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. .

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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! 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.