Saturday, December 15, 2012

Without Ever Knowing Why

I was in the faculty room at the school where I’m subbing when I heard. Everyone was talking about it in hushed tones. Everyone except the kindergarten teacher, a new father, who was having a lively conversation about diapers with another teacher who’s a new grandmother.

As our buzz about the day’s tragedy got louder and more disturbing, so did the diaper discussion – almost as if in self defense. All around the table there were calls for gun control and better access to mental health support, calls for getting the police involved no matter what the age of the student, speculation about whether or not something like this could happen at this school and what we’d do if it did.

But the loudest of all was the rather vivid description of how to clean a soiled cloth diaper to perfection. Two teachers begged him to stop. And then we all stopped.


Which is what we all needed, really.

Obviously I can’t speak for each and every teacher everywhere, or even every teacher in the faculty room that day. We all have our own sensitivities and convictions and fears. We’re just people, after all.

We ended the day on the playground, where the 3rd grade teacher and I conducted a team Messy Science activity – the diet coke and mentos geyser. Pure joy. Boys and girls of various ages, race, class, and abilities sharing a moment of joyful Science! on a Friday afternoon. This is what we’re here for.

I wasn’t even thinking about it as we walked the students to the busses. I wasn’t thinking about it until I came home from work and saw the flood of humanity all over Facebook.

I can’t quite share the outrage or the fear or even the sadness. It’s all just too big right now. Too much to fathom.

All I can share with any sense of certainty is this old John Denver song, sung by the Muppets. It’s been in my head all day, ever since the faculty room fell silent. And all I can wish for anyone right now is peace.

“It’s in every one of us
To be wise.
Find your heart,
Open up both your eyes.
We can all know everything
Without ever knowing why.
It’s in every one of us
By and by.”

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Joy of Six

Oh my girl. You are six, and six is only the beginning. But there you go already, wild and free. You’re braver than I ever was, but you have my introspection, my imagination, my love of books, my weak-knee’d adoration of all things cute and puppy-dog-eyed. You have a brother who challenges you but also follows your lead; who takes the fear and mystery out of “Boys.”

We were walking home from school the other day when suddenly you broke away from your brother and I, ran across the playground with joyful abandon I’d never seen from you on this school playground before. Six months ago, you’d sit in my lap and cling and whine to go home while your brother and the big kids played.

But this time you ran right into the thick of it toward a boy you know from your kindergarten class, leaving us in the dust. You made some incomprehensible in-joke and the two of you laughed and laughed. A few days later I saw you at recess, from the other playground where I was working, and there was that brave girl again, tearing around the playground in her pink hood, laughing with her friends.

Whatever you are, whatever you are becoming, you are not me. Why all the relief, I wonder? Was it so bad to be me at six? I was very happy in my own way, mired in my own little world of wonder, imagination, and self-imposed seclusion. Your challenges will be completely different from mine. No less heartbreaking, of course.

But perhaps I’m just slightly relieved that I won’t be reliving verbatim my own specific awkward, painful childhood moments through you. There will be different ones, nowhere on my radar yet, I’m sure. But it will be your path. And I will be the mother; not the born-again girl forever reliving my own girlhood. I knew that already, of course. But it’s nice to remind myself again from time to time.

I’m so proud of you, my girl. I love your heart-melting innocence and your unabashed delight in raunchy humor. I love your spot-on Homer Simpson voice and your wide-eyed adoration of all things American Girl. I love your pinker-than-pink dresses and your messier-than-a-college freshman’s bedroom. I love finding pieces of your writing around the house, especially the draft of your “Fem Song” (which I can only assume is a “theme song”).

I love that you have fallen asleep to the same Cocteau Twins album every single night since you were tiny. I love that, no matter how many times we tell you, you call the Beach Boys the Beach Brothers. I love that your expletive of choice is “Aw peanuts.” I even love that you’re still awake right now, interrupting my typing to hug me and say softly “When I grow up, I want to be an author!”

I love how you are shades of each of us, and yet entirely nothing like any us. And I love how you completed our little nuclear family. Our darling exclamation point. Our cherry on top. Our little star of Bethlehem, joining us just in time for Christmas and giving us an extra holiday to celebrate during this merry and bright season.

Happy birthday, my girl. This is only the beginning.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

When the Working Day is Done

My new job is like a double-crack latte sometimes, and I mean that in the best of ways. I love it. Even the really tough days are such a charge. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep because I’m full of ideas for the next day. Sometimes these ideas fall flat, and sometimes they absolutely soar. Sometimes I come home and find myself exhausted and extremely short on patience. But, more often than not, I find myself over-energized and…seeking.

There’s no school this whole week for parent-teacher conferences. “Welcome to Miller Time,” said I, tearing into my delicious Friday with joyous abandon. By Monday, though, I found myself outside in the relentless early morning November rain in my Crocs and jammies, desperately raking soggy leaves off the sidewalk for sheet mulching.

Mr. Black was still in bed when I dragged my drenched self back inside. I tried to make light of it.

“Ever notice that whenever I’m not at school, I’m doing some crazy gardening project?” I said with a smile.

Oh, he’d noticed, all right. Lucky for both of us, he finds it endearing. But I wonder how long before the cuteness wears off.

The wild energy doesn’t just pour itself into home improvement projects. It seeks fun, too. Not sex/drugs/rock-and-roll per se, but whatever the geeky forty-something mom version of that might be. I yearn for a social life that’s every bit as vibrant and over-stimulating as my work life, and it’s simply not available to me anymore.

Sure, there’s Facebook and the occasional meet-up with friends. There are date nights and pillow talk with my sweet honey. There’s lots of raucous horseplay and general silliness with the kiddos, which probably comes the closest to meeting this newfound need for speed.

But I miss happy hours that lasted all night and ended with diner breakfasts and falling asleep on each other’s floors. I miss how forthcoming we used to be about our hopes and fears. I miss ill-advised drunken kisses and crushes where you actually had the option of telling the other person how you felt. I miss my old friends.

I kind of miss my new friends, too. We’re all so busy, so partitioned off from each other with our families at our centers. That’s as it should be, of course. But I can’t help it. I miss other grown ups. I just do.

I’m sure I’ll be feeling more at ease next week when work starts up again and I can pour all this energy where it belongs. For now, though, I wouldn’t say no to a little responsible-version-of-fun. Friends, you know where to reach me.

Saturday, November 10, 2012


I thought he’d gotten himself in trouble. His teacher’s face was so serious as he stooped over, one hand across The Boy’s shoulders, rushing him off the playground toward the principal’s office. The Boy’s face bore an eerie look of zoned-out defiance.

“What happened?” I asked, privately irritated beyond belief by whatever it was he’d done to make his teacher so upset.

“I think he’s injured. I don’t like the way that arm is hanging,” the teacher replied gravely as they hurried past.

“What happened?” I asked again, but they’d already disappeared into the building. I ran after them, still not quite believing it. Turned out he’d fallen off the monkey bars, going super-fast to impress his friend.

The school nurse was gone for the day, but it was pick-up time and there were lots of parents around. One was a nurse and another was a PA. While I uselessly attempted to hold an ice pack on the wrong arm and fumbled with a borrowed cell phone, they set to work making The Boy a splint out of an ace bandage and an old cardboard box.

“He needs to go to a hospital,” the PA told me. “His arm is broken.”

“Well, it might be,” The Boy corrected him. “We don’t know for sure yet.”

The PA gave me a subtle look that simultaneously said “What a precocious little guy” and “Yeah, no, that arm is totally broken.”

Next thing I knew, I was sitting in the ER at Children’s Hospital sporting a name tag that simply said “Mom” and my last name. In the Children’s Hospital, everybody calls you Mom.

“Ohhhh. When is this ever going to be overrrrrrrr?” groaned The Boy, holding his homemade splinted arm at an awkward angle, trying unsuccessfully to enjoy a Star Wars movie.

I used to love hospitals as a child, almost as much as I loved airports and hotels. Curious George Goes to the Hospital was my favorite by far in the George canon, and I adored the Fisher Price hospital playset with its X-ray machine and groovy little goldfish pond on the grounds. When I had my tonsils out, I was secretly thrilled to get to stay overnight. As an adult, I even enjoyed my extended stay in the postnatal ward recovering from my C-sections, ordering vanilla milkshakes and getting acquainted with my wrinkly little newborns.

Now, though, the fluorescent lighting, incessant waiting, beeping, and crappy TV reception could just kiss my grits. The Boy was poked and prodded and blood-pressure-cuffed and morphined. Let me tell you, if you think it’s fun to Sherpa an Aspergers child through a massive and uncomfortable routine change, just try it when the Aspergers child is on morphine. On the plus side, he loved watching the wrist watches on the Home Shopping channel.

“I’m very concerned about radiation exposure,” The Boy insisted to the tech as she wheeled him into the X-Ray room. She was kind and respectful enough to engage him in a real discussion about the safety precautions they would be taking, which now makes me wish I’d gotten her name so I could send her a nice basket of Thank You pears or something.

His shirt, I noticed, was still covered in wood chips from where he’d fallen on the playground. His hands were still filthy from spending most of the day on an all-school field trip to a nearby beach, and his socks were full of sand. Such a strange, oddly heartbreaking juxtaposition in this sterile hospital room.

Finally, seven hours later, he had a fresh new cast and we could finally go home. “I actually enjoyed small portions of that experience,” he remarked.

I’d only intended to take one day off from work. One day to chaperone the field trip at my kids’ school, and then I’d go right back to my new job as a substitute special education assistant. (Although “substitute” is really a misnomer. More often than not, it’s a lot more like being a temp.)

Anyway, there’s a lovely built-in flexibility to subbing/temping/whatever that suited this situation perfectly. I had to give up an assignment I really enjoyed at a developmental preschool. But when The Boy was ready to go back to school full-time, I was able to line up a new assignment in an EBD program that’s been working out beautifully so far.

Maybe a little too beautifully. The team and the administrators really like me. I really like them. The students are absolutely nothing like any students I’ve ever worked with before, and they challenge, frustrate, charm, inspire, and absolutely break my heart. Sometimes I amaze myself. Sometimes I can’t believe the stupid mistakes I make. Sometimes I’m so fried at the end of the day, I simply don’t want to go home and scrape up the energy it takes to be with my own kids.

I don’t know how I feel about that.

Mr. Black does pick-up and drop-off now, and he’s gradually starting to know more about what goes on at school than I do. He knows the parents of Little Grrl’s new friends. He gets the compliments from their teachers. He even coordinated and hosted a playdate last week.

My new mentor insists that I need to push through the discomfort and give my kids and myself the space to pursue our own paths. “You need to let go,” she keeps saying.

Another mentor of mine would probably agree. He’s fond of telling this story about a mother who was a notorious helicopter parent all through her daughter’s preschool years. Sure enough, on the first day of kindergarten, her daughter fell off the playstructure and broke her arm.

“It happened because I wasn’t there,” said the mother.

“It happened because you were always there,” is the response.

And indeed, I can’t help but notice that The Boy happened to break his arm on the one day I took off from work to be with him at school. That last hour at school, after we’d come back from the field trip, was such a tumultuous one. I’d shuttled back and forth between both kids’ classrooms, spent too much time in Little Grrl’s art class and missed meeting up with The Boy when he expected me. By the time I found him, he was having a mini-meltdown in the hallway with his special ed teacher because I was late.

He’d managed to cheer himself up and go join his class on the playground. I stayed behind to talk with his special ed teacher. And that’s when it happened. That’s what I was doing when I saw his teacher rushing him inside.

The Boy is very athletic and a joyful risk-taker. He’s taken dozens of scarier falls in his day with barely a scratch or tear. Did my being there throw him off his game somehow? Did it collide the worlds of Home and School and create such a sense of disequilibrium that he lost his balance on the monkey bars?

Conversely, is my not being there messing him up in ways I don’t know about yet? I can’t read his daily behavior report without knowing that I write those same daily behavior reports for my students, too. And while the reports cull it down to the basics and provide the most essential information, they don’t even come close to telling the whole story. There are volumes of subtleties and nuance that I simply do not have access to anymore.

The Boy’s arm has been healing beautifully, and his days at school have been relatively trouble-free. When there are challenges, he works through them with the special ed team at his school, just as my co-workers and I work through challenges with our students. And in that sense…well, we’re all part of the same “village.” That’s the best I can hope for, anyway.

“Love is proved in letting go,” goes the line from some poem I read in high school whose title eludes me. How convenient if that were really true. How painful. How simply real.

He built himself an under-the-cast scratching device out of Legos, which I spent a fun-filled evening extracting. The fun, oh it just never stops.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Illusions I Recall

“It’s life’s illusions I recall. I really don’t know life at all.”
– Joni Mitchell

I’ve known this song my whole life. Well, at least since sixth grade. And it was the Judy Collins version, a favorite of my mom’s. I didn’t discover the Joni Mitchell original until I was much older, well into my single-girl-in-Philadelphia stint, coming out on the “maybe this isn’t so much fun after all” side of things.

I’d broken up with a perfectly fine boyfriend. Well, “fine” in that he was gorgeous and available – even if that last one was mostly due to his own inertia. We had a lot of fun together. Or so it seemed before I gave up weed in the hopes of getting a corporate job that might require a drug test. You know when you’re not stoned and suddenly an entire box of Entenmann's heavily frosted Valentine’s Day cupcakes doesn’t seem quite so delicious anymore? Yeah, that.

It was the right thing to do. I don’t even think he minded that much. I’d been a lot of work for him. We went our separate ways and that was that. But then came the loneliness of no longer having him on my couch, in my bed, across from me in our favorite restaurants or next to me in the video store…the knowledge that a better-matched partner surely existed for me somewhere, but how the hell do you find someone like that in the gritty Gen-X bars of Philadelphia or the sterilized cubicle world?

And that’s when I glommed onto Joni Mitchell’s version of “Both Sides Now.” It’s slower with more intensely felt regret and introspection than the Judy Collins one. It fit my mood perfectly. I’d tried love and life both ways, all possible ways, really, and here I was just as weary and flummoxed and alone as a sixth grade oddball just beginning to notice the world outside her imagination.

I strove to understand things, always. We didn’t have anti-bullying workshops or widespread use of terms like “sexual harassment” or “verbal abuse” until I was older. Feminism was still in its second wave glory which, in my young mind, pretty much translated to “Be good at sports” and “Boys are stupid.” Meanwhile, messages like “Fit into a pair of Jordache jeans” and, well, “Have a boyfriend” were much louder and more prevalent. And, of course, “Nerds like you are unfuckable and, in fact, barely human” was the loudest message of all.

So, while I waited for the 90’s to come and change all that, I strove to understand things. That’s where my power came from in those days. I wanted to know every angle, and I could usually analyze and outsmart to the point where I simply knew I wasn’t the inferior outsider I appeared to be.

Lucky for me, the 90’s did come and I grew into my nerdiness with a vengeance. I went to college and found my tribe. I began to navigate a social life outside my imagination. I could almost pass for normal, but I didn’t really want to anymore. Life was good. Life only got better, really, just like Dan Savage says it does. Still, in many ways I can’t help feeling just as weary and flummoxed as ever.

Striving to understand things only gets you so far. Because no matter how sharp and deep and nuanced your thoughts are…they’re only your thoughts. Your version of things is only one among many. You can put your absolute best out there and still get knocked on your ass. A lot. And the more you love and engage, the more you put yourself and your ideas out there, the more opportunities there will be to run up against ignorance and abject misunderstanding.

And the more you try to think over and around and through those misunderstandings, the more you realize that simply analyzing them isn’t enough. Each turn reveals complexities upon complexities until you just have to stand back and be amazed that human beings can even have conversations about the weather and somehow manage to understand each other. What are we all doing here?

At some point, I guess, you have to accept that you can’t control other people’s understanding. You just can’t. And instead of trying to out-think it, perhaps the better course of action is to immerse oneself in the imperfect flow of humanity and just go. Do. Make it about the process. Be in the moment. Get bruised and knocked around, have your assumptions challenged and maybe even proven wrong, let someone else’s philosophy inspire you even as it confounds and contradicts you.

Perhaps there’s no real harm in seeing something from both sides now and finding yourself more confused than ever. It doesn’t always have to make sense.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Things We Used To Do

This marriage goes to eleven. Years, that is. Married for eleven years and nearly-inseparable as a couple since the late 90’s, when Spice Girls roamed the earth and Linda Tripp brought vicious office gossip to a new terrifying low.

When you meet the love of your life at age 28 and marry him at age 32, you don’t really think of it as “growing up together.” But that’s exactly what it is. You know that line from Annie Hall, about how a relationship is like a shark? It has to constantly move forward or it dies? Moving forward sometimes means leaving things behind.

There are things I miss about the old versions of “us.” And there are things I’m very glad are in the past. But no matter what, they’re worth remembering as we settle into middle-aged contentment. Here are just a few of the things we used to do, in no particular order:

Go grocery shopping together. Every. Single. Time. What’s up with that, new couples?

Carry on a six-month long-distance relationship in the days before Facebook, Skype, or having e-mail accounts on our home computers.

Make mix tapes for each other.

Take red-eye flights. With carry-on luggage only.

Turn simple misunderstandings into epic, multi-day, heartbreaking You Don’t Understand Me fests.

Walk across the Fremont Bridge and up the steepest part of Queen Anne hill together every day after work. For fun.

Follow NBA basketball.

See movies like Coyote Ugly and Six Days and Seven Nights in the theater for Mr. Black’s old film critic gig.

Wash the car with liter bottles full of water that we’d carry down from the apartment.

Think we were going to get married at city hall and have only one child.

Think we wanted to be a lawyer and a graphic designer, making ourselves slightly miserable in the process.

Watch reality dating shows. All of them. Married By America. Mr. Personality. Temptation Island. Joe Millionaire. Proud to say we drew the line at Joe Millionaire 2.

Watch Dr. Phil together. Zod help us, we really, truly used to do that. I think Mr. Black secretly liked feeling superior to the guys on that show who couldn’t husband their way out of a paper bag.

Stay up all night playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”

Get jealous of each other’s crushes and distractions. (Honestly, I don’t know if Mr. Black ever did this in the first place, but I did it enough for the both of us.)

Have sex only during particular times of the month with the express intention of spawning, paying close attention to things like basal body temperature and ovulation predictor tests.

Start dinner at 8:30 p.m. Cook together in the same kitchen, sharing counter space and everything.

Watch the WTO riots from the roof of our building.

Spend entire weekends in bed together.

Spend entire weekends watching Twin Peaks episodes on VHS.

Spend entire weekends at Home Depot. Or Bed Bath and Beyond. Or Babies R Us.

Make spectacular fools of ourselves to stop the baby from crying. You never really know a man until you’ve seen his “Mr. Poopy Wipes” puppet show.

Wake each other up in the morning with a rousing chorus of The Daily Show’s Slimmin’ Down With Steve.

Attend all four days of Bumbershoot, dawn ’til dusk, walking there from our Capitol Hill apartment.

Give each other anagrams challenges with the Scrabble tiles. Best one ever: Boutros Boutros-Ghali --> So our tuba is log broth.

Worry that somehow married life would make us lame. Because, you know. We were so cool to begin with.

Happy anniversary, Sweetie!

Saturday, October 6, 2012


Last spring, I became obsessed with bindweed. That’s the correct name for what we Pacific Northwesterners call “morning glories.” I’m not sure why, after eleven years of homeownership, I suddenly decided I care about bindweed. But when I spotted those first tiny sprouts poking through the soil in March, I immediately wanted to take it on.

As weeds go, bindweed is reasonably attractive. It almost looks like something you’d plant on purpose. But, like the weeds they are, they are voracious and relentless. Let them go and they take over everything. Flowers, trees, railings, fences, gaps between the siding, anything that stands still. The root system is terrifyingly prolific; just ropes and ropes of rubbery white noodle-like vines twisting and webbing everywhere. Drop even the tiniest piece of one in the ground and it will regenerate, Sorcerer’s Apprentice style.

It’s not enough to just pluck the thing out. You have to dig the whole twisted, serpentine root system up – gently, or it will break and regenerate. This, I found extremely agreeable. A little too agreeable. Almost to the point of fetish, really.

Garden bloggers use words like “nemesis” and “evil” to describe bindweed, setting up a sort of Bugs-and-Elmer paradigm. But that’s not my relationship with this weed at all. I’d patrol the garden like a hopeful predator, feeling a little buzz when I saw bindweed sprouts peeking through the soil.

The temptation to pounce is tremendous, but you can’t. Instead, you loosen the soil very gently with a trowel until there’s enough space for a garden-gloved finger or two. And then, ever so gradually, you work your fingers under the soil and follow the fledgling stem to its thick, white root. Burrow your fingers underneath the root until you’ve got a sense of where it’s going. Trace its path. Follow each twist and turn and tangle, carefully unearthing those thick, rubbery networks of roots one piece at a time until there’s a tremendous pile of them and the dirt is simply dirt again. Empty. Free.

Bindweed roots growing right through a broken bottle. Insidious!

I spent hours of free time engaged in this earthy little weed-thrill. “Is it up to your standards yet?” my next door neighbor asked me once.

Standards? That’s hilarious. My garden may have been increasingly free of bindweed, but there’s nothing about it to suggest that I have any sort of aesthetic standards. When Mr. Black and I first moved in, we killed the front lawn and planted it up with an assortment of shrubs and small trees that thrive with very little attention. We love being surrounded by all the leaves, birds, and branches, but we’re no Martha Stewart. It never occurred to me that my near-constant presence in the garden might suggest otherwise.

“Oh, I’m never going to be done,” I said happily. “I just find it soothing. It’s all about the process.”

“Process, huh?” he remarked with skepticism, no doubt finding me even loonier than he did before.

But it’s true. It was about the process. What’s more satisfying than tracing the literal root of something that’s been plaguing your happy little garden year after year, climbing up your firethorn and strangling your dahlias, worming its way into the siding and around the railings? You find its root and suddenly you understand it. It doesn’t have to become such a baffling, tangled mess. You can simply burrow your way along its root and unearth the thing. Set it free. Mmm, process.

I spent the whole spring and the first few weeks of summer on my knees in that garden. And then, the process came to a stop.

One night, right after the Fourth of July fireworks, I noticed what seemed like a small mosquito bite on the back of my middle finger. By morning, there was a matching one on my other middle finger. Then two more on each ring finger. Then every finger on both hands.

The original hive turned into a blister. All the hives turned into blisters. And the blisters grew into huge, watery lumps, itching and oozing and creating an overall disgusting and uncomfortable display. I had to take off my wedding ring. I even had to take off my nail polish because my fingertips throbbed and ached under its shell, trying unsuccessfully to sweat out the toxins.

The doctor guessed it was an allergy to my gardening gloves. Latex, perhaps. Or something in the dirt that was trapped inside them. Either way, my bindweed unearthing days were over. It was all about the benadryl and cortisone and pretending not to notice when people politely averted their eyes from the raw disturbing mess of my fingers.

I started to heal. Occasionally I’d take a stab at weeding, simply grabbing the bindweed by the stems with my bare hands and ripping it off at the surface, knowing the roots still lurked below, beyond my control once more.

It’s hard not to read too much into that. The sensible part of my brain understands that there’s nothing poetic and meaningful about contact dermatitis. And yet, I had to wonder.

Had I flown too close to the sun, a sort of Icarus of the Root System, digging up more than was meant to be unearthed by human hands? Had I gone too far, understood too much, a sort of Eve in the Garden of Northwest shrubs? Perhaps the mysterious under-workings of bindweed are best left unexplored by human hands. Perhaps any attempt at understanding the complex underbelly of anything – even something as mundane as a common weed – is too arrogant, too ambitious.

Or…I don’t know….perhaps I just need to find some hypoallergenic gardening gloves for next spring. Perhaps there’s no mystery here after all.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Back to School

Little Grrl’s old preschool had a stairway to nowhere, propped against a wall in the church courtyard. When she was three years old, her favorite thing to do during outdoor playtime was to simply climb to the top of it and stand there, perched like a cat, taking it all in.

When the preschool relocated to a bigger space the following year, she opted for the new swing set. Always the same swing, in constant motion, safe and soaring.

This year, on the second day of kindergarten, I walked her and her brother to school. The Boy raced off to find his friends on the crowded playground. To my utter amazement, Little Grrl ran off, too. “Look what I can do!” she called as she ran past the play structure to the small staircase that leads directly to her kindergarten classroom. There, she climbed to the top of the wide brick railing and stationed herself at the top. Above the fray. Again. This is how she finds comfort in a new space.

I meant to bring a camera with me the next day to get a picture of it. Instead, I found myself taking those first tentative steps down the hallway of a whole new school on the other side of town. My first assignment as a special education parapro sub. Yes, I’ve gone back to school too.

Mr. Black does pick-up and drop-off now, thanks to a generous flex-time arrangement from his job. He had his first “teacher pulls you aside” moment the other day. Oh how I used to dread those, especially in the pre-IEP days when most of them thought The Boy’s Aspergian behavior was simply a discipline problem. But wouldn’t you know it, the teacher only wanted to tell Mr. Black what a great job The Boy is doing this year. Fathers have all the fun. Oh well.

I have a recurring moment every afternoon, usually when I’m waiting at the light at Stone Way, almost home. It feels like I’ve somehow stepped into another body or jumped forward in time or some other science fictiony scenario. All of a sudden, here I am coming home from my job that I get paid to do. Just like that. When I realize I’m about to see my own kids, my heart absolutely leaps. That seven-hour separation somehow makes them absolutely golden to me in that moment.

Some days they stampede to the door and nearly knock me over with reunited joy. Lately, though, it’s more likely to find only Mr. Black at his desk, finishing up the day’s work while the kids do homework, read, or draw in their rooms.

I flop down on the couch while Little Grrl brings me armloads of worksheets and drawings, regaling me with all the latest kindergarten tales. The Boy makes an appearance to let me know his stats for the day – how many lines he wrote in his journal, how many minutes he ran in P.E. class, what percentage of his homework is finished, the number and title of the Simpsons episode he wants to watch later. Sometimes he even asks me about my day. (“Did you get promoted? Did you get fired?”)

There are elements of a Happily Ever After here. This career just might be The One. Of course, there are elements of a 1980’s training montage here too. It’s not an easy job, and it’s clear that I still have a lot to learn. But my instincts are sharp, I’m learning quickly, and somehow I’m able to let the setbacks roll off my back and stay focused on the matter at hand. I flow with this work in a way that I’ve never really experienced before. And for the first time in my life, I get it. I get how a career can be more than just making a living.

Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t just do this in the first place. Those early months when I first moved to Seattle, dragging my graphic design portfolio on bus after bus to interview after interview. All those migraines, deadlines, fluorescent lighting, and micromanagement. Why did I stay in an unfulfilling corporate career all those years when I could have been doing this instead?

And then I remember. I didn’t know how. Most of what I know – most of what serves me incredibly well in the classroom – is not what I learned in school, but what I learned from the time I spent with my own children.

I learned it in their classrooms, in the parenting classes offered by their preschool, in the books upon books I read trying to figure out how to parent a child with Aspergers. I learned it from the talented and dedicated teachers, parents, and professionals who are a part of our village. I learned it from trying and failing and trying again. Don’t tell the Mommy Wars people, but it looks like being a stay-at-home mom was the best career training I could have hoped for.

And now, here we are. Not quite an ending, not quite a beginning, but we’ve definitely taken a new and irreversible turn on this path. The baby days are long gone, the stay-at-home mom years are fading fast, and there are many more years of trying and failing and trying again as this new “career” phase of my life ever so gradually takes shape. Onward.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Standing There, Stupid

This mom I know from the Offsprung days, this mom I didn’t know very well but who was a vibrant, funny, sharp-as-nails presence in our little community, this mom who disappeared for a while to battle cancer and then came back, sharp as ever, keeping in touch even after the cancer returned…she died yesterday.

Words fail. And yet, here I am grappling with them anyway. It’s either that or just stand there, stupid.

I’m usually not much of a “rage, rage against the dying of the light” kind of gal. But come the fuck on. She was in her late thirties. She leaves behind a little boy. Whatever tenuous faith I may have had that we live in a Universe that somehow knows we’re here and cares deeply about us as individuals has been rocked to the core. I can only see this as a cruel and random accident, period.

I turned 43 a few days ago. While my own health is, thankfully, only plagued by the minor little annoyances of aging, I can’t help but notice that cancer is becoming less and less of a stranger. A former coworker. A friend’s husband. A favorite writer. A neighbor we haven’t seen in a while suddenly sporting a head scarf. A dear old friend from college with whom I shared some of the most joyful, raucous, carefree days of youth.

It’s absurdly and morbidly reminiscent of when we were in our twenties and those first few friends started to get married. You go to that wedding, sit at the Gen-X kids table and indulge in the open bar while you marvel over how “old” we’re all becoming. Next thing you know, everybody’s having babies. Next thing you know…this. Suddenly the “We are SO old” thing seems a lot less funny.

Everyone makes their peace with mortality in different ways. Or not. It’s a deeply personal business. I’m not here to tell anyone how to feel. I don’t even know how I feel. In the abstract, I can manage a beginner-Buddhist-like peace with it. But when flat-out faced with it like this, it becomes an impossibly bitter thing to simply breathe in, breathe out, and accept.

How could anyone possibly make peace with leaving all this behind? All these attachments that are, in Buddhism, the cause of suffering – wanting to live to see the kids’ science fairs and high school musicals and weddings; wanting to blaze new trails for special education; wanting to finally take that trip to southern France with Mr. Black; clocks ticking and mama’s sunflowers and food and coffee.

And how can we possibly make peace with this friend of ours simply being gone? With this little boy losing his mother? Is there any peace to be made with that?

Well…I suppose there must be. I suppose the other options are even more heartbreaking and exhausting in the long run. This is the path, whether we rage against it or not. And somehow, impossible as it seems, life moves us along. A mother and a friend is gone, and I’m just standing there, stupid.

It makes me simply want to apologize.

I’m sorry, my friend. What a cruel and ridiculous mistake it was for you and your family to go through this. I wish it hadn’t happened to you, or to anyone, ever.

I’m sorry life will keep moving, gradually making us more and more familiar with the loss until it’s only a sharp little pin sticking poignantly under layers of day-to-day minutiae.

I’m sorry I didn’t do or say everything I possibly could have done or said.

I’m sorry we get to still be here when you’re not. We are no more deserving of that privilege than you. The unfairness is beyond comprehension.

I’m sorry that all I can do now is to offer deeply sincere condolences and wish you and your family all the comfort and peace in the world. I hope that somehow that can be enough.

As for the rest of my friends…well…it’s like this.

The older I get, the harder it is to hang on to the “carpe diem” idealism of my youth. You can’t just go around telling people how much you love them all the time. They think you’re nuts. Or needy. Or secretly in love with them, which makes them nervously duck into the other room when they see you coming. But at a time like this, it needs to be said.

Friends, I love you anyway, in spite of all the world weariness and Zoloft-alleviated sensibilities. I love you a lot. You keep me inspired, energized, highly amused and intrigued. You’re the reason why I can’t drag my sorry ass off Facebook. You are the wind beneath my madly typing fingers.

There’s not much we can do in the face of a tragedy like this one. But at least we can be there for each other.

Rest in peace, dear friend.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

City Mouse and Me

My old friend the City Mouse is on 60 Minutes, navigating the periphery of the scandal with that same old calculating innocence and slippery grace. There’s an intensity in the lighting that makes her face look a little too made-up and her clothes a little too expensive –impeccably tasteful and garish at once. A little too rich and too thin.

“Public opinion has to be something that doesn’t matter to us,” she says coolly.

I’ll bet that line makes more than one viewer want to reach through the screen and smack her. I can only chuckle and smile warmly. Good old City Mouse. She used to say stuff like that all the time. I can’t help but feel weirdly proud of her. She has arrived.

The book she’s promoting doesn’t even mention her time at the non-profit office where we were co-workers, referring instead to the high-paying university job she moved on to as “her first real job.” Fair enough. The more I remember that dreadful summer, the less real it seems to me, too.

It was an early foray into office life for both of us. City Mouse was recently out of college; I had recently given up on pursuing a teaching career under the delusion that I might go to law school the following year. (Thankfully, that never came to fruition.) Eventually I grew into kicking ass at that job, but those first few months were rocky indeed. My high-strung boss did a lot of yelling. I did a lot of crying in the bathroom and anxious mistake-making.

City Mouse took it all in stride. She was smaller and sleeker than me, and a lot more shallow. But she had razor-sharp people skills and the remarkable ability to remain unfazed in the midst of chaos and absurdity. She carried herself like someone to be respected and – amazingly – even the most important people responded in kind. I suspected I had a lot to learn from her. Of course, she suspected the same thing.

City Mouse took my pathetic work-self under her wing – which I simultaneously appreciated and resented. I didn’t particularly want help, but I knew I needed it. It was the professional equivalent of one of those friends who always wants to give you a makeover.

This was her favorite episode. No joke.

I mean…I liked her. She was funny, nurturing, and insightful, just as sharp as I was with pop culture references and dry humor. We started hanging out outside of work, watching The X-Files and Friends at her place, meeting up for drinks, lingering over long lunches to share stories about our college adventures and commiserate about work and boyfriends. I was new to the city had had no friends there at all. I don’t know how I would have made it through that stark, lonely summer without her.

We used to alternately joke and speak wistfully about our authentic selves, and what we felt our jobs should be. She wanted to be an old-school wealthy socialite having groceries sent up to her penthouse. She cast me as a poet, wandering up and down the beach in a long skirt, composing verses in my mind. This, I believe, was intended as equal parts compliment and insult.

Or maybe it was neither. Maybe it was simply an attempt at defining me; assigning me the role of Country Mouse to her City Mouse. Can’t have one without the other. Otherwise it’s just plain Mouse.

I was telling her about a strange moment I’d had that morning with an old friend from college who'd been visiting. Years before, he and I had stayed up all night talking at Dunkin’ Donuts, then walked our bedraggled selves back to campus past all the commuters in their suits heading to the train station. “That’s going to be us someday,” we’d remarked with trepidation.

And sure enough, that very morning as I walked him to the train station on my way to work, we realized that we were those commuters now. It was a very recently-out-of-college kind of “O, life” moment that I thought City Mouse would relate to.

“But think of it this way,” she said encouragingly after I told her the story. “You can strive be better than those people who take public transportation to work.”

And there we were. Me yearning for my youthful all-nighters, her aspiring to soar above the train-riding riff-raff. All friendships have certain limitations. Ours kept bumping up against this one. We were both from modest, small-town backgrounds. But she was working like hell to put as much distance as possible between her ambitious self and the Goodwill clothing bins of yesteryear.

She left in the fall for a much better job. My old boss left, too, and things started to get a lot better. I started to get a lot better. Suddenly, I knew what I was doing and could move around that office with confidence. Happiness, even.

City Mouse was thriving at her new position. She’d acquired a gorgeous new dye job, wardrobe, and apartment. She was courting prospective members for an entourage of sorts – earnest ivy leaguers from her volunteer work at a small museum and the raggedy-hip aspiring musicians who lived in her trendy new neighborhood. Every time I went to her apartment, she’d be holding court with a new batch, most of them callow and vaguely impressed, some of them downright smitten.

She had more crushed-out boys than she knew what to do with, really. Once she tried to set me up with a very disappointed young Joey Sweeney, who was there under the impression that he was on a date with her. I’d have felt sorry for him if he hadn’t been so arrogantly unimpressed with me. I mean, I’m no City Mouse but I’m not exactly a mutant, either. How demoralizing.

My social life outside of City Mouse’s circle was ever-so-gradually picking up steam. We were mutually, benignly growing apart. But occasionally we’d still talk on the phone or meet for lunch. She’d tell me all about her new boyfriend who worked in the Mayor’s office, how she’d gotten her butt pinched by the Mayor himself at the holiday party, how the boyfriend was incredibly smart and so important, how she could see herself marrying him.

Toward that end, she started taking steps to convert to Judaism. I was at work when she called under the pretense of asking for advice, but she was breathless and giddy as a birthday girl as she told me about the elderly rabbi she’d been meeting with to discuss Judaism. Apparently he had just confessed that he was falling in love with her.

I’m not sure why, but that was kind of the last straw for me. I had absolutely nothing to say in response. I got off the phone, pretending to have actual work to do. What I really wanted to do was crawl into a shower.

She called out of the blue a few months later to invite me to a party. I don’t remember why, but something about it rang entirely insincere. I was fed up. Maybe I resented being pulled back into the old City Mouse/Country Mouse paradigm. Maybe I sensed she only needed me to fill out the entourage. Maybe she hit me with one too many of her left-handed compliments.

Whatever the reason, I simply declined the invitation and hung up the phone. When she called back, I didn’t answer. And that was pretty much the end of that. I’m not proud of it. It was a lot easier to walk away from friendships in those days, and this wasn’t the first one I’d pulled out of when things got icky.

I doubt the friendship would have lasted, though, even if I had stuck with it. Seventeen years later and here I am picking a spot of melted cheese off my Target tank top, married to my lovably shabby writer of a husband, pursuing humble low-paying teaching assistant jobs like I’m chasing some star, dreaming of the day when we can afford another family vacation to Legoland.

And there she is on 60 Minutes, standing fashionably by her notorious man. It’s pretty unlikely our friendship would have survived all those years of social climbing. She has a real audience now – snarky gossip bloggers, Sex and the City fans looking for their real-life Carrie, self-righteous Huffington Post and Daily Beast commenters, and the star struck young writer who penned the authorized family biography in the first place.

I don’t envy City Mouse’s position at the center of the scandal – or any of her one percenter fabulousness, really. Like I said…I’m strangely proud of her. The joy I feel is absolutely pure, same as when I read on Facebook that an old friend has finished medical school or had a baby. I think back to those school-girlish conversations we used to have about our authentic selves and realize that she truly followed her dream. And here she is, wealthy socialite, charming as ever in the face of adversity, the cool immaculately mascara’d eye of the hurricane.

And I…well, I’m not exactly a poet. But I’m living a life that allows for plenty of poetic pondering, happily tending my modest little garden, finally finding my way back the career that I loved in the first place. In our own distinct ways, we’ve both come a long way from that summer. Good for the Country Mouse. Good for the City Mouse.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Tastykakes and Empathy

I knew it before I even saw the little boy. I could tell just by the admonishing words his end-of-her-rope mother was snapping at him, the very words that come to the tip of my own tongue time and again and, occasionally, shamefully slip out.

I knew it, but I still had to look. I watched her stride angrily across the convenience store to the ATM machine, and I watched him trailing after her looking a little panicked, a day late and a dollar short, determined to keep up and do it right this time – Hey! Buttons!!

And then he wasn’t following her anymore. He was in the middle of the store, punching away at the irresistible buttons on a second ATM machine. Her unanswered calls bloomed into a desperate tirade, unloading all her frustrations across the aisles.

I hadn’t taken a shopping basket when I came in, and my arms were overloaded with Tastykakes and Combos. My dad and the kids were waiting for me in the car.

She was threatening to beat his ass.

I couldn’t stop myself. Something moved me. Arms full of junk food, tears in my eyes, I walked over to the boy and said in my best co-op preschool voice “Okay, I hear your mother calling you. See, she’s right over there.”

He looked at me, alarmed, and then at his mother on the other side of the store. His eyes lit up as if suddenly remembering what he was supposed to do, and he ran to her side. I followed him.

She was staring straight into the ATM screen, eyes full of tears herself, jabbing defiantly at the buttons.

“You’re doing a good job,” I said with sincerity and kindness – not because it was true, but because she needed to hear it.

She looked at me in sad disbelief. Her face was so heartbreakingly young.

“My son is the same way,” I added. “I know it’s hard.”

“He has ADHD,” she confided. I nodded plainly, as if she’d just told me “He likes football.”

“Mine has Aspergers,” I said.

And then, while it poured rain outside and my kids watched another episode of Phineas and Ferb on the portable DVD player in my dad’s car, while I stood there holding my Tastykakes and Combos, she told me all about it. Her ex-husband is no help. The school keeps calling her, telling her she has to medicate him or he’ll be expelled. And she’s so, so stressed out and tired.

There are a million things I wish I would have said. Mostly, though, I just listened. The little boy was unbelievably bored by all the grown up talk. He ran across the store to the beverage section and grabbed a big red squeeze-bottle of Kool Aid.

“No! NO! You’ve already had one today and your dad’s going to give me hell about it. Put it back! Put it back!”

I added my preschool voice and gentle words, and he froze, looking at me like I must be some kind of crazy lady. What the hell am I doing?

But it worked. His mom started using a gentle voice too. And then…he put the Kool Aid back and ran over to us.

We walked toward the checkout counter, where I paid for my armload of snacks. I gave her some tips for dealing with the school and told her to keep trying. I told her about the gymnastics class my son takes, and what an amazing outlet it is for his boundless energy.

“Or what about taekwondo?” suggested the checkout girl. She knew a boy with ADHD who’d had tremendous success with taekwondo. And then the three of us chatted a bit longer.

“Well, he’s absolutely adorable,” I said to the mom as I went to leave. “And he’s a good boy. I can tell.” The checkout girl nodded in agreement.

“Thank you,” she said, so much more calm than when she’d first come in. “I know he is.”

And that was that. I went back to the car, where my dad had been waiting with infinite patience to use the restroom. Good old dad.

When I told him what had happened, he worried that perhaps we should have been more proactive. If she was threatening to beat his ass, he reasoned, that probably means she already does.

Maybe. The thought of it breaks my heart. I felt like I was making things better, but what if I’d only made them worse? What if I’d had no impact at all?

We got back on the road, picking up Interstate 83 out of rural Pennsylvania toward Baltimore, where we’d be catching a plane back to Seattle early the next morning. Worlds away, it seemed.

I thought of The Boy, and how wildly misunderstood he was in his earlier days – by teachers, by judgmental passers-by, and even by me. I remembered how failed and desperate I used to feel when nothing seemed to work. When he’d tantrum and bite. When he almost pushed a little girl off the top of the jungle gym. When he’d stop in the middle of the damn street in the pouring rain as the light was about to change, examining a patch of dried bird poop with intent fascination, hitting said bird poop with a stick, absolutely transfixed until I grabbed him as best I could with his baby sister Moby-wrapped on and dragged him across the street to safety.

I never hit him. Sometimes, though, in desperation and frustration, I felt the horrible impulse to do just that. I wanted to lash out, scream it out of him, scare him straight. I knew better. I would go in the other room and take deep breaths, call my sister, turn on Bob the Builder for him and go take a much-needed nap.

There were times when I’m sure I looked like a simply terrible mother. I’m not, of course. But we all have those moments, if we’re really honest with ourselves. And no amount of judgment or shaming or mommy wars articles could have fixed it. The only thing that could ever soothe me to the point where I could be my best parenting self again was empathy – something that’s, unfortunately, in very short supply when it comes to moms.

I was lucky. I had my sisters, parent education classes at the preschool, a supportive husband, and a handful of friends who understood. I had people who would tell me I was okay, even if it didn’t really seem that way. People who helped me realize my own strength and capacity to take it on. That’s what really helped.

And that’s what I hope I was able to impart, in whatever small way, to the mom in the convenience store. I wish her only the best.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Those Boys

“I don’t mind having a boy,” a friend of mine mused on the playground, watching her own adorable baby boy explore the bottom of the slide with wide-eyed wonder. “I just hope he doesn’t become one of those boys.”

We both glanced in the direction of a boy about four or so, running with joyful abandon, brandishing a stick in the air. Little Grrl, age three at the time and well-versed in this world as a little sister, ran merrily alongside him while my friend’s daughter observed with apprehension.

Running with sticks was barely a blip on my danger-meter in those days, but I knew I was in the minority. The previous summer, at that same playground, my friends and I looked up from our conversation in disbelief as a hippie-skirted nanny chased our sons around the park, admonishing them to put down their sticks. My mother-in-law could barely tolerate children walking with sticks, and had a host of grisly cautionary tales to back it up.

Somehow, The Boy and his chums managed to make it to age 8 without blinding themselves or any of their classmates. But being perceived as “dangerous” by well-meaning observers has only just begun.

Gone are the chubby cheeks and Thomas the Tank Engine T-shirts. They carry themselves like the wily young men that they are becoming, all big feet and sharp eyes. Now when The Boy runs across the room and jumps into my arms, it’s like being hit by a bus. The sheer force of it is more than I can absorb sometimes.

There’s a sweet, simple sense of pride in watching your little dumpling of a baby grow up. But underneath that pride lurks the nagging fear that he’s that much more likely to be perceived as a criminal.

Boys are suspect. As a white boy, he’ll at least avoid the deadly threat of racism, and my heart breaks for the mothers who have to live with that fear every day. But as an Aspergian who’s still learning how to manage his stress, outbursts, casual rudeness, and sensory seeking that truly are part of the disability…as a boy who’s wickedly smart, deeply insecure, and socially on the weird side…as a boy whose intensity has yet to collide with the wild, unpredictable shifts of puberty…Well, let’s just say I have some worries of my own.

“Behaviors scare people,” said a representative from our state Office of the Education Ombudsman to a roomful of special education parents. “Ever since Columbine…”

Of course, I thought. All roads lead to freaking Columbine.

And she went on to explain that when principals mistreat our special ed children, suspend and expel them from school instead of providing positive behavior supports, allow teachers to dangerously restrain or isolate them, that “They do truly believe they are protecting the other students.”

Sounds about right.

Right after that meeting I wrote to Dave Cullen, author of the outstanding book Columbine, asking his thoughts on this. He said he hadn’t heard of special ed students being targeted in particular, but it wouldn’t surprise him. He said there’s a lot of misdirected “clamping down” going on out there in response to Columbine, although it’s usually directed at students who look and dress a certain way or are perceived to be “loners.”

But then, a few months later, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough – an Aspergers parent himself! – had this to say about the tragic movie theater shooting in Colorado:

As soon as I hear about this shooting, I knew who it was. I knew it was a young, white male, probably from an affluent neighborhood, disconnected from society — it happens time and time again. Most of it has to do with mental health; you have these people that are somewhere, I believe, on the autism scale…I don't know if that's the case here, but it happens more often than not. People that can walk around in society, they can function on college campuses — they can even excel on college campuses — but are socially disconnected.

After catching all hell for those remarks, Scarborough clarified:

My call for increased funding and awareness for Autism and other mental health conditions was meant to support the efforts of those who work every day to improve the lives of Americans impacted. Those suggesting that I was linking all violent behavior to Autism missed my larger point and overlooked the fact that I have a wonderful, loving son with Aspergers.

As an Aspergers parent, I have to admit I’m inclined to give Scarborough the benefit of the doubt here… sort of. I mean, I get it. Our kids are different, our kids do have special needs, but they blend in well enough sometimes that schools tend to forget that. And when you ignore those special needs, well, you do so at your own peril (and the child’s). I’ve made that argument to teachers and principals myself time and again.

The problem here is that the line Scarborough’s walking is way too fine, especially in front of a cable news audience that’s just chomping at the bit to find the latest trench coat or Rammstein to blame for this tragedy. This is not exactly a sympathetic audience, certainly not one that’s willing or able to see nuance. Even here in Seattle, one of the more tolerant communities you’re going to find, we’ve encountered a fair amount of ignorance and even discrimination. For Zod’s sake, Scarborough, don’t give them a reason to be afraid of us.

Not that they weren’t already. Can’t really pin it on Scarborough for inciting fear and ignorance when clearly that fear and ignorance was already well in place before he opened his mouth.

A report from the UCLA Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project focusing on nationwide suspensions in the 2009-10 school year seems to confirm what many of us already suspected:

For all students with disabilities, regardless of race, over 400 districts suspended 25% or more of these students. Black students with disabilities were most at risk for out-of-school suspension with an alarming 25% national average for all districts in the sample.

I’m not sure which is easier: Changing the underlying cultural perceptions that lead to such disparities, or changing my son’s Aspergian behaviors that are at risk of being misunderstood and punished. Who’s the more flexible, really? Adults mired in decades of prejudice and cable-news-inspired panic? Or an 8-year-old boy with Aspergers?

I will absolutely continue to do whatever I can to raise awareness and empathy, to challenge misperceptions and fears. But in the meantime, I want The Boy to be accepted and safe. And I want him to learn the complex and mysterious language of social skills that can help make that happen.

So I’ve been talking to him about it. Explaining how he’s so strong now, so much bigger. Making sure he knows that staying calm and using those tools and coping skills is more important than ever. People are going to be less forgiving the older he gets. That’s just how it goes.

When he came to give me a hug tonight, I watched him slow himself down and approach with caution, determined not to mow me down this time no matter how counterintuitive it felt. He was all the way in my lap before he shot out his arms and gripped tight with tiger intensity. I hugged back and told him how happy I was that he didn’t knock me over this time.

It’s a start.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Right Through the Very Heart of It

It’s been so long since I’ve seen the Manhattan skyline, I actually whip out my camera and start snapping blurry shots of it from the passenger seat of my aunt’s car.

“I’ve lived in Seattle for so many years, now I get to act like a tourist,” I joke, but my aunt appreciates the enthusiasm. It’s fun to see your city through the bright eyes of a visitor.

And I have to say, it’s unexpectedly fun to be that visitor. Since graduating from college I’d come to regard New York City as something of a pain in the ass – a very beautiful, culturally rich, greatest-city-in-the-world kind of pain in the ass, but a pain in the ass nonetheless.

As a girl I had this very naïve and sort of adorable fascination with Manhattan, largely informed by my 3rd grade social studies class and from watching Rhoda with my mom. I believed the New York Life office across from Friendly’s must be some kind of AAA for people who were planning to move to New York City, and I’d stare at it dreamily over my grape sherbet cone, imagining the day when I’d be all grown up and moving there myself.

I took my first trip to New York the following year with the Girl Scouts, and my dad bought me a plastic souvenir folding fan with different New York City landmarks. I spent much of the next day just lying on the couch, gazing lovingly at that fan, ever-so-slowly folding and unfolding it as I plotted my return.

In high school came the Broadway musical fascination. During the long months in between family or school trips into the city to see the actual shows, I’d immerse myself in cassette tape soundtracks and pore over old programs and back issues of The New Yorker trying to learn all the names and basic plotlines of all the plays. And I loved New York like a crush.

I’m not sure when this unbridled enthusiasm for the city faded, or why. Given the naivety and intensity of my New York fascination, I guess it’s fair to compare it to a tween crush on a boy band or Twilight actor or some such. Eventually, you grow up and get over it…or redirect that energy to a slightly more sophisticated crush.

Driving in now, seeing the starkly altered skyline after all these years, it’s inevitable that we start talking about 9/11. At the height of my New York geekitude, I adored those towers. But my aunt explains that they really weren’t all that iconic for her, or for anyone else who was around when they were being built. Everyone hated the design. A whole neighborhood was uprooted and obscured under its looming shadows. I’d never thought of it that way before.

A brief family visit in Brooklyn and a subway ride later, and I’m sinking into a cozy chair on the immaculately tranquil deck of the Hope Lodge, waiting for one of my dearest, sweetest, those-were-the-days-iest friends from college who’s here recovering from his latest bout with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. There’s a partial view of the Empire State Building from the deck. What the hell, I figure, and snap a few shots of that too.

“Are you tired of talking about it?” I ask him as we’re settling in together. He says he’s not. And over the course of the next few hours, he tells me all about these bizarre last few years.

Two more friends arrive, and just like that the band’s back together. We are unapologetically delighted to see each other. Hugs all around. Even with the graying hair and general older-ness, we all agree that each one of us looks exactly the same as we remember.

The last time the four of us were together was in 1997. Before that? All four of us? I’d have to say 1991, the fall after we’d graduated, convening in Princeton to say goodbye to the Austin-bound friend, and to say goodbye to each other one last time. We went to the good sub place and splashed around in a fountain, playing and laughing together like it was just another night with the deadbeat club.

In those days I loved all three of them with the same wide-eyed naivety, intensity and overall geekishness with which I’d once loved New York itself. I knew this was truly the end of the deadbeat club as we knew it, and I couldn’t bear to think of what lay beyond. I don’t think any of us could.

Now, here we are, half a lifetime later. Grown up. And you know what else? Happy about it. There’s a sense of peace and resolution here that we simply didn’t have in those days. We speak more slowly and thoughtfully. We listen more attentively. The conversation just flows. I feel like I could sit here with them for days on end, just letting all our stories from the past 21 years pour out slowly and trickle over each other.

When it’s time to say goodbye, I stand in the elevator hitting the Door Open button again and again because our conversation is still in full swing. Finally I let it close.

This might really be the last time I see any of these friends. Or not. But the impulse to cling to it desperately is gone, along with the impulse to gaze backward lovingly out the bus window at the receding Manhattan skyline. I lean back in the seat and close my eyes, eager to be back at my parents’ place with my kids.

I don’t need to cling to any of this, because it’s already here. New York – my city that’s not my city anymore; never really was my city in the first place except in my imagination. My friends and the sweet mythology of our time together. For all our collective anxiety about growing up, we could never have predicted any of the challenges we’ve faced or are still facing. Each one of us is stronger and more capable than we’d ever given ourselves credit for. And so are the friendships.

Things are changing, always, and we’re each on our own very different and rarely intersecting paths. But we still matter to each other. And we know now that we can always find our way back to each other when we need to.

“You look like a city
But you feel like religion to me” – Laura Nyro

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Mmm, Summer

Too busy having a summer vacation to write much these days. It's so rare that I find myself simply, happily grounded in the present that I've just got to savor this while it lasts. Mountains. Beaches. Bikes and swings. Pineapple-basil gelato. Old wine barrels of snap peas and tomatoes.

The Boy staying up late in his new room, strumming his father's acoustic guitar until he feels sleepy. Little Grrl in her tomato-red shirt and black flowered skirt, moving sometimes with caution and grace, sometimes with joyous abandon. Ebb and flow, risk and retreat and risk again. Just like her brother before her, she’s tapering into the body of a big kid; wily, long-legged, and independent.

Sweet, sleepy stubble-faced husband sleeping in with me just like we used to, kids grabbing their own bagels for breakfast and playing together. We cuddle and doze under the ceiling fan. Our bodies are so different now, older and with all the imperfections that brings, but so familiar to each other. We fit. There will always, always be that place on his shoulder where my head rests so easily. There will always be our wedding rings clacking together when we hold hands.

The kids and I are leaving in a few days for the Big East Coast Extravaganza. Haven’t been back east with my people in almost two years. For a while there, the trip started feeling like too much of an adventure, what with all the other sturm und drang of the early parenting years. But I’m ready to take it on again. The airports. The Beltways. The heat, Zod help me. The nomadic lifestyle, traveling from relative to relative, state to state, guest room to guest room. It’s an adventure, all right. And even under the wackiest of circumstances, we always manage to have fun.

I’ll be back at the end of the month…maybe with something to write about, maybe not.

Enjoy the summer!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Last Day

Even on this cold, rainy Seattle June day, the giddy joy of summer was ringing through the hallways of The Boy’s elementary school this morning. As Little Grrl and I made the rounds handing out end-of-the-year teacher gifts, every student, teacher, and parent we crossed paths with had that “visions of sugarplums” look in their eyes.

“Last day of school!” I called out happily to a first grade girl as we passed in the hallway.

“But not the last day of school ever,” she added with a knowing smile.

True enough. Many more last days of school lay ahead for all of us – the last day of elementary school when we move on to lockers and gym uniforms; the last day of high school when the first rustlings of nest-leaving begin; the last day of college, turning in your last paper and your campus-issued phone.

But for me, there won’t be another last day quite like this one.

Little Grrl and I headed across the empty schoolyard in the rain. I’d planned to walk to one of the many neighborhood coffeehouses, but a sudden wave of nostalgia washed over me.

“Want to go to Irwin’s?” I asked.

Our old stomping ground. Of course she did.

We haven’t been there in a very long time, maybe not since The Boy changed schools. But that first year in kindergarten, when Little Grrl only had preschool two mornings a week and we’d drive past Irwin’s on our way home from dropping The Boy off at school every morning, we were regulars. It was just what we needed in those days.

Some coffeehouses are sleek and austere, all dark shades and sophistication. Irwin’s is of the crunchy-cozy variety. Sunny windows, butter-yellow walls, and creaky furniture; lattes in painted mugs and big, lopsided, healthy-looking baked goods. It’s not as toy-intensive as the more intentional child-friendly coffeehouses in town, but there’s a comfy little nook with plastic dinosaurs and a basket of well-worn board books. Laid back hipsters, stroller moms, aging hippies, and work-from-home laptoppers share the space peacefully, without attitude or raised eyebrows.

It used to be the perfect place to unwind after the morning rush to school. Little Grrl would gnaw a plain bagel in contemplative, cooperative silence while I took my gentle deep breaths over the latte foam, releasing all that anxiety from turning over The Boy and all his volatility to school for six eerily silent hours a day. When she’d finished her bagel, she’d dig through the basket to find her two favorite board books and I’d read them to her absentmindedly, one after the other. Aliens. Lions. Then the aliens again. And again.

So much of my three years at home with Little Grrl was all about her brother. That wasn’t what I’d hoped for at all. I thought those three years would be our special time, just like the special one-on-one time I’d had with The Boy before she was born.

And we did have plenty of good times together. There were trips to the zoo and her favorite pizza place, long mornings playing at friends’ houses while the moms had tea, loads of raucous fun and exploration at Teacher Tom’s cooperative preschool.

But there was a heaviness there, too. She’d sit quietly in her stroller while The Boy’s kindergarten teacher and I would talk about the day’s challenges, brainstorming solutions. The following year she’d be tugging at my arm, bored and anxious while The Boy’s reading teacher would air his many grievances. She’d sit sad-faced and still in the principal’s office while her brother wept and squirmed in my lap and I willed myself into strength and silent power, navigating the conversation, staying on top of it even as I was running out of options. She’d be hastily dropped off at this or that friend’s house while I rushed off to yet another school meeting.

“Mommy, do you still love him?” she asked me one night when I was tucking her in. “Even though he got….a detention?”

And last year, as I was scrambling to hunt down a school district official’s phone number, hoping he could help me sort out the final details of The Boy’s placement at his new school, Little Grrl proudly walked over to my desk and handed me a drawing of a human heart. “Look, Mommy. A heart!” she said, as if she’d found the solution. My own human heart was absolutely breaking.

Things got better, thankfully. The Boy finally landed at a school that meets his needs, and Little Grrl had a fantabulous final year of preschool. She seems to have come out of the previous years’ darkness none the worse for wear, but I guess we can’t really know for sure.

How strange to be back at Irwin’s together, just the two of us after all this time. At five-and-a-half she seems positively grown up compared to the other toddlers and preschoolers milling around. She chooses an asiago bagel instead of a plain one. She pours herself a glass of water and finds us a table while I pay the barista. She sways her head and taps her fingers to a Creedence Clearwater song. And when a toddler in a tutu bursts into tears and wailing, the expression on Little Grrl’s face matches the mild annoyance of a young woman with a laptop sitting near us. “Ugh, too much crying,” Little Grrl remarks under her breath.

“That’s just what it sounds like when you cry,” I tease, and she gives me a teenager sigh. Then the conversation moves on to Irwin’s many varieties of scones and our plans for the summer.

Like the first grader said, this isn’t the last day of school ever. But it is the last school day ever that Little Grrl and I will have the time and luxury to sit around our favorite coffeehouse talking about scones. In September she’ll be starting full-day kindergarten. And I’ll be starting a job.

I’ll be starting slowly at first, as a substitute special education teacher’s aide for the school district. But hopefully I’ll find a full-time special ed aide position before long. And the following year, with any luck, I’ll add part-time graduate school to the mix. I want to get my M.Ed. in special education and do this for real. I don’t know how any of these hopes will actually pan out. But right now, it feels like a calling.

And so ends the early childhood phase, the stay-at-home-mom phase. I have loved every minute of it… Baby Björns and Moby Wraps, tricycles and tire swings, stories and puzzles at the library, cooperative preschool, homemade play doh and shrinky dinks, hours upon hours at the Children’s Museum and Pacific Science Center.

I’ll miss it, but I think all three of us have been ready for it to be over for a while now. The Boy has an IEP and a supportive team at school. Little Grrl spends hours alone with her books and crayons these days; an independent spirit already. And when her brother is home, the two of them play together for hours on end. The Boy reads to her and puts on Simpsons DVDs for the two of them to watch. Sometimes they just sit around in their rooms, strumming Mr. Black’s guitars.

I used to yearn for free time to just sit around and relax. This year, I found myself using that free time to do more work – gardening, cleaning out the basement, volunteering in special ed inclusion classrooms at The Boy’s school. No doubt about it: It’s time to be moving on.

There are new challenges ahead. New ways for them to need me and new ways for me to support them. In some ways it will be better, in some ways not. But we’re on our path, and the path is turning in a new direction now.

Last day of school.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Love This Book

Gaaah. Just... Mm. I do wish I had something articulate to say about Alison Bechdel's new graphic memoir, something worthy of it beyond "You this read now" and maybe a few cartoon exclamation points for effect. Why do I love this book so much?

I just read a pain-in-the-ass review of Are You My Mother that whines about how it's not as "good" as Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Bechdel's first graphic memoir that unravels the intricate narrative of her closeted father's possible suicide and her own coming out story. And yes, of course, Fun Home is beyond amazing. But why would we want her to write that book twice?

Are You My Mother isn't some blockbuster sequel exposing even juicier family secrets. It's more like a very thoughtful commentary as the author absorbs her mother's reaction to Fun Home and examines their complicated relationship through a myriad of cultural and intellectual lenses – Virginia Woolf, Stephen Sondheim, A.A. Milne, psychologist Donald Winnicott, The Drama of the Gifted Child.

It's introspective. Über meta. Cerebral-licious. All of my favorite flavors. I've been a huge fan of Alison Bechdel for years, but this is the first time I've ever wanted to climb into the pages and give her a hug. Several hugs. Sigh.

Okay...I'm just going to immerse myself in this book, then re-immerse myself in Fun Home again, and then maybe re-read the entire Dykes to Watch Out For canon for good measure. See you at the library.

Updated to add:  I'm realizing now that the reviewer unwittingly made himself the Charles Tansley to Bechdel's Lily Briscoe, which is kind of perfect, really. Maybe after I'm done re-reading the Bechdel canon I'll re-read To the Lighthouse...

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What's Love Got To Do With It

I used to walk around like this all the time. Yearning. Missing. Feeling the loss of something, something I’d never truly had in the first place. The obvious assumption in those days was romantic love, simply because that was the piece that typically wasn’t there. There was always some impossible crush, some recently departed boyfriend, some long-distance non-relationship holding me at arm’s length.

But even when there was an attentive paramour, there were cracks and corners for The Yearn to come rushing in. Maybe he was leaving soon. Or we didn’t quite understand each other. Sometimes the relationship itself had become pure tedium; a tired struggle to reach some vague nirvana that was never quite forthcoming.

I knew better, but knowing better doesn’t do you a damn bit of good, really. Will power and sober common sense have little jurisdiction over the wild stampede of Must Have Love. When the heart just yearns, they tend to get out of its way. Let her get it out of her system.

Still, for whatever it was worth, I knew better. My absurd romantic ventures happened within smirking, self-aware air quotes. I never dreamed of the material trappings of couplehood; weddings, babies, and so forth. I just wanted the embodiment of wild, poetic good mood swings. I wanted to recapture childhood kite-flying in a cornfield; waterfalls and 1970’s jazz-fluted Sesame Street animations. I wanted adventure, but also to feel treasured and nested and safe.

By the time I actually met a real live person worthy of imposing a lifetime of this bullshit onto, I’d lived through most of my 20’s. The 30’s were all about coming down to earth, settling in and learning how to actually conduct a functional relationship with a live human being for more than a year or two.

It was still dreamy, of course, but over time the dreams became firmly rooted in our joint reality – job hunting, home improvement, doctors appointments, red eye flights back east, waiting at bus stops in the rain. And babies…in all their heartbreaking, sleepless, bodily-fluid-spewing, marriage-overhauling glory. Preschool financial aid forms. Museum membership forms. Those “So Just How Autistic Is Your Child?” evaluation forms. (Remember when filling in bubbles with a pencil meant taking the GRE?)

And gradually, through all of that, we find ourselves simply married, simply a family. This is love in its purest, most earthy sense. This is farmers market love. Organic. The real deal.

Still, even with all the love and security and happiness…the old habit of Yearn still floats above it. Something still feels at large; in need of being sought.

And I don’t mean that in a crass, red-Porsche-driving comb-over midlife crisis guy, leave-him-for-your-secretary way. It’s not the least bit related to actual infidelity. To mistake it for some call to Madame Bovary action would be missing the point entirely.

It’s not so much yearning for romantic love as it is for romantic fulfillment. It wants Santa Claus. Puff the Magic Dragon. It seeks joy in a purely nebulous, unattainable sense. Embodiment brings it down to earth and essentially kills it, or scatters it elsewhere, back to the elusive zone.

So, basically, The Yearn is an end unto itself. It’s a little wistful, a little thrilling. There’s nothing, really, to be sought that I don’t already have. It’s just that the best of it lurks in hard-to-reach corners, and you can’t really pin it down in a photo album or a vacation or a job or even in your bed. It’s vapor. Its sheer lack of physical presence feels an awful lot like a void, but it’s not meant to be embodied. It’s simply meant to be felt.

There’s nothing truly missing here. There has to be space. There has to be loneliness and uncertainty from time to time. Be in it. It won’t hurt you. And it doesn’t mean you’re truly alone.


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

When We Can’t Write

It would be easy enough to blame this on the Big Bad Public School System…way too easy, like, lazy-easy. Besides, The Boy’s flat-out aversion to all things writing and drawing started at least a year before kindergarten. It’s more subtle and complicated than that.

The Boy could write his entire name when he was three. At four he’d started guess-and-go spelling in preschool without any prompting at all from his teacher. He just wanted to make some signs to add to the science experiment.

And for years, he used to dictate “books” to Mr. Black. All kinds of books. Non-fiction like What Sea Creatures Eat and The Human Body Encyclopedia. Imaginary non-fiction like The Madagascar Bullet Train. A fictional series inspired by the It’s Not a Box books like It’s Not a Car. Fan fic like Lego Agents Chapter Book, Bionicle Chapter Book, Power Miners Chapter Book…you get the idea.

But during his pre-K year of preschool, things changed. I don’t think he picked up a pencil or crayon in class the entire year. There was a sign-in sheet where children were welcome, but not required, to write their names every morning upon arrival. He always declined. There was a writing and drawing station with an abundance of art and office supplies where children could draw and write in their journals, dictate a story or letter to an adult, scribble “notes” to each other. At the end of the school year, The Boy’s journal came home entirely empty. It looked like it had never even been opened.

He still enjoyed dictating books to Mr. Black. But as I look through the collection now, I notice something unusual that didn’t strike me as unusual at the time. Mr. Black did most of the drawings, too. The Boy told him what to draw, but rarely picked up a crayon himself. The pen drawings Mr. Black did aren’t colored in. It was all about the storytelling process for him; not the physical act of writing and drawing.

By kindergarten, even dictation was like pulling teeth. He’d completely shut down. During free writing-and-drawing time he’d be at a loss, choosing to do nothing or attempting something and melting down when it didn’t come out the way he’d envisioned. Where once he’d happily crayoned his own name, he now refused because he couldn’t make a perfect first letter of his name.

Perhaps the pre-K year would have been a good time to start pursuing OT instead of plodding through red tape for two years to see if he’d qualify for free services through the school district (shocker – he didn’t). But when we did finally take him to private OT, handwriting turned out to be less of an issue than we’d expected. He had some minor challenges, but he did have the physical capability.

What, then? How would I figure this out? I’m not an OT myself. I’m not a psychologist. I don’t have degrees in early childhood education or special education.

But I do have an awful lot of experience being a frustrated writer.

Like The Boy, I showed a lot of early promise. But I didn’t hit my wall until years later, taking writing workshops in college. Suddenly faced with a roomful of writing peers and a professor teaching the very thing I loved most of all; suddenly given the opportunity to just write and have it taken seriously…I choked. My drive, my confidence, my inspiration all just drained right out of me and slipped through the floor.

Eventually I figured out what each professor was looking for and managed to please them. Playwriting = David Mamet-ish dialogue. Poetry = haiku without counting syllables. Fiction = anything not set in a dorm room. I played along and sometimes managed to trick myself into thinking I was a pretty good writer.

But the process was not my friend. The process was kind of a joke, actually. I had nothing to tell. Any story of mine that was really worth telling was in process itself; being actually lived at the moment. I had no grasp on it. No perspective. It was all about the boyfriends, which is enthralling to live but about the deadliest, most tedious thing to actually read. And I knew it. So I censored myself, picked the safe parts to spin into competent stories, kept the real stuff confined to my journal, and eventually went on to other pursuits.

I know it’s ridiculous, maybe even unfair, to compare my dippy white chick college story to The Boy’s very real struggle with Aspergers. Or…am I onto something, here? Our stories do have a basic thread in common. Our reach exceeds our grasp. Our actual work doesn’t even come close to reflecting the depths and volumes of fabulous notions we hold in our imaginations. We can’t…express. We can’t accurately translate the thoughts to the page.

How did I finally learn to write? Here and there, in bits and pieces. A college non-fiction workshop where I learned that tightening prose is a thing. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Lorrie Moore’s short stories. A particularly good fiction workshop in Philly and killer grammar classes at a University of Washington tech writing program. And the Internet.

Yes, the Internet. I spent my earliest, somewhat isolated years of stay-at-home parenting finding like-minded new parents online and carrying on intelligent “conversations” with them – not just about parenting but about relationships, books and films, politics, gay and transgender rights, racism, religion, current events, sex. Feelings and the written word had never been more linked for me. We generally regard the Internet as a huge waste of time, but for me it turned out to be valuable writing practice. When I’d gotten everything I could out of the message board life, I started this blog.

How is The Boy finally learning to write? Well…by writing, I think. With extra help, with accommodations, but basically just by writing. By picking up the rules and inspiration gradually, in fits and starts. By learning about notes and first drafts and freewriting, and ever so slightly loosening his grip on his perfectionism. He is learning the way we all learn – by slogging through the deadly process of it, practicing, sucking at it, practicing some more, realizing we don’t suck as much as we thought. The best, most helpful thing a teacher has ever said to me was simply “He can do this.” And he can.

Sometimes it takes a while to engage him in the task, especially if it’s something unfamiliar. But once he’s there, he’s got a lot of thoughts and wants to express them. “You don’t need to be here,” he’ll tell me as he starts scratching it down on the paper. He can do this. And the more familiar he becomes with the whole business of translating thoughts into words and then writing the actual words, the less objectionable the task becomes.

What I didn’t fully understand about The Boy in the preschool days is that he needs to be very familiar with something in order to feel comfortable with it. Left to his own devices, he’s extremely disinclined to branch out – even if it’s something he’s ready and yearning to do, like take the training wheels off his bike.

The Boy approaches most tasks with either (a) the belief that he won’t be able to do it and extreme resistance, or (b) the belief that he will be AWESOME at it, followed by disappointment in falling short of his own expectations, followed by….extreme resistance. It’s hard to know when it’s time to let him put it aside or encourage him to keep trying. But I’m getting better at it. Because I keep trying, too.

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