Monday, July 27, 2015

The Rest of the Story

Back a few months ago one of my friends created a little group on Facebook for all of us to post pictures about our real lives with young kiddos rather than the sanitized versions so many of us are tempted to put out there for public consumption. She called it "We're Not Pinterested," which I thought was absolutely hysterical, probably because I've had one too many Pinterest Fails. Actually, we're at the point now of Pinterest-Let's-Not-Even-Attempt-Its.

There's been a lot of talk about this lately, about the importance of being "real." About celebrities photographing themselves without makeup and Dove featuring women with something closer to normal bodies in their ads. And while sadly some of this is indeed just trendy (how sad is it that it is just a "trend" to be authentic!), I'm hoping that at least within the circle of people I call friends or at least acquaintances, it'll continue. For me, it just doesn't get old.

I men, there is actual Facebook depression going on out there, people! People are literally becoming more depressed the longer they spend on Facebook because they think everyone else is out on a beach or picnicking in the park (no ants, of course) or baking perfect birthday cakes for their endearing children.

In the vein of "We're Not Pinterested," I'd love to run an ongoing feature that would hopefully bring joy and maybe relief to someone's life (by relief, I mean, relief that they're not the only one who picked the snack their kid dropped off the dirty grocery store floor and gave it back to them, just to keep them quiet. Guilty as charged).

I'd call my feature "The Rest of the Story," because of those old Paul Harvey radio spots where he'd go on and on with the back story of some famous person or event before it was famous and then conclude with his signature, "And now you know...the rrrrest of the story."

There's more than enough material for this feature, but I'll share just a few possibilities.

How about this picture-perfect scene of a lighthouse in Portland, Maine? Perfect day, right? Except -- yeah, no. When I snapped this picture, it was 95 degrees, we were all sweating profusely, and someone was whining they needed to go to the port-a-potty. Five minutes later we headed back to our car, which was completely trashed due to being away for a week on vacation, and everyone started crying because we hadn't found anything to eat.

Or how about this? Doesn't Anna look so peaceful, so studious, studying wildflowers in a meadow not far from our home? Who would ever know that 30 seconds before she and Ethan had been screaming at each other because Ethan wanted to take a trail in the woods and she didn't? Of course you wouldn't, unless I dared to tell you.

And then there's this, from our trip to Fire Island last week. Let's just call this "Chloe's last bit of happiness before the @#**$ hit the fan." You see, about five minutes after I snapped this photo, we discovered she had a stinky diaper, which led to a long walk to the changing area, which led to Chloe wanting to play in the sprayers (for cleaning the sand off), which led to her realizing how tired she really was from not having a nap and letting out such blood-curling screams that half the beach was looking my way. Mere minutes after this picture was taken, I was hauling a kicking, screaming toddler across the sand, attempting to pack up and get out of there as quickly as possible because this kid was DONE, and I, honestly, was feeling rather mortified.
I know there's been some backlash about this kind of thing. Those crafty moms who really, honestly like Pinterest and the like, the ones who really can manage to keep their homes looking relatively beautiful most of the time, are tired of being judged just because they like doing special little treaty things with their kids. They like pretty stuff and photos that capture beauty. I get that. I really do. No judgment here. I mean, we don't all want to see tantrums posted on social media all day long, or nothing but sinks of dirty dishes.
But there's a place for "the rest of the story," too. Maybe it's when we've seen a little too much of "reality" that isn't reality at all. Maybe when we're discouraged, when we're tempted to believe that somehow, everyone else really is having more fun.
There is always more to the story. That's why I share mine, so that people know it's okay to let down sometimes. You just might help someone else feel a little more free.


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Career Planning

The drawbridge to Fire Island...home to a bridge operator
who had no idea he was, momentarily, a rock star.

So this aspiration of Ethan's to become a drawbridge operator one day is still going strong.

You know kids. One day one wants to be a scientist, the next a movie star, and a firefighter a few days after that. A while ago Anna wanted to be a (and I quote) "A dolphin trainer who gets to listen to Taylor Swift all day in my ear buds." Now she's moved on to...I'm not sure what, this week.

Ethan has now wanted to be a drawbridge operator for at least a year. This followed his two-year long dream of fixing power lines. He still loves power and electricity, mind you. Just the other day he saw a large power substation and exclaimed, "Mamma, look at all of the electricity! I love it!" But somehow drawbridge operators have caught his attention. I'm not sure, but it may be because he thinks they don't have to do much, and he can be completely alone most of the time. I'm hinging this on his comment about "Wanting to be a drawbridge operator and eat a pizza inside the booth." Every day.

I really don't get where this drawbridge interest came from, because it's not like we see drawbridges all of the time. Or hardly ever. We don't live right near the ocean. We drive by one (in the distance) several times a year. We went out of our way to see another in Mystic (bonus that it's a cute town, anyway), but that wasn't even the right kind of drawbridge. Somehow, Ethan has decided that he only really likes drawbridges that open up on both sides into the air, rather than just on one side.

I hate to admit it, but I'm kind of using this drawbridge operator thing to my full advantage. When Ethan began cowering under a blanket recently during a minor thunderstorm (his modus operandi whenever there is the slightest hint of lightning) I decided to get tough. "What's this?" I asked, peeling off the blanket. "We need to start practicing now how to deal with your fear when there's thunder. What's going to happen if there's a thunderstorm when you're a drawbridge operator? What if you go run and hide and you're supposed to lift the bridge up and a boat crashes into it?"

Sometimes I'll tell him he needs to learn how to focus and pay attention, because that's important for drawbridge operators so they don't miss any signals. Or that he needs to keep working hard in school so he can graduate and become a drawbridge operator...

...which led me to Googling drawbridge operators, of course. This is how we roll around here, learning more than we ever thought we'd need to know about a plethora of subjects (cul-de-sacs, church bells, and smoke vs. steam come to mind, a.k.a., obsessions of the past). I learned that drawbridge operators don't make much money. At all. They don't even need a college education. Knowledge of bridges, railroad and other signals, and marine laws is extremely helpful.

I actually found a drawbridge operator who blogs. I went to check it out, but none of the posts that I came across mentioned his actual job, so I was bummed.

There were also a few interesting Q&As out there ("Are drawbridge operators able to use the bathroom during their shift?" "Do people ever call you a troll?"). More questions I wouldn't have thought to ask. Ever.

The other day we took an impromptu trip from Connecticut to Fire Island in New York and had to cross a drawbridge to get there. Waiting in a line of traffic, we saw the bridge rise in the distance. "Is it the right kind of drawbridge?" I asked Ethan anxiously. "Yes!" he answered excitedly. As we inched closer we all went looking for the little man in the booth. "There he is!" someone shouted as we passed by, craning our necks to get a better glimpse. If only he knew.

I know we shouldn't really be ramping up the talk about drawbridge operating as any kind of career. The kid is only seven. He doesn't really need to be thinking about this kind of stuff. Only -- I can see it. I can see Ethan, happy as a clam in his little booth, watching the gates rise and fall with intense focus. Eating his pizza. Keeping an eye out for signals and pushing buttons.

There's a balance here, when he gets older and things get more serious. I know the kid is incredibly smart and has a ton of potential. I think, with the right set-up, he could go to college. We should encourage him to aim high, I know that. But there's also what brings him joy. Maybe it won't be drawbridge operating. But perhaps it won't be completely conventional, either. We've got to remember that.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Lessons from the Library Parking Lot

The grand irony is, I don't even like talking on the phone.

This was day four of vacation, and I'd been pretty much fine with the fact that my cell service at the camp was sub-par at best. We'd learned a while back that driving to the library parking lot about a mile down the road and siphoning off the place's Wi-Fi signal at least enabled you to check email or make a few calls. And I did need to call Dan (not able to make it to Maine this time around) and his grandparents, who live nearby and had invited me to stop by and visit.

The story is long and ridiculous, but let's just say that I learned to never idle your car when it's low on gas and parked on quite a steep hill. All of the fuel will pool at one end of the fuel line, and at some point your car will think it's on Empty before it really is. Your car will stall, you'll have to call your mom to get the kids and then call AAA and wait for a tow truck, along with explaining to the library lady why your car is stalled dead in a not-completely-out-of-the-way place in the parking lot. You'll have to apologize and give sheepish looks to locals annoyed at some out-of-stater who doesn't know what they're doing, and you'll have to wait while the tow truck driver fills up the car with gas only to realize he needs to get MORE gas, and finally on round two, the car roars to life and you crawl out of there with your tail between your legs.

This is not the type of thing anyone likes to deal with on vacation. A few years ago while in Maine my car battery had died in front of a Dunkin' Donuts in a nearby town. Fortuitously the truck parked next to me had jumper cables and we were soon on our way.

Not this time. Once the kids were back with Gramma I had a 45-minute (at least) wait in the parking lot, keeping an eye out for AAA and to make sure no one smacked into my car.

Standing there, crunching around on the gravel driveway for a few minutes, I wondered what to do with myself. And maybe because I was on vacation, and maybe because I was just tired of it, I realized I didn't really want to sit there looking at my phone, scrolling endlessly, catching up on the craziness of life, of the world. I wondered what would happen if I just sat, and looked, and listened.

For some reason I thought of the Little House on the Prairie books. I remembered a scene when they are working in the fields in the summer. I thought about what it would be like to measure days by the sun, by the chores that needed to be done to survive. I thought about a life when there were fewer man-created sounds and wondered how much we miss when we are always looking down at a screen.

I closed my eyes and listened to the wind rustling through the trees. I breathed in. I looked straight across from me and saw this:

That's when I realized there was so much more to see. Even the library itself. I love to read, but amazingly, in all my life coming to Maine I've never actually gone inside or even looked at the place that closely.

Now I was hooked. I walked very slowly, trying to see with a different set of eyes. And what I saw, in this little, dusty parking lot in a tiny town, was amazing.

I realize that this little exercise was made easier by being in a quaint spot in small-town Maine rather than, say, a Wal-Mart parking lot. But I still think there is something to this. I wonder: what are we missing? What are we missing when we're always plugged in, drowning life in front of us out, even if it's unintentional or sometimes necessary?

Maybe we're not missing a beautiful scene. Maybe it's our kids, who want to play catch. Maybe it's someone who looks lonely, who needs a smile, or even (yikes!) a conversation.

Maybe it's life, right in front of us, and the ability to be present in it.

And so, yes, this whole issue with the car was very silly and rather annoying. But I'm kind of glad I ran out of gas, parked on a sloping hill, in a spot that was prettier than I could have ever imagined, had I not been stuck there.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Social Thinking Gets Real

Beeeep-Beep-Beep. Beeeep-Beep-Beep.

We were one day into our vacation in Maine last week when an alarm in the camp just next to ours on the lake started going off.

Beeeep-Beep-Beep. Beeeep-Beep-Beep.

It was loud enough that we knew there'd be no way to sleep on the screened porch as we usually do, relaxing and listening to the sound of loons calling. We'd tried everything...calling ADT (since they had a sticker on the window); peering in the windows for signs of anything amiss; even talking to someone in the store down the road, who suggested calling the police, since we weren't sure if it was a fire alarm.

For four hours, talk of the alarm dominated the conversation. Considering Ethan's sensitivity to certain noises, you'd think he would have been the most distressed, but he seemed to be taking the whole thing in stride. I was the one who felt really, really annoyed.

You can imagine our relief when the alarm stopped, out of the blue, after beeping for about six hours. We kept joking about it, and the next day when people actually arrived at the camp next door, we debated saying anything. About four days after that, Ethan semi-befriended the boy next door (a VERY talkative kiddo named, let's say, George).

When George started chatting with Ethan that first day, Ethan stopped me in my tracks. He left George standing outside, whapped in through the screen door and asked, in a whisper, "Is it okay if I tell him his alarm was going off and was annoying?"

We're going to ignore the fact that after that, Ethan kept bugging me, in front of George, to "Tell about the alarm" over and over and over. I just couldn't get over the fact that he, I don't know, I guess you could say censored himself. He had the presence of mind to stop and think that maybe, just maybe, blurting out something about the alarm being annoying wasn't the most prudent thing to say.

Theory of mind...putting yourself into someone else's head...imaging someone's reaction before you say something...these are the types of things we all know are difficult for people on the autism spectrum.

Fast forward a couple of days: Ethan and Anna and George were all swimming in the lake one evening. We had discovered by then that George is very, very talkative. He was all over the place, actually. George was in your face; switching subjects left and right; very much a people person and very much liking an audience. He's also an only child (and I thought I'd heard through the grapevine) has ADHD. The diagnosis would not surprise me.

George was so friendly that he wouldn't leave Anna and Ethan alone. Anna was muttering under her breath that she hoped to get a break. Ethan seemed neither thrilled nor bothered by George; he was only half paying attention to his ramblings, probably because it was just too much for him to process. At one point in the middle of everything, though, Ethan blurted out, "After we're done swimming mamma is going to get us ice cream!"

And then. Wait for it.

"Would you like to come over and have ice cream with us?"

Which is why we ended up eating ice cream with George at 9 p.m. in our cabin, because of course George was up for it, and of course his parents said yes. They probably were reveling in a few blessed moments of silence.

George told us all about his swim team; that he'd read all the Harry Potter books; that he was going to Acadia National Park in a few days. His grandfather just had surgery. He was going to Boy Scout camp soon. He couldn't have caffeine because he was already too hyper (no kidding). He'd had chicken from the store café for dinner.

Anna humored him while Ethan sat reading a large "Read to Me" edition of a Ramona Quimby book. The wheels had apparently stopped turning, as he didn't think that maybe it was kind of rude to read at the table while his friend was talking (and talking and talking). But I was still back at the invitation. Okay, so maybe this wasn't the best time to extend one of his first social niceties. But I was still so darned impressed. Something had told him that maybe he shouldn't talk about ice cream unless he invited his friend to have some.

Again, I marveled at how many of these unwritten rules clutter our world, our interactions, every. single. day.

So we ate melting bowls of ice cream, until George disappeared out into the night and the mosquitos, stumbling over his too-long pajama bottoms, heading back to the lights next door.

Friday, July 3, 2015

For the Love of Girls

Growing up, I used to daydream about living in the ideal family. This family of my imagination always consisted of at least 4 or 5 sisters, and I was somewhere in the middle. We all had long, willowy names like Alexandra or Samantha and long, wavy hair. We fought, of course, but also whispered secrets late at night across the bedroom we shared. We were bridesmaids in each other's weddings and raised our children to be the best of friends.

I'm not sure where I got this idea, except that maybe it was so completely contrary to my actual immediate or extended family. No one had sisters. I didn't. My dad didn't. My mom didn't. I was surrounded by boys and men. We slouched on the couch, watching the Patriots and Red Sox at family gatherings. The uncles would guzzle down beer and tell hilarious stories and crack jokes that I didn't always completely understand. Someone might tousle my hair. There was no commaradarie of women gathering for girl talk and shopping trips (my mom and I both actually hate shopping, but maybe it's because we don't have sisters). The only time I remember a group of women hanging out was after big family dinners when the "girls" were relegated to dishes duty in the kitchen at my Nonna's house.

My two best friends in junior high/high school had sisters (one had not one but three!) and on those days when I'd daydream about my life of the future, I always had girls. Well, maybe one boy thrown in there for good measure, but I loved the idea of having girls. When we found out we were having Anna, I was absolutely thrilled. And when the tech during the ultrasound for Chloe said the word "girl," I couldn't believe it. Sisters! We would actually have a family with sisters!

I'm not sure when reality hit. Probably sometime this year, as Anna continues to barrel down the road to middle school. Some of the "girl drama" has already begun, although if I'm being honest, my oldest (and we've joked about this with her; not divulging any secrets here!) has been a bit of a drama queen since she was about, oh, nine months old.

So, somewhere between me realizing that my oldest already has better fashion sense than I do, and I having no clue what to do with my littlest one's crazy-long hair, I realized, Yikes. I am a mom of girls, and I don't know what I'm doing!

Let me reiterate. I shop like a man (straight to what I want, back out again in 10 minutes, unless it's books!). I have no real clue what to do with make-up. When I get a haircut I always tell them to give me a style that takes no time at all and that is especially for people who don't know how to do hair. The lady at the pedicure place lectured me for walking barefoot -- my feet were a scary mess. I still bite my nails whenever I'm working on a story. Since I freelance and love to write, this is an issue.

Yes, I know. Not all girls are into this stuff. I don't mean to paint a picture that's dreadfully one-dimensional. I guess it's not just all of that.

There's also the drama, the emotion, the theatrics. There are the explosions of anger and tears; the wild mood swings that have no logical explanation; the hypersensitivity.

I'm still working on this stuff. I'm still trying to put my horrid memories of ninth grade mean girls aside to calmly talk to my daughter about how to be confident and kind rather than just scare her that every middle school girl is out to take her down.

I'm still looking for confidence.

I think this is one of the great challenges of parenthood: when you realize you need to give out something you're not sure that you have.

Not long ago I stopped in to see Anna in her room. She had come up with some interesting décor ideas with painter's tape, of all things. She had her hair done up in a way I never would have been able to do for her; never would have done for myself, back in the day. I saw in a quick moment that she really was, indeed, her own person, not a mini-me reliving my adolescence. More than that, I realized that I could see myself as lacking when it came to mothering girls -- or as someone who has an opportunity to "learn as she goes."

Maybe this is a time that will not just expose my insecurities, but redeem them.

Maybe I can laugh about being hopeless with hair, but learn a little something as Anna experiments with her own. Maybe we'll go shopping, not because I like to, but because she does, and I want to spend time with her. Maybe I can share those bad experiences with snarky girls ("I'm having a party and only cool people are invited -- which means you're NOT!") not as horror stories but as proof that these years are hard, but guess what? You come out on the other side. As we talk and I see through the tempered lens of 25 years I can share things I would have done differently, even if I couldn't change other peoples' behavior.

Yeah, a gaggle of boys might have been easier. (My friends of all boys get sympathy from people all the time, and I have no idea why.) But this is what was meant for me, for us. Having girls means having another opportunity to not "go at it alone" but opening my arms and asking God for grace, sensitivity, confidence, and all of the things I may be lacking. And best of all, it's an opportunity to change my own story and to keep learning.

Although I'm never going to learn to love shopping. Except for books.