Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Humanity, in disguise

Years ago I was on a subway with all five kids, the youngest in a carrier and my toddler in a stroller. An exceedingly large and fierce-looking man got on. It was crowded. Eldest stood near me; Big Guy (who was about seven) and Dancer (five) were seated. The tough man towered above Big Guy, with do-rag and copious bling and $200 shades. My son gaped in a mixture of awe and raw fear. I silently prayed, "Don't stare! Don't stare!"

The huge man looked down at Big Guy, then glanced around angrily. He bellowed, "What's wrong with you people?" The whole car tensed, fearful of what was coming next. The man frowned.

"What's wrong with you people? Can't you see? This woman has all these kids and she needs to sit down! Get up and give her a seat!"

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Shakespearean cursing

We watched Kiss Me Kate this weekend, and Little Guy fell in love with the gangsters. He has been warbling "Brush up your Shakespeare" for days.

Tonight while cleaning out some bookshelves I happened across this gem, which I bought a decade ago when my three eldest were in The Tempest.

Thy Father Is a Gorbellied Codpiece: Create over 100,000 of Your Own Shakespearean Insults

It's a flap-book, one of those with each page divided in thirds so you can mix and match the parts. Little Guy has been happily constructing Shakespearean curses for an hour.

All you artless barren-spirited arch-villians, beware! This could be useful on the subway...

Friday, January 27, 2012

Practical tips: Kids and stomach bugs

There was a time, a decade or so ago, when I idly debated which was worse: having the kids get a stomach bug first (which left Mom exhausted by the time it was her turn) or getting it first (and nursing little ones throughwhile I was staggering toward recovery). Then came the day that six of us had the pukies at the same time. 'Nuff said.

Herewith, at the start of the germ season, and in the midst of our first family tummy bug, I offer my hard-won tips on minimizing the awfulness:

1. Send spouse out for supplies as soon as child #1 blows. If you have more than one child, get twice as much ginger ale or juice or Pedialyte or Gatorade as you think you'll need. Popsicles work to get fluid in, too. Buy pretzels or whatever for afterwards. If no spouse is available, call someone (anyone!) or order delivery. Be obsessive about hydration. Aim for little sips, not gulps, after every urp. Room temp fluids tend to stay down longer than cold.

2. If you have a little one and don't have Tylenol suppositories in the house, get some. They may sit in the cabinet until the expiration date passes, unused, but if you have a child with a fever of 104 who can't keep anything down, you'll be glad to have them.

3. For kids too young to aim for a bowl, retrieve all the receiving blankets and baby towels stashed in the corner of your linen closet and stack them up on the pillow or mattress. Wad up the top blanket/towel when it's soiled, and toss it in a plastic bag (or a bucket with Borax) for the next morning. Voila -- no need to change sheets!

4. Avoid over-the-head jammies. Seriously bad news to get off. Avoid jammies completely if possible; less laundry is better.

5. Braid all long hair, including that of siblings who haven't (yet) gotten sick.

6. Do not let anyone sleep in a top bunk, even if they claim to feel fine. The 2am down-the-wall-on-your-sister experience is to be avoided at all costs. Let sick kids sleep near you so you don't have to dash out of bed at night. We used to keep an old crib mattress under our bed, which we slid out for sick-child use.

7. For kids who are old enough to attempt to reach a bowl, find a really large one. Make sure it has a flat bottom, so it doesn't tip easily. A bucket or anything else an entire head can fit into is great. Keep a box of tissues nearby for wiping yucky mouths.

8. Leave the bathroom light on all night. You don't want to trip while carrying a full bowl. Put dishwashing liquid in the bathroom so you can easily clean the bowl/bucket.

9. Move a giant bottle of Purell next to your sick child so you remember to clean your hands every time you touch him or her. Sometimes disinfecting really does stop the contagion. (Yes, soap is better, but not at 4am on round #13.)

10. Don't look at the clock. And don't count how many times you've gotten up. You don't want to know.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The VIA Survey

I did the VIA Character Strengths survey today. This is something developed by Martin Seligman (and collaborators) to help identify areas of strength (to build on) and areas of weakness (to build up). It's free to go through, though it takes rather longer than you'd like (probably a full 15 minutes) and you have to supply some basic personal demographics for their database. I didn't pay for the analysis at the end, just got my rankings for the 24 different areas.

I could tell while doing the quiz that my last-place ranking was going to be Appreciation of beauty and excellence. I'm chewing on why that was so. I certainly value beauty and excellence, but I'm not a rah-rah gusher/enthusiast: I learned how to nod in understated Scandinavian fashion from my dad. I daresay I could voice more appreciation than I do.  

My second-lowest area was Zest, enthusiasm, and energy. I'm guessing this is because at the moment basic survival seems like a very noble goal. I personally think that getting out of bed each morning and making coffee without forgetting to put in water is legitimate reason to rate highly in the energy category. Maybe it's that I'm not very zesty. Go ahead and tell me -- I can take it!

My top three areas were:

1. Honesty, authenticity, and genuineness

2. Forgiveness and mercy

3. Judgment, critical thinking, and open-mindedness 

I thought that sounded about right, though there were other items I wouldn't have been surprised to see nudge these out. If you take the survey, let me know what ranked where! 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Periodically, when I'm grappling with a serious problem (I've had a few lately) someone will say, "I'm sure it will all work out!"

I cock my head a bit, smile, and reply frankly, "Yup... Or not."

I have no doubt that things could work out. I'm equally certain there's no guarantee that they will. Maybe it's age, or maybe it's experience, but I tend not to get as frantic about outcomes as I used to. Why? Because whether things work out or things fall apart, I will do something. If there's a disaster, I'll get up again and start over. People do.

*        *         *         *         *

I've been reading Martin Seligman's latest, Flourish. He's the guy who wrote Learned Optimism, which is one of the books I've recommended to at least a hundred people. This new book is about the research on well-being. The part I'm reading is about the program Seligman helped the Army develop to promote strong mental health. He points out that what we all hear about is PTSD, and yet the stats are that a full 85% of people who have been through a traumatic event recover. So he set out to find out what the characteristics are of people who thrive in the wake of difficulty, and what can be done to teach others those skills. He calls it PTSG: Post Traumatic Stress Growth. It's a possibility, you know.

*        *         *         *         *

A week or so ago Little Guy and I had a chat. He was distraught about Big Guy'd downward spiral. "I'm afraid he's going to hurt himself," he said, "I'm afraid he's going to die."

I held him close, and was silent for a moment. "That's a scary feeling," I began, then stopped. After a moment I asked, "What would we do if he died?"

Little Guy looked at me with startled eyes, and shook his head with not-knowing. I said, "First we would be very, very sad. And then we would somehow find a way to keep going. And it would be hard, but we would do it because that's the only real option, and because we love each other, and would help each other grow into strong people even though we were hurting inside."

We sat in silence for a bit. Then I added, "We are doing everything we know how to do to help your brother. We are trying our best, you know."  He nodded.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sleep, sweet sleep

I awoke abruptly yesterday morning when a lovely dream suddenly went bad. I lay in bed shaking, and the alarm went off long before I could get back to sleep. Or rather it clicked as if it would go off; it's been broken for two months now, the victim of one too many child-induced accidents. I priced a new clock when I went Christmas shopping, but opted to buy a noisy alarm for Big Guy, instead. And since that one actually works to rouse him -- a heroic feat, which only cold technology has the patience and perseverance to achieve -- I am content with a faint click to rouse myself.

*        *        *        *        *

When I was a kid I read a book in which the main character, an orphan in World War II Europe, had trained himself to wake up at will. If he needed to leave on a spy mission at 4am, he simply told himself to wake up at 3:30. This fascinated me, because I wondered if it was truly possible, and because of the sheer power of mind over body it represented. I've never felt a pressing need to develop this skill myself, but it's nice to imagine it exists.

However, becoming a mother did interesting things to my ability to wake up for hitherto-unfathomable reasons. Who knew it was possible to hear a child tossing and turning several rooms away? Who knew one could wake up at the pitter-pat of feet coming down the hall, knowing which child it was? Who knew one could be so attuned to the sounds of a sleeping child's gurgly tummy that one awakens in time to get a bowl in front of the child's head before the stomach bug does its stuff?

This miraculous ability has diminished as my children have gotten older and are better able to fend for themselves. Nowadays my eyelids flutter open only when someone is standing by my bed saying, for the third time, "My tummy doesn't feel well!"... and instead of getting up I mutter, "Find a bowl."  If there's an Independence Day, surely there's an Independence Night as well.

*        *        *        *        *

Sleep is a fine thing. Nowadays bad sleep leaves me wondering how I made it through having an infant five times. A night of two of bad sleep for a child leaves me wondering why Andrew never followed through on the idea to invent Flintstone's Kiddy Chloroform. Behavior and self-control tank when sleep is not good.

Over the years we've developed quite an inventory of sleep techniques, ranging from putting on classical music to Jim Weiss story CDs to deep breathing/relaxation exercises. Sometimes none of it works, and I let the sleepless child lie on the floor next to my bed for comfort.

When the children were younger we kept a crib mattress under our bed to pull out for times when someone needed to sleep nearby. It got a lot of use during tummy bug times. It got a lot of use during nightmares. The huge advantage was that the child could lie down and hold my hand, and I didn't have to deal with little knees in my kidneys or with getting out of bed. The mattress is gone now -- no one fits on it any more -- and so if someone wants to be near me they really have to want it, because it means sleeping on the hardwood floor.

*        *        *        *        *

The alarm went click at 5:20 this morning and I lay there for a minute, trying to calculate how long I could drowse without falling back into deep sleep. I decided it wasn't worth it. When I got up, Little Guy was standing, confused, at the end of  the hall. I hadn't heard him get up. He'd had a bad dream.

I wrapped him in my arms on the sofa, with his Fuzzy Wuzzy wrapped around us. He told me his dream, which had something to do with BeyBlade tops and the veterinarian store. After a bit he said, "I think I'll go back to sleep now". I put him down and started my usual morning routine, ten happy minutes late. There aren't many years left when he'll be small enough to hold that way, and I'm grateful my boy still wants me to do it.

Holding a child at 5:30 a.m.is not the kind of thing one is grateful for -- except in concept -- when the nights are routinely filled with interruptions. It's good to be able to see the bright side of the moon.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Snuggler was feeling kind of off this morning, probably because Big Guy was "difficult" last night, and then again this morning. It's wearing. She sat down next to me on the sofa and I held her a bit and then whispered, "Should we have a tea party this afternoon?" She perked right up.

So we went into the kitchen and made vanilla cupcakes with almond-cream cheese frosting. We popped up some maple-peanut popcorn, and Dancer graciously gave us permission to use her Chinese teapot and cups. We moved the drop-leaf end table to the center of the living room and got out the German tablecloth. And we had tea. Green tea in the Chinese pot, Keemun black in the everyday teapot.

Eldest, just before she went back to college
When the kids were littler, sometimes I would make up a tea party and we'd pretend we were all adults, and we'd chitchat about our children. Eldest was Mrs. Brown, and her children were similar ages to my own. Dancer was Mrs. Julia, and I believe she had something like 20 children. Snuggler was Mrs. White, and she had three kids. We talked about the difficulties our offspring were having, and what kinds of things helped them, and what we planned to do in the future. I kind of miss those days. And I kind of missed Eldest, who wasn't here to pretend with us.

I'm guessing that Snuggler feels a bit better, because she got on the computer and started working. I thought perhaps she was writing (she does that), but no -- she was making graphic inventions. Like this: 

Bubble Tapir, by Snuggler

Friday, January 20, 2012

Four-kid update

We have medication for Big Guy. Whew! I mean, WHEW! Things were getting pretty hairy, since we'd run out of one kind on Saturday. Even though the half-life on it is quite long he'd come in yesterday afternoon saying, "Mom, I had a bad day at school. I was really irritable and depressed all day."

We still don't have insurance coverage for him, but Andrew dedicated five hours to dealing with that yesterday, and we're coming closer to a resolution. Rah! for Andrew. I mean, RAH!

*        *        *        *         *

Snuggler has a part in the ensemble of Kiss Me, Kate! Once a year the children's theater does a big musical for the older kids -- many of whom have been doing shows for a decade -- and this year Snuggler was old enough to audition. That's exciting.

Now that our second semester schedule is beginning to gel (I couldn't sign up for anything else until casting came out, because we're talking 3-4 three-hour rehearsals a week), I can think about taking Snuggler to speech therapy. She has a recalcitrant 'R' sound that is significant enough to limit the kinds of roles she can get. We spent a year working on it to no effect; this is kind of our last shot, since we're expecting that she'll be in school next year and will have limited free time.

*        *        *        *         *

Little Guy has joined the Cub Scouts. A friend once commented that 90% of childhood activities up to age 10 are determined by the outfit. I think this is true. This kid loves his uniform.

My brother sent us some money for Christmas, and I opted to spend it on having one super-cool activity for Little Guy in this last semester of homeschooling. So I enrolled him in a robotics class. He'd taken a class with these folks last spring and loved it. But when it came time to go yesterday Little Guy was suddenly paralyzed with anxiety. After a lengthy intervention I figured out that he was afraid that since he was going to be the youngest (the class is for ages 8-12) he'd do badly, or that the older kids would laugh at him. I pointed out that the advantage of being the smallest is that no one expects you to be the best. And we went through the usual "Even if you're scared, you can put your shoes on" and "Even if you're scared, you can walk to the train" kind of thing. 

When we arrived and saw the place and it was real, it was do-able. Which is why my core strategy for dealing with a balking child is to say, "It's okay if you're scared. We'll go, and if you get there and it still seems hard you can wait outside until you feel comfortable." Because usually the fear is mixed with curiosity, or interest, or desire-to-go. And unless you can get to the physical place where the child remembers the positive part of the mixed feelings, you don't stand a chance.    

When I picked up Little Guy after class he practically flew into my arms with excitement, and yammered on and on and on about the super-cool wind-up robot he had made. Robotics is now the best thing ever.

*        *        *        *         *
Dancer's scholarship interview and exam is this afternoon. Pray for her. She really wants to go to this school, and unless funding comes through, she can't. 


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

You screen, I screen...

When I get up in the morning I make coffee, then sit on a sofa in the living room in the dark for a while. These days I listen to the hiss of the heat coming up, the wind over the river, and the swish of traffic on the highway below. The lights from the bridge twinkle a quarter-mile away.

My laptop sits nearby, two small lights gleaming like snake eyes, enticing me to open it. My rule is that I cannot open it until after I have drunk my coffee. First things first: silence helps my brain settle and gets me focused for the day. If it weren't that 5:30-7:30am is my best working time, I'd avoid turning on the computer entirely until about 11am. Life is just better that way. Or I'm better off that way. Or something.

*        *       *        *        *

I'm not an early-adaptor of technology. Back when cell phones were first popular I was on a bus with my kids when one of them asked, "Mommy, why don't you get a cell phone?" I replied, "Because I'm not important enough that anyone needs to reach me all the time." Half the bus turned around to stare. The truth is few of us need cell phones; we've simply grown accustomed to the sense of connectedness and safety they provide. Our tolerance for not-knowing has been stunted: we want to know where people are all the time. We would have made really lousy settlers 150 years ago.

*        *       *        *        *

Our family has never had cable TV. We don't have live television, either, since we live in a part of the city with no reception. The no-TV thing is kind of a cultural Grand Canyon between us and many other people. I once wrote a devotional about the effect not-watching TV has on my spiritual life, but it was rejected because the topic was considered too off-putting. The editor feared people would feel criticized if I admitted I don't watch TV.

I don't really care if other people watch TV. But I don't think TV should be a pre-requisite for membership in the "I Live A Normal Life" Club, either. If we're going to celebrate diversity and all that, we can celebrate diversity in TV use, no?

*        *       *        *        *

Andrew says that going no-TV was the best parenting decision we ever made. It's certainly the fastest way to reduce the impact of commercialism on kids. Now with computers the way they are, being TV-less is almost a non-event. One can open one's veins to pop culture and become a screen addict using a variety of electronic drugs.

We've seen some erosion in screen control over the past two years; Big Guy bought a DS and Dancer bought an iPod and a Wii. It's harder to enforce that a screen is a screen is a screen when there are so many different kinds in the house. But the biggest impact on screen time comes from having parents who spend more time in front of a screen than not. To a kid, it doesn't always matter if you're doing work or browsing around. You're still focused on a screen instead of him. It makes a difference.

*        *       *        *        *

Part of my lack of affection for screens arises from their convenience. While I enjoy convenience as much as anyone else, inconvenience has its benefits: it makes us stop and think. Decades ago I went to a women's college, where I realized that if I wanted a social life that included members of the opposite sex, I had to consider what kind of men I wanted to meet and where they were likely to be. That required an intentionality that I'd never considered before. I couldn't just fall into a relationship with the guy down the hall, because there were none.

When things are massively convenient (think Amazon One-Click) we often act with far less forethought than when we have to do a little more work. When entertainment is readily available, we veer off and indulge ourselves instead of doing something creative. I sometimes wonder what impact large quantities of readily-available screen time will have on the number of kids who take up instruments, or become artists or amazing chefs. It's hard to get in your 10,000 hours of practice if you're spending six hours a day in front of a screen.

Monday, January 16, 2012

From YIKES! to yikes

I'm in one of those phases where there are 400 ideas floating around in my head at once. This is a relief; I'm emerging from a stretch where my brain turned into left-out Play-Doh, the kind abandoned in a just-moist-enough spot to be of indeterminate color, hard, cracked and moldy.

Most of the atrophy was due to an extraordinary string of hard hits at year-end. The most significant of those was discovering (right after an ER visit) that Big Guy's health insurance had been cancelled. We hadn't been notified by the carrier, and despite logging many hours in phone-tree hell still haven't found out why it happened. Nor have we succeeded in reinstating it. I have Big Guy's case worker on it, as well as a friend who works for a State senator. But no insurance for Big Guy = no psychiatrist = no medication = oh-wow-let's-not-go-there. I can get scripts for meds through a city hospital clinic if I have to (after a half-day in a waiting room), but the cost of filling them is prohibitive. It's a problem.

I'm writing about this as if I handled the news calmly, which I did not. Externally I was reasonably placid, but inside -- wow! -- my feelings resembled an electrified cat. I reached my freak-out capacity the day I had to go up to Big Guy's parent-teacher conferences. I sat on the bus alone and stared out the window at the gray trees, cried a bit, prayed a lot, and decided to assume that things will get figured out and we will get meds within the timeframe that's needed. Whether it actually works out that way or not is almost irrelevant: I stink at panicking, and have to figure out a way to keep hysteria at bay, or else I can't function. Panic makes my mind blurry, and keeps me from meeting my deadlines, and puts static into family relationships. So I'm making a basic assumption that all will be well, putting my worries in a box, and allowing myself to take them out once in a while to play with. It doesn't solve the insurance problem faster, but it at least allows me access to the brain cells that allow me to try to solve it at all.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A list worth perusing

Every now and again I pop by EvidenceBasedMummy.com, to see what interesting stuff she's come up with. A recent post contains a great list of character strengths to consider as you raise your kids. It overlaps with some of what I've been reading in Martin Seligman's newest book (Flourish), and provides much food for thought.Kinda snaps you out of the "I just want my kid to be happy" mode in a jiffy!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Making friends in unexpected ways

I went to Heide's house today to a tea to celebrate her birthday. It's been a longish time since I went anywhere that I knew only the host and hostess, and I had to consciously brush off my social skills and engage people I'd never met.

I am not a gregarious person in new settings. Until I had children I was a closet introvert: I could successfully fake extroversion -- or at least sociability -- but vastly preferred reading books at home. A decade or so of hanging out at playgrounds chit-chatting with other mothers expanded my comfort zone considerably. I suspect that age played a role, too, because I eventually figured out that although most people were naturally more sociable they were also less secure, and that made talking to strangers less intimidating. And so I evolved into a creature approximating an extrovert. (My children will be shocked to learn I was not always like this: they know me only as the mother who knows everyone.)

Nonetheless, when I walked into the room today and saw that a) it was a small group of people, and b) I didn't know any of them, I had a momentary rush of adrenaline. Then I reminded myself that I am who I am, and no new social situation is going to lessen me. And I remembered that since these were Heide's friends I would probably find them interesting. Which I did. One woman, a professor whose specialty is 20th century British literature, felt like an instant old friend. That is a rare occurrence. And a happy one.

*         *          *         *          *

In the car on the way back (for my new friend gave me a ride home) I mentioned that our family had met Heide's through her husband Doug. I'd almost forgotten that; people assume that since Little Guy and Heide's Offspring are friends, we must have met on the playground. But back when Eldest was about 10, she and Big Guy were in a children's theater production of The Tempest. Eldest played Caliban, and Big Guy one of the lesser noblemen. After the performance a man came up to me and asked if I was Caliban's mother. I nodded warily; he said he was doing an indie film of the medieval Everyman play, and he would like Eldest to read for a small part in it. Hmmm. Is this a scam?

No, it was for real. Eldest did read for the part and got it, and Big Guy ended up with a part, too. It was on the day they were filming in the park nearby that I met Heide, who was helping Doug out. It's not often you make friends with someone because you happen to meet her during a movie shoot. Or at least it hasn't been a frequent occurrence for me.

(You can see a trailer for Doug's Everyman here; my kids are in the one-second flicker of the first scene, in the foreground to the right as Everyman walks down the road.)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Happiness for Dancer

Stage one of the high school results came in today, with good news: Dancer was admitted to both of the Catholic high schools to which she'd applied. One came with a nice-size scholarship and an invitation to interview for a 4-year, 2/3 tuition scholarship. The other -- her first choice school, more selective -- came with an invitation to sit for the scholarship exam next week. We need a goodly amount of financial aid, so if you're a praying person, please help us out with a request!

I am glad for Dancer. Proud of her, too. And relieved that we have at least two good choices for high school. The public school placements won't be announced until some time in February, probably after the deposit is due at these schools. Hopefully the scholarships will be sufficient to make a decision on what to do without too much angst.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Holding it together, sometimes

I went up to Big Guy's school today for parent-teacher conferences. Oh, how I didn't want to go! It meant going to a bus terminal that I never use, finding a bus line I've never ridden, going on a route I'd never traveled, and getting off at a stop I didn't know. I had no idea how much it was going to cost. And once I arrived I was going to have to walk some undetermined distance to get to the school. In the rain. Ugh.

It was one of those things that falls in the category of brushing your teeth: you do it because you have to, not because you want to. I knew that once I'd done it, it would not be a big deal -- it was only the first-timeness that was making me uncomfy. So I chalked it up to experiencing, on a small scale, the kind of anxiety that some of my kids (including Big Guy) experience whenever we do something new.

It really wasn't a big deal. It's easier to get to this school than Big Guy's old school (which required two trains and a taxi). And the teachers were all pleasant, and had good things to say, and they like my son. They think he's a great kid.

Which is good. I mean, it would be nice if some of that light would shine here at home, too. But in a way it's okay if he turns it on for others and leaves us in the dark. At least that means he can hold it together sometimes.

*        *         *         *         *

Being able to do things only sometimes is confusing. I've known people to point to sometimes as evidence that if a child only tried harder, he or she would be capable of doing something all the time. That's one possible explanation. There are others. In my experience when a child can do things sometimes and not others, it's often because the child is not yet strong enough to do it consistently. He can do it in some settings and not others, or perhaps on days when he had a lot of sleep the night before, or when he's feeling uncharacteristically confident.

When a child can only do things sometimes, it's usually useful to ask what it was that was different about the times he was successful, to see if we can replicate the circumstances that make success possible.

When a child can only do things sometimes we may need to consider what kind of effort it takes for him to do it. We might have to think in terms of battery hours (how long before he needs to recharge?) or about what prophylactic measures will extend his abilities. These approaches tend to work better than assuming the kid isn't trying hard enough.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Tips for Saving Money on Grocery Shopping

I made cinnamon swirl bread last night. There were two reasons: I wanted something special for breakfast (today was Eldest's last morning here), and there weren't any ingredients in the house for anything else. It came out well, but I would have been better if I'd thought of starting the dough before 9pm; the last loaf came out of the oven at 12:30 a.m.

It's not economical for me to bake bread, because my family eats twice as much of it as store-bought. I can buy a large loaf of fresh Jewish rye at the kosher  bakery around the corner for less than whatever comes pre-packaged at the grocery story, but that goes fast, too. We consume a lot of bread and milk. Most days it seems like we go through a lot of everything. Which is why I am fierce about the food budget.

People ask me how we feed a lot of people on a little budget. I've gotten better at it with time. I don't do coupons, because we don't get any newspapers that carry them, stores here don't accept computer-generated coupons, and I don't buy much in the way of national brands, anyway. There are obvious cost-cutting steps like buying less expensive meats, and making chicken broth each time you have a chicken carcass. Here are some less-obvious tips:

1. Only bring cash to the grocery store. Cash creates an automatic spending limit, and there's no more effective deterrent to impulse buying than the fear that you won't be able to pay for what's in your cart!

2. Set a dollar limit on what you'll spend per pound on produce and meat. I don't buy fruit that's more than $1.69/pound, or meat that's more than $2.99/pound. YMMV (or at least your ceiling prices will), but the concept's good for avoiding spending more than you can afford. On the produce end, it also keeps you focused on buying whatever's in season. We eat a lot of carrots and cabbage in the winter.

3. Plan your meals. This step alone can save you 15% on your grocery bill. I keep a long list, organized by cost (any time/on sale/special occasions), of what my family will eat. In the "any time" category are things like black beans and rice, omelets, latkes with applesauce, pasta with pesto, channa masala, homemade mac 'n' cheese -- mainly starch-based meals (though I cook enough Chinese dishes that we have a number of them in there, too). In the 'on sale' category are entrees that require ground beef or chicken, Italian sausage, pork loin, London Broil. The advantage to the long list is that I can pick up the grocery store circulars, see what's on sale, and plan out the week's meals without having to think too much, and so that we're not constantly eating the same thing.

a) Breakfast is ridiculously inexpensive if you get in the habit of baking. It takes five minutes to toss muffins together, and even less time to scramble eggs. We rarely buy cereal.

b) Lunch can be the most expensive meal of the day if you go the coldcuts route; it's 1/4 the price to make curried chicken salad, and better for you, too. Leftovers, soups, quesadillas, and really simple sandwiches bring down our cost.

c) Snacks: don't buy'em. Drink water, not juice.

4. Reserve a bit of money for buying extra basics when they're on sale. If you bake, buy two pounds of butter or an extra bag of flour when it goes on sale.  

5. Reserve $10 of your budget as 'mad money'. If your whole shopping trip is spent resisting temptation, you'll do well for a couple of weeks and then blow your budget because you run out of self-control. Set aside some money for a weekly mini-splurge, or a gee-my-kids-would-like-ice-cream treat, and you can circumvent a good deal of the emotional erosion.

All the stupidly expensive things like detergent, shampoo, sanitary supplies, TP, and trash bags we get at Costco. I have a wonderful friend who has a membership and will pick these up for me, so that I don't even have to consider making impulse purchases!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Love in life

Eldest heads back to college on Monday, and I have to say I'm sad. I so love having her here. The kids enjoy goofing around and being a whole family. There was one point last week when all five kids were crammed into the love seat together, chattering and laughing, happy to be a clan. I wish I'd taken a picture. The scene stays fixed in my mind, and I would like to give the kids a visual memory of that day so that they remember it, too.

The poignancy of that mental snapshot is that I've spent many hours this week on that same love seat talking to distraught, angry children who are struggling with their feelings about Big Guy. Big Guy's fun when he's fun, but he explodes; he's scary; he's unpredictable. It's hard to avoid the sense that he ruins everything. And lest I fall into the trap of that line of thinking, I remind myself that those difficult, empathetic conversations on the love seat with my battle-scarred children make up (perhaps) some of my best parenting moments.

Funny that it's called a love seat, no? For love is made up of many things besides happiness: empathy, companionship, patience, endurance, understanding, reconciliation, forbearance, and just staggering through.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Andrew brought me white roses on New Year's Eve. That's the anniversary of our engagement; on the night he proposed he brought white roses, and he's done so in each of the 19 years since then.

It's sweet of him. Unfortunately, I am terribly unromantic. The path to my heart isn't lined with flowers or jewelry or mushy cards. And I'm allergic to decaying plant matter. So each year I nod my thanks, put the roses in a vase, and half-wonder if there's something a wee bit wrong with me for not "feeling the love".

As the days pass and the roses open, I move the vase from this part of the table to that, making room for schoolwork and supper and everyday life. When I sit in the living room writing, my eye falls on the flowers when I glance up. Over the days my mind slowly begins to apprehend that this curious gift my husband brings me once a year -- a gift I know many women yearn for, but I do not -- is somehow symbolic of something. It is as if Andrew is saying I know roses aren't your love language, but they are part of mine, and I love you enough that I am going to 'say' it whether you can hear me or not.

I think about that. After nearly two decades of marriage there's still a lot of mystery about what it means to love and be loved. Knowing that is worth something. Perhaps it's even worth the cost of a half-dozen white roses.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Asking the right questions

We had some fireworks here on New Years, though not from the usual child. One of my kids blew a gasket, ran out of the apartment in bare feet, and (when I went in search) was nowhere to be found. The child eventually reappeared, only to explode all over again. The child hated me, hated life, hated the world. The child demanded to be left alone, then stomped around yelling at and insulting everyone. The child refused comfort, empathy, and direction. The child had to be escorted to a room, and the door had to be shut. And the child continued to shout unpleasant things for some time.

This child shall remain anonymous, for every child has his or her bad moments. Some have uglier bad moments than others; some you need to worry about and others you don't. This was a pretty extreme incident, and I had a hunch what was going on. You see, Big Guy has been erratic lately. And while there have only been a few incidents where safety was truly an issue, the on-and-off blasts of anger make life feel uncertain. The child who fell apart had been not been feeling safe. Unpredictability in life can lead to strange reactions, most of which you'd rather avoid.

*       *        *         *          *

A while back I visited a friend whose older teen has been clinically depressed. I'd never seen the domino effect mental illness has on family life from the outside before. Teen A (the depressed and highly irritable one) snapped harshly and unnecessarily at Teen B; Teen B (wounded, and tired of getting picked on) snarled back with venom. Adult A came down on Teen B; Adult B worked frantically to re-establish peace. In less than a minute the entire family went from having a normal dinner to being in a state of high anxiety and agitation.

Whose fault was it? I think that's the wrong question; the point isn't to find someone to blame, but a way to prevent the situation from arising again. Assigning guilt improves nothing, because even though the instigator knows he shouldn't snap at others he probably isn't capable of behaving differently right now. Child A can be taken to a therapist and started on meds, but those approaches-to-a-solution aren't going to kick in before suppertime rolls around again tomorrow night.

A better question is what kind of firebreak can be constructed to prevent Child A's irritability from spreading. One can talk to the sibling at a calm time, and explain what is going on. One can ask the sibling not to take the irritability personally (good luck with that!), to detach, and choose not to let the nastiness get under his skin. It will work -- a bit. But practicing detachment is difficult even if you're an adult. And there's a fine line between teaching kids not to react to provocation and teaching them to ignore and accept abuse.

*       *        *         *          *

It is work to parent a child who is mentally ill. It is just as much work to parent children whose sibling is mentally ill. There are wounds everywhere, all the time. One tries -- hard -- to create oases in each child's life where he or she can thrive, grow, find confidence and peace. But still, there are wounds that sometimes fester and grow out of sight.

On New Year's Eve, while I was empathizing with my melting-down child (once the child was in a state which allowed for communication), the child demanded, "Why do we have to have such big problems?"

I responded, "Honey, everyone has problems. And if they don't have them now, they'll have them some day. Life isn't always easy."

The child responded, angrily, "Yeah, well none of my friends have to call 911 on their brother!"

Huh. Got me there.

And there's no pat answer, is there? Why us? Maybe because we're strong enough -- or can grow to be strong enough. Maybe because Big Guy needed a family that would care. Maybe because this experience can make us into better people. Maybe it's the plain old brokenness of the world, and we drew one of the shorter straws. And maybe it's none (or all) of the above. Maybe asking why me is the wrong question. It doesn't take us anywhere except in circles. And that's not where we want to go.

Maybe the right question is something completely different. Like What kind of person do I want to be in the midst of this difficulty?