Monday, October 28, 2002

October 28-November 1, 2002

OCTOBER 28, 2002

My kids don't know what they want to be for Halloween, which is scary since it means we'll have to do everything last-minute ... but on the other hand, gives me an opportunity to sneak in with costumes that don't require me to go to the overcrowded party store and pick through the gross costumes looking for something that fits them and doesn't give me fits. Since I'm no sewer, my home-made ideas this year are falling into the found-object category: My son can wear parts of his dad's work uniform and be Supermarket Produce Guy! My daughter can wear an old bowling shirt of mine, carry a bowling bag for her treats, and be Bowling Girl! I'm thisclose to convincing them that these ideas are actually good.

If that doesn't work, then we'll have to get desperate. My daughter's skeleton costume from last year is still hanging on the back of her grandma's door downstairs, and will probably fit if we cut off the feet. There's an ancient Oreo cookie costume in the attic that might fit my son, or else he can go as his favorite found object, a plastic shopping bag; there are certainly enough of them in his room to fashion a costume. Then of course, there's my favorite possibility: We just close the curtains, turn on the TV, ignore the doorbell, and pretend there is no such thing as Halloween. My chances of convincing the kids of the goodness of that idea are pretty slim, though. .

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OCTOBER 29, 2002

The other day a nice lady called from the Heart Association asking me to donate -- not my money, but my time to send letters to all my neighbors asking them to donate money. I trotted out my usual, somewhat cynical but nonetheless accurate excuse: Ma'am, I have two children with special needs, and I just can't spare the time to do anything but involve myself with their many pressing challenges. Hey, it's true! And it usually gets chastened telemarketers off the phone pronto.

But not this time. This time, the lady chirpily told me that she has two children with special needs in her family, the sons of her sister, one with Down Syndrome (but "high-functioning!" and "doing so well!"), the other with brain damage so severe that he "will never be normal." We traded nice words about how they all have their gifts and how rewarding it can be having special kids, yada yada yada, and then she finally did hang up.

And I guess I should have had a warm feeling about what a small world it is, and how you can find people touched by special children everywhere you look. But after our conversation, I realized that I had no idea what she meant by "will never be normal," and that that choice of words really got under my skin. What were we talking about here -- a kid who will never walk or talk, or a kid who will never go to Harvard? Why was a child who was "high-functioning" a source of such pride, and a child who "will never be normal" a source of such sorrow? Given the narrowness of the definition of "normal" in our society these days -- where a kid earning less than an A is presumed to have learning disabilities and a child acting like a child is presumed to need medication -- is that a state to which the parents of special needs children even want their offspring to aspire to?

Maybe so. Of course so. I guess I've just become so at home in Holland that it ticks me off when people keep prattling on about Italy. Some days I feel like the lead booster on the Holland Chamber of Commerce, for goodness sake. And on days like that, I want to call that Heart Association lady back and demand that she explain herself. Good thing even charitable telemarketers block their numbers.

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OCTOBER 30, 2002

Just got back from my daughter's IEP meeting, and I should be on Cloud 9. My requests to encourage independence for this no-longer-quite-so-helpless child were generally well-received; reports indicated great work and progress from my girl; and a major theme of the meeting seemed to be what a wonderful mother I am. Tra la, tra la.

Having heard so many horrific stories from others about IEP meetings in which "wonderful" was not the adjective anybody chose for the parents, and having been in an argumentative meeting or two myself, I am duly grateful for the surpassing pleasantness of this particular get-together. However, having many well-earned suspicious bones in my body, I can't help but worry that I'm just being yes-ed to death here. What folks say in a meeting or put down on a piece of paper is not, after all, the issue, although we often make it so; what matters is what goes on in the classroom. And that can be pretty hard to get a handle on, especially when you have a kid for whom communication is the major challenge.

So far this year, I have no reason to believe that anybody working with my child means any harm. I packed as much specific language about her aide's sphere of appropriate influence in the IEP as I could get, so there's a mechanism in place to make sure she gets the right help and nothing but the right help. There's a good team in place, and I'm inclined to trust. But I sure wish I could verify.

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OCTOBER 31, 2002

A supermarket chain near us is starting what I think may be a dangerous precedent: trick or treating in its aisles. I know this is an offshoot of the long developing trend in these parts to have kids do their candy collecting at shopping malls for maximum protection, going from store to store instead of door to door. But supermarkets are different. Supermarkets are a place you go every week. And yell at your kids to stop grabbing candy off the shelves. How ya going to do that now when, for one night anyway, they're handing it out for free?

I suppose this could be a problem with the mall, too, with kids tearing around the stores on non-Halloween days trying desperately to find that guy with the candy, but that doesn't worry me much because I never go to the mall. One fluorescent-light, jostling crowds, escalator dance, sensory overload meltdown from my son and you'd know why. The supermarket, though, is harder to avoid and easier to get through with my kiddos ... as long as it never occurs to them to trick or treat there. I imagine us arriving home and finding two produce bags full of cheese samples and kielbasa slices and loose candy from the candy bin and all the coupons the children could grab from those annoying little shelf-side dispensers. Hey, at the supermarket, every day is Halloween!

Door to door is looking better and better.

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NOVEMBER 1, 2002

October is over. October is my favorite month, not because of Halloween or the crisp fall air or the nearness to or distance from Christmas, but because of the fact that -- at least this year, at least in our school district -- it is the only month in which there are no days off from school. Five solid weeks of full-day school attendance for the little ones, twenty-five days interrupted only by weekends. No half days, no long weekends. Parental bliss.

But now it's gone, and November starts with a bang next week with a half-day off for Election Day and then Thursday and Friday off entirely due to a teacher's convention. And then from there, in short order, there's Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and winter break, and President's Day, and spring break, and snow days, and days off all over the darn place. Not another solid month of school attendance for the remainder of the academic year. And so, I mourn October. It's gone. But it was nice while it lasted.

Monday, October 21, 2002

October 21-25, 2002

OCTOBER 21, 2002

The other day I was helping with a fund-raiser at my kids' school (somebody has to pass out all that wrapping paper) when I noticed class after class filing onto the playground and boarding big yellow school buses. I hoped maybe they were practicing bus etiquette or the mechanics of really big engines, but of course, no: They were practicing for an evacuation, in case of bomb threat or other source of potential hysteria. I don't know if the whole exercise caused consternation among any of the students, but it sure freaked out this mom.

I can huff and puff a little and say my distress over evacuation drills is only because of the disruptiveness they visit upon my son, whose fetal-alcohol-affected brain does not deal with changes in routine well, much less changes in routine that involve being stuffed on a bus with bunches of other students. Fire drills are bad enough, lockdowns are a nightmare, and now this, too? Is the school trying to make him misbehave on purpose? Are his teachers taking the toll all this takes into account when they evaluate his comportment?

But really, you know, the whole idea of evacuations and lockdowns is probably far more traumatic to me than to him. And it's not even so much a sad sign of our times as it is a Mom thing. I remember atomic bomb drills in elementary school, and having my entire high school evacuate to the football field just to be sure we could do it, and there were probably disaster preparations I'm not even remembering -- because they just weren't that big a deal, except as a way to get out of a little work for a while. I'll bet my mom was freaking out, though.

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OCTOBER 22, 2002

I've been enjoying those new soups-in-a-microwavable-cup-you-can-sip-from-while-driving, and also enjoying the ads that show how deliberately they're being aimed at constantly on-the-go moms like myself. It's hard to always feel like you're rushing somewhere, but nice to know you're also a market share. I'm particularly amused by that moment in the commercial in which the soccer mom loads the kids back into the minivan after their game while sipping a little soup. You gotta wonder: Where did she heat that thing up? Does she have a microwave in the minivan? Did she drive home, nuke the soup, and drive back? And if she left her children's game for that, doesn't she lose points? This is why I personally have encouraged my daughter to pursue bowling, a sport civilized enough to be played indoors in a building with a snack bar. Who needs microwave soup when there are deep-fried mozzarella sticks?

As much as I find these soups not-bad, though, and as likely as I am to buy them again, I wish they'd stop pitching them as being for people who are "too busy to eat." I mean, how decadent is that -- "too busy to eat"? I imagine impoverished people around the globe bopping their heads V-8 style and saying, "Oh, silly me. I'm not starving. I'm just TOO BUSY TO EAT." Myself, I may be in a hurry, but I'm rarely too busy to eat. Too busy to eat something that has vegetables in it, maybe, but there's always time for candy or chips or non-microwave-requiring snacks of all sorts. And guess what: They really ARE ready to eat anytime, anywhere. If I were really too busy to eat, I'd be too busy to locate a microwave, too.

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OCTOBER 23, 2002

Cheerleading is getting out of hand.

If that wasn't true when I was in high school, when the cheerleaders merely got to be cuter and cooler and crueler than everybody else, it's sure true now, when girls as young as five start competing on cheerleading teams that involve hours of practice, miles of travel, and stunts that grow in height, complexity and danger with every year. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently reported that "Cheerleading causes more than half of the catastrophic injuries (those involving paralysis or death) suffered by all girls competing in sports in the United States."

It's hard to know what's more shocking about that statement -- that cheerleading is such hazardous activity, or that it's now considered a sport.

The AAP recommends better monitoring of cheerleading, better screening to make sure that cheerleaders are in appropriate physical condition for what they're trying to do, proper equipment and footwear -- in other words, if cheerleading's going to get so much more athletic, cheerleaders ought to start behaving like athletes. Could this ever lead to a time when the cheerleading crowns will go not to the most beautiful, tan, and pneumatic female students but to the most fit, talented, able-bodied ones? That would be great, I guess; surely a little bit of payback, anyway, for all of us who always envied those big-breasted bubbleheads. But you know where this is all leading, don't you? Ladies and gentlemen, look for it: Olympic Cheerleading. You know it's coming.

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OCTOBER 24, 2002

Well, I just could not have been prouder of my son yesterday. It was his first after-school chorus practice, and he did just fine. I honestly would not have thought it possible.

After all, there were so many reasons why he would fail: After-school is his meltdown time where he lets out everything he's been holding in all day; music overstimulates him, as do roomfuls of noisy children; the kids sit on the floor, which usually means he's lying down and rolling around the floor; the choir director, who's also his music teacher, was the only teacher to give him an "unsatisfactory" check on his progress report; his aide leaves before school's even over, so is unavailable for after-school activities; and the very day of the rehearsal, his class had a substitute teacher, which his classrom aide admitted made his behavior pretty rocky.

Oh, the deck seemed stacked against him. And in the days before the rehearsal, I did that thing I do -- identify situations in which my son is doomed to failure, and try to keep him away from them. But the choir director and the classroom aide both said, "Let him try it. Don't say no until you know there's a problem." And although I knew there would be, I followed their advice.

And surprise -- there wasn't one. The choir director had my son sit next to him on the piano bench, and reported that the boy did fine, and could read music pretty well. So score one for everybody but Mom. I'm certainly happy to be wrong, although somewhere deep inside that voice won't stop: It's just one time. It was a fluke. He'll flame out next time. He'll have trouble when the rehearsals move from once a month to once a week. How will he ever make it through a performance?

The voice may be right. But I'm going to stop listening to it for a while. I'm listening to my son's sweet singing voice instead.

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OCTOBER 25, 2002

Reader Stephanie M. wrote in to say that my dispatch of September 30 really struck a cord, and to share what she's figured out about being the emotional center for her own family:

"I really let all the therapists continually make me the responsible party for my child's behaviors at home. Not the greatest family therapy technique--right? Slowly, over the years, I learned to let go of the guilt and anger at myself because of the severely emotionally disturbed behaviors in our home. The best goal, I found, is the 'maypole attitude.' You become as stable as possible emotionally (consistently calm and cool) and let the children with disabilities attach to you and dance around you wildly. Keeping them sound, as they grow in the family security, as long as they hold that maypole ribbon. This becomes much more difficult when you are sick or exhausted from the 24-7 requirements of your role in their little lives. Containing your exasperation uses more energy than responding loudly to bad behaviors. But the payback is tremendous when they carry their maypole ribbon with them through the adult years... and it leads them home again and again."

A really useful way to look at it, I think. If only the maypole got to dance a little now and again...

Monday, October 14, 2002

October 14-18, 2002

OCTOBER 14, 2002

My son tells me I'm stupid. An idiot. A jackass. And he wants me to shut up. I'm guessing most parents would treat that kind of disrespect seriously, but in my guy's case, I can never be sure if the hurtful things he says are genuine or generally uncontrollable neurological blips. Probably a little of both. But there's enough benefit of the doubt to be had that I usually just ignore him. It's still not so nice to hear, though.

It's comforting to know, anyway, that "stupid" is a top-10 word for boys in his age group; his friend's mother told me her son has been declaring just about everything in sight stupid for months. And I sure know where my son got the word "jackass" -- his dad uses it every time another driver on the road exhibits less than stellar car-handling skills. All the more reason to watch what you say, every minute, with kids. It may feel good when you say it, but when you hear it back at you, not so much.

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OCTOBER 15, 2002

Eat a turkey sandwich, go to the ER.

That's been the risk in recent days as it's been revealed that some deli turkey meat has been contaminated with listeria, a nasty little bacteria that can cause fevers, headaches, neck stiffness, nauseau, and even death. The company responsible for the motley meat has issued a nationwide recall, but for a while a lot of folks aren't going to be able to look at anybody's thin-sliced white meat with much comfort. Here you're trying for a nice, low-fat, low-cholesterol sandwich, and instead you wind up with death on rye. It's enough to make a girl go back to hamburgers with everything.

Fortunately, we live in a country where our mealtime selections are ridiculously many and various, and so doing without one variety of luncheon meat is hardly a sacrifice. But with so much bad news walloping us these days -- with snipers picking off random pedestrians and the economy slipping fast and rumors of war rampant and obnoxious campaign commericals filling every vacant second of television time -- is it so much to ask to be able to enjoy a simple sandwich? Guess the listeria must have thought so, too.

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OCTOBER 16, 2002

When I saw that news article we highlighted yesterday, Duct Tape Can Get Rid of Warts, I had to laugh -- mostly because I've scanned the ever-burgeoning shelves of Band-Aid products lately, and noticed that among the 500,000 shapes, styles, colors and medication combinations of stick-ons manufactured by that company were new bandages especially designed to combat warts. You gotta imagine there's some poor research and development sap deep in the bowels of the Band-Aid building who's finally come up with the perfect way to get his company into the wart business -- it's a Band-Aid, and you put it over the wart and leave it there, and the wart goes away! -- only to find out that plain old do-it-all duct tape does the job just as well. Ladies and gentlemen, score one for home remedies.

And yet, of course, the score won't stay there for long. Because you know that the humble duct-tape therapy isn't going to put the fancy-bandage folks out of the wart business. It's going to put them in the duct-tape business. Pretty soon, those 500,000 other varieties will be moving over for a rack of Band-Aid brand duct tape, with cartoon characters and neon colors and floral prints and a price just about twice that of the stuff you get at Home Depot. It will be so cool that your kids will demand that you buy that instead of the plain tape. Heck, it will be so cool that your kids will demand you get them some warts so they can put it on. Never doubt the ability of corporate America to take something simple and cheap and make it expensive and proprietary. There are no small victories. Only big opportunities.

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OCTOBER 17, 2002

Lately, my son's been declaring that he wants his beloved summer camp counselor to be his mom instead of me. I point out, diplomatically, that she's already a mom to two boys and probably doesn't need one more. He then points out, more diplomatically, that we could just switch, me being mom to her sons, her being mom to him. I don't know if this switch also includes Papas, or if we're spouse-swapping, too, but I do know that it would never work, however we tried it. I'm his Mama, for life. You're stuck with me, boy.

As much as I know that this is a normal kid thing, they all do it, it's nothing to feel bad about ... well, it's hard not to feel bad about, isn't it? With all kids, sure, but maybe especially with our children with special needs, who we imagine feel especially bonded to us through our efforts to help them make their way in the world. And I know my son is depending on me; the rest is just play. But I also know that he's been really needy lately, and I've been really exhausted, and maybe I've been too eager to encourage him to watch TV or play alone instead of getting in good mom-and-son time. So perhaps I'll take this suggestion that there's a pretender to my title to get back into the game and give him lots of good Mom time. Gotta exert my claim, you know?

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OCTOBER 18, 2002

It's fall in the Northeast, which means we've entered into one of the most dangerous and worry-inducing times of year: Weatherman Hysteria Season. Whenever there's the merest hint of a storm coming our way, we get round-the-clock protestations of severe meteorological doom. This week there was a killer "Northeaster" heading for us, with wind so severe it would make patio furniture look like tinker toys. Predictions of storm-waylaid morning commutes, downed trees and power lines, utility outages and major flooding filled the airwaves. And it's true, we did eventually get some nice steady rain, but the 45-mile-an-hour winds never materialized. I'd think that weathermen would feel embarrassed when storms peter out that way, but given how goofy they often act during their broadcasts, I suppose they have a high embarrassment threshhold.

It's bad enough when Weatherman Hysteria just causes a little unnecessary worry. But come winter, it has the power to close schools. More than once, in our town anyway, panicky newscasts about big ol' snowstorms about to be dumped upon us have caused schools to close in advance; and more than once, said dumping snowstorm turned out to be no more than a few pretty flakes. Schools closed without reason are hard on parents; harder still on the class parents who must make the phone calls declaring that, really, truly, although there is no appreciable snow falling outside your window this six a.m, the schools are going to be closed anyway, believe me, it wasn't my decision, go yell at the school superintendant; and maybe hardest of all on me, because I volunteered to make phone calls for my kids' two classes plus an extra special-ed class that had no parents foolish enough to do so. So I'll be making about 22 six a.m. calls, and so help me, it better be snowing when I make them.

Come to think of it, that likely won't be a problem. If I've got lots of calls to make, we're doomed to have the whitest winter on record.

Tuesday, October 08, 2002

October 8-10, 2002

OCTOBER 8, 2002

We've been having a little problem with my daughter and soap. She still, at age 12, doesn't quite understand why a shower has to be a wash and not just a rinse. We tell her and tell her and tell her that she must use soap, soap, soap, yet it's pretty predictable that when we ask her if she did, she'll say she forgot. "I don't smell myself," says she, in reference to her body odor. Too bad for everybody else.

My latest attempt to interest her in hygeine brought us to the body-wash section of the supermarket, which is actually rather terrifyingly large at this point in history. Body wash is big. I thought maybe that if my girl could pick a scent more pleasing to her than Lever 2000, and less slippery than a bar of soap, she might be more interested in lathering up of a morning. (Picking her style and scent didn't work with deodorant, but I'm an optimist.) She sniffed and smelled and finally settled on a green cucumber-and-melon-scented gel -- interesting, because she wouldn't go near an actual cucumber and isn't all that sure about melons, either, but somehow their combined scent captivated her nostrils in a way the vanilla and the raspberry and the mango did not.

She's actually used the stuff for the past two mornings, and now I see the real advantage of super-scented shower products: Such a cloud of cucumber-and-melon-scented steam emerges from the bathroom when she's used the stuff that I'll never again have to ask if she remembered the soap. (I may have to ask if, after all of that, she's rinsed, but that's another story.) I'll probably regret, one day -- when she's a teenager and so obsessed with the way she smells that we can't get her out of the bathroom with a crowbar -- starting her down this particular scented-product road, but for the moment, anyway, life is sweet. Sweet as a melon.

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OCTOBER 9, 2002

Some kids collect baseball cards. Some kids collect rocks. Some kids collect dinosaur stuff, or Star Wars stuff, or Pokémon stuff. My son collects plastic shopping bags. And receipts. And shopping lists. Also wrappers, shoeboxes, tissue paper, pieces of aluminum foil. If you might throw it out, he might want to collect it. He's either going to grow up to be some sort of conceptual artist, or a bag person. He already has his own little shopping cart.

I'll admit, his packrat habits make cleaning up his room a challenge; we bought a laundry cart a while back to act as a "dumpster" for all the bags and paper bits that tend to spread out over his floor. But a kid's obsession with things that cost no money can come in handy, too. I've been having some success recently paying him off for quick homework completion with a plastic bag from the supermarket for every minute he beats the deadline. If he practices his piano, too, he can get a paper shopping bag in the bargain. When he wants a plastic sandwich bag or paper lunch bag instead, we barter: the going rate is three bigger bags for one smaller bag, and it keeps the clutter in his room nicely under control.

It looks like the folks at school are finding uses for his unusual reward ideas, too. He's brought home shopping bags from his teachers from time to time, and yesterday he showed me, with great pride and glee, a paper-towel envelope holding lots of little scraps of foam-paper left over after his class had cut out Halloween pumpkins, ghosts and witches. You could not have bought him a treat that would have made him more pleased than that. Unless, of course, you gave him the bag and the receipt, too.

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OCTOBER 10, 2002

I thought we were done with school chorus this year, and that made me a little sad because singing was a big part of my school life and I'd have liked that for my kids. But my daughter, after one year on the chorus line, said no way she'd go back. And my son --well, even though the demands of grade-school chorus are slight, one or two half-hour after-school practices a month and one concert at the end of the year, I'd never have purposely inflicted him on the chorus director. Behavior isn't his strong suit, after-school behavior especially, and the particular music teacher who leads the chorus has had behavioral trouble with him in past music classes. So I neither sought nor desired chorus membership for the lad. I leave well enough alone.

And yet, here, yesterday, comes home a form announcing that my boy has been accepted into chorus, on the basis of his "interest in music, his ability to participate in this special program and the results of his individual voice evaluation." Apparently, they just come to the third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms, ask who wants to sing, evaluate them and sign 'em up. Surely the chorus director must have been in on this, so he's either a) confident he can handle my boy; b) feeling noble about including special-ed kids; or c) forced by district rules to accept special-ed kids, even the really really scoodgy ones.

I still can't quite believe this is going to work, but since they asked for it and I didn't, we'll give it a try. He does sing beautifully, when he's of a mind to. It's the standing on the risers, watching the conductor, and only singing when he's supposed to that will be a challenge.