Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Point of Clarification

When I was in fifth grade, a new student at a new school, a popular girl in my class took a dislike to me on my first day, according to her, because I "played kickball wrong,"" talked "too smart, like a book or something," and "had a weird name."

My response was to ignore and deflect. She called me ugly. I would respond with a phrase I'd heard my mother say, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." She called me stupid. I would roll my eyes and head down the hallway to my gifted enrichment class. She called me clumsy. Well, I was clumsy. There was no point in arguing there.

But I didn't attack her back, in the way she was attacking me. I didn't call her names. Even as she called me a coward and spat in my face while the other students, cowed by her, laughed.

I wasn't a coward. I wasn't a doormat. I was a Christian (then, at least in name), and I had been taught by what I had read about Jesus to turn the other cheek. I was a book addict. I had read Tolkien, and Lewis, and L'Engle. At ten, I plucked my personal morals from fantasy worlds where heroes triumphed by sticking to their values, and the high road always led, eventually, to victory.

And perhaps more importantly, once, a few years earlier, I had let a visiting step-cousin of mine pressure me into joining her and some friends in publicly mocking a kid in our neighborhood who everyone thought was a little quirky. As I had seen the tears well up in that little girl's eyes, and seen her turn and run away to her mother's house while the circle of children I stood in laughed, I suddenly had to suppress an overwhelming urge to vomit.

I apologized later that day. But the hurt in that girl's eyes didn't disappear with my apology. I had broken a trust between us. It was irreparable.

We would never be friends.

And that day, I vowed never again to join in a mocking circle meant to destroy another person's self-worth.

So, I deflected, and avoided, and ignored. My refusal to be goaded into a petty reaction by that popular girl in my fifth grade class infuriated her. She tore my books. She stole my homework. She wrote fake love letters to boys in my name. She lied to the teacher to try to get me in trouble. She lied to my friends and told them I had done terrible things.

The more I refused to fight back, the more I refused to run and cry-- the more I just stood there and took it, the angrier that girl became. "You're jealous of me," she would scream. "You wish you could be just like me."

I didn't.

I really didn't.

Maybe I should have fought back. Maybe I should have insulted her in front of everyone, or spread a rumor about her, or smacked her in the face. This was, after all, the real world, the real, savage world of human children, all jockeying for position in a social hierarchy, playacting at a very serious game they had watched their parents play. In the real world, sometimes turning the other cheek turns out badly.

In the real world, sometimes you have to hit back.

But I hadn't read Lord of the Flies yet.

So one day, when that girl, antagonized beyond words by my simple refusal to fuel her drama fire, icily informed me that she had scheduled a fight between the two of us on the playground at recess, and that if I didn't show up, her enforcers would find me and make me pay for the insult?

I showed up. I stood tall and faced her livid face as two of her lackeys distracted a teacher and the schoolchildren gathered around in a tiny circular mob, whispering their chant, "Fight! Fight!"

And I said, "Hit me."

The girl sputtered. "What?"

I repeated it. "Hit me. Go ahead. Hit me as hard as you can. Hit me if you want to, but I won't hit you back. I'm not like you. I don't hit people just because I don't like them. So go ahead. Hit me."

"But it's a fight! You have to fight!" She rocked back on her heels and whipped her head back and forth, searching the little crowd, which had gone silent.

"No, I don't. You're the only one who wants to fight. I didn't ask you for a fight. You asked me for one."

A few of the kids in the crowd giggled.

They weren't giggling at me.

The popular girl screamed a terrible, primal scream of frustration. And ran. She pushed through that little crowd of children, and ran away from me.

I write about this incident from my childhood today because that moment changed me. It made me, in many ways, who I am.

I'm wise enough now to know the high road may not always lead to victory. I also know myself well enough to know that, try as I may, I don't always succeed in taking it. I'm a terribly imperfect person, as easily ruled by fear and emotion as anyone else. I sometimes say things I don't mean out of anger, and later regret them. I sometimes fail to say things I should, out of fear.

But know this: every time someone responds to an honest disagreement I have with them by lobbing a petty insult at me, or telling a lie, or spreading false rumors, or demanding that I fight, (or censoring my posts on a community site for political reasons, or blocking me on Twitter, or defriending me on Facebook, or any of the other hundreds of petty ways people slight one another on the internet these days) I am inevitably drawn back to that day on the playground, and the peace and strength that suffused my whole being in that one moment of triumph, when I said, "Go ahead. Hit me."

So, go ahead.

Hit me.

I'm not like you.

And no, actually, I'm not jealous.

Friday, February 19, 2010

What I've Been Writing Lately Elsewhere

Earlier this week I posted about my favorite Indian cookbook on my lovely friend Debbie's blog for the vintage-obsessed, Did You Buy That New.

On Sustenance, I put up some beginner's tips for starting seeds indoors.

And today I posted to MOMocrats about the 21st century American phenomenon of health-insurance-based marriages of convenience.

Monday, February 15, 2010

In Which I Resume Chronicling My Gardening Addiction

Readers of the backyard food growerly persuasion take note:

Sustenance is back in action.

Oh, and that's broccoli.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Writing, Parenting, and Sensory Disorders

I write fairly often about my son's struggles with Sensory Processing Disorder. About his eating issues. About the way his motor skills delay affects him on the playground. About his problems concentrating in a noisy environment at school. I write about how these issues affect me as a parent, about my own struggle to smooth a path through this world for a child with a developmental delay.

I worry, sometimes, about writing publicly about these things, because I don't want to embarrass my child by revealing too much about his personal struggles. I don't want to unreasonably skew the way others who have never met him in person might see him. I don't want to label him permanently as a person with a problem. I want the world to see him as a child with a disorder, not as a disorder attached to a child.

So I worry. And I censor myself, sometimes. And sometimes I freeze up altogether, unsure of how much to write.

I think carefully about what I do write. I weigh the costs and benefits of telling a story about my child, carefully, before I push the publish button. If I write this story, will it help me think through a problem? If I share it, will that help me find advice from others who may have had similar experiences — advice that may help me help my son? Will it help raise awareness about sensory disorders? Will it help another parent of a child with sensory issues feel a little less utterly alone?

I like to think that by writing publicly about my family's experiences with my son's sensory problems, I am helping to create a future world in which those problems will be better understood. I hope that one day, the acronym SPD will be as familiar and commonly understood as ADHD, and that the label will carry as little mystery as an ADHD label, and no stigma.

I hope that ten years from now, when my son explains to someone why trying new foods unsettles him and the sound of a vacuum bothers him and climbing a staircase makes him nervous (and also why he can memorize the drum track of a song after hearing it just a few times, and why he never fails to notice a friend's new haircut, and why he can tell you what precisely seasonings went into a sauce, and why he can tell from across the house when cookies in an oven are finished baking, just by the slight shift in their smell) that instead of "You have a sensory disorder? What on earth is that?" he will hear "You have a sensory disorder? Oh, that makes sense!"

And I hope, too, that one day, when my son is grown, he will understand that is why I wrote about him. To pave his way.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Backstage, Center Stage

When I was in high school, all of my best friends were in theater. The boy I went to prom with Junior year and the boy I didn't go to prom with Senior year and the boy I went with instead of that other boy I didn't go with were all actors, who had taken more than one turn under the bright lights on our battered school stage. My friends went to acting workshops out of school, and sang musical theater songs at the tops of their lungs while driving with all the windows open down the highway, and worked at The Muny or The Fox in the summertime just to be near the stage.

I was never an actress. As a teenager, I had terrible stage fright. I took Drama one year in eighth grade as an elective, and I would freeze up so badly just acting in front of a twenty-person class of my friends — stammering my lines out, my whole body shaking — that my teacher took pity on me and found an excuse to declare me her "Assistant Director" for the rest of the year so that I could hide in a corner with a binder and a pen, taking notes on blocking and lighting and whispering my friends' forgotten lines.

Later, in high school, I worked backstage. I learned how to saw wood and paint shadows and hang lights and program a sound board and make an empty black box look like castle courtyard or a Manhattan living room or a submarine or a one-room schoolhouse or a forest in June. While my friends took the spotlight, and the applause, I dressed in black to better blend in with the shadows and made sure their cues came on time.

And I liked it that way.

These days, I don't stammer or shake when speaking in public. I can give a presentation to a room of 50 bloggers without breaking a sweat. I can meet famous people I admire without swooning (okay, except for Alice Bradley). I can speak on TV or a radio show without butterflies. I can interview members of Congress without blinking an eye.

But I still don't like the spotlight. I'll stand under it when I need to, because it helps me meet people I need to meet, or reach people I need to reach, or get the word out on issues that are important to me. I'll take center stage, because it helps me get things done. But I don't seek it for its own sake.

What can I say? I'm still an introvert. An introvert who has learned to play extrovert fairly effectively when need be, but still feels an uncomfortable twinge at the idea of seeing her name in lights.

After all these years, I find I still prefer to be the one behind the scenes.

Last week I learned my son's school will be having a talent show. I asked him if he'd signed up to be in it. He said no.

"I had a choice to be on stage or in the audience, and said I would just be in the audience," he explained. "I couldn't really think of any talents I have."

No talents? My child? No talents?

No way.

"Everyone has talents," I responded. "Everyone has something special they are good at. There is not a person in this world who is not talented at at least one thing. And you are talented at many things. I've seen you show lots of talent. Don't tell me you don't have any talents!"

But then, mid-stage-mother-encouragement speech, I suddenly wondered: What if he didn't want to be in the talent show? Not because he thought he was not talented, but because he had no interest in performing in front of a crowd? I mean, I want to encourage my kid to believe he can achieve great things in life and all that, but he is five years old.

What if the idea of performing in front of the whole school made him nervous? What if he was just genuinely excited at the idea of watching his friends?

It's not like there could even actually be a talent show if every kid in the school were fighting for a spot on stage.

In every theater, someone has to be in the audience.

And someone has to work backstage.

So I said, "I want you to know, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be in the audience — the audience is just as important as the people on stage. Without an audience there would be no one to see a performance. So if you want to be in the audience this time, so you can watch and support your friends, I think that's a very good and very kind thing to do. Or if you would like to help your friends get ready for their performances, that would be a good thing to do, too. But I want you to remember that you do have talent, and you do know how to do lots of things that other people might like to see. So I'm happy that you want to watch your friends perform this year. And maybe next year, if you feel like it, you can take your own turn on stage . . ."

"Oh, wait!" he suddenly shouted, interrupting what was surely about to turn into a very exciting lecture from his mother on dramatic theory, "I forgot. I can play the piano!"

(He forgot he can play the piano? Seriously? How much money have I spent in the past two years on those weekly piano lessons?)

"I will play a song on the piano!" he continued. "I'll play it and everyone will watch me and it will be great."

And every day since he has been talking excitedly about how he will play the piano, in front of the whole school, and they will all see how good he is at playing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." Is he nervous? No. Not a whit.

Just excited as all get-out that he'll be in the spotlight.

I get the feeling this may be the only first of several performances in his future.

And I'll be so proud to support my little performer, as usual, from backstage.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Literary Overflow

The gods of literature and learning may strike me down, but this morning, while putting things away in my son's room, I had the thought, "My child has too many books."

One of the first things I bought for him before he was even born was a set of board books. My uncle sent me an Amazon gift card with instructions to use it to buy "things the baby will need," and my very first thought was, The baby will need books!

At my baby shower I was disappointed to receive only two children's books as gifts. When he was born I lamented the fact that only one small shelf on the bookcase in his nursery was actually occupied by books, the rest being filled with clothes and toys. For the first few months of his life I scoured used book sales. When people asked what he wanted for his first birthday, I slyly hinted that due to the generosity of his several sets of grandparents, he already had far too many toys for our small apartment, but a book — a book we would have room for. I repeated this message at his second birthday. And his third. And I kept using this excuse even after we moved to a bigger house.

So he acquired books about cars, books in about pets, the Thomas the Tank Engine books, the Little Bear books, and the Dr. Seuss books. Then his youngest uncles outgrew their books, and he wound up with a series of hand-me-downs.

We bought a bigger bookcase.

Then we joined the library storytime club and once a week while he listened to the librarians read books I looked over the library book sale table (Used Children's Hardbacks for Only 50 Cents!) for kids' science books that weren't too outdated. Suddenly his shelf bloomed with gently worn books about fish and birds and trees and honeybees and butterflies and the solar system.

Now he's in school and we get the Scholastic catalogs and we go to the school book fairs and his teachers send home free donated books.

And his bookcase shelves are bowed with the weight of his books. And his nightstand is covered in books. And he has books creeping onto my own overflowing bookshelf, and books on the coffee table in the living room, and books on the floor.

Last night he brought home a free book from school and this morning I realized I had literally no place to put it.

His room is already so packed with books and toys that there is certainly no room for a new shelf. He has outgrown so many of his books. Maybe it's now time to give some of them away? I mean, we'll have to make room, someday soon, for Little House on the Prairie and The Chronicles of Narnia.

But what to give away?

Sometimes, even now, when he's sad or scared at night or he's not feeling well, he still asks me to read him The Runaway Bunny or Goodnight Moon.

And I can't give away Moo Baa La La La. That's the first book he ever read all by himself! I should frame it or something.

And Green Eggs and Ham is a classic. Come on. Kids never outgrow that book. (Especially kids who are picky eaters.) So what if I have it memorized? Tossing out Green Eggs and Ham is like tossing out Chaucer.

Of course he needs two Mother Goose collections. They each have different versions of the poems. What better way to demonstrate to a five-year-old how regional variations develop in oral poetry?

A Color of His Own cannot go. That's the first book I ever read to him. And anyway I keep thinking it's sort of an allegory about exceptional people not fitting in to society and he'll probably appreciate that when he's older given his giftedness and his sensory disorder and all that.

Gatos? Hell no I am not getting rid of that little battered Baby Einstein board book about cats. It's not just the first book I ever read to him in Spanish — it's also the book I took to comfort him when he had surgery and he clutched it all night long. GATOS HAS TO STAY.


Perhaps we need a bigger house.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Things I Have Recently Learned

I have recently learned that teachers who can tell the difference between a picky eater saying a food tastes weird because he's picky and a picky eater saying a food tastes weird because he's suddenly and totally unexpectedly developed an allergy to it and is about to go into anaphylaxis are worth their weight in gold. Especially when that teacher tells you later that she is so sorry this reaction happened under her watch. (Sorry? For jumping in and making my kid toss out the Cookie of Death when lesser classroom heroes may have told him to shut up and eat? Seriously, that action earned you possible naming rights to my next kid.)

I have recently learned that yes, despite his eventual total recovery from his allergic reaction after a double dose of Benadryl, my son did in fact show several bright waving red flags indicating anaphylaxis during his allergy attack, and the emergency room doctor who treated him should have given him a child-sized shot of epinephrine immediately instead of a second dose of Benadryl, and in fact took a big fat unnecessary risk by not doing so.

(So, if your small child ever eats something and then immediately complains of an itchy tongue, breaks out in hives, develops facial swelling, flushes red all over, complains of stomach cramps, and then starts coughing without cease, and you take him to the hospital and some stonefaced overtired ER doctor who seems irked at having to even speak to you tells you to just give your kid a little more Children's Benadryl, PUNCH HIM IN THE FACE STICK HIM WITH HIS OWN NEEDLES make sure you politely insist that the doctor give your child an age-appropriate dose of epinephrine.)

I have recently learned that if your primary care doctor's office staff, who are normally quite competent, call the wrong phone number to tell you the results of a key blood test indicating the possible severity of your son's brand new peanut allergy, even though you had called the office just one hour prior to confirm with the staff which number they could reach you at to give you the results, and then they leave a useless message on your answering machine saying that the results have come in without actually telling you what those results are, even though you've officially authorized the doctor's office to leave a message with the actual test results if you don't answer the phone, and then they close their office phones ten minutes early on a Friday, so that even when you miraculously manage to arrive home and hear the useless misdirected message just in time to call the doctor's office staff back according to their publicly stated phone hours, you still can't get a hold of anyone to give you the damn blood test results, and you realize you won't be able reach anyone at the doctor's office at all until Monday, and so you track down the number of the blood lab that did the test to call the lab yourself, by God — when that happens, some really nice guy at the blood lab named Pete, when he hears you trying not to cry with frustration as you relate this story to him on the phone, will totally bend protocol and fax you a fast-tracked application form so you can get the test results faxed straight to your house from the lab. (Thank you, Nice Blood Test Lab Guy Named Pete.)

I have recently learned that all those parents of kids with serious food allergies were totally right when they told me about so many people, smart people, good people, even medically trained people, not taking food allergies at all as seriously as they take other serious, potentially life-threatening health problems.

That it's really difficult even for me to wrap my mind around the idea that my child could theoretically now be as seriously endangered by a large bag of peanuts as a loaded unlocked gun, because that idea just feels so patently absurd.

That many people will ask you what medical steps you are taking to deal with a brand new food allergy, and many people will try to help you find information about food allergies, and many people will tell you all about how happy hearing about your experience makes them that their kids don't have food allergies, and many people will remind you how lucky you are because "it could be worse!"

But only a few very kind and thoughtful people will think to ask you how you feel about having just a few days ago watched your child narrowly escape death by cookie. By a #&@!& @!*&%!!! cookie!

I have recently learned that I feel pretty awful about that whole experience of holding my kid's hand in a speeding car and feeling totally helpless while he flushed redder and redder and his lips swelled and he coughed uncontrollably and I tried to stay totally calm and comfort him by talking to him about innocuous things in a cheerful voice all while wondering whether he might stop breathing at any moment, and what I would do if he did, all because he had taken two bites of a cookie.

That if I think too hard about it now, I can relive it in excruciating detail. That the whole watching your child have a bad allergic reaction thing is wretched, actually. That it sucks. That I really don't recommend panicked trips to the hospital as a regular family excursion.

I have recently learned that those really thoughtful people I mentioned, those people who take the time to ask a parent who has just experienced her child having a serious allergic reaction how she feels about what just happened, can make that parent feel a whole lot better.

I have learned that I am lucky, that it could have been worse.

I have learned that my five-year-old does not cry when I tell him he can't eat the fries at his favorite restaurant, or when I say he can't always have the same treats other children are having school. That when he sees other children eating what he no longer can. right in front of him, he does not scowl at them or mutter about how life isn't fair.

That he did not throw a fit when I took the bag of candy his grandmother sent him, and gave it away to the kids next door.

That instead of getting angry or upset about the long, long list of restrictions he now suddenly faces due to his allergy, he will instead (usually) tell me that chips are just as nice as fries, that he doesn't mind asking his teacher first before trying a cookie, that we can always buy more candy, that EpiPens aren't quite as scary as vaccine shots, that he doesn't want me to worry about him.

I have recently learned that my son is braver than I am.

That stylish, durable, comfortable, affordable, boyish medical alert bracelets for brave little boys that are not made of mystery metal or mystery plastic or some cheap nickel alloy are nearly impossible to find locally in St. Louis, but are available on the internet.

That your friend with a daughter with diabetes will not only answer your middle-of-the-night emails about where to find nice kids' medical bracelets, but ask her Twitter friends to help you out.

That I find having to wait several days for my kid's medical ID bracelet to arrive in the mail really, really, really annoying. Like, annoying enough to consider buying myself an engraving machine and making my own.

That my son's favorite kind of candy, that he wanted to give out on Valentine's Day, plain M&Ms, are now totally forbidden to him, because Mars does not segregate its production lines and Peanut M&Ms sometimes slip into the plain M&M package.

That I can order nut-free candy-coated chocolate pieces that theoretically also melt in your mouth and not in your hand on the internet. At double the price of the regular kind. Plus shipping.

That I am willing to pay double the price of the regular kind plus shipping. Not just for my kid, but, if necessary, for his whole elementary school class. Just so he can feel normal on Valentine's Day.

That Chipotle and Cici's Pizza and Burger King are peanut-free restaurants. That Chick-fil-A and Chili's are not.

That I am channeling so much ridiculous energy into things like getting my kid a decent ID bracelet and finding some nut-safe candy before Valentine's Day and making spreadsheets of restaurant nutrition information because those are problems I can fix. I can fix those things. I need to do things I can fix right now.

Because I can't fix him.

I can't fix the peanut allergy.

Not right now.

Maybe not ever.


Bonus Thing I Have Recently Learned:

That, according to the long-awaited results of his allergy blood test, my son, who has been begging me for a pet cat almost every day since the day he spoke his second word (which was "Kit-tee-cat!" which later changed, adorably, to the inventive Spanglish hybrid,"Gato-ki!" a joyous cry I heard sung out daily, for years, to real cats toy cats and pictures of cats and shadows that sorta looked like cats, with more enthusiasm than "Mama," until he was somehow suddenly old enough to hand me written explanations of Why We Should Have Cats instead) is apparently not only suddenly allergic to peanuts but also suddenly allergic to cats.

Nice one, universe. Nice.