Chill Out

On this lovely Saturday afternoon, I sent Steve off by his lonesome to watch Ian bang on his bass drum at the football game. I need to put in a couple of hours on a big article that I’ve been working on since the end of August. I’m about ten hours of work away from submitting the piece to the editor. Maybe twenty hours. Who the hell knows?

And then I’m going to chill out for a couple of weeks. I’m going to exercise every morning and sell some books on the Internet for the fun. (Somebody just bought $75 for an old set of encyclopedias that were heading for the dumpster. Who knew?)

I need the time to regroup and reassess plans. I’ve been freelancing education articles, on and off, for seven years now. A seven-year anniversary seems like a good time to look at my ROI. I’ve paid a lot of dues (writing for free). Is all that effort paying off?

I basically like what I do and would be content to keep doing it forever, but at some point, one should question that plan when one could make more money working part time shelving books at Barnes and Noble.

This current article was paying well enough, until I kept digging and realized that I had a bigger article than I anticipated. I’ve put in so many hours into it, that at this point, I’m working for free. I suppose it’s my own fault. I’ve gone way beyond the original plan for the article. But I just couldn’t stop myself.

Between stressing myself out over this article and doing too much at home, my insomnia flared up again. It’s really hard to function on three hours of sleep.

So, chilling out is happening. We’re not over scheduling our weekends with socializing. I’m not signing on to write anything except for essays or editorials for a little while. I’m reading long blog posts from Martha Stewart; I find her very soothing.

And inspired by Martha, we’re getting caught up with home chores. We have some driveway work happening this weekend. Steve’s laying down a PVC pipe underneath the driveway with tubes that will operate a future sprinkler system. We have a mason repairing the front stairs. And then the driveway guys will come back next week and pore out the asphalt.

Enjoy the weekend, folks!

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Parenting Right: It’s Hard to Find Time to Make Dinners, Take Hikes, and Be With Grandparents, But It’s Worth It

For a long time, I’ve complained about the toxic environment that our kids inhabit today. On Sunday, Kim Brooks in the Times wrote that schools need to change — longer lunches, recesses, less emphasis on tests — to make kids’ lives better.

But we need more than some simple fixes in the school day. WE need to change. Schools are democratic institutions; they reflect the will of the community. And the community wants their kids in the best college possible. So, that means squeezing in more desk time and padding the resume with lunch-time bogus clubs. In order for schools to change, we need to change. And even if schools change, that’s not enough.

I hesitate to talk about how Steve and I have parented our kids, because I don’t want to parent-shame anyone. And we’re not perfect. I love my cellphone way too much. So, let me talk about what we’ve tried to do, not always perfectly.

We have family dinners about five or six times per week. I cook a meal, we sit at a common table at the same time, we eat it, and we talk a bit.

It sounds really simple, but not many families can do that anymore. I haven’t considered job openings in NYC, because there’s no way that my family would have food on the table if both Steve and I walked in the door at 7:00.

Even cooking at a beach house.

Aside from the benefits for mental health, with 2 teenage boys, we would very quickly be broke if I didn’t cook dinner regularly. They seriously eat VAST quantities of food. Last night, I made a chicken stew with about 4 pounds of chicken, 12 carrots, 3 onions, 3 celery stalks, wine and chicken broth, herbs from the garden, 5 potatoes, loaf of bread. It cost about $20. If we step into a restaurant, even McDonald’s, it’s a $60 minimum. I hope to squeeze it into a second meal by putting the leftovers on rice tonight.

Dinner time is a good time to debrief everyone at the same time about their days. It’s a time when we can catch problems or put a bandaid on a mental boo-boo. It’s a transition time for Steve, who is still sometimes in work-mode when he walks in the door. But even with pressure cookers, it’s very hard for families to do what I do every day. That chicken stew meal took about 2-1/2 hours to prep and cook; very few people have that time today.

We do a family activity together every weekend. Sometimes we go on bike trips or hikes. Sometimes we visit extended family. We go to museums a lot. None of it costs a lot of money, but it’s hard to have the time to do those things if the kids are in lots of high pressure sporting activities and are working on school projects. Or if the parents are catching up on household chores on the weekend.

Weekend hikes are fun!

We live near extended family. Again, this was a sacrifice. I didn’t put myself on the national market for an academic job, because I wanted to live near family. It’s good for the kids. And it’s good for me. My mom is driving Ian to band camp today, so I can get in a full day in front of the computer.

Always celebrating something.

I think we all know that these things (and more) are important for kids, but it’s hard to proscribe cures that are unworkable for most families. People need (and want) to work long hours. It’s also very hard to run in a different direction from other people in your community; if their kids are in all weekend sports programs, then your kid is going to want that, too.

In some ways, we’ve benefited from having a special needs kid and have always been on the outside of suburban life. Still, I think even with the limited time, families could step off the fast lane a little more. It’s actually super fun.

The Wisdom of Teeth

Ian at the Tate. Photo Credit: Jonah

On Monday, Ian sat in a reclining chair in the Oral Surgeon’s office and stared at a five foot x-ray of his teeth. Dr. Song, the jolliest oral surgeon in three counties, pointed to Ian’s wisdom teeth under the gum line, which in their infinite wisdom, were pointing sideways, instead of up and down like any self respecting tooth should do.

“Those teeth have to come out now. Like today. Like right now. Like I would do it this minute if I could,” said the jolly doctor.

So, when we got a call on Tuesday afternoon from the office saying that Dr. Song had a sudden opening in his schedule at 11:30 the next day, Steve and I went into emergency mode. We cleared work schedules. A teenage computer programming class at the community college came to abrupt end. We filled out massive amounts of insurance paperwork.

And then the worry kicked in. How was Ian going to handle sharp needles and pain? Was he going to sit in the chair and be appropriate? Or would the Flight or Fight instinct kick in? And then who knows what could happen. He processes fear and pain differently than other kids, so there was a huge random factor surrounding this operation.

That morning, I distracted myself with a trip to the supermarket for supplies – pudding, jello, a chicken to make some homemade broth. We sent Ian to his computer class for an hour. And then we drove the old Subaru to the doctor’s office.

Ian panicked for a moment when he got a look at the IV needle, but he stayed still, so the doctor got it in his arm. And then Ian’s lights went out. His eyes fluttered down.

Watching your kid go under anesthesia for a routine operation, like wisdom teeth or tonsils, is so unexpectingly upsetting. We haven’t had to do it often, thank God. Watching your kid slowly lose consciousness makes one think of death. It’s a blow to the stomach.

I said, “Oh, I’m going to cry.”

“Don’t do that! I’m a social crier. I’ll cry, too, and won’t be able to do the operation!” said Dr. Song. And the staff kicked us out of the room.

In about 30 minutes, they came to the waiting room and told us it was done. Steve and I dropped our books and ran in. Ian was dazed and stuffed with cotton.

The nurse started giving us directions for caring for him for the next few days. She must give this drill about ten times a day, so she droned through the rules.

“No straws. No toothbrushes. Put gauze on the cut for 24 hours. Don’t eat crunchy or chunky foods for a few days. Just smooth stuff like Jello and pancakes and scrambled eggs —

Ian piped in “and hot dogs and sauerkraut….”

“No you can’t do that!”

“… and sushi and sashimi… “

“Listen, I have to give the rest of the directions!”

“…and pizza and burgers…”

I couldn’t stop laughing. Steve gave me a dirty look, because the nurse was giving us some very important about medications and dosages, but I couldn’t stop listening to my boy. Then on the way home, he was asking trippy questions, like “Mom, why do you have three eyes?” “Are operations time machines? How come it’s 12:30 now?” “What’s that rubber thing in my mouth?” [It was his bottom lip.]

And we’re so very grateful that our boy not only made it through an operation smoothly and is free from sideways wisdom teeth, but that he’s making me laugh and beam with pride every day.

On Going Viral, Writing Week, First Week of August 2019

This week, two articles were published. I’m completely exhausted.

I always put a lot of time into publicizing my articles when they come out. I post info on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and two websites. Then I monitor who’s saying what about me and retweet/link/thank when necessary. Those chores are par for the course with any article that I do. It usually takes a full morning to do take care of that business.

On top of those usual publicity chores, this Monday, I had an article go viral. On 9am on Monday, HuffPost published a personal essay about traveling with my kid and dealing with some intolerance about his autism. They put it on their front page under “What’s Hot” for half the day. And they simultaneously sold it to Yahoo News.

It was shared far and wide. It may have been the most shared article that I’ve ever written. (Note to self: personal essays work you.)

I dipped into the long comment threads on both websites and was a little horrified. Yes, most people loved it, but there was some people who thought that I was evil or made up the story. A few people recommended violence to my child. One guy said that I should beat him, another said he should be drowned in a bathtub. Several said that he should have been aborted.

I’ve been writing for the Internet for a loooonnnnggg time, so I’m used to people telling that I’m an asshole. It’s yet another lovely part of doing business these days and doesn’t bother me in the least. But I’ve never had anybody discuss hurting my kid in such graphic language.

I thought I was going to puke.

But I’m not going to stop writing. F@ck ’em. (It does help that my kid has a different last name than me.)

My other article was about students who are completely confused about the college process and don’t get enough help. I really like those kids. We need to do better for them.

It’s a short day for me, because I have to go see Ian’s final computing showcase mid-afternoon; he made the Pong Game, using C++. I have time to do some work on the newsletter. A fellow special ed mom in town is a marketing guru, and she’s going to make a logo for me. When I’m done, I need to use another part of my brain. I’m going to hit some estate sales and look for treasures.

Have a great weekend, y’all!

Work Week, 4th week of July 2019

These guys come to the park every Saturday to take their model boats out on the pond.

Last month, a reporter from the New York Times called. He’s doing a book on college affordability and wanted to pick my brain about one of my articles. It was a great chat and at the end of it, he asked to be put on my newsletter distribution list.

Newsletter? I have a blog and an active presence on four social media platforms. Now, I need to produce a newsletter, too? Sigh. How does anybody find the time to get any paid work accomplished, if we spend all our time creating free content to promote our paid work?

Well, it’s the way of the world. I’ve been thinking about how to do it, so it doesn’t cripple me and helps promote my f@cking brand.

I’m too old for this brand stuff. You can’t be an influencer if your neck sags below your chin. That thought set me into a tailspin last night. But let’s not talk about that. Let’s just say that whiskey was involved.

There was some buzz last week about Graydon Carter‘s new newsletter. Since I don’t have a staff of 30, I’m not going to do anything like that. Do you subscribe to any newsletters? Anything I should check out?

One of the things that I want to do on this blog and on the newsletter is give a little more info about my work week. Well, 90 percent of my work week is boring as hell — read tweet, answer tweet, write a paragraph, find a snack, question my life choices, write another paragraph, read a tweet from a person who causes me to feel deep envy and resentment, eat chocolate, send the six hundredth email to the secretary of a superintendent of a large school district to set up an interview, and so on. You don’t want to hear about that.

But 10 percent of my work week is super interesting. I talk to smart, energetic people who really care about kids and want to make the world a better place. They’re charismatic and charming. It’s truly amazing that I get paid to talk to these individuals. I try to convey all this awesomeness in my articles, but I never can do it justice in part because of space limitations. Maybe I will give more of the backstory of my articles in the newsletter.

Even though I’m not working on reporting gigs this summer, I am doing some prep work for articles in September. This week, I talked with a professor, who specializes in trauma experienced by immigrant children, and a president of a community college, who is setting up a new jobs program for students who are falling through the cracks.

Another fun task that I do from time to time is help out fellow writers. This week, I read a draft of a book and gave input. It was a good read, and led to a whiskey-fueled debate with Steve last night.

As I mentioned, I’m taking a break from reported pieces for the summer and writing personal and opinion pieces about parenting and education. I wrote a personal essay about a terrible experience that we had on the flight home from Europe earlier this month. I slowly edited and tightened the piece throughout the week and sent it to editors on Thursday.

Huffington Post bought it in seven minutes, which is a personal record. The editor and I took care of business — contract, bio, picture, edits, title, essay image — in record time. It’s coming out on Monday at 9am.

Things don’t usually happen this quickly. Two finished articles of mine are on deck for publication I hope sometime this summer . I do enjoy speed. Sometimes when there’s been too long of a gap between reporting and publication, I forget what I was talking about and lose the passion for the topic.

But it’s a Saturday and I really shouldn’t be sitting at the computer. When Steve gets back from the barber shop with Ian, I think I’m going to take the boys for a hike. I need to sweat out last night’s toxins.

Enjoy your weekend!

The Great-Grandchildren Tour

A couple of months ago, I received an e-mail from a relative from Canada. Our grandmothers were sisters, so we’re cousins of some sort. We met as kids, when he and sisters crashed at my grandmother’s apartment for a dancing competition. But those Canada ties had long ago dropped away as the grandparents passed away and people moved on.

This spring, I started plugging in family information into ancestry.com. He found me and asked for old pictures and documents.

Our common ancestors came over on a boat to Ellis Island more than 100 years ago, not far from where we had lunch. Their many, many great-grandchildren are now spread out all over the states and Canada. Since my second? third? cousin travels a lot for work, he’s made a project of meeting up with as many of these great-grandchildren as he can.

My brother, my (first) cousin, Jeff, and I joined him this weekend in the New York City, and we poured over old pictures and each told our own versions of family lore.

I asked him what commonalities did he find in these descendants from the mismatched couple from Bari? He said music. Many people in my family are unusually talented with music. I do not fit in that category, but the two middle guys in that photo – my brother and cousin – do. He also seemed to think that we are all unusually charming.

Anyway, I thought that Ryan’s adventure was fun and thought I would share.

For Things You Don’t Need

On Saturday night, my buddies and I rewarded ourselves for a long walk – my Fitbit was already way past 20,000 steps – with a beer and a burger at Fraunces Tavern, which is one of the oldest pubs in Manhattan and worth a visit if you’re in town.

After several hours of talking, which included such lovely topics as the new studies that found a connection between menopause and Alzheimer’s Disease and flaky college students, we started talking about politics.

I asked, “So, what do you think about the proposals that Democrats are starting to float about student loan forgiveness and free childcare?” Two of us have kids who are nearly done with high school, and the other never had kids. “Would you vote for someone who was putting forward proposals that wouldn’t benefit you at all?”

Our town pool has a special section that is just for older people. Nobody under 18 is allowed to be there. Every couple of hours, the life guards blow a whistle and everyone under 18 has to get out of the pool for 15 minutes, so the older people can do the side stroke in peace. The public library has senior reading clubs, introductory classes on email, and daytime movies. Without the buy-in from older citizens in the community, there’s a fear among local politicians that old folks will vote for people to defund those services. I’m sure those fears are justified.

People care about schools for a relatively short period of time. There care from the time that their oldest kid is five to when they’re about a sophomore in high school. Typically, parents are much more involved in schools for their oldest; subsequent kids are on auto-pilot. And then they stop caring about the local schools when they start thinking about SAT scores and colleges for their oldest and after their oldest fails to become the class president or the football captain.

Schools make a lot of enemies. For every kids that becomes the class president and the football captain, there are the parents of the hundred other kids who sit at the unpopular table in the cafeteria who want to throw a pitchfork into the school principal. Parents who aren’t in the audience for High School Awards Nights will never, ever vote for a school bond issue ever again. Screw ’em.

So, there’s only about ten to twelve years, when a person has a real stake in making better schools. And that’s why there are places in the country where teachers are paid around $30,000 per year and students have few chances to make it to college.

Childcare affects a family for three or four years, if you have multiple kids.

Student loans can haunt a person for ages, but for every person that defaults, there are nine others who paid off their loans working boring jobs and doing overtime.

And let’s be honest. Our grandparents didn’t have the material comforts that we have today. I mean we put in more hours at an office and have invested more in education, but that generation cut coupons and never bought prepared meals at Whole Foods. So, when they look at younger folks complaining about childcare costs, they’re thinking about how they survived on one income and never ever went on a vacation that involved an airplane.

So, really the question isn’t “”Would you vote for someone who was putting forward proposals that wouldn’t benefit you at all?” Instead, the real question is “would you vote for something that you worked really, really, really hard to pay for on your own, making lots of personal sacrifices, and destroying your own health in the process. And then the benefits went to people who you perceive to be privileged, entitled, smug, and unwilling to help you?”

My generation is in the middle. Gen-Xers have a foot in both worlds. We can remember the difficulties of juggling childcare and work, but we’re also done with it. It wasn’t easy, but we did it.

Self-interest is a basic component of human nature. The founders knew that and created a democratic system based on that notion. With a system of checks and balances, ambition would counterbalance ambition. A large nation, divided up with federalism, would create a large state with a multitude of interests, all checking each other, so no one group would dominate and abuse others.

So, lecturing people that they should vote for schools, student loans, and childcare because virtuous people do that, is pointless. I think we should look to the model of the local town pool and figure out ways to make sure that everyone benefits from childcare centers, schools, and colleges. I’ve always thought that childcare centers and senior citizen centers should be housed in the same buildings. Invite people from the community to give lectures in the high school on their expertises and careers. Colleges could provide job training to people with autism or provide free tickets to concerts to people in the community.

Free childcare and student loan forgiveness might get headlines and tweets from the 30-something crowd, but it’s a tough sell to those who are freaking out about menopausal plaque on the brains and are counting their steps on a Fitbit.