Tagged with " children"

Pride and Prejudice

My nine-year-old son Connor finishes the partial hospitalization program that saved his life this spring on Friday. He’ll return to school, and his beloved friends and teachers and staff, for the last eleven days of the year. It’ll be a lovely reunion–he’s determined to surprise them on Tuesday–and he’ll get to show off the amazing new self-control and trigger management he’s developed, in a manageable, boundaried time period.

As part of his evaluation and treatment in the program, Connor was tested on a wide battery of skills and scales. Most irritating of these tests was a tear-your-hair-out boring attention test that required TWELVE FULL MINUTES of participation to determine a baseline. We laughed at the irony of his twice quitting an attention test because it bored him, but as soon as he tried it with someone to tell him to keep going, the test revealed no attention span issues.

Connor's first-place winning science fair project this year, about predicting compressive strength of materials based on their atomic structure.

Equally unsurprising to us were the results of his IQ test. He scored 136. Now, officially, there’s no “cutoff” for “genius level” anymore in the updated IQ scoring, but 136 puts him into the 99th Percentile for kids his age. In other words, only one percent of nine-year-olds score higher than that. His vocabulary and reading level is that of a 12th grader. According to a new study, that’s two grades higher than the average of the U.S. Congress.

This kid is staggeringly intelligent. Which comes as news to absolutely no one who’s ever met him. I feel far less proud than affirmed. These scores only quantify the bar that we’ve always felt we have to rise to as his parents. The doctor who evaluated him repeatedly emphasized how unusual Connor’s mind really is–the words “exceptional,” “exceed,” and “excellent” appear frequently throughout the write-up, and he urges several times that Connor receive gifted and talented services.

What did shock us in this evaluation was the statement that immediately followed the quantitative elements: “Connor indicates that he enjoys role-play games, which I would strongly advise against, given how these activities can result in him being more obsessed with fantasy than reality. Connor should be devoting his time and effort to normal activities socially, recreationally, and athletically that would be pursued by a nine-year-old.” Further down, he returns to this point: “Repeatedly, I witness children like Connor becoming consumed with fantasy and role-playing games, derailing their social and emotional development and ignoring ‘normal’ endeavors. The result is a pattern of unusual or atypical interests that ultimately are not shared by their peers, causing them to be viewed as unusual, odd, or atypical and, therefore, contributing to social rejection and emotional alienation.”

My first reaction was, “Holy crap, he thinks geeks are pathetic.”

I saw the Darling Husband’s hackles rise as he read, though he channeled it into humor, since the therapist who gave us the papers wasn’t the one who did the evaluation. Instead, he suggested that they give the doctor a call and tell him what Connor’s dad does for a living.

We shared a laugh at the time, with Connor in the room and unaware of what the papers said, but we were shocked and bothered by the obvious bias in the evaluation, and how utterly dissonant it was with both of our life experiences. How could anyone think such a wonderful hobby was destructive and alienating?

For both of us, fantasy literature and roleplaying games were the ultimate sandbox, an environment finally big enough for the universes our minds could imagine. Sci-fi and fantasy, both in prose and comic books, gave us colorful and expansive vocabularies that challenged us, in the days of stultifying spelling tests and reading assignments that left us cold. Games gave us math problems we wanted to do. They gave us new friends at home and around the world, hours of solo and group entertainment, and eventually, roleplaying games gave us each other. They are our hobby, and our work, and now our legacy to our children.

We understood the doctor’s concern that, if Connor was only into media far beyond his peers’ comprehension, he’d have no common interests with them. But what’s “normal” for a nine-year-old? Chess? No, no chance of obsession there (ahem, paging Bobby Fischer). Baseball? Just what he needs to stay away from unsociable statistics (or not). Guns? That can’t possibly turn out badly. In fact, I’d like someone to tell me what subjects are, in fact, more normal for a nine-year-old American boy in 2012 than heroes, monsters, superheroes, Star Wars, LEGO, and XBox games?

Sure, we’ve known our share of people who couldn’t function well socially in contexts that excluded their primary enthusiasm. Every joke refers to a D&D stat, or a video game plot, or a Monty Python sketch. Every anecdote ties back to a Star Trek episode. And yes, autistic kids get fixated and study the everlasting hell out of what they like. Some days, it’s all they can talk about, and that can be off-putting to other kids who don’t have the sheer bloodyminded endurance they do. But that’s not the vast majority of today’s geeks and gamers, and it’s certainly not Connor.

Connor got a make-your-own sonic screwdriver kit for Christmas. He may have been pleased.

Cam and I will take some credit for keeping his interests wide. Every time he finishes a book, movie, or TV series he’s thoroughly enjoyed, we’ve got three new things racked and ready to suggest. So you liked Star Wars, did you, kid? Here, meet this guy called Indiana Jones. Muppets tickled your fancy? Fantastic–watch this Wallace and Gromit short. Harry Potter and Doctor Who are pretty awesome, aren’t they? Let me tell you about my friends Sherlock Holmes and Lewis Carroll. And the same lack of inhibition that sometimes leads Connor to say tactless or oblivious things allows his passion and enthusiasm for his favorite things to bubble over giddily, and it’s absolutely irresistible. He’s a trendsetter among his peers. They don’t tell him he’s weird for liking what he likes–they want to know what’s got him so excited.

I know the kids around him won’t always be as forgiving of his differences. But the age when that happens was exactly when Cam and I found roleplaying games, and we weren’t alone. Neither will he be. In fact, he’s likely to be in demand as a creative, versatile gamemaster with deft control of rules and narrative, and a bag full of hacks and tricks. Heavens know, he’s learning at the feet of The Master.

We want to let this doctor know that we respect his experience and knowledge, but in this area, he’s got it flat wrong. Games knit society closer together. Connor’s entire existence, and his loving home, come from the power of those stitches. His whole life, since before he was even born, he’s been on the receiving end of love and support from the friends we’ve made through games. He’s already discovered the delight and the challenge in them, and he’s learning social skills in a safe, welcoming environment, in the community of gamers.

How on earth could he grow up healthier without all that?

May 11, 2012 - Literature    No Comments

Fun with Guest Posting!

So, one of my best friends in the whole wide world has an awesome new blog called Reads4Tweens. Amanda Valentine started R4T to give parents of precocious pre-teens a resource for honest, spoiler-filled reviews of kids’ and YA literature. While these kids can read far beyond their grade level, a lot of those books contain themes and events that they might not be prepared to confront, at least not without the help of a parent.

One of those themes is death. In fact, death comes up in kids’ lit a whole lot more than anyone would expect. Some of those deaths are so pointless, or such obvious mechanics for propping up saggy plot details, that Amanda ran a Gratuitous Deaths Week at R4T. But, by way of countering the truly egregious examples, I offered up a guest post about a shocking, but well-done and important, death in one of the all-time great YA lit series, Anne of Green Gables.

You can read my post here, and while you’re there, be sure to take a look around–the whole site is full of great stuff! Also, if you’ve ever got a subject you’d like my particular take on, feel free to propose it as a topic for a guest post. I’ll link your blog from mine, and all that so-called “optimization” will take place!

Apr 11, 2012 - Domestic Engineering    4 Comments

Singles Weekend

Convention Season has started in Geekland–though it never really ends, just takes a brief winter breather–and that means that the Darling Husband is in high demand. This is nothing to complain about, and I generally see the exertion of multi-day stretches of single parenting as the price I pay to have him so flexible the rest of the year. Some stretches are better than others, and there’s always a day in there somewhere that doesn’t exactly show any of us at our best. But we muddle through pretty well, for the most part.

Here’s how these weekends usually go:

DAY 1–Darling Husband departs with hugs and kisses early in the morning. Kids are at school, I’m at work. I have to leave a little early to be there when the bus drops them off, but that’s like a little vacation. I sit out in the sun while they play on the playground with friends, maybe do a little reading between general referreeing. I ask what they want for dinner. They say McDonalds. I playfully swat that idea, and we all pile into the car, go to the grocery store, and get ingredients for me to cook dinner. We munch on pasta carbonara or a casserole while watching Cartoon Network. They get ready for bed without a fight, and I tuck them in with a story and a kiss. I watch a documentary with a glass of wine, and go to bed relatively early, but read a few chapters of a trashy novel before sleep.

DAY 2–Boy, that alarm goes off early. Good thing I got a decent night’s sleep. I bulldoze the kids out of bed, dump them in the shower to general protests, and get them out the door to the bus. I find the missing jacket they swore was nowhere lying in the middle of the living room floor. I drop off a forgotten sheet of homework at school on my way to work. I’m yawning by 2pm, but there’s no time for a nap before the bus arrives at 3. I bring a book to read on the playground, but I CANNOT STAND THE SCREAMING. I retreat inside, and break up fights through the window screen. I pull them off the playground to run a few errands; there are many tears and recriminations. I ask what they want for dinner. They say McDonalds. I say fine, whatever, just use your inside voices. I catch them eating french fries off the carpet and wiping ketchup on their pants. More protests at bedtime–“I’m not tired! My show’s not done! We don’t have school tomorrow!”–until I’m the one who’s yelling now. I do not care that you don’t have school. I do not care that your show isn’t done. I do not care that we didn’t read a story. Get in bed and give me ten freaking minutes of silence, would you? I skip the documentary, maybe get a few pages of my book before sleep. Kids call me into their room at 2-hour intervals all night for essential services as covering and restarting music. Unfortunately, they never need these things at the same time.

DAY 3–No alarm set, but then again, no alarm needed. The sound of arguing awakens me earlier than the birds get up. Control of screens suddenly needs a UN peacekeeping force. I settle the fight, and try to go back to bed, but if I have to say more than a yes/no, my brain boots up to day speed. No more sleep for me. I watch the red light on the TiVo box that says fascinating news shows are taping; they watch another Phineas & Ferb marathon (things could be much worse). I’ve planned to take us out to a museum today to kill time. I feed them breakfast and pack many snacks, to avoid exorbitant museum food prices. I give the kids a long leash because I’m too tired to keep up, but I still feel like I got dragged around the block by a pair of St Bernard’s. I’m just glad I don’t have to break up any fist fights in the pirate exhibit. The exit, however, is through the gift shop. This should be outlawed. I consider myself lucky to escape with an exhibit book, though I play the parental version of Whack-A-Mole in which I yank an overpriced “science” toy out of a child’s hand every time they say “MOM!” I apologize to the actual parent of one of the kids from whose hands I take a toy. I reach around while driving home to tickle and pinch the kids so they don’t fall asleep. I don’t ask them what they want for dinner. They get macaroni and cheese. They also get to stay up later because I’ve fallen asleep on the couch while they ate. They wake me up to tuck them in, and I stagger off to my own bed.

DAY 4–I wake up hurting before the sun comes up. Kids are sleeping soundly, so I take painkillers and figure I’ll catch up on news shows I’ve taped. Alas, one kid rises 20 minutes after me, so I surrender the TV and try to read. The other kid sleeps in until 9, at which point I ask if I can go back to sleep for a little while. Sometimes this works, and I get another hour of rest. Sometimes this does not work, and I end up yelling at them through my bedroom door until I give up. They ask where we’re going today. I say nowhere–all my money and energy is gone after yesterday. They cry and call me the worst mom ever. They wish Daddy was home instead of me. I cry and say I wish that too. I feed them fruit snacks and graham crackers for brunch. They spend a few hours running back and forth between apartment and playground in random and irritating patterns. One kid does something incredibly dumb/dangerous/dumb outside, and I am forced to put on a bra and non-pajama pants and go outside and watch them. The sun melts a little of the pain in my back. The look I give the kids when they get close buys me a little time to read. I say a little prayer to the makers of ibuprofen and Xanax. I feel better; they get tired. I ask what they want for dinner. They say McDonalds. I make them spaghetti. They say, “This isn’t McDonalds.” I say, “This is all you’re getting.” I remember they haven’t showered since Day 2. I cannot care. I send them to bed early under the pretense of “school night.” Daddy comes home late. I give him a kiss and go to bed, where I stay for much of the next day.

RESULT: No hospital, no Child Services, no overdrafts, no corporal punishment. I declare victory.

BALLOONGATE!

I attended my first caucus in February; I’d only ever voted in primary states before, so I was keenly interested to see what this approach to local politics had to offer.

What did I get from it? I got elected precinct chair. I also got acute pancreatitis. (Okay, caucusing didn’t give me that–a gallbladder full of gravel did–but I was permanently scarred. No, really.)

As a result of the political events of that night, I also had a delegate’s seat at the Democratic, Farm, and Labor (DFL) party’s State Senate District Nominating Convention on Saturday. What I didn’t have on Saturday, though, was a babysitter, so with the Darling Husband guest-of-honoring it up at a convention in New York, I had convention credentials, two sons, and only one option: these poor kids were about to get a Saturday morning, non-musical lesson in civics.

I’d have just stayed home, but between the caucus and the convention, the new redistricting lines were announced. The new State Senate district boundaries put two long-time Democratic politicians up against one another, and I suddenly found myself being courted like I haven’t been since the DH slipped those emeralds on my finger in Aberdeen. Mailings, phone calls, invitations, even a house visit! I knew my vote would really count, win or lose, so ditching wasn’t an option.

Connor (L) and Griffin (R) at our little bastion of non-political entertainment at the MN DFL SD66 nominating convention. Note the balloons on the rows of seats behind them.

We went loaded for bear–computer, DVDs, iPhone, books, toys, and a host of questionably healthy snacks–and I’m going to tell you up front that the boys were outrageously, unexpectedly, refreshingly well-behaved. Really, I couldn’t expect better from any kids their age in similarly boring circumstances. About halfway through, Connor decided he was happier over by me on the convention floor. I explained what was going on, answered some of his questions, and he listened for a while. Eventually, we started playing Squares, which was far more consuming than the parliamentary maneuvers. Sadly, I did about as well as my favored candidate that day.

The different wards and precincts were arranged in rows of chairs, with balloons on the ends, marked with the appropriate numbers (we were in Ward 4 Precinct 13, so our balloon read W4P13). As with everything that requires people to sort themselves into appropriate groups, things immediately got confusing when delegates were required to take their seats. They counted off each precinct, and though the row in front of us was marked W5P3, it became apparent that no delegates from that precinct were in attendance. Connor happened to be seated in the chair to which that balloon was tied, and the woman running the convention indicated that the balloon should be taken down, to avoid any further confusion about that precinct.

I’ll let Connor take the story from here:

I asked if I could have the balloon. She said yes, but I shouldn’t take it out of the room, so it didn’t cause a fire hazard. [Mom: Balloons are fire hazards? Connor: No, it’s not; it just sets off the fire alarm. Mom: Oh. Huh.] The lady next to Mom had a Swiss army knife on her keychain, and she helped me cut it loose. 

Exhibit A: The Balloon, tied up in quarantine.

I took it over to show Griffin, when two sergeants-at-arms came over and stopped me. A nice woman said, “Don’t go out of the room with it.” I said, “I’m not going to take it out of the room.” Then she said, “Okay, but still, I don’t want you walking around with it.” Then the other sergeant-at-arms said, “Either give it to us, or pop it.” So I said, “But the people said I’m allowed to have it.” The nice lady asked, “Who were they?” I said, “They’re the people on the stage. My mom said it was okay.” Then the man said, “Are you arguing with me? Give us the balloon.” So I gave it to them. I felt very sad, like I didn’t have any power at all. And the worst part is, they didn’t do anything with the balloon! They just tied it up to a pole! 

Exhibit B: The Sergeant-at-Arms (not the nice lady, the other one)

I came over to tell Mom and the other people in her precinct. They all said that that wasn’t fair. I said this convention was ageist, and they said I should go to the microphone and ask if the DFL platform was anti-fun. I think they were joking. But Mom gave me her phone and told me to take pictures, like a reporter, and that we would tell the story on her blog. That made me feel better, because I was, like, “Now everyone will know about this! Everyone will remember this day as BALLOONGATE!”

I’m pretty sure we need a Schoolhouse Rock episode to explain this travesty of justice.

Mar 17, 2012 - Ancient History    3 Comments

A Drop of the Irish

I’m five-eighths Irish, and it shows in all kinds of ways. I don’t tan–I just burn badly, then peel back to freshly-drowned white. My complexion also blushes impressively at the first whiff of emotion or alcohol. I’ve got a decisive jaw and a stubborn chin, and the attitude to back them up. I look damn fine in any and every shade of green. I’m hard-pressed to keep my toes still if there’s a spirited jig or reel playing. I’ve got a mighty temper, which rises and falls with sometimes alarming speed and whimsy. And I’ll take a chilly, misty, drizzly day–a “soft day,” to the Irish–over a cloudless 80-degree one hands down.

And oh yes: a significant number of my relatives are alcoholics.

My Grandpa Boyle, mobbed by the grandkids as usual. I'm top right; my sister lower right; 2 of many cousins on the left. Salt of the earth, my grandpa was.

Now don’t go getting on me for pandering to an ethnic stereotype. Not all Irish are drunks, probably not even a majority. But Irish social interactions have been lubricated by smoky whiskeys and beers as thick and dark as the new moon since time immemorial. (Don’t question me when use idioms like “time immemorial;” I’ve literally read the very earliest Irish historical documents.) And for so many people with Irish blood in their veins, it’s an understatement to say their relationship with alcohol is fraught with generations of experience and emotion.

And so it was with my paternal family. I’m descended from the Boyle clan, with a side order of Higgins, and I grew up in and near Milwaukee, home of the most epically huge and enthusiastic Irish Fest in North America. Holidays, christenings, birthdays, marriages, funerals, and occasional random weekends were spent in the wood-panelled basement of my grandparents’ home in a blue-collar suburb. (If you don’t know about the Irish and wood panelling, you need to pay more attention to Denis Leary.) On every available surface, there were either food or bottles of booze; with both, quantity over quality was the byword. Both were consumed at a steady pace, with the grit and determination of long-distance runners.

What I remember most about those parties–besides my cousins and slipping around on the tiled floor in my fancy shoes–was the volatility. The growing volume level, the slightly unbalanced quality to the adults’ laughter, and the overbroad, unmeasured gestures. The sudden snap of a frayed temper, the crack of an angry outburst. The atmosphere of precariously balanced danger. The longer the nights drew on, the more I instinctively shrank into myself, made myself smaller, so I wouldn’t upset the equilibrium.

My mom and father, high school sweethearts, in better days.

If it had only been at these parties, I’d probably be writing about this with more humor. But it was at home too, with no parties, no gaiety–just a staggering, slurring father, present in so many snapshots of my childhood. He worked hard, but there were weeknights he came home so hammered, he was still drunk when he walked out the front door the following morning. He’s a big man, 6 foot 4, and thickly built. Sometimes, he came home in the mood to play, but he couldn’t control his strength when he was drunk, and his horseplay often left at least one of us kids crying. Most nights though, if he didn’t just stumble into bed, he was angry and belligerent. I’m the oldest of us three siblings, so I felt it was my responsibility to protect us. We spent nervous hours crouched in the bathtub; the bathroom was the only door in the house with a lock.

My brother, sister, and I, right around the age when we all grew up very fast.

I was a pretty precocious kid, so when my mom finally demanded that he leave when I was about 8 years old, I was all for it. The next two years were hard, really hard, as my mom worked to support us on just her secretary’s salary–I shudder to think of what it would’ve been like if her parents hadn’t lived a mile away and been so generous with their time and resources. She knew the man who would become our stepdad from church–he was the Minister of Music, and she sang in the choir. She knew he’d been raised a teetotaler. Sure, he was 20 years older than her, but he’s a good man, and she knew he’d take better care of us all.

The rest of the Boyles knew my mom had given my father chance after chance after chance, but he refused to admit he had a problem, and they blamed the breakup on him. We’ve maintained very good relations with them all along, even after my father decided it was easier to think of us as dead for a while there. They supplied us with pictures of our new half-brothers from his second marriage, and they sent representatives to important events, like graduations and my wedding. I saw my father at a family reunion when I was 17. We hadn’t spoken for 8 years at that point; we wouldn’t speak again for another 17 after that.

My personal reaction to the alcoholism I saw rampant in that branch of the family tree was unusual, I guess. I decided as a child that I would never even taste alcohol until I was old enough to be sure that my personality was fully formed, and that it didn’t have addictive tendencies. Lots of my friends didn’t understand my adamant refusal to drink in a small town where drinking, having sex, and renting movies were the primary forms of entertainment, often performed in combination. But I’ve been fortunate to have a happy assortment of offbeat friends who took that quirk in stride.

I went to France my senior year of college–I would turn 21 while I was over there–and I went with the attitude that, if the occasion rose and I felt comfortable, I’d try a drink that year. But I wasn’t ready when I first got there, and the French college students just shrugged off my refusal of beer-based hospitality, and pointed me to the Coca-Cola. The real problem was with the French adults. “BWAH?!?!?” they would exclaim. “But you are in France! Everyone drinks in France! You can’t not have wine!”

Oops. Magic word: can’t. See, I’ve got this anti-authoritarian button that pops out when someone tells me I can’t, and it sounds like this: “Oh, I can’t, can I? Well, that cinches it. Just watch me.” And I didn’t drink the entire year–not on my birthday, not at any of the outrageously good meals, not in any of the charming cafés or brasseries, even though my hot chocolates and Cokes cost me 12 francs, and a beer would’ve cost me 7. That’s some fine Irish stubbornness for you there.

I had my first drink of alcohol on my wedding night, a champagne toast with my friends. The friends who’d been with me all through college and the year in France couldn’t stop exclaiming how mind-bendingly odd it was to see me drink. Some knew why I’d waited; they were happiest to see me let go of that shackle. Funnily enough, because I’d waited until I was a fully grown adult to start drinking, I’ve never been drunk. Between my Irish/German constitution, my plus-size physique, and my unwillingness to drink any alcoholic crap that comes along, getting me drunk is a damned expensive proposition, and I’d so much rather spend that money on books.

I reconnected with my father when we moved back to Wisconsin for a few years. I’m the mother of his only two biological grandchildren, and I felt it would be stingy and petty of me not to let him get to know them, and them him. He hasn’t aged particularly well, but when he grows out his beard and hair, he looks like a rather jolly Irish Santa. They send us gift cards at Christmas; I send them cards and drawings from the boys. I don’t like to think how I would’ve turned out if my mom hadn’t had the steel in her spine to leave him, and when it’s time to talk to my boys about drinking and drugs, I’ll tell them what my first 8 years were like, and why I’ve made the choices I have.

Family and history–they’re the most Irish things I have to share with them.

A Gift Better Not Given

Most days, I try not to think about how my kids were formed (note: I didn’t say “how they were made;” that was quite pleasant), just like I try not to think about how my husband and I met. The odds are just too astronomical that things worked out the way they should, and on less-good days, it’s hard to believe that the universe has even one good thing in store for me after pulling off those hat tricks.

But every once in a while, especially when I see something of myself or Cam reflected back from them in flawless mirror image, my mind flits across whimsical images. Sometimes, it’s the three fairies from Sleeping Beauty, hovering over their cradles and bestowing gifts. And sometimes, more magical in its own way for being true, I imagine those tiny coded zippers–unfurling, melding pieces of each of us into someone new and unique but so familiar, then coiling again, before doing a little do-si-do and starting the whole thing over again, in the blink of an eye. Amazing, but frankly, it hurts my head a little to contemplate it all.

Of the two boys, Griffin definitely looks more like me, or more correctly, my little brother–he certainly got his uncles’ engineering skills and sheer cussedness from both sides of the family. Connor’s a bit more of a mystery–his looks are changing so much every year–but there’s definitely something of his Auntie Fi in his smile and stubborn little chin. Not to mention his big, enormous head, an inheritance from his father which I had not truly contemplated until hour three of pushing at Connor’s birth.

Personality traits are much easier to spot and attribute. Cam and I are a lot alike, and were as children, and we’d like to think we’ve had a big influence on them as they’ve grown too, so it’s no surprise that both boys are voracious readers–Connor loves adventure stories, comics, and technical manuals; Griffin is my non-fiction kid, and I think we’ve read every book about animals and weather that our local library has. They’re also imaginative storytellers, and immerse themselves in roleplay that folds together Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Doctor Who, James Bond, the Marvel and DC universes, and a host of other settings in what we affectionately call “the Connorverse.” We’re fortunate that Griffin inherited my appreciation for villains; he’s not stuck as the droid, like I always made my sister, to her everlasting bitterness. And of course, there are the senses of humor, as abundantly demonstrated in the last post; like their parents, they riff from the absurd to word play to cultural references and back to the zany again.

Other gifts are more obviously from one or the other of us. To our great relief, both boys inherited my iron stomach for travel–no Dramamine for us, we’ll be here in the back seat, reading quietly through long car trips. Their talent and enjoyment for video games, though, that’s all their dad (and uncles). Connor inherited his father’s ability to produce vast quantities of heat from an internal nuclear reactor. Griffin, much to my chagrin, seems to have inherited my anti-authoritarian streak.

But then there are the gifts that aren’t really gifts, the things that show up that fill you up with regret when they surface in your child. Cam felt horrible the day we learned that Connor needed glasses, much worse than Connor did, in fact. And the first time Connor had a stretch of insomnia, I actually apologized to him for setting that little timebomb in his DNA. The Asperger’s, too, was an unwelcome complication from me and my family, though the relief at understanding what was going on with Connor offset any grief at the diagnosis. Griffin, too, has some sensory issues in common with Connor and me, but so far, no sign of being too far off the neurotypical end of the spectrum.

This has been a weird month for our family. While we’re overjoyed at the release of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, and the attendant acclaim and delight, even good stress can be very stressful. Then I had my sudden pancreatic mutiny that landed me unexpectedly in the hospital for almost a week, and recovering from surgery for another week after that. Whatever the combination of factors, Connor hasn’t reacted well, and the deepest stretch of depression in almost two years has laid him low. He’s so fragile and off-balance: little things he could normally roll with knock him down into the trenches, and those troughs are so much deeper and hard to escape than even the usual lows that are common among Aspies. We’ve had several violent (toward himself and objects, not anyone else) meltdowns at school, as well as a hair trigger temper toward his brother and more insomnia. Yesterday’s major event, to my furious frustration, was brought on by a teacher who didn’t follow Connor’s IEP, which lets him go to a safe place when he’s overwhelmed at school, and told him that he needed to “stop being a baby” and stay, or he would “lose privileges like free time.” He’s been to the ER twice in two weeks for evaluation.

Guilt is a normal state of existence for mothers everywhere, but seeing the depression that’s derailed whole seasons of my life wrap its sticky, persistent black tendrils around my beautiful boy–it weighs like a stone on my heart. And it’s probably no consolation to him, when he says there isn’t anything good in the world for him, or anything good he can give back to the world, that I can look him straight in the eye and say, “I know exactly how you feel right now.” Sometimes, I do things that fly in the face of my own experience–I don’t particularly like or find comfort in being touched when I’m that depressed, but I hold him so tightly as he weathers hurricanes of emotion too big for his little body, and I hope it brings him calm sooner than he would find alone.

Knowing how much he’s like me in other ways is no consolation. He has my resourcefulness. He has my tendency to predict future events based on scenarios played out, like chess games, entirely in his mind. And he has my impulsiveness. Each, on their own, is harmless–even an asset in many situations. But put them together, and I’m left with the certainty that, if he decided now was the time to hurt himself, the best I could hope would be to find him in time.

The options for treating juvenile depression aren’t great, or many. We’ll step up the frequency of his visits to the therapist. We’ll work with him for plans to stay safe in every imaginable contingency; he does well with things scripted out in advance. We’ll spend a lot of time just snuggling on the couch, reading and watching TV together. We’ll work a little harder to keep him in touch with friends and family who love him so much. We’ll watch some “It Gets Better” videos. We’ll build little things for him to look forward to on the calendar for the next few months, and I’ll break myself if I have to to make sure they happen, no matter how I’m feeling.

All these plans, though, are no match for one moment of desperate action. Needless to say, I’m not sleeping much or deeply these days. I’m terrified for my baby; I would be even without any personal experience with depression. But I do have experience. When he says it’s hopeless, he’s only saying aloud something I’ve thought a million times. When he says we’d all be better off if he killed himself, he’s giving voice to a feeling etched in a dark corner of my own heart.

This broken piece of my beautiful boy comes from me. It matches a broken piece inside of me. What remains to be seen is whether my broken piece will be any help filling in the jagged edges of his tattered little soul.

Feb 27, 2012 - Domestic Engineering    5 Comments

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

From the way I talk about my kids here and in social media, you might think that they’re just brilliant evil madmen, whimsical annihilists, crazed Muppets on acid, determined to drive their father and me to eat, drink, and be weepy. And you wouldn’t be completely wrong.

But there’s a really important facet to them, as well, one that helps explain their continued good health:

They’re comic geniuses.

I don’t just mean that they’re funny in that old Art Linkletter/Bill Cosby “Gosh, the things kids say!” way. All kids say unintentionally hilarious things–adorable spoonerisms, mispronunciations, hilarious revelations of their skewed perspective on the world. And sure, my kids do those too–Griffin perseveres in calling his penis his “peepod,” and his pronunciation of “Dang it” as “DANIK!” But it’s more than that. In my old age, I expect to be living very comfortably on the fruits of their mega-successful comedy careers.

They’ve always been like this, too. My chief crime as a Bad Mother is that I haven’t kept a journal of all the hilarity–if it weren’t for Facebook and Twitter, even more of those moments would’ve been lost forever. When I was little and unbearably precocious, my grandma kept a stack of index cards next to her typewriter, and whenever I would say something wise or funny, she would write it down and stick it into a little binder, which she gave to me when I graduated from high school. It was such a precious, thoughtful gift, one I knew I just wasn’t the kind of person to replicate. And my memory–Swiss cheese, mesh sieve, fishnet stockings, or whatever uselessly porous metaphor you can imagine–retains only the oddest assortment of these things.

But I’m determined to convince you that these are more-than-averagely witty children. So here are a collection of my favorites.

Connor’s first celebrity crush was Jon Stewart. Yes, that Jon Stewart. We’ve had TiVo since just after he was born, and he would sit in our laps as we watched saved episodes of The Daily Show when Cam was home for lunch. Connor learned comic timing from those folks–he laughed at jokes from the rhythm, long before the words made sense to him. We hung pictures of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on the bathroom wall to celebrate successful poops in the potty at least as often as we hung Lightning McQueen and Luke Skywalker. He had a little clip-on tie in his costume basket which he would affix to the collar of his t-shirts before standing tiptoe on the bathroom stool so he could stand before the mirror and rattle off little monologues in his weird moon language: “Bwuhblahbapah, hrmhuhbeda ah rmuu gagapurba… AHAHAHAHAHAHA!” Confused, we asked him, “What exactly are you doing?” He replied, all seriousness, “I Jon Stewart.” Legend has it that, at least for a while, an invitation to Connor’s Jon Stewart-themed 3rd Birthday Party hung on Stewart’s office wall.

The cake reads "The Daily Show says Happy Birthday Connor."

Griffin was born when Connor was four, and while Connor was intrigued by the strange alien parasite who’d arrived in our lives, he felt it was unfair that the rules were different for the wee beastie than they were for him. This was especially fraught at bedtime, one of which Connor had, but Griffin, as a three-month-old, avoided by sleeping any damn time he felt like it. One evening, Connor exercised his growing rhetorical skills with three award-winning attempts to get around this obstacle. From the top of the stairs, we first heard, “I think there’s someone at the door. I think it’s for me. I’d better stay downstairs in case they come back.” No. Go back to bed. Five minutes later, “It’s not healthy for me to be upstairs alone.” Ooo, nice try, kid. No. Go back to bed. Finally, the real kicker: “I think you want me upstairs because you love Griffin more than me.” Emotional manipulation–nicely played, young padawan. No. Go back to bed.

This happened to be Crazy Hair Day at school, but I have a feeling it'll be every day sooner rather than later.

Griffin’s sense of humor grew differently than Connor’s, with a definite pitch toward the absurd. He’s my angelically adorable, punk-rock, little imp of the devil. His favorite band is Green Day. He loves atomic Japanese monsters. Griff’s talent lies in the one-liner; my talent is for failing to remember them. A recent one that stuck: “Dad, the bathroom is full of zebra smell.” He’s almost shameless in his misbehavior, which yields a humor of its own–you know, the kind that also makes you reach for the Xanax. When asked if he behaved well at school, he responded with a gleeful grin, and said, “Ms. Brown said she was going to give me a color change because I was bad in the library, but by the time we got back to the classroom, she forgot, so I was good!”

Together, the two of them are overwhelming, both comically and sometimes literally. When people don’t seem to understand what raising two young sons is like, I tell them the story of the day they both had funny things to tell me at the same time. They stood directly in front of me, gesticulating wildly with their hands, as Connor said in a campy Bela Lugosi voice, “I’m an alien! I have no head! My butt is where my head should be! I have a butt for a head!” while Griffin just yelled repeatedly, over his brother’s monologue, “WAFFLES! WAFFLES! WAFFLES! WAFFLES!”

And even on the bad days, their comic genius can pull a laugh from me. Cam and I were discussing an earlier Twitter conversation about my hatred of smoothies for their frequent inclusion of unannounced secret bananas. Connor, who’d come off the school bus crying at another bad day of school, piped up, “Secret banana? Did you just say *secret banana*?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Well, guess what? SECRET BANANA!!!” he yelled, and whipped a small notepad with a cover featuring a cartoon banana out of his jacket pocket.

How could I not laugh? I mean, honestly, what were the odds? The odds he’d have that notebook in his pocket? The odds he’d remember it was there, in all his emotional turmoil? And of course, perfect timing.

I’m not the best mom in the world, not by a long shot. I’m mercurial–little things set me off too easily, spinning toward sadness or anger–and my patience escapes me with my own kids in a way it doesn’t with anyone else. I’m bossy and authoritarian, and I try to make everything a teachable moment. And I can’t be active with them all the time, the way I’d like, the way my mom and grandma were with me–the pain and the fatigue set arbitrary limits and scuttle the best-laid plans, and I hate that they know from how I’m holding my body to ask whether I should maybe take some medicine.

But I am, and always will be, their best audience.

 

 

Feb 25, 2012 - Psychology    5 Comments

Minnesota Nice

Things you should know about me

  • I love volunteering for good causes
  • I love making people feel good about themselves
  • I love trying new things
  • I love making people laugh
  • I also use humor to defuse tense situations
  • I need to feel useful
  • I try to be honest, tactful, and polite, even when they seem mutually exclusive
  • I frequently wear myself out doing things for others before I get around to taking care of myself
  • I have an anti-authoritarian, rebellious, “Who the hell are you to tell me I can’t?” streak a mile wide
  • I’m wild about democratic politics, but not interested in small group interpersonal politics, except in an abstract, anthropological way
  • I love when my enthusiasm for something makes others enthusiastic too
  • I somehow manage to have abysmal self-esteem and a sense of unflappable calm and competence in crises
  • I probably like making lists a little too much
  • I’m pretty riled up at the moment, so this is about as passive-aggressive as I get
  • I’m pretty sure the people I’m upset with don’t read this blog

Things I don’t really enjoy

  • Power politics in places you don’t expect them
  • People who hoard information to guarantee their continued importance
  • People who let someone else take fire as a leader, but continue to pull strings behind the scenes
  • Finding out important things about an institution that radically change your understanding and expectations of what’s possible
  • The belief that intellectuals can’t possibly know anything practical about the “real world”
  • The stance that it’s not worth even trying new things because there’s the chance that they’ll fail
  • Grown-ups who still rely on status cliques for a sense of importance
  • People who won’t blow you off to your face, but who basically stopped listening before you started talking
  • Being accused of selfish motives for taking on time-consuming, thankless volunteer work
  • Finding oneself nominated by the method of everyone else taking a step backward while you stood still
  • Being my own (and only) cheerleader
  • Feeling like a project that’s meant to be helpful and positive is now nothing but a drag on time, energy, and emotional reserves
  • Working on not being such a control freak, and then watching everything go directly to hell the minute I leave it alone
  • Being hamstrung on projects that are important to me because I don’t play politics
  • The why-am-I-even-trying-anymore kind of tired

Things I actually do enjoy

  • Kids wanting to hug me, high-five me, say hi to me, tell me a joke, or ask when I’m coming back to their class, every time I walk down a school hallway
  • When good, solid, simple plans work like they’re supposed to, defying others’ expectations of failure
  • Having another project that actually is working, and doing good, and is appreciated
  • People who feel like I’m approachable and non-judgmental, even when the group I represent leaves them feeling excluded from a secret society
  • Helping friends
  • Helping kids
  • Helping strangers
  • Helping anyone, anywhere, anytime I’m asked
  • My hair color, even if I’m “too old” to be doing weird stuff like this
  • A good old-fashioned bitch session
  • People who support me when I go out on a limb with good intentions
  • Participating in conversations that have no mysterious subtexts or power dynamics I don’t know about
  • Making my own social group where the misfits feel welcome and valued
  • A level playing field
  • Offering a graceful way out of the corner someone has painted themselves into (eventually)
  • The job-well-done kind of tired

The Censorship Quandary

The main job of parenting is to introduce your kids to the world outside your home in a way that best helps them make sense of it and learn to survive in it. You take them places, and show them things, then stand aside and anxiously watch them discover the joys and pitfalls for themselves. You clap and cheer, and dry tears and kiss scrapes. And it’s worth noting that this job isn’t only done by parents–any adult who deals with children experiences these things, and bears the honor and responsibility for those children’s formation.

The point of divergence among parents is when to expand the fence we build around our kids, to include new information and experiences. Obviously, this is a hot-button issue, laced with words like “censorship” and “age-appropriate” and “psychological trauma” that fuel an entire industry of researchers and trade paperback sales. Morals and memories of our own formative years have a powerful impact on our choices, as do our unique tastes. Sometimes, this veers in the absolute opposite direction from how we were raised. We resolve to raise our children with or without those influences: religion, politics, bad food, naughty words, even our extended family.

And sometimes, we lean into the curve of our own years, and urge our children into the shape of the things we’ve grown to love. The phrase “Where has this been all my life?!” is a strong predictor of parental behavior; the favorite shouted phrase of teenagers throughout time and space, “When I’m a parent, I’m never going to make my kid go there/eat that/do this!!” rarely factors in parenting decisions later in life. My husband and I are geeks who are making our living from an industry based on social experiences of play–it was a foregone conclusion that we would mold our little creations to share some of our offbeat enthusiasms. I showed Connor Star Wars when he was two, the same age at which I’d seen it (when it was first released in 1977), and Griffin was about the same age when I introduced him to Godzilla and all the other Japanese atomic monsters. And sure enough, they’re evolving nicely on the quick-witted, culturally referent, and wide-ranging track we set them.

But, inevitably, there are hitches in the unrolling of the tapestry of the world we lay at our children’s feet. Some, we never see coming. When Connor was born in the long, hot summer of 2002, we started watching “The Sopranos” on DVD to while away the humid evenings. He would actually stop nursing and look at the TV in recognition when the theme song came on. In large quantities, this show can have a deleterious effect on one’s language; I suddenly found myself saying, in the voice of Paulie Walnuts, “This f—ing guy!” whenever Connor would poop in a brand-new diaper. At the same time as we were awash in a stew of New Jerseyan profanity, I discovered that I no longer felt comfortable leaving live news on TV around my newborn son, a feeling that intensified as he grew to toddlerhood. I must admit, I am a news junkie; have been since high school. I mean, slap a vein and stick in a global 24-hour mainline–I want it all. So this discomfort came as a distinct shock to me as a new mother, a radical and instantaneous re-prioritization that told me I was no longer the same person I had always been, the first of many.

Other problems, we see coming and face with deep ambivalence. For instance: I swear. A lot. Not as badly as I did when I lived in France, but I’m somewhere between dockhand and a Naval officer on his ninth month at sea. I’ve tried to rein it in, but I just can’t force it entirely from my vocabulary, which will doubtless earn me the scorn of parents with more willpower. I’ve always believed in the concept that there are no bad words, only the wrong situations for them; calling them bad gives them more power, as most ably demonstrated by the Harry Potter novels. So I’m raising my kids to know that swear words are not appropriate for children, and are a reflection of strong emotions, and so far they get it. Connor, in particular, is still pained by my profanity, and regularly implores me to “be appropriate” around him, but I’m convinced he does this for the sheer joy of turning the tables on me. I’m also grappling with my awareness of the deeply bizarre American relationship with sex and violence. I’m determined not to be casual about violent themes and images, and to be less neurotic about anything to do with sex and gender, but the whole thing is fraught with conflict and difficulty. For now, I take it as a victory that my sons are some of the only young boys I know who don’t freak out at kissing or when I streak from bathroom to bedroom on the days I forget my robe.

We had a big turning point within the last week or so, with both boys. Griffin got himself suspended for a day by mooning his female classmates. When asked what on earth could’ve possessed him to do such a boneheaded thing, a thought occurred to me. Connor’s a huge fan of The Simpsons, and this was straight out of Bart’s playbook. I asked him, “Did you do it because you saw it on TV?” He nodded tearily, and mourned, “I did it so they would laugh.” So I’m having to re-evaluate the influences of tween tastes on the kindergarten set. Meanwhile, Cam has started playing Skyrim, and Connor is riveted by, of all things, the crafting. (I’m told WoW and FarmVille players will totally get the appeal.) He’s pleaded with us for permission to play on his own, so he can make leather and explore, but Cam firmly asserted that there was just too much violence and sexual content for a kid his age. I was more ambivalent, and argued that he wouldn’t necessarily even do some of the things we would be uncomfortable with, but I’m bowing to Cam’s vastly greater knowledge of video games.

It’s a comfort, though it seems wrong to put it like that, to say that some of the things that scared me the most as a child could never have been predicted, so sheltering my kids from everything isn’t going to inoculate them from every nightmare. The movie Gremlins scared the living crap out of me, and that was marketed directly at children, with tie-in toys and everything. And I was much more scared of nuclear war, as a Reaganbaby, than I was of anything I ever read–The Day After shook me so hard that it was incredibly hard to watch again as a grad student.

Similarly, one of Connor’s triggers couldn’t have been foreseen, or even insulated against. It took us a few years, until he could sufficiently articulate it, but extreme closeups of faces, especially not-completely-human faces, really freak him out. He went to see Spiderman 3–which is a horror in other ways, but I won’t get into that–at the movie theater, and none of the action or “adventure peril” bothered him at all. Instead, it was this one shot of Venom’s open mouth as he lunges at the camera that gave him fits. Likewise, there’s a scene in Fantastic 4 when Ben Grimm reveals his rocky deformation by turning his face out of shadow and lifting the brim of his hat. He leaves the room when that part of the movie is coming up, and that’s fine with me.

I console myself with the fact that we do so much with our children, and that guiding our kids through new experiences makes them less likely to be seeds of neurosis later in life. Sure, I’ve read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to them at Halloween–I even showed them the spooky-fantastic pictures by Stephen Gammell, which are apparently too scary to include in the latest republication. But I didn’t just give them the book and tell them to read it to themselves before bed. I was right there beside them, shivering at the gory parts and validating their fears by sharing my own. I think this prepares them for life much better than pure censorship can, and gives me the opportunity to shape their responses to their own feelings and impressions, by building a sense of empathy and honesty that I hope will serve us later when their lives get immeasurably more complex.

And if it doesn’t work, hey, I’m doing my part to support the psychoanalysts of the future.

Jan 13, 2012 - Psychology    4 Comments

So Very Proud

Initially, I wrote this post as a note on Facebook last June, but I’m moved to repost it here. It’s been a hard week for a friend and her autistic daughter, as they struggle with a school that won’t give her what’s needed or even what’s right. It’s so hard to be a parent to these children and feel like we have anything close to what they demand, day in and day out. Every once in a while, though, you get a dividend, and somehow, other parents’ dividends show up in our paychecks too. So here’s mine, for you all, today.

Connor (in the tie-dyed shirt) leading our church group in the Twin Cities Pride parade, June 2011

Connor, Griffin, and I walked in the Twin Cities Pride Parade on Sunday, under the banner of our wonderful, inclusive church family (White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church). I hadn’t realized that the Pride Festival was the same weekend as Origins Game Fair, so doing it as a single mom of two rambunctious boys had not been in my original plan, and to say I was apprehensive would be a serious understatement.

Already, the trials of single parenting had affected my commitment to volunteer for OutFront MN, when my wonderful friend and neighbor who’d planned to take the boys Friday night called a few hours before my scheduled shift to say her daughter had been sent home from day care with nits. The OutFront folks were very understanding, and I spent some compassion capital on making dinner for all of us to share on a picnic bench outside.

But I knew the parade and festival would be unlike anything any of us had ever done, and I prepared as best I could: lots of snacks, sunscreen, water bottles, first aid kit–you know how it is with boys.  We parked near the beginning of the parade (in retrospect, a big mistake, so noted for next year), and met our co-marchers. Our ranks were swelled by members of another UU church (with drums!), and we took our place behind a paramedic crew on their ambulance.

We left about 100 ft. between ourselves and the ambulance, in hopes of avoiding the exhaust fumes, but I told Connor and another 9-year-old, Diana, that they could use the space so long as they danced and rode Diana’s adorably-decorated scooter to put on a show.

This was the order Connor has been waiting for his entire life.

For the next two miles or so, Connor danced with streamers and beads. He breakdanced (well, sort of). He did fake kung-fu. He swooped like an airplane from one side of the street to the other and back again. He gave high fives and tousled little kids’ hair among the spectators. He was the one thing he has ever wanted to be–the absolute center of attention. And the crowd LOVED HIM.

Asperger’s kids have to work so hard, all the time, to make themselves and their feelings smaller, to contain themselves to conform to societal norms. I’m not proud to say that, most of the time we’re in public, I live in fear of mortification at the next boundary he violates. For him and for me, it’s a constant strain to color inside the lines, and opportunities to say, “Go, be entirely yourself, all the way, as big as you want,” are vanishingly rare. But this parade was just that opportunity, and it was a joy to unhook the leash and set him free.

Any other kid would’ve been too embarrassed to try new moves on such a stage, or to dive into a crowd of raucous strangers demanding high fives–awareness of those social boundaries would tell us to rein it in, to tone it down, to contain the joy to just smiling big and waving. Griffin was shy for most of the parade (or intent on scouring the ground for candy). But Connor was absolutely free.

I don’t know if either of my kids is gay; I don’t care in the slightest. But Pride celebrates being your fullest, truest self, without fear or judgment, and the parade gave Connor the chance to do just that, and by doing so, he gave so many other people such immense joy. I was watching the crowd’s reaction to him–they weren’t laughing at him, they were just delighted by him, exactly as he was. And my heart felt so huge in my chest, so full it choked me with tears at times. He was free of constraint, and I was free of fear. We were both so very, very proud.

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