new. Then factor in all the anxious parents. And I suppose there are teachers and administrators who have a bit of agita, too.

It's all mixed, of course, with excitement and hope. But still, I wondered if there's any other day in the year -- terrorist and natural crises excluded -- with a higher cumulative anxiety level.

*        *         *         *

I went to the school across the street this afternoon to pick up a friend of Little Guy's, whose mom was picking up the older sister elsewhere. As I walked into the yard the middle school-age kids were being released. One boy I know was glowering; clearly Day One had not gone well at all. I thought of the mom, and of the evening ahead for her. I know what it's like to sense ominous clouds forming, and the groan that goes through a parent's heart when the outlook is not good. That's a hard thing. It could make a parent anxious, you know. With reason.

*        *         *         *

Snuggler arrived home from her first academic day exhausted and hungry, with a mere half-hour to relax before heading off to play rehearsal. She finished her homework at 10pm. It probably could have been 9:15, but she lost some time in panic. I counseled that the big lesson this year may very well be learning to talk herself down when she starts to freak out. If you can keep a clear head, a whole lot of things are possible. Figuring out how to stay calm is a life skill you'll need every day of your existence.

*        *         *         *

One of the odder things people say to me when they find out that I have five kids is, "But you're so calm!" Well, uh, yes -- I guess so. It's not innate, it's kind of do or die. I mean, who can survive in a constant state of emotional upheaval? At some point there's a T-intersection: either you figure out how to stay calm or you go insane. It's cheaper to stay calm.

Of course I don't feel calm all the time. But I do practice projecting it. Serenity is one of those things like smiling: the more you act happy, the more likely you are to feel that way. (This really is true: if you're feeling stressed you can put a pencil in your mouth sideways to force a smile, and you actually do feel more optimistic.) Appearing unruffled makes a difference. At the very least you don't trigger anxiety in others with your own. And sometimes having just your own domino fall is an excellent thing.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Things to be proud of

I suppose the "Things to Be Proud Of" list varies a bit for each of us. Today I am proud that I did not flip out when I discovered that our health insurance company has dropped our kids' coverage -- again, without notice -- because we did not pay premiums for which the company did not invoice us.

I didn't flip out when I learned that what the health insurance company thinks we should do about it is to re-apply for coverage, a process that would take 6-8 weeks.

I was proud of myself for thinking to bump the matter up to a supervisor, and to write down the supervisor's name, to find out how to file a complaint. I didn't flip out (much) when I learned that filing a complaint does NOT put the coverage on hold. It just guarantees that within 30 days someone will review our complaint and get back to us.

I was especially proud of myself for thinking to call the supervisor back and ask if it's possible to get the complaint review expedited. Yes, it is! That will reduce the turnaround time to 3-4 days.

Which won't help us get care for Dancer's infected corn today. So I'm also proud of myself for calling a friend who works for a public official, to get help in finding a doctor who will see Dancer this afternoon for a reasonable fee.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I think I need to go into a closet and scream.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Let it pass

In the city you can tell when it's the first week of school even without a calendar, just by opening your window. Emotions run high. People yell. Kids melt down. It's unpleasant, but to be expected: the world is a bit off-balance as new schedules are established and new experiences processed. I remind myself that this is a two-week problem. It will pass.

The neediness factor around here has been running high, particularly in the wake of Eldest's return to college. Eldest is an outstanding big sister; all the kids love her, and love having her around. They miss her badly. I didn't expect the ache of her absence to be so sharp this year. But there's something about the fact that she's now 18, and knowing that this very well may have been her last summer living at home, that caught me off guard. I've been very sad. It will pass.

*         *          *          *

I had a meltdown yesterday. It happens, occasionally. I became overwhelmed by a persistent and thorny problem, and gave in to being tired of coping. I allowed myself to feel like a complete and utter failure.

After a couple of hours I reminded myself that failing at something is not the same as being a failure. You're only a failure when you give up instead of pick yourself up. So I made my apologies to those who'd had to endure my not-silent tears, and forced myself back on track.

Even despair passes, if you let it. And work at it.

*         *          *          *

The other day Little Guy noted, "The glass is always full. It may be half-full of water and half-full of air, but it's still full!"

Sometimes we ponder our half-glass of water without remembering the air, and conclude that our life is only half of what it should be. The truth is, something fills that space we think of as empty, whether we perceive it or not. I daresay we fill it with invisibilities of our own choosing: regret or guilt, gratitude or hope, ambition or envy or fear or joy. It's good to know what's in there, because if it's a good thing, it changes your perspective for the better. If it's not-so-good, you understand more about why there's only so much room for water.

We tend to assume that having a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full perspective is a permanent fixture in our lives. That isn't actually true. We can train ourselves to see both the water and the air, and can learn to let go of the way we habitually look at things.

Even bad habits can pass, if we don't hold on to them quite so fiercely.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Back to school

So here's a thought: This year I will have five kids in five schools, and four school vacation schedules.

More accurately, I will have four kids in four schools and one homeschooler. Little Guy was waitlisted at the school we wanted him to attend, so in addition to working I'll be teaching fourth grade.

*       *        *        *
Did I say working? Ah, yes. At the moment it is a combination of freelance and backlogged personal projects. I'm aiming to submit a book proposal this week for a project I absolutely love. And I'm developing a new series of kids' nature programs for the park. And I've got another book idea brewing. And a neighborhood project... 

*       *        *        *
Eldest and I leave tomorrow. Everyone's sad that she's leaving, though she's excited to go back to college. Hard to believe she's already a junior! She declared a major in computer science, and is interested in Games for Good types of projects. 

Meanwhile, Snuggler starts middle school on Tuesday, and Dancer begins high school next Wednesday. I managed to persuade Big Guy to buy new shoes today (I AM SO AWESOME!), so he will be able to attend high school next week. He still needs new glasses, but I was able to nerd-tape the old ones together so that they stay on for the time being.

*       *        *        *
Our pediatrician inquired about Big Guy today, and I said, "I haven't thought about calling 911 for months!" In my world, that's big news. I expect that as school starts up, stress rises, and life becomes busier we'll experience some bumpiness. But it's been incredibly nice to have a crisis-free interval. It almost feels... weird.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

It's all under control...

When my kids were little and we went about town in a line like Make Way for Ducklings, people expressed amazement that we were able to get out and about. I eventually concluded that with five kids, only three things are necessary for others to consider you a miracle worker. You have to:
  1. brush the kids' hair, 
  2. carry tissues, so no one has a bubbly nose, and 
  3. make sure shirts and sweaters are buttoned straight. 
In the eyes of others -- who don't see the real stresses in your life -- these are signs that you have things under control.

Let's be honest: I will never have things under control. Kids are people, real people with their own minds, souls, ideas, neuroses and weaknesses. I don't and can't and hopefully don't want to control them. At best I can control some of my (and their) circumstances.

*        *        *         *

I ran into a mom the other day with a special needs child. I don't know what the child's issues are, but I recognized the suffering in the mother's eyes. This woman knows what it is to fear that her child's life will never be what it should be. She knows the anguish of thinking her child may never fit in. She knows the despair of sensing that all she can offer him and all she can do might never be enough to protect him from rejection and pain.

Those things are hard to deal with. They're far harder to wrestle into submission than endless doctor appointments and therapies. It's not as if this woman can make a phone call and check off the "Handled complicated feelings of shattered dreams" and "Addressed angst caused by not-knowing how to deal with this" items on her list.

I wanted to take this mom for a long, heartfelt chat over a good cup of coffee, to let her pour out her heart. But as we were talking her son woke up. The boy woke with a grin; he had a great smile.

The child didn't have tangled hair or a gooey nose or a mis-buttoned shirt. The miracles that his mother is called upon to bring forth are bigger: miracles of patience and longsuffering and everyday determination to look at her son as her son, to accept him as he is, and to wrap him not in her grief or fear, but in her love.

Sometimes what we're called on to control is our tendency to run in circles howling, "I can't take this!" That's hard. But then, self-control is the hardest. 

 *        *        *         *

One day not long ago Little Guy said, "I'm scared you're going to die!"

I replied, gently, "You don't need to be afraid of that: of course I will die. Everyone does. It probably -- hopefully -- won't happen soon. But one day I will die. And what will happen then?"

He looked at me solemnly and said, "I will be sad."

I drew him close and told him, "Yes, you will be very sad, probably for a long time. But you will go on, and do what you have to do. Things may be harder than you want them to be, and you may think you can't handle it. But you will go on, and you will discover that you are stronger than you think you are. And you will be okay."

There is life beyond our fears. But you don't get there if you don't walk through the fears, if you allow yourself to panic because it's not all under control.

It's never going to be completely under control. In its own weird way, I find that comforting.