Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sub-Q Christmas

People keep trying to tell me, in the nicest possible way, that the cat doesn’t have much time left.

I know.

Really, it never takes much for me to imagine any given situation taken to its most dramatic and heartbreaking hypothetical extreme. This one doesn’t require much imagination. I’ve seen her blood work. I’ve spent the hours sitting around the emergency vet’s waiting room, sipping bad coffee and watching the accident-prone dogs and very, very sick cats come and go. And I’ve seen this all before with other pets – childhood pets, friends’ pets, family members’ pets.

I’m there. I’m ready to say goodbye.

It’s just that she doesn’t seem quite ready yet. She was overjoyed to come home from the vet’s on Thursday night. Just the way she sniffed the air was delight itself, moving her head this way and that, craning her neck and taking big enthusiastic sniffs like she can’t quite believe she’s back here. As if she’d begun to think maybe she’d dreamed the whole thing. She ran to her scratching post and gave it the scratching of a lifetime. She ran to Mr. Black and jumped in his lap. I woke up the next morning, as I have most mornings over the last sixteen years, with a sleepy, purry kitty on my head.

Once a crazy cat lady, always a crazy cat lady. In the beginning – before Seattle, before kids, before any of this – it was just me and this cat in a Philly apartment. We were like Mary and Rhoda. Anyone who knew me knew all about my cat.

Earlier this week, when she was still at the vet, when I thought we might be losing her sooner rather than later, all I could think of were those early single-girl years. Getting a pet back then was such an act of affirmation. It said “Okay, I’m here, and this is where I’m going to be for a while.” Her feisty little presence filled in the uncertain spaces so beautifully; a fundamental layer between bored loneliness and the chaos of human company. And at the end of every absurdly bad date, every exhausting day at work, every disappointing job interview, every hilarious night out with friends…there she was.

And here she is now. Each front leg has a little bald patch where the IVs were. She spent most of that first day home sleeping under my desk while I hovered around her helplessly, wishing she’d eat and drink more, bringing her little meals and bowls of water to no avail. Occasionally I’d try to put her in my lap, but she’d just give me that one-ear-back look and return to her spot.

After the kids were asleep, Mr. Black and I made our first attempt at administering subcutaneous fluids. Have you heard about this? Here, let Dr. Mike explain:

So, there you have it. Set up a hospital-style fluid bag, jab a nice sterile needle under the cat’s skin, and let those fluids flow, all in the comfort of your living room. I’m going to be honest: There isn’t a component in that process that doesn’t fill me with dread.

Mr. Black and I bumble around with it every night, just like the very earliest days of parenting when we’d team up for every diaper change. We try so hard to stay calm and professional, but we’re both in way over our heads. We had to bring a wobbly old floor lamp up from the basement so we’d have somewhere to hang the bag. Sometimes the cat lurches and squirms, nearly working the needle out, getting tangled in the line. I actually stuck myself with the damn needle tonight and had to start over with a fresh one. I just hope the floor lamp doesn’t come crashing down on my head one day.

But in spite of all the awkwardness and absurdity… we’re doing it. I think it’s working. She’s so spry all of a sudden. That first night, the minute we were done with the fluids, she walked right over to the dish of food she’d ignored all day and started chowing down. Then she hopped into our laps and the three of us all just sat on the couch in a daze.

We were supposed to be flying back east next week for the Big Christmas Visit Extravaganza. But I can’t leave her now. I want to make sure she stays well. And if she doesn’t…well, I don’t want to hear about it over the phone from a cat sitter. On the one hand, it feels a little embarrassing and very crazy-cat-lady of me. On the other hand, it feels absolutely essential.

My parents and sisters have been incredibly understanding and supportive. The kids were disappointed at first, but they quickly warmed up to the idea of spending Christmas in their own house. So, haul out the rain boots and foam up the lattes, because it’s Christmas in Seattle this year.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

My Girl

Little Girl turned five yesterday, the same day as our preschool trip to see The Nutcracker. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I had a little moment there, just as “March of the Children” began, when I turned my attention from the lavish production on stage to her mesmerized face in the dark. She was perched on the edge of her seat, holding an armload of stuffed animals, clearly recognizing the song and delighted to see it come to life so vividly in front of her. I nearly started to cry.

There’s a joy in this girl that just about breaks my heart sometimes. It’s so pure, so free from the fears and self-doubt that come later in life. She throws herself into the things she loves with full force, unapologetically. She is my girl in motion – swinging on the playground for incredibly long stretches, mired in a gorgeous world of imagination. She adorns herself in mismatched pinks and sparkles. She narrates as we go about our daily business, or holds conversations with stuffed animals and imaginary friends. And her joy in her real friends is enormous, especially when they join in her story-playing. She’s even got The Boy doing it. They can play for hours, those two, just making up stories and acting them out.

I see so much of my childhood self in her, it’s a little scary sometimes. Scary, because I know what comes next. You turn all that love and imagination and intensity loose on the world and, well…mixed results, at best. There will be people who get you and love you for being your rather unusual self. Others, not so much. She has no clue yet, bless her heart, about people who want to take others down a peg with rigid standards of “normal” and “feminine,” or just plain competition. She can’t begin to fathom that there will be people who won’t love her as much as she loves them. Knowing that this awaits her is almost too much for me sometimes. Will her spirit survive it?

Well…yes. I think her spirit will do just fine. She’s got so much of it to begin with, not to mention a mother who’s been through the woods and back and could maybe help show her the path, if she’s willing. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway. Might as well enjoy that unbridled innocence while we have the chance.

Happy birthday, Little Girl.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Beauty School

One recent rainy morning, I dragged my reluctant self to Rudy’s for a much-needed haircut. I was half-asleep in the chair when Fleetwood Mac’s “You Make Loving Fun” came on. And suddenly…it was 1979 and I was back in the old orange-and-brown, potted-plant-flocked hair salon where it all began.

After a dreadful experience in which my adorable little sister was given an unwanted and most unfortunate bowl chop, our mom was extremely selective about who cut our hair in our small town. We tried some locally famous guy’s salon at the strip mall, where I got my first-ever Dorothy Hamill. But then he got to be too much of a big shot to do kids’ hair. We found another place that worked for awhile, until our stylist moved to Texas. She referred us to a new place that was supposed to be great.

It wasn’t at all like the kiddie salons of today, with their pony-shaped chairs and smoke-free environment. This was a grown-up salon, and it was the late 70’s/early 80’s, baby! My new hairstylist was – from my childhood frame-of-reference – like Johnny Fever meets Sam Malone meets Vic Ferrari. He was proudly single, clever-ish, gregariously self-absorbed, maybe just slightly on the seedy side. My mom respected him, though, so I felt compelled to at least try to figure out what I was missing. What was there to like about this guy?

Maybe it was simply his talent. No bowl chops at that place. This guy knew what he was doing. When he got a job at another salon, we followed him there. (Goodbye orange and brown, hello royal blue and gold!) And then, in the late 80’s, he and his fellow stylists started their own place. (Hello mauve and white!)

I never felt entirely comfortable in any of the venues. I didn’t like feeling obligated to talk to him, trying to make the kind of conversation he wanted to have, trying to somehow pass as the hair salon version of “normal.” Meanwhile, your mom’s standing over your shoulder telling him to give you a haircut that’s easy to manage because of your obvious hygiene and basic-personal-care failings. Jokes at your expense, always, and the sense that you had to go along and somehow see the humor in it…or at least pretend that you did.

And the hair, more often than not, was some dreadful version of early Princess Di. I wanted long hair. “But what will you do with long hair?” my mom would ask. I never had an answer to that. So, Princess Di it was. Well, Princess Di with giant 80’s glasses.

As if the mother/daughter growing pains and introverted adolescent discomfort wasn’t enough, there were some real eyebrow-raising moments going on at that salon. There were jokes, probably intended to flatter, about our developing bodies and hypothetical boyfriends. There was the time our stylist showed up very late for a morning appointment, complaining about what could only have been a hangover and detailing how he’d finally managed to get the vomiting under control. (And then proceeded to do my hair. Ew.)

One time a teenage girl with Farah hair and a long, flowery dress showed up with her dowdy friend in tow and hovered around his chair for my whole haircut, flirting and begging him to join them on some adventure. Before they finally left, she actually kissed him on the lips. Twice. I saw it in the mirror. The stylist was clearly embarrassed, politely trying to deflect her and cut my hair at the same time. I was deadly embarrassed too – not for them, but for myself. At age ten, I felt so dwarfed by her; so ridiculously late-blooming. (What’s wrong with me? I should be dressed up and flirting with some old guy instead of stuck here with my mom. I’m so lame.) My mom, for the record, was mortified. But she blamed it entirely on the teenage girl, and we kept going back.

And then there was the stripper! Yes, there was an honest-to-Zod stripper there one time, right while I was sitting under the heat lamps letting that perm solution do its work. The other stylists had hired her for his birthday as a hilarious surprise. She was older, very heavily made-up, with hair like Gwen Verdon and a sparkly tux. She barely stripped. Just took off the jacket, hat, gloves, and boa; did a bawdy-ish dance to some poorly-recorded show tune on her boom box. Afterwards, unraveling the perm rods from my hair, the stylist told me how uncomfortable it made him, and how he found the whole stripper thing kind of sad. I couldn’t tell if it was sincere or not, but I appreciated the effort. My mom was off doing errands and missed that one. I’m pretty sure I never told her about it.

I have to say, though, the guy wasn’t so bad. He did tasteful perms (well, tasteful by 1980’s standards). He had some interesting stories to tell. He had his own version of “telephone,” making up ridiculous urban legends to his clients to see how long it would take the story to get back to his chair. He mellowed a lot over the years, eventually getting married and talking mostly about his step-kids and horses.

I changed, too. As I got older my mom stopped hovering behind the chair, relieving me of the awkward-daughter persona, freeing up a new version of self to explore. Grown-up conversations became a pleasant challenge instead of a cringe-fest. I was proud of myself as I worked to figure it out, learning how to fake interest in some totally uninteresting story, how to intuit a person’s sense of humor and make a joke that they’d like, how to sound happy and chatty when you’re actually bored assless and getting a headache from the smell of perm solution and cigarette smoke, how to playfully deflect teasing, how to act like you’re okay with it when a man stops the conversation to flirt with another woman in front of you, how to pretend you think Don Johnson’s sexy, how to guess what they want to hear and then say it…how to act like someone who enjoys getting her hair done.

For better or for worse, I came of age under those dryers and in front of those mirrors. My hair went from Princess Di, to tidy little perms, to lush huge perms, to a sleek early-90’s bob. It was my go-to salon all through college, all through grad school. I was well into my twenties before I finally cut the cord and went to a different place (although there was plenty of DIY henna and Clairol happening in various apartment bathrooms before that). And years later, for my first Christmas as a new mother myself, my mom’s gift to me was a cut and color at the old salon.

I don’t really do salons anymore, unless there’s a special occasion or a gift card to Habitude involved. But I love how they’ve evolved into these nurturing spaces with a peaceful, healthy vibe. And I’ve finally realized that you really don’t have to do the inane chatter thing with the stylist. Just let them know you’re there to relax and bliss-out, and they’ll let you.

No, there’s not much to miss about the old smoke-and-Top-40-infused salons of my youth. But somehow, sitting there in Rudy’s hearing that old Fleetwood Mac song, it made me so happy to remember those awkward hours spent in that chair. I was peering into the adult world, gradually trying it on for myself, taking it more seriously than any actual adult ever would. It all seemed so dangerous and out-of-my-league at the time. So illicit. And now, somehow, it seems downright innocent.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Where Do You Go From a Thanksgiving Layoff?

Down the hall in the break room, every inch of counter space was packed with various crock pots and pies. The smell of turkey wafted through the air. But first, our entire branch filed into the training room for an impromptu meeting.

Here we go again, I thought. The whole time I’d worked there – nearly four years at that point – there’d been rumors of downsizing, departments closing, even the entire branch closing. Nothing had ever come of it. They’d call us up to those meetings, amid a heavy mood of anxiety, just to announce personnel changes or some new policy. Surely today wouldn’t be any different. Who would announce a branch closing right before the Thanksgiving potluck?

And yet, that’s exactly what they did. “You’re all fired. Have some turkey.”

Okay, it wasn’t quite that harsh. They tried to let us down easy. They told us the office would be open through January, so there’d be plenty of time to look for new jobs. They let us know we were welcome to apply for jobs at corporate headquarters in Atlanta, or apply for retail jobs in any of the big box stores our office supported. They answered our questions as best they could. All around the room, you could hear people quietly crying.

Finally, we adjourned to the break room for one very stunned and surreal Thanksgiving feast. I think I ate about five desserts and very little else. We let each other vent. We wondered what we’d do next. We debated whether to call our husbands and wives now, or wait and tell them at home. Some of us were stoic, some were anxious, some were angry. Everyone had their own unique way of coping.

As for me, I was a little bitter, a little worried, a little ashamed, but mostly…overjoyed! So happy! I was pregnant with The Boy after nearly two years of trying and three early miscarriages. In fact, I’d just found out it was a boy that very week. I knew I’d miss my co-workers. I knew I’d miss a good job and a steady paycheck. But really, I was dying for a break. I wanted to stay home and start nesting, take walks, indulge my urge to nap at 3pm, maybe attend a weekday prenatal yoga class that wasn’t packed to the rafters like the Saturday one. Losing one's job while pregnant is an unfortunate situation. But I could barely suppress a wild, childlike sense of “YAY!!! NO SCHOOL!!!”

The bizarre thing is, that feeling lasted for nearly eight years. Every time I told the story of my layoff, it was with a “Can you believe my good fortune!” tone. I loved being a stay-at-home mom. Was it tedious? No more so than pricing water heaters for the monthly catalog. Was it mindless? No more so than chanting the corporate loyalty cheer at quarterly meetings. Was it a waste of my education? Please. I have a Masters in English literature. Anything that doesn’t involve analyzing food motifs in late 20th Century fiction is technically a waste of my education. No question about it. SAHMing rocked. And if I hadn’t been laid off, maybe I wouldn’t have had the courage to try it. No regrets.

Until recently. You see, I never intended to stay out of the game for quite this long. I did some freelance work here and there over the years, but The Boy is seven-and-a-half now and I have yet to set foot in another office. Little Girl starts kindergarten next year. It’s almost time. I’ve got to start getting ready to leave my own nest.

And as I look over my prospects and start dusting off the old resume, I can’t help but wonder…what if I hadn’t been laid off? What if I’d taken my little three months of unpaid maternity leave and gone right back to the old job? Would I still be there? Would I have developed new skills and made connections to get myself into an even better job? Would our finances be in any better shape than they are now, or would most of my money have gone to childcare?

More to the point: Would childcare have even accepted my little Aspergian toddler? When I was hoping to expand my freelance work, I tried sending him to a drop-off daycare. They kicked him out for crying too much. “This is a happy place,” the director explained as she refunded our tuition. I tried another daycare with a better reputation, but he hated that one, too. They didn’t kick him out, but they called me to come get him whenever he had a meltdown, which was often. After a while, I gave up on daycare and quit the freelance work altogether.

Again, no regrets. The Boy’s early years with undiagnosed Aspergers may have put me through the wringer, but I came out of it with all kinds of parenting superpowers and a fierce commitment to special ed students and teachers everywhere. I’ve learned so much, and I’m learning more every day – from his teachers, from his occupational therapist, from special ed activists and writers, and from the children themselves.

Lately I’ve been thinking I ought to put that to work instead of my mad corporate communications skillz. If it works out, then maybe that Thanksgiving layoff really was for the best.

Friday, October 21, 2011

This is Your Marriage on Hospital Drugs

The euphoric combination of Not Cancer and hospital drugs lasts maybe 24 hours, tops. And what a lovely 24 hours it is.

We drive home, all four of us, like we’re coming home from the airport or something, weary from some journey, more excited than usual by ordinary things. I find some recipe on the Internet and he tells me over and over again how good it is. The kids go off to play and we have a talk, a real talk, in which we challenge ourselves and think outside our respective boxes, trying on the roles of Grown Up Husband and Wife at the height of competence, taking challenges head on, discussing solutions.

The next day, though, it’s all about pharmacy bills and deductibles and how the hell are we going to pay for this business of aging, of holding ourselves together? Maturity wants to give way to petulance, and maybe that’s really the most logical path because you know what? It’s not fair. No fair.

I always thought it would be me. It always has been me, hasn’t it, from migraines to miscarriages to the various cysts and scares. And who knows, it still could be. But him. He’s too smart for all this somehow. Too logical. The sober yin to my raging yang. How did he get here? Neither of us quite knows how to handle this perverse role reversal.

While he retreats into Stoic Adolescent, I stumble upon an old role, the role of Woman About to be Left. It’s a strange place to inhabit again, after all these years. The lying awake through sheer exhaustion and exhilaration, an awkward nestle into an odd angle of his shoulder, yearning to sleep but savoring every minute holding this sleeping person, feeling his impending distance.

Which is ridiculous, on the one hand, because nobody’s actually leaving. There are dishwashers to unload, checks to write, tedious arguments to have, emotional cues to miss, lunches to pack. It’s not like the old days. When a relationship used to make you this sad, it meant the other person was Wrong For You and the only logical course of action was to move on, set yourself free into that world of possibilities, that sea full of fish.

But now? He is just that into you. And you’re just that into him. But sadness, sometimes, just goes with the territory anyway. It’s impossible not to grow through a lifetime together and not occasionally – unintentionally – break each other’s hearts. As long as there’s still love on both sides, as long as there’s still fundamental respect and kindness…you stay.

Does it hurt more, knowing that when we do ultimately “leave” each other, it won’t be by choice? Oh yes. Hurt doesn’t even come close to describing it. Decades away, we hope, but it seems to loom so near when we get these little hospital gown’d glimpses of mortality.

So…we put it out of our minds as best we can. Enjoy each other, savor all the little poetic moments, carpe diem and so forth. And…well…keep standin’. Through love and absurdity. Stój zawsze przy nim.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Destination Wedding

2001. Ours was the third in a series of family weddings that year. Boston in August, Newport Beach in September, and the grand finale in New Hope, Pennsylvania in October. We were living in Seattle by then, but most of our friends and family were still on the east coast. Destination wedding!

We’d just gotten back from the Newport Beach trip feeling so happy. Even on the drive to work that morning I couldn’t stop smiling, remembering all the fun we’d had and anticipating my own wedding – only a month away now. Even the AIRPORT CLOSED sign didn’t raise much concern or curiosity. Good thing we’d flown in the day before, I thought. I was handing out Disneyland souvenir pens to my co-workers when I first heard the news.

One sobering month later, we locked up our house in the dark and loaded our wedding-couture-filled garment bags into the airport shuttle van. It seemed wrong, somehow, to completely indulge the giddy anticipation and visions of sugarplums. The airport was nearly empty and eerily quiet. No one spoke as we waited to board our flight.

In Pennsylvania, American flags abounded. They hung on doorways, from cranes on construction sites, on lapels in ribbon form. Back in Seattle, we’d seen the same shocking images on CNN, felt the same deep sadness and confusion. But here in the northeast, it was raw. Real.

Somehow, though, a wedding was exactly what was needed. There were my sisters, my parents, and my old beloved Pennsylvania autumn. There was the man I loved so much, together for nearly four years at that point but still very much in the early wide-eyed throes of it. Everyone was so excited, so ready to come together and just be happy again, throwing ourselves into the joyful project of pulling this wedding together.

And pull it together, we did. Sunflowers. Baked brie. Falling leaves by the Delaware River. Chocolate raspberry cake. The best, most wonderful circle of friends and family. Pure fun. Pure love.

Life moved on pretty quickly from there. Our dreamy wedding gave way to the realities of marriage, and the dreamy “United We Stand” mood of the early post-9/11 weeks gave way to…well, you know.

Funny how those dreadful political years became the backdrop for some of the happiest, most monumental moments of our lives together. We were watching Fair Game the other night and I kept mentally comparing the story’s timeline to our own. That’s when we got married. That’s when I found out I was pregnant with The Boy. Et cetera.

Ten years.

I guess it feels like ten years – personally and politically. I can’t quite believe where we’ve been. I can’t quite fathom where we’re going. There will be joy and distance, absurdities and hope, setbacks and triumphs. It reads like a narrative, but really it’s a process.

Happily ever onward.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Above Average

“ELL, Special Ed, and an assortment of behavioral problems are mainstreamed on the backs of average students.”

This from the school board candidate I was supporting. I’d put up a yard sign and everything. Now it looks like I might have to go out there in the rain and rip that sign out with my bare hands because, excuse me, “mainstreamed on the backs of average students”?!  


I mean…I get it. I do. Teachers are spread incredibly thin. The more variables you dump on them, the less time and energy they have to actually teach. And, for what it’s worth, I was that so-called average student back in the day, sitting stoically through the chaos, sometimes learning, sometimes not, counting the minutes until the dismissal bell. And now I’m an average mom with an exceptionally brilliant, anxious, super-charged, sensitive, anything-but-average little Aspergian.

I didn’t mainstream him on anybody’s back. I hadn’t intended to mainstream him at all. Believe it or not, we special ed parents are just as afraid of “average” students as you are of us. You think I want to expose my little boy-child to the teasing, the judgment, the scapegoating, the willful ignorance, the ostracism? I pulled him out of general ed last year, not even knowing where the hell the school district would reassign him and not caring, because I knew it had to be better than where we were. I had no idea he’d end up right back in another general ed classroom at a different school, mainstreamed before we’d even had a chance to de-mainstream.

But you know what? It’s working for him. With a supportive principal, a caring and dynamic classroom teacher, support from a well-equipped special ed staff, and one very, very engaged mother, inclusion is working for my son.

Is it working for his “average” classmates, upon whose backs he’s supposedly been mainstreamed? Hard to say. I’ll admit that sometimes The Boy can be a downright pain in the ass. But having spent a fair amount of time in that classroom, I’m quite confident that he’s not the only one. Kids bump up against each other in all kinds of ways in a school setting. They cry, they tattle, they tease, they shove, they make the most unpleasant sounds and smells.

It’s not so much that the “average” ones have to endure the different ones; it’s that they’re all enduring each other. For the most part, they really do adapt to each other’s quirks and differences. They adapt a whole lot better than the adults do, that’s for sure. And they adapt especially well when the adults set a tone for acceptance.

Inclusion doesn’t work when the teachers resent it, the principals don’t support it, and the special ed services are spread thin-to-nothing. It sure as hell doesn’t work when other parents regard our very presence in the classroom as a threat to their “average” students’ academic success.

But here’s the thing: Inclusion isn’t going away. The school district wants it, most of the special ed parents want it, and it’s on the right side of the law. You can complain about it, you can hightail it to private school, or you can get on board to help make it work. Advocate for better special ed services and support for classroom teachers. Educate yourself about your child’s classmates’ disabilities. Volunteer in your child’s classroom.

Or…just take a moment to smile and chat with the special ed mom on the playground, even if she doesn’t have a friendly look on her face. Chances are she’s too nervous to reach out to you. Let her know she’s welcome. Because she’s a lot like you. And there may come a time when your child finds herself on the wrong side of “average.” How will you want to be treated by other parents when that time comes? Will you want to be seen as a burden, a label, part of the problem? Or will you want acceptance and a sense of community? Might as well pay it forward.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a yard sign that needs removing.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Fresh Start

So, here’s a new one:

Last week, mere hours before we’d planned to leave for Big Family Final Beach Weekend of the Summer, I had a meeting at The Boy’s new school. (I know, what a great way to get psyched for a beach trip. Pass the tanning butter.)

So, I gathered up The Boy’s IEP and behavior plan, the handout they gave me back in June, my list of concerns – oops, I mean, “questions” –  about this program and its appropriateness for him, and marched into that school ready to advocate.

Except…I didn’t really need to.

Somehow, over the summer – maybe thanks to the tireless advocacy of pioneer parents before me, or because school district lawyers successfully managed to explain “least restrictive means” to the administrators, or perhaps a rare alignment between school district politics and my child’s best interests, or maybe just plain dumb luck – the program changed. For the better.
  • It is no longer a behavior intervention program.
  • Enrollment in the program is now 80% autism/Aspergers students.
  • The Boy is in a regular 2nd grade “gifted” classroom with support from an instructional aide  
  • The old self-contained classroom is now a "learning center" where special ed students have access to pull-outs for extra support, as needed.

If I could have designed a program for him myself, this is pretty much what I would have done. Well…I’d have the day be a little shorter, the class size a little smaller, include a big block of time for Lego-building in the afternoon, and tell the parents about it in freaking JUNE so they wouldn’t have worried about it all summer long! But otherwise, it’s pretty darn close to ideal.

So, now what? There’s plenty more to worry about, of course. How will the pearl-clutching “not fair to the other kids!” anti-inclusion parents react to his presence? What if the “gifted” curriculum is too hard? What if the other kids exclude, or tease, or bully? What if he lashes out at them? What if this simply…doesn’t work?

But now, with the long-anticipated first day of school finally behind us, there’s a lot to feel optimistic about, too. The Boy was so excited to walk to his new school this morning. He’s so proud to be a second grader. His classroom teacher is a guy who seems to genuinely love teaching and was positively glowing when I picked The Boy up at school today. He’s happy to have The Boy in his class. The special ed teacher actually called me at home to tell me The Boy was having a great first day. (After I recovered from the shock and panic of seeing SEATTLE PUBLIC SCHOOLS on my caller ID, I was delighted with the news.) 

I know it could all go terribly wrong tomorrow, or next week, or months from now. All the more reason to savor it today, I suppose. And keep hoping for the best.  

Friday, August 12, 2011

Back to the Prairie

My summer reading list has been a strange combination of Aspergers this, special ed that, and…Little House on the Prairie? Not the books. Not the TV show. Books about the books and the TV show.

The best by far was The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure, in which the author and her boyfriend set out on a series of road trips to visit all things Little House. McClure delves into the beloved books of her youth, examining history and nostalgia; the books’ cultural impact and wide variety of fans; which parts were fictionalized; whether the books were mostly written by Laura Ingalls Wilder herself or by her daughter Rose; the books’ occasional cringe-worthy racism and politics; the sweetness and absurdity of Little House tourism; and the author’s own need to connect so deeply with the Little House world again in the first place. Loved it.

The other two books were more beach reads and Hollywoody than I usually prefer. But how could I resist Confessions of a Prairie Bitch by Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie Oleson on the TV series? Delicious. I wish I’d stopped with that one instead of slogging through Melissa Gilbert’s Prairie Tale, which read like a Twilight book without the vampires. Likeable enough, moderately introspective, but in the end I didn’t much care about all the boyfriends and Lifetime movies that followed her Little House career. Sorry, Half Pint.

Rather than plunge into Melissa Anderson (Mary)’s poorly reviewed The Way I See It, I’m thinking I might go back and read the later books in the Little House series: Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years. I read them both during the summer between 5th and 6th grade – an awkward, searching, “crossroads” kind of time in my life for which I’ve recently, inexplicably, become rather nostalgic.

Then, as now, I was an anxious dreamer – yearning for adventures, but ultimately too freaked out by the whole business of dealing-with-other-humans to do much about it. So I wrapped myself in the comforts of bookworm solitude and the notion that things must be so much better on the prairie (or in Narnia, or Marilyn Sachs’ Brooklyn, et cetera).

The Little House books exemplified the very “simple country life” dream my family was striving for, with Emmylou Harris on our stereo and a brooder full of chicks in our living room. Reading those books was simultaneously escape and home…or escape to an idealized version of home. We already had the old stone farmhouse, the woods, the fields, the antique rocking chairs. All I had to do was glorify the mundane spaces with Laura’s wide-eyed narration; apply her pure sense of joy and wonder to my ordinary life.

That summer, as middle school drew nearer, I immersed myself even further in the Little House fantasy – imagining my shirts were long dresses, that our station wagon was a horse drawn wagon, describing my surroundings to myself in third person narrative prose. I’d read all the earlier Little House books about Laura’s girlhood. Now it was time to read about Laura as a teenager. It was the safest way to dip my toes in my own impending adolescence, wrapped in layers of braids and calico, buggy rides and sociables.

I remember holding on to the Little House fantasy well into 6th grade, willfully blurring the edges of my reality into a nice, gentle fictionalization. Maybe I was scared or overwhelmed, but I don’t remember feeling that way. I think I just really wanted life to be that joyful, instead of the raw mess of clanging lockers and flailing hormones and insecurities.

Looking at the covers of those later Little House books sends me right back there again, reading in my nightgown, yearning for my almost-teenage life to start but holding dearly to my summer. And – come to think of it – holding dearly to my childhood. Because, really, that was the last true summer of my childhood. The calm before the storm.

It’s nothing I’d ever want to relive. Yet I’m strangely, strongly compelled to revisit it now. Perhaps I’m just nostalgic for a time when I had the ability to escape and imagine. To delve into a jarring situation and soften it with idealizations and hope.

This isn’t the last summer of my children’s childhood. Not even close. But it feels like an end of sorts, at least with The Boy. I’m striving to see him, the real him, not my hopes and disappointments, not my advocacy for him at school, not the politics of Aspergers. Him.

And part of what I’m seeing is that even now, even at age seven, he’s miles beyond my grasp. I can’t impose peace and happiness on him any more than I could impose it on those noisy middle school hallways years ago. He is on his journey, not mine. I’ve always known that. But I’m only just now feeling the sharp truth of it.

Is it any wonder I find myself grasping prairie-ward again, seeking the comforts that got me through the first steps on my own path? Fasten your sunbonnets, pioneers. We’ll get through this one, too.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Welcome to the Cracks

Ever sit around just reading your kid’s IEP, trying to imagine how it actually translates to a happier child? And let me be clear…I’m not complaining about The Boy’s IEP. It was written by an excellent special ed teacher who was his biggest advocate and strongest support last year. She herself expressed frustration with the rigid nature of these things.

You can dictate what a child needs and what the school must provide – to a point. They can have X minutes of services here, Y minutes of services there. They can have a teacher with a special ed degree (or, apparently, a Teach for America recruit who’s successfully crammed for a special ed test). They can be in a small classroom with a high ratio of adults to students. They can have access to an aide (just hope you don’t get the bitter, disgruntled type).

It can look good on paper, but so much slips between the cracks. Because you can’t dictate human nature. You can’t dictate empathy, common sense, or even the slightest real understanding and acceptance of Aspergers beyond its stiff, inadequate textbook definitions.

Welcome to the cracks.

It would appear that I have been ever-so-slightly misled. Some of the misleading, I’m afraid, was my own doing. I was desperate to get The Boy out of his old school and into a situation where he’d have more support and understanding. So, I enthusiastically accepted a spot at our neighborhood school where, my contact from the school district acknowledged, it wasn’t exactly an autism-specific program and it wasn’t exactly an inclusion model. But she, the principal, and the special ed teacher offered enough reasons to make me believe it would be a good-enough fit, that they’d be flexible and do their best to meet his individual needs.

And who knows. Maybe it will work. But it’s not what I was expecting. For one thing, autism is a relatively new thing to this classroom. Half of next year’s students will be on the spectrum, but traditionally it hasn’t been that way. Traditionally, it’s been a self-contained classroom for neurotypical kids with behavior problems, and it’s still very much run that way – with the teacher and aides kind of figuring out how all this applies to autistic kids on the fly.

So…not an ideal fit. Hopefully not a flat-out freaking disaster, but not an ideal fit. I wanted autism inclusion. I was led to believe (and very much wanted to believe) that this program was similar enough, but it isn’t. Meanwhile, the school district wants to phase out autism inclusion programs entirely. I don’t know what’s going to happen going forward, but I’m puzzling out the details of Plans A, B, C, and D right now and there are several possible outcomes. Time will tell. Nobody ever said this was going to be easy.  

But in the meantime…welcome to the cracks.

We will start second grade at this school, in this program, as planned. The things I liked about it two months ago are still mostly true. And there’s still a chance that it might be a good fit for The Boy. My first action won’t be whisking him out of there. My first action will be trying to see if we can settle into these cracks we’ve slipped between and make it work for the time being. I’ll be navigating the system, but I will have both eyes firmly on the child himself. How will he thrive? What strengths can we build upon and what coping skills can we teach? Where will he find his small comforts and joys to help him through?

We made incredible progress last year. This coming year presents a whole new set of challenges, only some of which I can anticipate. Maybe someday we’ll have a school year where I can just put him on the bus and relax into my own day, but this isn’t going to be it. 

On the plus side, maybe this will be the year I earn my Ms. Special Ed Parenting America crown. Stay tuned…

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Me and Disco Stu

“You have to go to the Tin Angel!” everyone insisted when I told them I was moving to Philadelphia. What can I say? I ran with a folksier crowd in those prairie-skirt wearing, WXPN-listening days.

So, after some early weeks feeling under-pierced and just plain lonely in the big city, I set out to find this place. I was such a country mouse in those days, I didn’t even understand about bars being closed on Sundays. Or that it wasn’t just a bar, anyway, it was a venue and I’d most likely have needed a ticket to get in. So, now what?

There was a coffeehouse/deli next door that was open. I decided to just sit with a big juicy mocha, contemplate this latest setback, and head back home in the spirit of “better luck next time.”

The place was nearly empty except for two middle-aged guys. One looked ordinary enough. The other was…well…the second coming of Saturday Night Fever. White suit. Baby blue shirt, half buttoned. Immaculately coiffed John Travolta hair.

His name was Phil. He introduced himself with exaggerated charm and immediately started hitting on me. I immediately started deflecting his advances with my trademark smirk and dumb-guy-repelling big vocabulary.

“Are you an intellectual?” he asked, throwing me for a loop. Raise eyebrow, hope he’ll go away. “Oh, be intellectual! It turns me on!”

I must have looked flustered, because his friend intervened at that point, trying to redirect the guy. Realizing it wasn’t going to happen, Phil turned around and yelled at me “You know what your problem is? You missed the seventies!”

“No, I loved the seventies,” I said. “I mean, I was only eight, but…”

And Phil Seventies went on a rant about how my generation isn’t any fun, with our “safe sex” and “irony” and “grunge” music/fashion. We just didn’t get it. His friend apologized and ushered the guy out the door.

Alone again. I supposed solitude was better than letting Phil Seventies seduce me with his disco-era charm simply because I was the only woman around on a slow night. No regrets letting that particular opportunity slip away.

But I wondered about him. How did he come to be in Philadelphia on a Sunday night trying to get laid in a John Travolta costume in an empty Food Tek, pissed that it’s not the seventies anymore?

Years later, I told the story to Mr. Black, who found it every bit as funny and baffling as I did. Was the guy really that clueless? Had he recently arrived in 1994 in his Delorean time machine? Was he coming from a costume party and just really, really committed to staying in character? My theory was simply that he was recently divorced, hadn’t been single since 1978, and assumed nothing had changed since then. But is that possible?

“It would be like you going to a club dressed as Kurt Cobain and yelling at everyone that they missed the nineties,” I joked.

And then we realized…oh wait. It is possible.

Well, not the going-to-a-club and yelling-at-people part. But in our own small way, we are now every bit as antiquated as Phil Seventies was back in 1994. We still dress in irony-T’s and flannel. I haven’t bought a new album since Sleater-Kinney’s last one. Today’s youth culture makes us cranky. We were watching the Homerpalooza episode of the Simpsons the other day and realized that we are Homer in that.

Bart: Dad, please. You're embarrassing us.

Homer: No I'm not. I'm teaching you about rock music. Now Grand Funk Railroad paved the way for Jefferson Airplane, which cleared the way for Jefferson Starship. The stage was now set for the Alan Parsons Project…

Replace those bands with Screaming Trees and The Cranberries, and here we are. We don’t even watch the Simpsons-of-today anymore; we just watch our old favorites from the early seasons on DVD. Hand me the Geritol.

I guess I can see why Phil Seventies was bitter. Aging really sneaks up on you. I feel every bit the same “me” that I was in my cute, smirky youth. But now I’m walking around in this fortysomething body with all these weird aches and pains in the morning. My spirit hasn’t changed, but everything else is changing all around me, constantly. And time seems to move so much faster.

I’m sure Phil felt like the same “Phil,” too. He used to feel at one with his time and place, and now it had just slipped away, replaced by a lonely weekend and some smart aleck hippie wannabe loner who wouldn’t give him the time of day. No more discos, no more Farrah hair, no more wild unbridled seventies-style fun. No more youth.

I get it, Phil. I still don’t want to sleep with you, but I get it.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Not Done Yet

“Are you done?” a friend recently asked me.

It took me a little longer than it should have to realize she meant “Done having babies.” To which the answer is simply “yes.” The good folks at Paragard are helping me see to that.

But when she first asked the question, before I knew what she meant, my first thought was “No. Not even close.”

School ended on Tuesday. By Thursday, I found myself luxuriating on our crummy old beach blanket with a fresh pedicure, watching The Boy and Mr. Black build a sandcastle while Little Girl made up a story with a pair of plastic shovels. It was a rare peaceful moment, complete with the sparkling, crashing waves of the Oregon Coast Pacific in the background.

Nine months ago we were right here on this very beach, enjoying one last adventure before the start of school. I can’t help but sit back and marvel at all that’s transpired between then and now.

First freaking grade. Who would have thought? I guess on some level, I’d known we were in for a wild ride of a school year. I’d already scaled back my volunteer duties at Little Girl’s preschool in preparation. I’d been warned by The Boy’s awesome kindergarten teacher that first grade is a whole different ballgame. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I had a vague, foreboding sense that a huge pain in the ass was in store.

The last time we sat on this beach, I had no idea The Boy had Aspergers. But I knew something was up with him, and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to fix it before school started. At that point, I was still kind of hoping it would somehow fix itself. Well…it didn’t.

The amazing thing is how incredibly positive I’ve been feeling about this crazy year. And not just because we’re sitting on a beach. Even before we left I was elated, on the phone with my mother trying to explain that no, really, it was a good year! A growing year! Look at how far we’ve come:

We have a diagnosis. We have an IEP. We won over his classroom teacher – who started out the year disgruntled and overwhelmed – and watched her really learn and start to get him as the year went on, patching things together with common sense and empathy even before there was an IEP in place. We stood up to kids who picked on him and parents who didn’t want their kids to associate with him. We got him out of a disastrous reading group and watched his behavior improve dramatically as a result. We got him reassigned to a school that routinely serves students on the autism spectrum, where he’ll have the professional attention and understanding he’s needed all along. Let’s face it, people: We kicked ass!

And no…we’re not done. But it’s awfully nice, after all that, to just sit by the ocean again.

Watching my happy little nuclear family on the beach reminds me of another Oregon Coast trip a few years back. The Boy was two, and I was pregnant with Little Girl. So pregnant, in fact, that I wore one of those dreadful maternity belts under my tank top so that I could walk on the beach without being sabotaged by preggo-related sciatica.

But I was so joyful the whole time. The baby-to-be kicked merrily when her brother-to-be ran around the hotel room, as if she couldn’t wait to get out and join the party. I watched other families with multiple school-aged children, imagining ourselves in that place in a few years. There was this blissful sense of “Soon Our Family Will Be Complete.” Or something less cheesy than that. I don’t know.

And now, here we are. Brother and sister, Aspergian and neurotypical, Legos and stuffed animals. Complete.

But not done.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


Shuffling into a crowded Barnes & Noble today with Little Girl, I caught sight of two bookish, endearingly young guys standing by the door. They were about to part ways, feet pointing in different directions, but their eyes were absolutely locked in the sweetest twitterpated gaze. Earnest smiles, avid nodding. One described his job and co-workers to the other, both of them speaking and listening with far more fascination than the subject matter warranted.

They don’t know it yet, I thought, smiling as my girl tugged me into the store. But they’re just on the cusp of realizing. Maybe they’re realizing it at this very moment. Or maybe they’ll both lie awake tonight mystified and intrigued, wondering if they imagined that flicker in the other’s eyes. So obvious to the passer-by, but it eludes them because the very notion seems to defy the law of gravity: Mutual! The guy you adore adores you, too. Impossible.

I miss that. It’s one of the few things I truly don’t have anymore, that I probably will never experience again. That innocent moment when a gaze lasts just a little longer, when you can’t quite break eye contact; when the corners of your mouths creep up inanely while you talk about bus schedules or whatever mundane topic you’d been discussing.

I’m not talking about flirtation. Flirtation is contrived, often insincere, and kind of annoying, frankly. I’m talking about spark – a connection that happens in spite of your best manners or even your best interests. Like the old cupid’s arrow thing in cartoons, eyeballs turning into hearts and so forth.

I know, I know. Thanks to reality dating shows, the word “connection” has been rendered even more meaningless and silly than the eyeball/heart thing. But seeing those innocently enamored guys today makes me remember that it’s real. It just doesn’t happen as often as pop culture wants us to believe.

Spark was always my favorite, even in the single days. Especially in the single days, when more often than not, spark was as good as it got. It was that one simple, perfect moment before you learn that the guy’s allergic to telephones. Or mean to his ex-girlfriends. Or kisses entirely with his tongue, no lips at all. It’s that one lovely impression of bliss before the awkward mechanics of actually disrobing and attempting orgasm with another sweaty human being. Or, Zod help you, attempting a relationship with someone whose compatibility falls far short of spark’s initial promise.

Come to think of it, spark is a pretty lousy predictor. It’s mostly just projection, really. You think you’re seeing this incredible connection, but really you’re just seeing mutual physical attraction and wild, careless hope. Even under the best of circumstances, there’s nowhere to go but down. It’s either a failed relationship or the arduous, pioneering work of a successful one.

But spark for spark’s sake? Is that even possible? Can you have a mutually recognized attraction that goes unfulfilled? Or does that only exist in fairy tales like Lost in Translation?

Gaah…love that movie. Love. It.

Anyway. I wish those guys from Barnes & Noble the best. I kind of hope they didn’t realize the mutual attraction today. I hope they get at least a week or two to savor the anticipation, search for clues in conversations and glances, blissfully agonize about it over drinks with friends, feel just on the verge of that spark, but not quite there just yet. It’s the best part, guys. Enjoy it.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Lost and Found

I met my parents at the King of Prussia mall and borrowed my old car back from them, carless as I was in those days. It was dark by the time I hit the road. I had no plans. Not one. I just started driving north, because north.

I made it as far as New Paltz that night. The next day I decided to spend the rest of my vacation in the Adirondacks. Drive a little, hike. Drive a little, swim in a lake. Drive a little, find a motel for the night. Wake up, put on a sports bra, and go for a real hike.

This woman on the trail reminded me of Ingrid. Even her voice had that same lilt to it, and that joyful enthusiasm. Insistent. The trail was flooded, but she knew another way. Come on! Funny how you can fall into your old role with a completely new person, just like that. I followed her. She had a compass and a trail map. She seemed so sure of the way.

The real Ingrid was gone, of course. Never came back to work from her vacation, cleared out her apartment, took her last paycheck and disappeared. It was all so surreal. I kept remembering how our strange little girl-crush friendship unraveled over the summer. She went from adoring me to being aggressively distant, to being just plain irritated with me…well, irritated and distant with all of us, really. I knew it wasn’t about me, but still. I wondered. I hypothesized. I went back over past conversations, searching for clues.

Mostly, though, I just missed her so much. Walking through the city at night, I’d stare up at the glittering office windows against the dusky sky feeling as if she had just evaporated up there somewhere. It was even more perplexing than the “what happens when you die” question, because she wasn’t dead. She was somewhere, not wanting to be found.

And now, I was getting lost in the woods with some woman who reminded me of her. She became less and less certain, but no less enthusiastic. It’s this way! And we’d charge up a hillside, whacking branches out of our way. No, wait, it was actually that way! Charge, whack, etc.

And then she just stopped. She didn’t know anymore. Panic! She took out a whistle and blew and blew. Nothing. She called shrill, terrified calls for help. Nothing. It was so quiet.

I was every bit as lost as she was, but somehow I felt completely calm. “I’m going to have some water,” I said, keeping my voice low and reassuring. “Would you like some water, too?” She nodded, we sipped. I don’t remember what I said after that. I just kept speaking with composure and certainty, even though I had no freaking idea where we were or how to get us back to the trail.

But it worked. She picked up her map again, and together we retraced our steps back to the point where we’d gone off the trail. Her boyfriend was there. She stayed with him while I followed the official detour around the flooded trail.

Soon I was back on the trail, taking long, delicious strides up the side of the mountain, thinking about not much at all. Sun. Pine needles. Boots. Sky. I was happier than I’d been all summer. Traveling alone is so intensely free. You can just drift with your own whims, explore your senses uninterrupted.

At the same time, I’d never felt so grounded. All that summer I’d been so lonely and tense and sad, uncertain about whether to stay at my job or even whether to stay in Philadelphia. Somehow, Ingrid’s leaving made me realize I was already entrenched; more stable than I ever could have known.

Just like that stranger on the trail. I’d followed her, trusted her, believed that I needed her. But in the end, I was the one who had to lead. And I could find my own way pretty well, it turned out.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Drinking the Skool Aid

The worst part is, I knew better.

It’s written all over the notebook I brought with me on the kindergarten tour. I’d been skeptical when they trotted out the panel of meticulously multiracial 5th graders. I’d been embarrassed when the panel’s only white boy did all the talking, and rather amused by the touring parents who eagerly asked these 10-year-olds question after question. I sat out the excited murmuring when they mentioned 3rd grade Shakespeare plays and 8th grade homeless role-play “empathy building” activities. Even the gorgeous library rubbed me the wrong way.

I tried to explain it to Mr. Black afterwards, but he takes everything so damn literally. Gorgeous library, Shakespeare plays, great test scores. What’s not to like?

“You don’t understand,” I tried to explain. “Everyone was so happy there. So self-satisfied. Like nothing could ever go wrong there.”

“But that’s good, isn’t it?”

“It’s good if it works for you,” I said. “But what if it doesn’t? What if your kid is in the midst of all this feel-good Shakespearian high-test-score empathy building and he still has problems and doesn’t fit in? How do they treat people who aren’t happy?”

Back then I didn’t know The Boy had Aspergers. In fact, the first therapist who evaluated him assured me that he didn’t. I didn’t know he was academically gifted, either, although I had my suspicions. Mostly, I just knew we were having a truly horrendous final year of preschool. The teacher didn’t get him. Some of the other parents didn’t even like him. There were serious looks of concern when I’d mention he was headed for kindergarten in the fall.

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. That’s why I was so determined to send him to the Absolute 100% Best of All Possible Public Schools. Of course, none of the schools we toured fit that description. How could they? It’s like looking for Mr. Right. There’s no such thing. But I’d pinned all my hopes for The Boy on this notion of the Right School. I guess it stood to reason that, sooner or later, I’d have to start believing the hype.

I wasn’t expecting to get into that super-nice school with the Shakespearian 3rd graders. It’s hugely popular, open to the whole city by lottery alone. Everyone warned me not to get my hopes up. No one gets in.

Except…we got in.

I didn’t realize how much I’d wanted it until it was right there in front of me on the school assignment letter. I actually dropped the letter in shock. Everyone was amazed and delighted for us. Even our preschool friends who got into the coveted foreign language immersion school were impressed. You’d think the kid had won a full scholarship to Yale or something. But it felt so good to have people happy for us for a change. I felt vindicated, somehow.

And then…I kind of started to lose sight of reality. Somehow, I conflated all the praise and congratulations with The Boy’s actual state of well-being – which, let’s face it, hadn’t changed just because we’d lucked into a prestigious elementary school. But I couldn’t make myself slow down and see that.

There’s a lot to like about that school, for sure. It sits on a woodsy hillside overlooking Lake Union. The kindergarten was nurturing and fun. He sang in a coffee house holiday concert, performed in a shadow puppet show, participated in a salmon migration parade, sang in the chorus of a Shel Silverstein musical revue. He made good friends. He learned some sign language. He was happy and proud to be there.

But the tension was never very far below the surface. Poor little guy. It’s hard work to have Aspergers when none of the adults in your life know or understand. He didn’t need a gorgeous library or a salmon migration parade. He didn’t even need “empathy building.” He needed teachers and a staff who’d seen kids like him in action before and knew what the heck to do with it. Or, in school district lingo, he needed a “more intensive service model.” He was more than halfway through 1st grade before I finally figured that out.

Of course, these “service models” typically aren’t offered at the fancier, more prestigious public schools like Empathy Building Central, here. Coincidence? Are these schools considered “good” in the first place because there’s conveniently no room for kids like mine?

If you believe the rumors in the special ed community, a previous administration did all it could to keep special ed students out of this school. I can’t say if that’s true or not, but it would certainly go a long way toward explaining some of the cluelessness we’ve encountered there. Kind, well-intentioned cluelessness. How would you know what to do with Aspergers if you’ve never seen it in your classroom before?

Next year, he’ll attend a school that’s walking distance from our house. They have a special ed inclusion program that’s taught by an award-winning teacher. He might even be able to participate in gifted classes. If I hadn’t been so stuck on finding him the Best of All Possible Public Schools two years ago, we could have just sent him there in the first place. But our new school, for whatever reason, is not very highly regarded by parents. And again: coincidence? Is it considered “not good” because there is room for kids like mine?

Well, we’ll see. Meanwhile, at the risk of pouring myself a new flavor of Kool Aid, I have to admit that I’m pretty excited about the new school. The Boy’s excited about it, too. And yes, we know by now that there’s no such thing as the Right School. This isn’t going to fix anything. It’s part of the process, not a happy ending.

Although…gosh. After all we’ve been through, maybe for now I’d like to just imagine that it is.

Thursday, May 26, 2011


Even then, it was an old song – an old song on an old cassette tape with old ties to a past life. Several lives ago, by then. It didn’t break my heart way back then, and it wasn’t breaking my heart now, either. Just kind of tugging at it around the edges, like poking at a loose tooth or something. The little thrill of making it bleed. Another goodbye…one I hoped would be temporary but knew was necessary.

Mr. Black sat next to me in my car in his alley, waiting to be dropped off but indulging me for some reason, letting me rewind the song and play it again. And again. Turns out he knew the real story behind the song, and we sat there talking about this old band for a while, as if that were all there was to talk about.

Philly summers are the worst. The absolute worst. The whole city kind of hangs under a hot, grey, polluted haze of humidity. I won’t miss this, I kept thinking, though it was hard to imagine anything else. I couldn’t quite see beyond the immediate months ahead, when he’d leave for Seattle and I’d be stuck behind in this stark city, alone. Again.

We took a trip to New England that summer, sweeping each other temporarily away from it all. A sunny small-town 4th of July parade Vermont, a freezing cold picnic in New Hampshire, days of rocky hikes and violet-blue sea in Maine, swimming in a motel pool at sunset.

I had marriage proposals on my mind, even though I knew he never would. I couldn’t help it. There’d been so many office wedding showers and engagement parties that summer, it was hard not to imagine my own relationship in those terms. This would be the perfect place, I kept thinking, standing on various rocky edges in the midst of some breathtaking scenery or other. He didn’t ask, of course, and I didn’t dare bring it up.

You don’t fall in love with someone at age 28 expecting it to be perfect. Although Mr. Black and I came awfully close in those days. It felt like a small miracle, after all the dating angst and absurdity I’d been through, that I could simply meet a wicked-smart pop culture geek like myself and fold so uncomplicatedly into couplehood. It seemed to defy gravity.

So when, after about three months of dating, he told me he’d be moving to the west coast that summer, I wasn’t too disappointed. As other shoes go, that one was a relatively light drop. He took it seriously. Asked me if I wanted to stay together. Said he’d be up for the long-distance thing if I would. And maybe…just maybe…I’d be interested in joining him there someday.

We didn’t even consider moving together. It seems strange to think about it now, but in those days we clung to our independence almost superstitiously. Moving with him would have been too…establishment, or something. I guess I just wasn’t ready to leave yet. Wasn’t ready to toss all my eggs in that basket. But I was ready to take a big New England road trip with him that summer. And, apparently, I was ready to at least fantasize about marriage proposals.

We spent that last night in Boston, staying with friends of his from college. Out of nowhere, his old girlfriend’s name came up in conversation. He was visibly rattled – way more than was polite, really. I pretended not to notice. But…you know. I noticed.

The friends went to bed and we stayed up late on their living room floor, talking about her in the dark. I used to do this sort of thing full-time when I was younger and, perhaps, stupider. Spent hours talking to men I loved about the women they loved, being the Good Friend. But that night in Boston, doing the same old thing with the guy I loved more than anyone, ever – the guy I thought was different, the guy I wanted to follow to Seattle – well, I didn’t quite have the stamina for it anymore. I was nervous and shaking, nauseated. Finally I told him we had to stop. He was kind about it. Surprised. Reassuring. Still, I felt like I’d been split in half.

We drove back to Philly in silence the next day. One more month. I drove him to the post office to ship his boxes (and boxes!) of books. I helped him make posters for his yard sale. I tried not to let the ex-girlfriend thing haunt me, but it did, of course. There were long, needling conversations seeking reassurance. There was sitting in my car in his alley, listening to that song over and over again. There were plenty of light-hearted moments too, beach trips and such. But mostly it was just him preparing to leave and me preparing to be left.

There was an indignity to it, for sure. But I looked it in the face and swallowed it down –the first of many, many compromises this relationship would demand of us both; that any long-term relationship demands. I’ve learned, since then, to speak up. Straight from the heart in the language of reason. I can’t imagine holding back from him now the way I did then. But I was still finding my way back then. I was learning how to trust another person with my feelings, erring on the extreme side of caution, waiting for someone else to make the first move, hoping they’d get it right.

And so, one miserably grey, stinking-hot August day, I found myself standing in the Philadelphia airport with my forehead pressed against the window, watching him walk across the tarmac toward the tiny plane that would take him to Newark to catch a direct flight to Oregon, where he’d spend some time with his parents before the big Seattle move. He was wearing his suit so he wouldn’t have to pack it, and it contrasted adorably with his fringy too-long hair blowing in his eyes as he looked back toward the airport, squinting, maybe trying to get one last look at me.

And then it was me. Just me.

But not for long.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Beyond the Broom Closet

“It was basically a glorified broom closet,” the speaker says, recounting her own experience as a child in a special education classroom. She describes sitting in that room day after day with the other children who didn’t fit the mold, sometimes completely unsupervised. There wasn’t much learning going on. They were there to be kept out of the way. She’s not sure, even now, why she was assigned to special ed in the first place. Perhaps some quirks of temperament mistaken for a disorder? Perhaps the fact that she was a late reader?

It’s heartbreaking, of course. Maybe a little less so in the context of this multi-speaker presentation, which is a self-congratulatory parade of our city school district’s accomplishments in special education. We’ve come a long way, baby, from those broom closets. Special ed students are in general ed classrooms at their neighborhood schools now! And the teachers (who are totally happy to have this new challenge and never say hurtful insensitive things to the kids’ parents or mistake their disabilities for discipline problems, right?) are coming up with innovative ways to nurture and teach them! We even have instructional coaches to help schools get the inclusion thing right! Except…well, we just lost funding for that last one.

Somewhere beyond the broom closets and the mess we’re in now, I know The Boy’s going to be okay. Although I doubt he’d be okay under our district’s new “Send ’Em All To General Ed and Let the Teachers Figure It Out” plan (or ICS – Integrated Comprehensive Services, as it’s officially called). No, even at our Very Special Alternative School with a truly amazing resource room teacher, it’s been a tough year. Wonderful as she is, that resource room teacher is spread incredibly thin. And the rest of the school’s teachers and staff? Variable at best. Kindergarten was great. First grade? Well…

Let’s face it: Aspergers isn’t easy. It doesn’t look like a disability. Sometimes, frankly, it just looks like a smart little boy being a tremendous asshole. Sometimes it looks like any other Lego-loving kid. He can almost blend right in.

Until there’s a fire drill. Or an unexpected break in routine. Or anything that involves handwriting or drawing within the lines. Or classmates who have figured out how to tease and provoke him without getting in the least bit of trouble themselves. Or a principal who writes off that teasing as “normal” behavior and tells me this boy – who is trying so hard just to show up every day and be at school like the other kids – just needs to learn to deal with it.

At first, I didn’t want to change schools. This is his school, I thought. You guys step up. We’re here, we’re on the autism spectrum, get used to it! Which, I guess, isn’t much different from what the school district is trying to do. Cram these kids down an ill-equipped school’s throat because, in theory, the schools should be able to handle it.

Then I learned that some other schools in our district offer a middle ground between the broom closet and ICS. They have autism inclusion programs. The kids are still in general ed, but there’s more adult support. There are more services and pull-outs. Unlike our current school, where he’s expected to blend in and see the resource room teacher twice a week, these kids are an intentional part of the community. The teachers, the principals, the other kids and their parents – while still variable, I’m sure – know what Aspergers looks like. And he wouldn’t be the only one.

I broached the topic with The Boy. How would he feel about moving to a new school next year? One where there are other kids with Aspergers, too? And The Boy – who typically freaks out at the slightest change in routine, who’d wanted nothing to do with that “highly gifted” school he also tested into – got a very hopeful, thoughtful look on his face, and said he would like that a lot.

By the time I learned of these programs’ existence, there were only a few days left in the enrollment period to make the change for next year. With help from the resource room teacher and an old preschool friend who teaches at one of these schools, we raced through the obstacle course of red tape at break-neck speed to get his paperwork to One School Board Plaza by the deadline. And now…I’m on week 5 of the 7-week wait to find out which school he’ll be reassigned to. I’m feeling exhilarated and cautiously hopeful.

Too bad the school district wants to phase out these autism inclusion programs. They’re just too broom closety, I guess. Or too expensive, maybe. I really don’t know why.

But I do know the district’s gotten a big pushback from autism parents around the city, and there’s some indication that they’re starting to at least think about listening. Although there wasn’t a whole lot of listening going on at that presentation, touting ICS’s success at a handful of schools where it’s actually working. At least the director of special ed acknowledged, with an apologetic look on her face as she encouraged us parents to keep faith in the program, “We know it’s not perfect.”

Driving home, it’s the broom closet story that sticks with me. The speaker had marveled in outraged disbelief that self-contained special ed classrooms still exist, as if we were talking about dunce caps or something.

But it’s not the self-contained part that makes it a broom closet. Those rooms have dedicated special ed teachers who see the good in these kids and help them overcome their unique challenges without the distraction of a crowded, chaotic classroom. I don’t buy the “All Education is Special” line any more than I would buy “All Doctors are Surgeons” from my health insurance company. (Not to give them any ideas!)

Throwing my boy into a general ed classroom to see how he fared was worth trying. There were definitely a lot of positives, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity. But we’ve learned that without an experienced teacher who sets the tone for acceptance, without extra support from adults who get him – it doesn’t work. Aspergers is, absolutely, a special need. We’re not ashamed of it. It simply is.

A separate program doesn’t have to be stigmatizing. In fact, I see it as empowering. We’re not slinking off in shame. We’re taking our business elsewhere. I refuse to have our metaphorical wheelchair forced up a flight of stairs when we know there’s a ramp somewhere.

And in a few short weeks, we’ll find out which “ramp” it’s going to be. Stay tuned…

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Deadbeat Club

Twenty years ago today, I bobby-pinned on that mortarboard with the little ’91 tassel and lined up with my fellow V’s and W’s in the back corner of campus by the dining hall. The day itself was sunny and green, but stark somehow. Removed. There were bagpipes. Archways of blue and green balloons. Our families in the audience, our dorm rooms packed up and nearly vacated. But not quite.

We’d pretty much spent that whole year saying goodbye. Fall began with fretting over GREs and What Will I Be When I Grow Up and “Holy shit now we have to grow up” and all the accompanying undergrad angst. The eighties were over. Bush the Elder’s kinder, gentler Gulf War was looming, which seemed like a much bigger deal at the time. (How were we to know?)

So we formed our own comedy troupe and performed in the campus coffee house. We wrote plays, or acted in them, or directed. We walked around campus with a giant inflatable dinosaur. We covered the living room floor with all the mattresses and slept there for a week. We made terrible, terrible puns. We rescued a broken plaster pizza guy from the trash and named him Luigi. We watched MTV and Saturday Night Live, idolizing Dennis Miller. (How were we to know?) We embraced all things ironic and absurd, all the while clinging to each other rather self-consciously with the distinct sense that this might be as good as it gets.

And what were we so afraid of? Growing up? Selling out? Losing each other to geography? Forfeiting an identity that had only just begun to emerge?

Here’s what it was for me: The feeling that you could be weird and fabulous; geeky and popular; absolutely 100% yourself and people would still find something to admire about you. That’s what I was afraid of losing. I think I really believed that if I lost the people who helped me learn that in the first place, I’d lose it for good.

And I guess in some ways, I really did. That time, those friendships – it truly did end. Whether we stayed in touch or not, whether we found each other on Facebook again or not, that level of idealism and sheer mad joy simply cannot be sustained over time. It just doesn’t go that way.

I remember going to a party my first year of graduate school where they played the entire B-52’s Cosmic Thing album and not one person got up to dance. Too busy name-dropping or canon-bashing, no doubt. Too busy undermining each other’s confidence. I had to learn, of course, how to be the first one to get up and dance. It wouldn’t be long before I’d lead a small band of rebels out of a stuffy English department function to splash in the fountain outside.

These days I rarely have the energy for such insurrections. Sometimes I think my grasp on irony and absurdity is slipping, giving way to earnestness with age – and a guarded earnestness, at that. Love used to pour right out. I guess that’s easy to do when you know it’s all going to end in a matter of months anyway. Now if I catch myself feeling anything with the old naïve open heart, I tend to keep it to myself.

But I have managed to bring the spirit of my old tribe with me. That place, those people, those years – they made me see that it was possible at all. They inspired me to hold uninhibited joy as an ideal, and to seek it and appreciate it when it happens. And yes, even in Real Life Adulthood, it does happen. In cubicles and lunch hours with co-workers. In writing workshops. At Teacher Tom’s co-op preschool. On Offsprung, the parenting Web site that inspired me to start writing again. And at home, of course, with my dear Mr. Black.

As for the part that really is over…the risks I’d never take again, the dreams I’ve stopped chasing, the friends I’ve truly lost… How glad I am to have had even a glimpse of such love and excitement. That was our time, and it always will be. It can be over. It can be twenty years past.

Funny how the mere thought of being 40 someday was enough to make us all go fetal in those days. But now? Well, I’m sitting here forty-one and, honestly, a lot happier than I was 20 years ago. Yes, I spend a lot of time thinking about my family and our mainstream pursuits, cutting the crusts off sandwiches and so forth. So what? Turns out it doesn’t actually rob you of all that’s unique and wonderful about you. It’s still there. And my kids will always, always get up and dance to Cosmic Thing.

Happy 20-year reunion, my Deadbeat Club.

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