Our Choices Are Everything

My nine-year-old son was talking a mile a minute when he walked off the bus the other day. Animated, fidgety, he had stories from his day to share; but mostly he wanted to talk about choices in life. He is as likely to discuss philosophy as he is Spiderman.

He finished his snack and found me in my bedroom, about to take a class on my cycling bike. I didn’t have to say much because Henry has a great deal to say himself.

“You know choices are really important. I was talking to my friends at school about making choices. You should make good choices in life. If you make bad choices, you can lose everything—your family, your house, your job.”

Of course, I agreed.

“Sometimes the good choices are the hard choices,” he continued. “Sometimes it feels bad to make good choices.”

Taken aback, and moved, by his insight, again, I agreed.

“But you have to feel good about who you are. And your choices. I’m really happy with who I am.”

“I’m happy with who you are too, Henry,” I said.

“Okay.” He smiled. “Good talk.” And he walked out of my bedroom.

I never imagined I would live in a time when I truly wondered if people around my city, my neighborhood could be Nazi sympathizers. I did not imagine so many Americans would really vote for a racist in 2016; and I thought certainly by now all eyes would have been opened to the violence and illogical, celebrated extremism of the past two years.

Yet there are people who will choose fascism over democracy tomorrow (or will choose to not vote at all), who will choose to support an administration that mocks, traumatizes, and openly disdains as overall policy; some Americans will vote with admiration for an administration that flaunted a fake rabbi and prayed for its own party after the murder of Jews in their synagogue.

I know the sad and real possibilities of who may be around me.

Not everyone voting in support of this administration and its policies will vote for violence against Jews and people of color and Muslims and immigrants. But they will not reject it. And history is clear on where that leads.

I wanted to write something before the election about the importance of voting tomorrow. I tried to write and not sound so angry and desperate; I thought I could achieve a more neutral tone while making my points. It is impossible to plead for democracy and rail against bigotry and sound neutral. And in times like these, one should not feel obligated or wish to; our country will be saved with the raising of sane, compassionate, impassioned voices.

We must use our voice tomorrow in the most powerful of ways; we must make good choices–or we may lose everything. We must get to the polls and vote as Americans, beyond party, as if lives are on the line, our freedom in jeopardy; we must vote as if it will be our last free vote.

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Posted in anger, autism, Family Life, Mental health, New York City Living and Coping, politics, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Gift of an Autism-Friendly Experience of ‘Wicked’

I planned on surprising the kids on Christmas with much-asked-for tickets to “Wicked.” We welcomed Christmas morning, however, having not slept, and it unraveled into a blur of wrapping paper and cups of coffee. The distinction of a gift of Broadway tickets would have been lost among slime and Beyblades and glitter lip gloss.

So I waited, and one night in January I was out to dinner with the three of them. They were behaving themselves but getting antsy as we waited on food; suddenly each wanted to sit next to me and not him or her, and silverware and water glasses were in the way of elbows.

“I have a fun surprise for you guys,” I said into the chaos, being practiced in the greatest parenting tool available: distraction. With big eyes they stopped squirming and stared at me.

“What?”

“What is it?”

“OH MY GOD, IS IT A PHONE?!”

I broke it to them gently. “It is not a phone! You are not getting a phone!”

Their disappointed faces remained fixed on me. “I got us tickets to an autism-friendly performance of ‘Wicked!'”

“That is awesome!”

“NO WAY!”

“Wait, autism-friendly?” Henry asked.

“Yes, it’s for people with autism and it’ll be easier for you–fewer loud noises and scary lights. And no one cares if you talk or have to get up.”

“Wait,” Henry said again. “Do you mean the rest of Broadway isn’t autism-friendly?”

Molly and Ellie giggled. They know it as well–Broadway and the rest of the world are not, as much as we’d like them to be, autism-friendly. We have gotten the stares and the comments from strangers. I have felt my face burn in the middle of a public scene. The restaurant we were seated in is as close to autism-friendly as the outside world gets, welcoming our family for years, meltdowns and crying and screaming and all. My experience is that much of the world is not as understanding.

“Well,” I started, “No. It’s not. Broadway shows usually aren’t, but these are special performances–and it’s going to be so good. This is such a fun show!” I didn’t know how long I should stay on the autism part of the conversation.

“That’s interesting,” Henry said and paused as he thought about this. “Ok, ‘Wicked.'” That seemed to be enough for him too. “Great.”

This past rainy Super Bowl Sunday, we were at the show. My husband was traveling for work, so I invited a babysitter to join us. (Truth: if I had known my husband would not be around for “Wicked,” I would not have bought tickets. Autism-friendly or not, I would not try again to bring the three kids to Broadway.) I had a moment of panic when, as we were entering the Gershwin Theater, Henry refused to exit the revolving door.

And then I saw the faces and purple t-shirts of the volunteers from Theatre Development Fund (TDF) Autism Friendly Performances staffing the lobby.

It is joyous when you are in a place you belong, where your child belongs. It is the overwhelming sensation of relief. This was gratitude for every person around us, all who understood or related to my family. And this was tinged with a confidence I rarely feel in public, the source of which, at the time, I could not name. Later, I knew it to be the potential we have to be kind to one another.

As we reached the second floor, a volunteer was ready to hand each of my kids a squishy neon stress/sensory ball. After negotiating for the best colors, the kids, the babysitter, and I waited in one of the “activity areas” among the kids, teens, and adults all holding their sensory toys.

Seated, my babysitter and I bookended the kids, with Henry next to me. My babysitter is young and energetic, so I made her take the kids to the lobby to get snacks as I read the Playbill.

Henry asked me immediately when he came back with M&Ms and Oreos, “So if I need to get up and walk out, that’s ok, right?” How right it is to be where you are welcome.

My daughters were not worried that something would derail us. Molly did not plead to stay home rather than risk something “scary” happening. They were easy and excited and chatting over each other in their seats, occasionally their eyes following volunteers showing people to their seats. They were also on their way to a sugar high. Either way, the smiles were real.

“Wicked” is an enduring success because its story of being different, misunderstood, of being vulnerable speaks to us. It reminds us of the misleading nature of labels we use and the stories we tell, the people those hurt. We believe all sorts of things that aren’t true.

In troubled and troubling times, a nuanced tale of friendship and courage reminds us of how capable we humans are, of treachery and redemption.

We were all standing as the cast took its final bow; each actor on stage smiled, waved, and with obvious and beaming pride, held up the same squishy stress ball that had been given to the audience.

Something bad may be happening in Oz, but for two hours and 30 minutes, something wonderful happened in the Gershwin Theatre.

 

 

The music and lyrics of “Wicked” are by Stephen Schwartz; its book is by Winnie Holzman.

[Note: This event was in no way sponsored. I was not given tickets, and I have not had any contact with anyone at TDF, the Gershwin Theatre, or associated with “Wicked.” Opinions are solely my own. I am writing about this autism-friendly performance to share our experience and so other families may enjoy future performances.]

Posted in Arts, autism, Family Life, Mental health, New York City Living and Coping, Parenting Moments | 12 Comments

I Miss the Anger

The headline crowded the screen of my phone. I hadn’t meant to check the news, but it was there when I swiped for the weather. These things always take a moment to sink in.

I didn’t do what we are supposed to do when we hear of another horrific mass shooting. I didn’t run to hug my children or sit quietly with them; I didn’t soften and I didn’t seek softness. I put my phone down and snapped that they were going to be late, that they weren’t doing enough and they weren’t doing it quickly enough.

“We are going to miss the bus! I told you this!” at my son. At my daughters: “Why are you fooling around when you have things to do? Do I have to do every single thing every single day? Come on!”

I didn’t forget what I had just read. That the many dead were children and parents and loved by other someones burned in my throat as I continued to scowl and bark. I thought, as we do, of desperate loved ones calling and calling and all the phones going to voicemail.

But yelling at my older daughter to get the clothes off the floor because you can’t leave your room like that and you know better was safer; Why is the cat eating plastic again does anyone else see this but me was better company. The energy of anger felt better than the dizzying waves of despair.

I have thought a great deal about anger these past few years. I have struggled with it, written about it, faced it, been humbled by it, occasionally brought it down. Most days I am overwhelmed, frustrated, exhausted–and somehow, clinging to a last thread, in control. I know I have changed the way I react to my children, that our life is stable underneath the chaos. But sometimes I miss the anger; I miss its promises.

Anger is a great buffer. It is a cushion in front of fear. It promises a broken sort of power, and I believe it when it says I’ll save you from the loss you are afraid of. Stay angry and nothing can hurt you. Be angry enough and you will stop caring. Be angry enough and no one will care about you. You will have nothing to lose. 

I huddle back with that rage when nothing else can be done. So little makes sense in the aftermath of inexplicable horror, and there is always more to lose. There is no distraction great enough, no bright side, no grace. I cannot hug my children hard enough to make anyone whole again. I cannot hug them enough to make it bearable.

There is everything to be angry about now. This outrage fuels determination and resolve, but for a long time my anger was only destructive and defeating, aimed at myself and taken out on my family. I was an animal in a cage, running in circles and banging the bars to drown out my terror.

That kind of anger is an intimate relation, a comfort against injury, real or imagined. Sometimes I just miss the anger. When I am scared and helpless and so far into love that it feels like fear, I miss it.

I hurried my son out the door, walked him to his waiting school bus, held his hand; we discussed the plotting nature of neighborhood squirrels. “Those squirrels are my arch enemy,” he declared. I laughed, but agreed. I placed his red backpack on his shoulders, and he squeezed me around the waist before turning to board his bus.

Back inside, I put penguin ice packs in the girls’ lunches. I kissed and hugged my daughters and wished them luck on various things and a good day and reminded them I’d pick them up after school, as I do every morning. From the door, I watched until they got into the elevator, every last second of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in addiction, anger, Family Life, Mental health, New York City Living and Coping, Parenting Moments, politics | 2 Comments

“School of Rock the Musical”: A Review With Much Projection

The years in between make a difference when it comes to experiencing a story. In 2003, I watched goofy Jack Black stumble and charm and ultimately inspire a classroom of talented musicians in School of Rock. I was 33 at the time, unmarried, not responsible for children; I only had to enjoy the film, which combines comedy, rock and roll, and talented kids as they are led by Black toward a battle of bands. You know how you see every movie, every book, every commercial differently once you have kids? That’s true with adaptations, too.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock the Musical, currently at the Winter Garden Theatre, is the fun, family-friendly musical experience of the same story. It delivers the same wholesome yet pessimistic vision that childhood affords of adults and their relentless adulting: they’re no fun, man.

Dewey Finn, the imposter substitute teacher at the exclusive Horace Green school, is a child himself, unable to move on or give up on his failed rock and roll career; yet he’s also a depressed and discouraged adult, relatable to an audience grown up since first meeting the character. He is a disappointment to everyone, a leach on his roommate Ned and Ned’s overbearing girlfriend, until he finds his calling: his selfish ends are means for acceptance and growth for this group of kids. As a parent always balancing expectations with my kids’ personalities and needs, the show’s conflicts are obvious and make it difficult to take sides. Young folks see the adults other than Dewey as hilarious in their stick in the mud, over the top stuffiness; I was thinking how hard it is to find good roommates.

The uniformed, well-behaved fifth graders are pleasers. The cast of under 13 year olds is superb; the audience not only marvels at the kids playing their own instruments, but also sympathizes with their adolescent disharmony. They are shy or over-achieving; they are lonely or over-adored; they are complicated, like our own children, pleading for their parents’ attention and understanding in the moving “If Only You Would Listen.” And the parents, like many of us, are distracted, dismissive or unaware of the scope of their children’s needs, yet singly devoted to giving their children every advantage. They aren’t enemies of the dream; they are guardians of dreamers. They want what’s best for you, kids! The principal is a bummer, but hey, those parents expect her to protect and educate their kids; and the kids were taken out of school by a fraud in a school bus. Just sayin’. She wonders about letting go of music and youth in “Where Did the Rock Go?” Let me know, sister, if you figure out how to please everyone.

The energy of the show is contagious. The music is loud and catchy and flawless in the hands of these phenomenal musicians. The band singing “School of Rock” toward the end will make you want to cheer. (Note: My son, who has special needs, enjoyed the show much more filtered through noise reducing headphones.) These kids inspire awe and, ironically, a reevaluation of whether I’m pushing my children hard enough to develop their own talents. My kids looked at me during the talk back with the cast as if I’ve been standing in their way.

School of Rock the Musical is a great night out for the whole family. Take your kids and be prepared to enjoy some great talent and music, and to likely question some parenting decisions.

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Show is 2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission. Recommended for ages 8 and up; children under 4 years old are not permitted in the theatre. More information and tickets are available at the show’s website.

Original score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater, book by Julian Fellowes and direction by Laurence Connor. School of Rock – The Musical was nominated for four 2016 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score (Lloyd Webber and Slater), Best Book (Fellowes), and Best Leading Actor in a Musical (Alex Brightman).

Disclosure: My son and I were given tickets in exchange for a performance review. Opinions are always my own.

 

Posted in Event, Family Life, Humor, New York City Living and Coping, Parenting Moments, Review | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Opinion and Oppression

Our home is like many American homes; it may be like most American homes, as Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. This morning we were sad and confused. My husband reminded me, in the midst of my hopelessness and anger, to be strong for the kids.

They woke in the middle of the night to find out the results, expecting to hear we have our first woman president. Half asleep, they all cried and asked “Why?” and I could not answer. I was grateful when they woke again this morning, that I, having not slept, had thought more about what to say to them, and that I didn’t have to break the news again; that part was done.

The next part will be more difficult and will take longer, requiring what seems now like superhuman strength and understanding. We have to parent our children in a country, our country, that has exalted ignorance and hate to its highest office. My husband and I have to parent two smart little girls and a wonderful little boy with special needs in a country that declared its hostility to all of them.

When people talk about coming together despite our “different opinions,” and “different values” in the context of this election, I want to remind them: Racism is not an opinion. Anti-semitism is not an opinion. Denying people rights based on whom they love or how they look or worship? Oppression, not opinions. Making fun of disabled people and calling women names on social media are not expressions of personal beliefs, but rather proof of character, or lack thereof.

I didn’t say a word to my kids about values in terms of our President-elect. During the election, we discussed political parties and that the parties have different values. Our President-elect has shown he values nothing over fame; he is a criminal, a danger to women and minorities, and the hero of a white supremacist shit show. We cannot compare our values to his.

My three children have known only Barack Obama as President. They know only a President with grace, wisdom, and compassion. They have watched their President cry with the American people, and learned he has cried privately with grieving families. They have seen their President speak boldly and nobly when so many were fighting him. They cheer when they see his face.

They cheer when they see Hillary Clinton’s face. They made posters for her that are still on our door. They wore buttons and tee shirts proudly stating they were with her. They have seen me cry with pride and awe listening to Mrs. Clinton speak about her commitment to the welfare of women and children.

Both the President and Secretary Clinton spoke today with extraordinary composure and generosity, reminding us of why we need leaders like themselves.

My children will never learn from us to disrespect the office of President and Commander in Chief. But they will never hear from me that they owe respect to any person who governs with and promotes hate, fear, guns, and exclusion. They have heard many stories about our President-elect; they know what he has done and threatened to do. I am satisfied summarizing to my children, He has frightened many people. We must be extra good and kind now.

Clearly we are in an invigorated era of open discrimination and mockery, where the racist can hide behind “an opinion,” and the homophobe and misogynist behind, “religious beliefs.” One of our challenges is standing up not only to threats and bullying and persecution, but also to the cowardly acceptance of these as nothing more than contrary views. We cannot accept acts of inhumanity as part of our American way.

My mother told me last night, as I sobbed into the phone, to concentrate for now on my children and my family. Tonight our neighbor’s cat spent some time with us; it was a nice and needed distraction for me. When he went back with my friend, my younger daughter put together a care package of balls of yarn and left it outside our neighbor’s door. “I want him to have a special gift,” she told me, smiling ear to ear with satisfaction.

Of the young people that voted, most voted for Hillary Clinton. I am relieved our future would seem to value acceptance and peace and our planet. The future is where our hope lies, where our children will thrive, where the lessons of this election will have been played out and learned; the future is bigger and brighter than this moment, and one day, it will also be female.

Posted in Family Life, It's All About Me, Mental health, New York City Living and Coping, Parenting Moments | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Just Calm Down. Sometimes Don’t.

My husband made the mistake of telling me to calm down last week. After an hour of my asking the girls to help clean up, the younger one was lying on her back on the floor, and the older one sitting casually on the sofa. Breakfast was on the table and the rug, their beds were unmade, clothes were hanging out of drawers; they had to leave in two minutes. I let them know I was not pleased seeing everyone sitting around. I said something like that.

But I said it louder and with different words. Angrier words. When my husband, desperate to get the kids out of the apartment on time, said, “Calm down,” I lost it. (I’m not making a case for more screaming or rage. You know how I feel about that.) I heard “Calm down,” and it’s not okay to expect people be responsible for their mess, their stuff, their responsibilities in a family. Calm down because you’re asking too much. Calm down because you should think about everyone else’s feelings first. Calm down if you want people to listen to you.

All those are true, some of the time; asking for what we want is complicated. Sometimes asking runs into demanding; and demanding is desperate. When we are desperate, as parents or people, the line between reason and rage is hard to see.
“Talk to them,” my husband said. His experience of the world is that talking works. Talking gets a response. Talking validates. My experience is that although I may talk for an hour, no one does anything until I get angry. By no one here, I mean my three kids. That’s not always true, but it feels, some days, it’s more true than not.

Don’t do what I do because it’s right or healthy or that it works well. I am not sharing because I have a great idea. I’m sharing how frustrating “calm down” can be. I’m sharing because that line moves; it has been difficult to know in the moment on which side I stand.

Being heard is a struggle. We are told to be nice, first. But nice and calm doesn’t always get results. Women aren’t supposed to get riled up in public, or at work, or with their children, or in front of their children.

When we are out of line, it doesn’t go unnoticed. In my own experience, anger can be unreasonable and an overreaction. Sometimes, anger appears unreasonable in the moment because it is the anger of a ten thousand moments of staying calm.

Here is the trickiest part. What phrase do I repeat most often in my home? “Calm down.” Calm down, the neighbors don’t appreciate the noise. Calm down, we’ll find your book. Calm down, you don’t need to cry over this. Calm down because you’re too loud, too anxious, too emotional.

I thought about this and my own reaction.

“Don’t let anyone tell you to calm down when you’re trying to get what you want,” I said to my girls standing in the doorway, about to leave for school. “‘Calm down’ is not valid when you are upset over something you need and no one is listening.”

I was angry on top of angry for being told to calm down in front of my daughters; so I doled out wisdom to them while passively-aggressively jabbing my husband. Again, don’t do as I do.

My husband apologized. Of course he did; he meant nothing by it.

So why did I feel diminished?

Many of us question our thoughts, our purpose, ourselves daily. I go through the day trying to do the right thing. And when I trip up, when I snap at a customer service rep on the phone, when I am late to pick up my kids, when I say no more than yes, I don’t let it go. I am in a race to make up for mistakes past, present, and future. Calm down is proof I’m not doing it right.

Calm down begins an argument you can’t win.  Calm down invites defensiveness that requires a more emphatic, more insistent This is not an overreaction. It is maddening.

I wonder if my kids experience Calm down the way I do. Although I suspect they don’t actually listen to me, I am guessing they absorb the implied criticism of Calm down.

It’s no wonder they they cry harder, they fight with more intensity and stamp their feet when I say it. They are pleading: Just listen to me, and in the absence of alternatives, the only way to make a point is to say it louder. I know that frustration. It is human nature to push back, to be acknowledged. It is human to need encouragement more than criticism.

I will not eliminate this phrase from my parenting tools. I will overreact when I’m tired and worried and feel defeated. When I am on the verge, and when the kids are climbing the walls or hysterical about missing leggings or a broken Iron Man arm, I will try perspective checks. I’ll remind them their words are important, but don’t always need to be shouted. I’ll ask myself on which side of the line I need to be to be heard. And when my children have something important to say, I hope they’ll know to scream in the face of Calm down.

Posted in Family Life, It's All About Me, Mental health, New York City Living and Coping, Parenting Moments, Writing | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

How to Make Coffee (and Better Choices)

Become addicted to The Tunnel on PBS (optional: pay handsomely per episode because you erased all the episodes you recorded). Start watching as soon as your husband* goes to bed, tell yourself you won’t be tired, and make sure you get little sleep the night before the second day of school. (*May substitute wife, partner, roommate, or child; but do not alter the ridiculous number of hours you stay up watching.)

Ignore first alarm. Ignore second alarm. Wake up with five-second window in which you must decide to shower or not.

Decide it’s going to be a “workout clothes” day. Wonder if you’ll work out.

Curse coffee maker for not turning on. Curse yourself for leaving a glowing review on Amazon for this coffee maker. Wonder if you can go back and edit that.

Yell, “WHY WON’T THIS THING TURN ON?”

Glare at child when she suggests it’s not plugged in.

Check plug.

Repeat yell.

Realize lid is not closed. Feel satisfied with problem solving skills.

To save time, decide to use ground coffee instead of beans.

Yell to other child to help you find ground coffee in the pantry you re-organized yesterday.

Check the shelf she points to. Feel satisfied your child also has problem solving skills.

Measure coffee. Fill reservoir. Find correct setting. Hit “Start.”

Wait ten minutes, pour coffee and realize you never put the filter back.

Dump the two cups of grounds you have just poured.

Clean all parts of coffee maker, burning yourself because, of course, everything is still hot.

Begin again with measured coffee grounds.

Wait ten minutes, pour coffee and realize you put the coffee in the wrong basket.

Find coffee maker manual.

Clean all parts of coffee maker, burning yourself because, of course, everything is still hot.

Begin again with measured coffee grounds.

Using sarcasm, ask children if they really need to be in the kitchen right now.

Wait ten minutes, realize you never poured the water from the carafe into the reservoir.

Yell at children that you’re going to be late for school.

Pour water into reservoir and decide it’s ok and you can bring coffee with you.

Wait ten minutes and realize you don’t have a portable coffee mug.

Google, “Is tea healthier than coffee?”

Bookmark an article to share on Facebook later while feeling smug about life choices.

Again, feel good about problem solving skills.

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Posted in Humor, It's All About Me, New York City Living and Coping, Parenting Moments, Writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment