A little sympathy, please

I’m always frantic. I see that quality in other people and it drives me nuts. I prefer easygoing people who take life’s speed bumps in stride, which is why I married my husband.

But last week, I had a week that put all my other “I’m busy!” weeks to shame. And I would like a little freakin’ sympathy, please.

So, I haven’t been sleeping well since August. I’m a chronic insomniac and I’d had it under control, for the most part, until we were in Boston for my cousin’s wedding. It could have been the jet lag, or the fact that we finally said no to a little boy in China that we had already fallen in love with. Those seem like decent reasons to have trouble sleeping. But it’s OCTOBER. And my insomnia, which usually goes in two-to-three week cycles, is still going. I have a whole post about insomnia coming. It’s riveting, I promise you.

All right. Issue no. 1: I’m not sleeping. My doctor gave me this delightful drug cocktail “to get me over the hump,” and it makes me very groggy. It’s also partially intended as an antipsychotic. I can’t really think about that right now. Moving on, to …

Issue no. 2: I had a bad head cold. So I’m not sleeping, and I can’t breathe. I was thisclose to being addicted to Afrin, but I pulled myself back from the brink.

Issue (opportunity?) no. 3: I had to cover an event last week, write 750 words about it, and choose and caption 16 pictures. I’ve covered lots of events, but usually I’m covering the substance of the event — who says what, etc. This time, it was coverage from a social angle. Who was at this event? What bright and interesting things did they say at the VIP reception? I went overboard on my prep for the event, and then doped myself up on Sudafed and went to cover it. It’s difficult to be smart when you’re on Sudafed, but I did my best. Still, the whole thing stressed me out, and I wasn’t exactly calm to begin with.

Issue no. 4: It was conference week at Bini’s school, so they got out early every day — 11:45 on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, and on Friday, they had NO SCHOOL AT ALL. For an insomniac with a deadline who may be addicted to Afrin, this is difficult.

And then … on Thursday, right before I walked in to see a matinee screening of “The Boxtrolls” with my kid and his friend, I got a call from our adoption agency. They had a file for us to look at — and we had 72 hours to respond.

Holy shit. I mean, really. HOLY SHIT.

This week looks to be better. I filed my story and did my captions and made my deadline. We said no to the file from China, because we couldn’t make an informed decision in the time allotted (See? Everyone was right! It DOES get easier and easier to pass on human beings!). Bini is in school ALL week, regular time, so I can catch up on all the stuff that I fell behind on last week, like returning e-mails and transferring wet clothes into the dryer. Things are looking up.

But I’d still like some sympathy, damn it. Thank you.

What to do with your highly contagious child

Well, duh. What do you do with your kids when they're sick?
Well, duh. What do you do with your kids when they’re sick?

Last week, Thanksgiving week, Bini got sick. It started up on Tuesday, when he came home from school looking like he’s been up all night partying with Motley Crue. He fell into bed early and woke up sounding like he had consumption. We didn’t send him to school that day because we’re not completely evil, just somewhat (see No. 1).

We didn’t think it was anything more than a standard-issue cold, but it turned into the flu. Not a bad flu, because he’d had one-half of the flu mist vaccine. But bad enough that we couldn’t take him to the movies, or anywhere with lots of people.

Bini can now beat me about half of the time, proving that sick time can indeed be a time to develop skills.
Bini has mad skills.

So, from Tuesday to Sunday, we were mostly housebound with a sick kid. When you’re housebound with a sick kid, you’re basically killing time until you can put him to bed. Following is a list of the top six ways to occupy a highly contagious but still strangely energetic 5-year-old. You’re welcome.

  1. Go out to eat. Actually… don’t do that. We took Bini to a Nice Restaurant on Thanksgiving, because we didn’t want to eat PB&J at our house and we couldn’t bring him to anyone’s else’s house. Look, we didn’t know that he had the flu yet. But I’d still like to apologize to the waitstaff at the aforementioned restaurant.
  2. Air hockey. I taught Bini to play air hockey two years ago, and now he’s an ace. He beats me about half the time, and I am not one to let my kid win. I’m going to start practicing when he’s asleep.
  3. Obstacle course.  Bini never got listless-sick. He was just coughing like he had emphysema and running a fever that ping-ponged between 100.1 and 103.7. Anyway, on one of his more energetic days, he was climbing on the furniture and otherwise running amok so I just made an obstacle course. It kept him busy for exactly 34 minutes.
  4. This is about the extent of my craft-making.
    This is about the extent of my craft-making.

    iPad. I ditched my screen-time rules on Wednesday, and by Saturday we had completely given up. (See No. 6.)

  5. Crafts. If you’re craft-challenged, like me, this means going to the craft store (is there ANYPLACE scarier than a craft store at Christmastime?) and buying something preconfigured. Coloring a particle-board reindeer sign killed about 45 minutes. Then he went back to the iPad.
  6. “Return of the Jedi.”  And then — don’t judge us — “Phantom Menace.” We were desperate.

30 days of nice

In mid-October, I decided to do something nice, every day, for 30 days. It wasn’t exact. It wasn’t because of a Facebook initiative or a much-forwarded e-mail. I just made it up.

Why? Paris, I guess. I was so tuned in to everything when I was there: the art, the architecture, the flowers in the gardens, the public spaces, the people. When I got back, that awareness carried over for a little while. The leaves were turning and I was knocked out by the colors. When I went to places I’d been to a million times, I noticed new little details. It was cool, and I wanted to prolong it somehow.

I figured it wasn’t possible to be endlessly charmed by everyday life, but I didn’t want to go right back to zooming through on autopilot, either. So, I came up with 30 days of nice.

I’m a nice person, actually. It may not seem like it, but it’s true, damn it. I have a flinty exterior, but on the inside, I’m mush.

Don’t believe me? Check out my mailbox sometime. It’s stuffed with appeals from Oxfam, Smile Train, Orphan Acres, Humane Society International, Doris Day Animal League, Defenders of Wildlife, Greenpeace. I write a lot of checks, so I’m on a lot of lists. But check-writing is an arms-length niceness. It enables good things to happen, but it’s passive caring.

I like to do more active caring. At one workplace in San Francisco, I organized a Giving Tree at Christmas. I had to whip it together in about a week, and I was blown away by how many of my snotty co-workers contributed. One guy that I thought was a complete assclown offered to drive me 50 miles to the drop-off site when my car battery died. It was a classic Christmas lesson: Maybe you’re the assclown, sister.

After the 2011 tornado in Joplin, I reached out to my friends and my husband’s co-workers and got bags upon bags of food, dog beds and other supplies for the Humane Society there. It cost me $200 to ship it, and the guy at the shipping store actually paid for half. I did a stuffed animal drive a few years ago, and my Honda CR-V was stuffed from floor to ceiling with plush toys. I like facilitating things like that. It gives me a visceral, deep-in-the-gut good feeling that I can’t duplicate any other way.

But my nice things are sporadic. Most of the time, I’m worrying about stupid stuff like my hair length or whether my son has too much homework. I’ll sit down and write a bunch of checks to charitable organizations and feel that good, fuzzy feeling, but then the next day, I’m wrapped up in the mundane crap again.

My 30 days of nice experiment had one rule: Do one nice thing a day. That’s it. The nice thing could be a bigger gesture, like helping an older woman with Parkinson’s write out several Priority Mail slips at the post office. Or, it could be something as simple as letting a harried mom go ahead of me in the checkout line.

Sometimes, I had Bini with me, like the time I bought a Trader Joe’s gift card for a local family and delivered it to a mega church I normally wouldn’t have gone near. Sometimes, the gesture was personal, like when I wrote to a friend to tell her I was thinking of her. My favorite was when I called my dad up, just to talk. The surprise and pleasure in his voice was enough to convince me that small gestures do matter. A lot.

So, did doing something intentionally nice for 30 days change me as a person? Not really. I still zip around, ticking through my endless to-do lists and mentally gnawing on insignificant non-issues. But I do think my experiment helped me calm my chronic busy problem. If you’re looking for opportunities to do nice things, you have to pause. And when you pause, you chill out.

I don’t automatically hit the “close doors” button in the elevator anymore. I say “good morning” to the crossing guards, and make eye contact. When the checkout guy asks me how my day’s going, I also ask about his. Tiny gestures, I know. But they make me feel good. More human, more connected. Nice.

Enough. Stuffed. Animals.

This is just one end of the bed.
This shot represents about one-third of my son’s stuffed animal collection. It’s no wonder bed-making is so stressful.

Every morning, Bini has a small anxiety attack about making his bed. We don’t expect hospital corners — we just want him to pull his comforter up and make it look neat. So we were puzzled when, every day, he’d start crying about how it was “too hard.”

Today, it finally dawned on me. The kid has 28 stuffed animals on his twin loft bed. If I had to try and make a bed look neat with that kind of plush-toy situation going on, I’d cry too.

I had a lot of stuffed animals as a child.  I remember distinctly having to arrange them in a precise order every night and every morning — early indications of my type-A tendencies. I also remember having about 10 stuffed animals, which were decidedly easier to manage than 28. My parents were smart. We, apparently, are not.

Whenever I talk to Bini about rehoming some of his stuffed animals, he gets agitated. “But they’re my friends,” he’ll protest. Formless, omnipresent maternal guilt stops me from proceeding further.

But I’m not above doing a targeted Goodwill sweep while he’s at school. None of the big guns, like Bucky, Cocoa Bear or Pangea, one of his three stuffed monkeys, would get the hook. I’d pick off the lesser knowns, like Giraffe or one of the stuffed bunnies that arrive, like clockwork, every Easter. But Bini would KNOW. The other night, he complained that he couldn’t find Zebra. Zebra is about the size of a miniature stapler, but he was lost, and Bini would not rest (literally) until he was found.

When we ask Bini for some ideas on solving the stuffed-animal-overcrowding problem, he offers one solution: a bunk bed. That way, he can sleep on the top, and the stuffed animals can slumber peaceably on the bottom.

That’s starting to sound like a reasonable idea.

Oh God. I’m becoming THAT mom.

This is six weeks of kindergarten schoolwork. Action figure Yoda for scale.
This is six weeks of kindergarten schoolwork. Action figure Yoda for scale.

I’m losing control over my son. And I don’t like it. 

It all started with the homework. I was incensed — incensed, I tell you! — that my kindergartner had a homework calendar, with assignments every night. No, they’re not being asked to calculate the diameter of a circle. It’s stuff like: Think of five things that start with the letter “M.” Draw those things. Then label them. The teacher has told us that it’s OK to skip these assignments, or for the parent to do part of it. But I was annoyed that it was even a thing. Homework! For kindergartners!

Then, the reading chart. Every month, we get a reading chart with 30 slots, where we are to write in the number of books we read to our child every month. At orientation, one annoying-ass mother raised her hand and said: “What if you read MORE than 30 books in a month?” Oh, I dunno, you pain in the ass. Maybe … attach another sheet? By the way, while we’re at it, let’s just suck all the joy out of reading by making it a chore. Here’s to learning! Hooray!

Then, parent-teacher conferences … on the sixth week of school. The conference, on Monday from 12 to 12:20, was fine. I had to sit in a tiny chair. Bini’s teacher is a terrific lady: gentle, firm, very experienced. She had five neatly organized folders regarding my son. First, she showed me the academic and social goals Bini had set for himself, and her goals for him.

Then, she showed me his assessment test results (assessment test results?) and how to interpret them. We discussed the things he does well, and the things he needs to work on. Apparently, Bini’s involved in some battle of wills with the P.E. teacher, but Bini’s teacher sort of waved that off. In class, he’s super engaged and he participates and he works really hard.

After we’d gone through the five folders, I stacked them up and said, “Well, I have to say I’m a little surprised at how … academic … kindergarten has gotten.” Kindergarten was a long time ago for me, but I’m damn sure we weren’t worrying about writing or phoneme segmentation. We were laying around on beanbags, singing and learning how to line up and not hit each other. We napped.

Bini’s teacher has been teaching for 20 years, and she agreed that kindergarten has gotten a good deal more academic. She didn’t give her opinion on it, but I understand: When the economy tanks, schools get more focused on homework and churning out math and science majors. Art classes are handled by parent volunteers. That’s the deal if you go to a public school, even if it’s a public school in an affluent area. You’re at the whims of whatever wind is blowing through public education at the time.

I’ll be damned if my precious angel turns into a mass-produced student, doomed for the meat grinder.

So, even though Bini is doing well, I trudged home feeling like I could do better for my son. That scene from “The Wall” kept playing through my head. You know the one where the kids are wearing scary masks and there’s a meat grinder and the schoolmaster’s yelling about pudding? Well, the scene is copyrighted, so I can’t post it. My mood was dark and my thoughts weren’t terribly rational.

All that day, I comforted myself with vague plans to pull my son out of his excellent public school and put him in an alternative private school where you forage for berries and learn how to chop wood. Like I said. Not terribly rational.

I’ve calmed down since. It helped that I talked to Steve, who said, “I don’t necessarily want to pull our son out of a school because it’s too academic.” Which is Steve-ese for: “Chill out, you psycho.” So, OK. 

Today, it all crystallized. I walked the walk-pool to school; Nora told me about something to do with shoes, and I yelled out for Bini and Timmy to stop running. I ushered them through the big double doors out onto the playground, where they line up. But around the basketball court, Bini turned to me and said, “Mom, you can go now. You don’t need to wait with me.”

Ooof — shot to the solar plexus. “OK, just let me make sure all of you get into line.”

Bini shook his head. “Mom, we do this every day. We’re OK.” He tugged on my pants and I leaned down for a kiss. Then he ran off.

I didn’t leave. I ducked behind a pillar and watched until the bell rang. I couldn’t take my eyes off my son, who alternately joked with his buddies and stood quietly, taking it all in. When the bell rang, the kindergartners shrieked in unison. I fought the urge to wave to Bini as he trooped up the ramp, into his sunny, friendly kindergarten classroom.

Then I turned and walked home. And cried.