Monthly Archives: June 2013

Lyra’s Latest: Baby Doll to Baby


mamaflowers

She Awakens

“What’s the word you just used?” I asked Lyra’s ophthalmologist.

“Myelinate. It’s a coating over the nerves, just like that wire down there,” he said pointing to the floor where a thick cable traveled a short distance from the exam chair I was sitting in, holding Lyra in my lap, to the wall where it was plugged into an outlet. “Because those wires are insulated, currents travel faster than if they were not. Our nerves are the same and children with Down syndrome tend to myelinate a little later than other kids.”

Like her pediatrician, Lyra’s eye surgeon is incredibly smart. He observably delights in answering questions and, if we are discussing eyes and not nerves, he often dashes over to a poster on the wall that illustrates the anatomy of the human eye. At her last visit, I shared with him how she had changed since beginning treatment for hypothyroidism in early April. It’s not that she seems more intelligent, but rather she’s more alert and awake. A leader in a Ds support group told me that “our babies” tend to wake up at around nine months, but she was not sure why. Learning why from the ophthalmologist  reminds me that I cannot rely on any one source—be it a book, website, support group or even a doctor who specializes in Ds—to fully inform me. I need to continually synthesize all the resources available to us, the parents of a child with Ds.

And I see the beginning of a lifelong pattern of questioning whether or not something is the direct result of Lyra’s Ds. Earlier, I had asked if she refused a bottle because of the hypotonia attendant to Ds. Because she is a champ at breastfeeding, which requires more muscle strength than drinking from a bottle, I believe Lyra’s rejection of bottles is purely personality and not due to any Ds related hypotonia. Now, we’ve learned, her new vivaciousness is attributable to her Ds and not her pharmacological treatment for her thyroid issues.

She Grows

Because they are generally smaller than typical children, doctors use a growth chart specifically designed for children with Ds. At an appointment in late March, just a week before she began taking Synthroid for her hypothyroidism, Lyra was 24 inches tall, which put her in the 20th percentile for children with Ds. After two months on Synthroid, she was 26 inches tall, putting her in the 50th percentile for kids with Ds. She has gained nearly two pounds and now weighs a little more than 14 pounds. That keeps her where she was at in March, in the 30th percentile for weight, but, again, that may not be caused by anything atypical. Though she eats food, Lyra is exclusively breastfed and after six months of age, breastfed babies tend to gain weight more slowly than formula fed babies. This was true with all of my boys whom I used to joke about being on some virtual taffy-pulling machine—they’d grow taller and taller and taller without any commensurate weight gain. At nineteen Claude is still a lean drink of water, weighing in at 160 pounds on his 6’2” frame.

Lyra dresses up and grabs Claude's attention
Lyra dresses up and grabs Claude’s attention

For several months, Lyra wore clothes sized for the average three-month-old. She grew, but so incrementally as to be stalled out at size three months. Most babies triple in weight their first year and darling outfits easily become hand-me-downs after only one or two wearings, size three months being a brief weigh station on a quick journey to size twelve months. Or so it had been with all four boys when they were babies. With Lyra, I grew downright sick of dressing her in the same limited collection of clothes. In May, I went out and bought her some new things sized 3-6 months—they fit but with room for growth. After all, she is my only girl and part of the fun is the pretty clothes. Now, at ten months old and after three months of taking Synthroid, I can finally dress Lyra in the size six months clothes I’ve been longing for her to grow into.

She’s Strong(er)

The delays aren’t as noticeable the first year because babyhood milestones have broad acceptable quantifiers of acquisition. You’ll notice more delays in the second year of life.     ~A physical therapist from the county who evaluated Lyra at six weeks of age.

Lyra's favorite teething tool
Lyra’s favorite teething tool

It’s been a long time since someone has asked me if Lyra is a baby doll or a real baby (see“Lyra’s Latest: Wee Teeny Peanut”). Not only is she bigger, she’s more active and wiggles in my arms rather than inactively reposing like a dolly. Recently, I began carrying Lyra like a proper baby—on my left hip. Though she does not yet sit up on the floor without assistance, she does sit upright in my arms (and in her bouncy seat, and her Bumbo, and next to anyone who sits with her on the couch). She hangs on to my clothes and, when she can reach it, pulls a silver pendant I often wear into her mouth, biting the cool metal to soothe her toothless gums. She also grabs for our glasses—Jules and Leif are the only people in the house who don’t wear them. Hugo often lets her succeed and she thanks him by coating his spectacles with drool.

Lyra working with her physical therapist
Lyra working with her physical therapist

Crawling is a four-point system of knees and hands. In Lyra’s physical therapy, we’ve focused on breaking down the components of front and back. When she’s on her belly, we gently encourage her to put weight on her arms. We also take turns sitting cross-legged on the floor with Lyra in the center of our laps. As she leans over a thigh to play with toys set out for her, we bend her legs and make her knees bear weight. We’ve been doing this since April after she mastered rolling over.

At the home daycare both Leif and Lyra attend there are two baby boys just a few weeks older than our girl. At the beginning of the year, I observed these boys rising up on their arms, later finding their knees, rocking on all fours, and eventually crawling. They now stand, albeit briefly, on their own before kerfloping back down on their diaper-cushioned bottoms. Soon they will be walking. It’s hard not to compare. Impossible, really.

And so we were thrilled when, three weeks ago, Lyra began lifting herself up on her arms, both with her elbows bent and with them locked. We continue to cheer for her whenever we see her lift up, doing her baby workout. Come on, peanut, give me five push-ups, lift, lift, lift! Sooo big! Big girl! That’s right! Yay, Lyra, yay!!!

She Claps

At Lyra’s nine-month-old visit with her pediatrician, Dr. M asked me if Lyra was picking up pieces of cereal with her forefinger and thumb yet. “No, but she grabs them with her whole hand,” I told her. Not good enough. Lyra will be evaluated by an occupational therapist next week. Perhaps we are not objective on this count because she seems fine to us, regularly grabbing at things she wants, like my necklace or our glasses. When seated in her Bumbo, we have to clear an 18 inch circle around Lyra. This is because she will suddenly pivot in unpredictable directions and dart her hands to grab at whatever she sees—a glass bowl filled with apples, half full cups of hot coffee, sharp knives. Okay, no knives, but you get the point, if it’s there, Lyra’s liable to grab it. And really, that’s comforting on many levels. First of all, she’s seeing. She’s then processing the information and thinking (I imagine) gimme that! And, finally, she is successfully directing her hand to grab what she sees and wants.

Yay! Lyra!
Yay! Lyra!

Erupting from our house this past month are sounds like those from a stadium full of hometown fans watching their team win the championship. Lyra is given robust rounds of cheers when she lifts up on her arms. Her brother, Leif, has gotten many too as he has moved from diapers to underwear, even at night. Last week, Lyra decided to cheer too. If anyone says, “Yay!” Lyra lays open a knowing grin and with her fingers wide apart, she closely watches as her two hands and come together again and again. And we cheer again because it’s mighty cute.

She Poops. Pellets. Occasionally.

One of the many symptoms of hypothyroidism is constipation. And so I was quite hopeful that after Lyra had been on her medication for a few weeks, she would resume having soft and regular bowel movements. Things did seem to improve at first, and then they went back to the hard, black stools, produced every three to five days, which remind me of owl pellets found in the woods. But owls are carnivores while Lyra eats fruits, vegetables, oat cereal and fish when we have it; all of which she washes down with breastmilk. In other words, a diet that should keep things soft and regular.

I know Lyra’s cries better than I recall knowing those of my other babies. She grunts and squawks when she’s hungry but when she’s tired she whines and yells out. When she’s pooping, she hisses out a breathy scream of pain. I quickly move to open her diaper because her clay hard stools get wedged against her diaper. They can back up in her bottom if I don’t take her diaper off.

Recently a friend of ours recommended a homeopathic remedy. When chosen correctly, I’ve seen homeopathic remedies arrest illnesses with such remarkable speed it’s as though someone waved a magic wand. Which remedy to take is determined by what might otherwise seem like an odd assortment of questions. Seated next to me while I was nursing Lyra, my friend noticed Lyra’s head glistening with perspiration and asked, “Does she always sweat when she nurses?” She does. “Does she have trouble with constipation?” Oh, yeah. “Have her try a dose of calc carb, you can get it at the Mustard Seed.”

I bought the remedy a few days later. The information at the store said it helped cradle cap, the waxy debris that forms on the scalps of many babies. Lyra has that too. I gave her a dose two weeks ago. I gave her another one last week. The other night I was abruptly awakened by Lyra’s aspirant cries. “Turn on the light,” I told Max as I grabbed her from the crib next to my side of the bed. I peeled off Lyra’s jammies and cracked open her diaper. A ball of poo rolled forward in her open diaper, leaving no trail. Lyra sobbed as one does after a physical trial and I held her naked in my arms until she was calm.

I’m at a loss for what to try next. I’ve resisted stool softeners as they are not without side effects, but feel I may need to reconsider that decision if pooping does not become a less painful ordeal for Lyra. Whenever I am sure there is no other recourse, she has a couple of softer, less painful movements. And I again hesitate to interfere with I hope is a long, and nearly complete, process towards regulating.

She Sees

When I pick Lyra up at daycare, I immediately nurse her. She sits in my arms and looks into my eyes, her left eye crossed in slightly, but both seeing me. She reaches up for my hair as I talk to her. When she finishes nursing and is seated in my lap, she repeatedly tilts her head back to look up at me while I talk to Jenny, her daycare provider.

“There is nothing your daughter will not be able to do because of her vision,” the eye surgeon told me several months ago. Last month, he wanted to put Lyra under general anesthesia to conduct a full exam of her eyes. It still takes three of us in his office to change her contact lenses, so examining the interior of her eyes when she is awake is not really an option.

They cancelled the examination, which is treated like surgery, when her blood work came back. After seven weeks on Synthroid, Lyra went from having too much TSH to not enough. The endocrinologist cut her dosage in half and we will test her blood again in July. If she has reached “therapeutic levels” of TSH, her eye surgeon will examine her eyes in August. The postponment of  the initial exam under anesthesia was a blessing because the ophthalmologist has since decided that it is time to tighten Lyra’s eye muscles to correct her crossed eyes. Delaying the first proceedure means one less time Lyra has to undergo general anesthesia.

Long ago, in our first visit with her, Dr. M (whose daughter also has Ds) told us about our kids taking hits to the brain. “They have Ds, that’s a hit. If they develop anemia, that’s another hit. Then, if they have open heart surgery, they take another hit.” I asked her if their brains recover from the hit of open heart surgery. “No, the same is true with adults. There’s something about the reduction of pressure during surgery.” I don’t know if the brain takes a hit when undergoing general anesthesia, but it seems to me that it is something best avoided except when absolutely necessary.

As for her crossed eyes, it’ll be good to have them corrected and she’ll have better depth perception, if not overall vision, when they are tracking in tandem. I’ve often wondered which I eye I should look into when talking to someone with crossed eyes, as it’s impossible to keep my two tracking eyes on two different focal points. I don’t have that problem with Lyra and I cannot tell you why. As kitschy as it sounds, I think it’s because when I look at her, I see her with the love I have for her and my brain doesn’t have a chance to natter at me about which eye I should look at. I see my girl. Or my “sweetness” as Jenny calls her.

The Child I Most Needed to Mother           

When I was five months pregnant with Lyra, I went to see an astrologer. It was not the first time I had met with this woman, who lives three hours away in Yellow Springs, Ohio. In 1997, Hugo was a colicky baby who cried in my arms while the astrologer, whose name is Lynn, described the meaning of all the various planets in my birth chart. Saturn in this house, the moon in that house, this aspect rising,  another descending. Since that time, I have seen her every so often, sometimes after many years, for what is called a “progressive” or where things are now in my chart.

Without going into whether astrology is real or hockum, I recognize that belief systems have long intrigued me. So much so that my primary undergraduate degree is in religious studies. Personally, I don’t put much value in absolute truths, because they are absolutely subjective. I will say that each of my readings with Lynn have resonated in unanticipated ways.

“Your intuitive connection with this baby will be stronger than with any of your other children,” she told me as I sat full bellied in her consulting room. “As a result, this child will know when you are bullshitting and will tell you so. You will not be able to fool her, but she will read and know you with great empathy. Because of this bond, she will be a harder child to leave. Don’t be shocked if you find it hard to send her to daycare so you can go back to work fulltime.

I didn’t ask Lynn any questions about my baby, but she kept returning to her. Nor did I know that the baby I was carrying had Down syndrome, in fact, I’d been told otherwise. And yet Lynn’s description of the baby growing in my womb fit the description of a child with Ds in many ways.

“Because your moon is in Neptune, there is an interesting aspect to this baby. She will be deeply empathetic and so open that you should be cautious of who you let hold her. Do not pass her to someone she does not want to go to.”

After circling back time and again to talk about the baby during my hour long appointment with her, Lynn returned one more time as she ended our session:

“This is the child you most need to mother. Listen, I’m not saying she most needs you, but you most need her. There is more for you in this child, a deeper meaning in being her mother.” And then, almost as an afterthought, she threw out there, “Oh, and expect some sort of giftedness in this child, she’ll be musical or artistic.”

Signs Posted

When the boys were little, I posted quotes in places where they would have no choice but to read them. The best spot is next to the toilet. Often, I would take discarded watercolor paper the boys had painted with pastel colors at the Waldorf school. I would cut the paper into shapes, flowers or just round-edged rectangles, and then I would sit down and slowly copy a quote that had struck me, such as one from Marcus Aurelius:

When you arise in the morning, think of what a privilege it is to be alive: to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.

Or a passage from a book like The Arabian Nights:

A fool may be known by six things: anger, without cause; speech, without profit; change, without progress; inquiry, without object; putting trust in a stranger, and mistaking foes for friends.

Other times, I would just pin cards to the wall or cut out quotes from the newspaper and tape them up. Of them all, what the boys committed most deeply to memory, and for years have frequently cited, is a small line from a long list of famous things Ben Franklin is purported to have said: Beer is a sign that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

Over time, and particularly when moving to the new house, these scraps of sayings have disappeared. Of all the ones I penned on watercolor so many years ago, the one I think of most often was an abridged quote from the Indiana lawyer-poet, Max Ehrmann:

You are a child of the universe…And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

 

 

Obstacles to Writing

House Full Up

Zen Monks Wash Their Own DishesWhoopsie Piggle is currently home to eight people, four dogs, three cats and a singular goldfish who resides in a red plastic sandbox, shaped like a crab, which became a mini-pond two years ago when the lid was left off during a summer storm. The acre and a half of yard and gardens are robustly blooming with both intended and unintended plant life. Daisies and dandelions, rhododendrons and thistles. Many of the birds that Jules lovingly feeds are thistle eaters and while he feeds them only sterile thistles, the seeds they bring in their bowels and evacuate all over our gardens are viable and innumerable.

Big Yard

IMG_1799
The “wee-booms,” as Leif calls them, temporarily placed in front of the area we hope to spend the summer transforming into a magical corner of the yard.

Last fall, Superstorm Sandy took out two trees in our backyard. The trees took out five sections of our wrought iron fence. Rather than pay for tree removal, Max cleared the trees himself and the homeowner’s insurance covered the fence repair. Thanks to the storm, we now have a sunny corner  for Leif and Lyra to have a play area. That is, once we clear out the undergrowth, level the ground and landscape. Claude and Hugo worked on pulling out the rooty undergrowth the weekend before last. The next day a rash began spreading across Claude’s limbs and chest. Like my Grama Dorothy, Claude only needs to be upwind of poison ivy in order to break out with the signature streaks of itchy rash. After a medical visit and prednisone prescription, the Toxicodendron radicans still went systemic and Claude had to return to the doctor’s for a shot.

 

Medical Appointments

Big girl with her vintage Romper Room dolly
Big girl with her vintage Romper Room dolly

When I think of working fulltime, and I am still applying for positions, I wonder how we will manage all the family’s medical appointments. We had nine this week alone. The big boys had four separate appointments, I had two, and Lyra had PT, a well-baby check up and a contact lens change and eye exam with her ophthalmologist. Last week, the eye surgeon had planned on putting Lyra under general anesthesia in order to perform a complete evaluation of her eyes. The surgeon would have changed her contacts then, but Lyra’s lab work was not acceptable for anesthesia. When Lyra first went on Synthroid, her TSH levels were too high. After six weeks on 25 mcg of the medicine, her TSH levels were deemed too low. We sre now trying six weeks at half the previous dose of Synthroid before testing her levels again. Even though we haven’t fully figured out her ideal dosage, Lyra has begun growing more rapidly in the two months she has been taking Synthroid. Though still on the small side, she now feels less like a baby doll and more like a baby.

Teens & Tots

The boulder-sized spools of English ivy Claude and Hugo have eradicated from the front beds this past week
The boulder-sized spools of English ivy Claude and Hugo have eradicated from the front beds this past week

For six months, beginning when Jules turns thirteen later this month and until Claude’s twentieth birthday in January, we will have three teenagers in the house. Just because they are big doesn’t mean they don’t need time and attention. Claude came home in early May from the University of Michigan and while he did odd jobs as a catering waiter and babysitting, it has taken him a month to land full-time employment for the summer. We’ve learned that the ease of online applications has facilitated employers asking endless and often goofy questions. Each week as I try to write during the scant hours both tots are at childcare, Claude has strolled into my room with his beautiful laptop (the one I bought for his high school graduation because it was required by the UM School of Art & Design), sat next to me at my desk, and read off the questions he thought were obtuse, silly, or both:

If you are working on a project and customers keep coming up to you for help, you should a) tell them to see someone else for help b) ask a manager to assign someone else to the project c) help the customers and tell the manager to do the project herself.

There are 26 weeks in a year, true or false?

Amy and Bill have five lollipops. Amy only wants three. How many does Bill want?

IMG_1827On the tot front, Leif has graduated from diapers to underpants in the past month. That means we’ve all be spending time encouraging him to go potty and cheering him like he has hit a home run at Progressive Field when he does (especially #2). And when he has accidents (particularly #2), Leif has been shown the joys of rinsing one’s own underwear in the toilet.

Max the Invisible Attorney

IMG_1783
At the Highland Square Farmers’ Market

Okay, so we can see him, but we rarely do these days. Law is a profession driven by, among other things, deadlines. He has a big one coming up and it’s hard to remember when he regularly slept past 4 a.m., left the office before six p.m. and didn’t work on the weekend. We do miss him because he’s fun to be with but also when he is home it helps tip the ratio of adults to children from being wildly askew.

And so we were delightfully surprised yesterday when Max pulled in the driveway at five o’clock. Together with the three younger children, Max and I strolled through our neighborhood farmers’ market, Leif keeping close to his dada.

Value Added Adult

220px-Liriope_muscari_flowersAt the beginning of May, our friend Nancy moved in with us. After living in Akron for decades, Nancy moved to California eight years ago. She’s returned because her family, including two granddaughters, is here. Rather than complicating our already hectic lives, we’ve soon come to wonder how we managed without her. When she isn’t looking for work or a home of her own, Nancy has taken on several projects in the garden. Just behind our house are two rows of sweet bay magnolias growing in  long beds of liriope muscari. For the first few weeks she was here, Nancy spent many of her mornings in those flowerbeds. She pulled her gardener’s belt, with its impressive collection of tools, from a box and strapped it on. She then trimmed last year’s dead leaves from the lily-like plants and weeded the grass, nutsedge and scourge of thistles from the beds.

IMG_1819Nancy also loves mowing the lawn and is able to create diamond patterns in the turf, so it looks like some professional sports field. Another adult, she willingly drives the kids places, goes to the grocery, feeds the dogs, holds the baby. Even when Max is home, having a third adult in the house is an advantage. But with him currently gone so much, it feels like a gift.

The only drawback, if it can even be called that, is how much I enjoy talking with Nancy and I find myself lingering in the kitchen when I should be up in my office writing. Then I think back to when the big boys were little and how starved I was for adult conversation. Talking into my writing time is the better “problem” to have. Hands down.

Finding Balance

IMG_1806Yesterday, I gave myself a day off. It’s the first full week of summer vacation for Hugo and Jules, the weather was mild and I gave in to the call of the garden. For four hours, Jules helped me as we planted sunflowers, weeded flowerbeds and the cracks between flagstones pavers. I fixed a planter that wasn’t draining and planted lantana in two others. Hugo attacked the English ivy in the front, cutting it off of a tree and pulling up the roots around the trunk. Nancy uncovered a drain in the back corner of the driveway, which had become so clogged with pine needles and debris that a small lake would form after each rainfall. Her two English labs, water dogs that they are, will miss frolicking in the muddy water as they have several times in the past couple of weeks.

Writing is easiest for me when I have the house to myself for several hours, beginning early in the morning. But now it’s summer and the big, old house is full of people, the park-like yard is full of happy dogs and (as a result) not-so happy cats. The gardens need tending and I, too, want to be one of the gardeners.

IMG_1792If I were dying, what in my life would still be important to me? I ask this question of myself regularly to separate what keeps me busy from what is truly important. The people, the conversations, the meals, the home and, yes, writing about it all. The endless bustle is exhausting but one day they will all be off and it will just be us, Max and me. As delicious as that sometimes sounds, I am sure I will look back on these days as the best of my life. For I already do.

Perpetual Postscripts

The morning paper habit
The morning paper habit

I’ve been thinking lately of E.B. White, he of children’s fiction fame for Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, who many today may not know was also a fine essayist. A regular contributor to The New Yorker, I once heard in an interview with his stepson that White worked on his essays tirelessly, drafting and rewriting over and over, never quite happy with this section or that sentence. But then the postman would arrive and, if he was to meet his deadline, White would have to turn over his essay. He had to stop.

The past few days, as is so often the case after I’ve posted one of my own essays on Whoopsie Piggle, I find my brain still writing that which I’ve already posted. I was up at three in the morning after “Screen, Paper, Sound” posted to add a photo of us playing Euchre at the kitchen table. I’d meant to add it before posting, but somehow had forgotten. Easily fixed, that oversight.

The next day, I asked Claude if, when he was a kid, he ever played the video games “Halo” or “Grand Theft Auto” at friends’ houses. He told me he had and I asked where and he told me. At the time, the mother of that friend had sworn to me that the only games they had were auto racing games and the sports games on the Wii. Claude also played a lot of GTA this past year in his dorm at Michigan and sheepishly confessed that he enjoyed it. “That’s different,” I told him, “you’re an adult now and can choose what you do with yourself. Besides, your brain has developed, but it’s different for kids.”

Claude going after the ever-spreading English ivy
Claude going after the ever-spreading English ivy

Claude’s habits are set. He reads the paper with the rest of us and probably finishes more copies of The New Yorker than anyone else in the house. He’s started writing essays of his own and, in the weeks that he’s been home from college, has purposely scheduled time to do so. This isn’t for an assignment, this is on his own for his own satisfaction. He’s been working odd jobs, powering through a significant amount of tough yard work (Max has made Claude the second in command on his English ivy eradication program) and happily spends hours at a time taking care of Leif and Lyra so that I myself can write. If he plays video games with his roommates at college, meh, he’s a balanced guy, video games are not at risk of becoming more real to him than life.

And that’s it, isn’t it? The habits we choose, whether conciously or by some immediately unobservable pattern, that shape who we are and how we interact with others. And so, in this morning’s New York Times, Jonathan Safran Foer has an op-ed piece that speaks to our changing habits as technology changes and the concern for what we risk losing, if we aren’t mindful, of our humanness:

Most of the time, most people are not crying in public, but everyone is always in need of something that another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word or deep empathy. There is no better use of a life than to be attentive to such needs. There are as many ways to do this as there are kinds of loneliness, but all of them require attentiveness, all of them require the hard work of emotional computation and corporeal compassion. All of them require the human processing of the only animal who risks “getting it wrong” and whose dreams provide shelters and vaccines and words to crying strangers.

In otherwords, be present and be kind. Don’t allow your technology to cocoon you from the humanity to which we are all belong. And that’s why my children did not grow up with video games in the house and minimal “screen time” in general. But I, too, have to monitor my own time spent on that little phone with those seductive apps. Including the one for WordPress.com that lets me monitor the stats for Whoopsie Piggle. It’s remarkably addictive.

This technological format I write in, a blog, allows me to make changes ad infinitum to the original copy and also to follow up, like I am now, whenever I want. Does this improve or detract from the writing? E.B. White had to stop, he had to pass it over to the mail carrier. But I wonder, as the mail carrier drove away with the essay down the writer’s driveway in Maine, did White call his editor at The New Yorker and give him changes over the phone?

Screen, Paper, Sound

Grama's favorite photo of herself
Grama’s favorite photo of herself

After I’d spent the summer with my grandparents in Arizona and had returned to my mother’s house in Ohio, my grandmother wrote in a letter to my father and stepmother:

                                             August 29, 1979

Holly is a beautiful young lady, but a little headstrong because she has been on her own so much while Judy worked. Judy has quit her job for now so she will get more supervision. Holly is very bright, but they don’t give her much intellectual stimulation so she doesn’t stretch her mind.

Ouch. Grama nailed it.

Network Reared

At home with my constant companion
At home with my constant companion

When I was a junior in high school and lived with my father, stepmother and two halfsisters, what I most enjoyed was the lack of something: a television. There were no home computers in 1980, but everybody I knew had at least one television. Prior to that year, when living with my mother, much of my childhood had been spent with a black and white “portable” television that sat across from me at the table. The small TV was memorable because its plastic case was upholstered in denim, like a pair of tight fitting jeans, complete with western stitching and the brand name on a leather rectangle. I’ve never seen another television like that, then or since. Even when searching online.

My mother worked in bars and left for work shortly after the school bus dropped me off at our house, which was one in a single row built on the edge of a farm field. Across the street was another farm field and in the flat land of western Ohio, the views from the front and back of the house stretched for miles, unimpeded by little other than corn and soybeans in the summer and snow in the winter. My stepfather sold farm machinery and traveled during the week. After I waved good-bye to my mother from the large picture window of a living room that contained no furniture, I settled myself in front of the kitchen TV with my dinner. Until the evening news came on, I watched a string of syndicated reruns including Hogan’s Heroes, Adam-12, and The Odd Couple. When the evening news aired, I got up from my seat, cleaned the kitchen, took a bath and by seven o’clock resettled in front of my friendly, denim-clad box for the game shows that preceded the evening’s prime time programming. Depending on the night and what was on the TV, I watched until eleven o’clock. If I didn’t like what was on any of the three stations, I read in bed until I fell asleep. By the time I’d finished the eighth grade, I’d read everything Stephen King had published. Alone in a house surrounded by the wide open dark, King’s novels were not good soporifics and I often read the bible afterwards.

The Rangeline Road house near Dayton, Ohio
The Rangeline Road house near Dayton, Ohio

Generally, my mother did not return until well after midnight, but on occasion, when the bar she worked at was slow, she’d get home early. Only once was I caught immersed in a program well past my official bedtime. Her rage, instantly there like her best friend, complete with flying spittle, bulging neck veins and her long fingers that reached for my hair as I ran from her (I kept hidden a box containing the fistfuls of hair she would toss to the ground after she’d ripped them, from time to time in a fit of anger, free from my scalp), was memorable enough that I never let it happen again. Thereafter, I kept the kitchen lights off and one ear attuned to the sound of the garage door opening. If I heard its mechanical rumble, I snapped off the TV and dashed to my bed before she entered the house, only to lie awake wondering if she’d touch the TV to see if it was warmer than it should be.

It was not from activity that I was such a skinny kid. Genetics mixed with a good bit of chronic anxiety did the trick.

Screen Free Family

Home in Michigan
Home in Michigan

When I went to stay with them in 1980, it was the first time I had seen my father, stepmother and half-sister, Becky, since 1970. I had never met my youngest sister, Kate, who was born in 1972. With these other parents of mine, everyone was home most nights and we generally had dinners together. My sisters and I complained about our dad’s miso soup, a mealtime frequent flyer that was always thick with cabbage, but adored my stepmom’s bread. She made several loaves at a time and we would devour the first loaf before it was cool enough to slice without tearing; thick squares were chopped from cold sticks of butter and arranged on the hot pieces of bread like the dots on dice, where they softened into salty-sweet globs.

Most weekends, we spent at least one evening together and after dinner played cards or board games. Sometimes, we played rounds of backgammon, lining up to take turns when someone lost. The rest of us would watch the game or, if not, sit in the small living room and talk or read books. All the while, music I’d never heard before played on the stereo—bands like Canned Heat or Little Feat.

Hot air popcorn poppers were popular then, but my dad still made his popcorn on the stove in a pan. Repeatedly, as the popcorn popped at peak mass and threatened to overflow like lava, Dad poured a river of popcorn into a large mixing bowl where we mixed it with melted butter and salt. Dense and greasy, it made hot air popcorn seem like an unsatisfying ghost of the real thing. Even the next morning, when the popcorn was cold and the cooking oil and butter had emulsified with the salt, we would chew on handfuls before breakfast.

It was that year that I heard National Public Radio for the first time. I learned to listen to the news, in part because I was older, but also because on NPR, the news was interestingly told. I have never stopped listening to NPR (and for the record, I’ve long been a dollar-a-day member of my local station, pausing my contribution only briefly during my divorce).

My Turn

In recent years, I’ve come to understand how much of the quotidian of my father and stepmother’s home life I have adopted in raising my own children. From little things like storing my kitchen dry goods in large glass jars to birthing all my children at home, many of my choices for my household have been strongly influenced by my time with my family in Northern Michigan.

And so it was easy to give up television when I began having children. Our viewing was soon limited to whatever we could get on video. That seemed somewhat radical back then, as did the bumper stickers that stated, “Kill Your Television!” Still, the house was not media-free, nor as someone who studied film in college, did I want it fully to be. However, without access to regular television, what is viewed can be controlled. Which isn’t to say, in hindsight, I don’t regret some of the things I let the boys watch. I particularly cringe when I remember owning “Pokémon” videos.

My children have never had video games, either hand-held or larger consoles like an X-box or a Wii. However, I knew my boys played them when they went to their friends’ homes. I was emphatic that I did not want them to play games that glorified violence, such as “Halo” or “Grand Theft Auto.” Whether or not they did – and if so, how much – I don’t know. But none of my children ever asked me to buy them gaming systems of any variety. I’m sure they didn’t bother because they knew I’d say no, but also they just weren’t interested enough. I suspect part of the reason they weren’t is that they had no exposure, at least at home, to television commercials promoting any number of consumer items marketed for kids.

Instead, I played games with my kids. At first, there were the pre-reader games that, for the adults, made watching paint dry seem like an exciting alternative. You know: Chutes and Ladders, Don’t Be the Dragon and, the worst of them in my opinion, Candyland. But by five or six years of age each of the boys graduated to the card game Uno, which we all enjoy to this day. After Uno, it wasn’t long before we branched out to popular board games: Trouble, Sorry, and Monopoly, which I had played as girl, as well as newer ones like Cadoo and Apples to Apples. When Max came along, I relearned Euchre, a game I had learned in high school, and we taught the boys. For at least three years, it has been the reigning favorite game in the house.

Our Media

DAILY

We moved to Northeast Ohio when Claude was six, Hugo three and I was pregnant with Jules. Since then, I have maintained a daily subscription to the Plain Dealer. We start our mornings by calling out who gets to read the funnies. Most weekdays during the school year, Hugo gets up at 5:30 to do his homework and will start the coffee, feed and let out the dogs, and bring in the paper. Deservedly, he reads the funnies first. Jules and I tend to come down around the same time and I prefer to let him read the funnies before I do because otherwise he’ll stand behind me as I sit at the table and make comments in my ear about the strips he’s reading over my shoulder.

Meanwhile, the rest of the paper is spread across the kitchen table and inevitably other sections get read. Hugo likes to check the sports section to see how the Indians did if they had a game the day before. Claude reads the op-ed page and any attention grabbing headlines. On Thursdays, Jules foregoes the funnies in favor of the weekly birding column. I don’t remember when they all started reading sections of the paper beyond the funnies, it happened organically. And it happened because the paper was there and a television was not.

WEEKLY

The longest subscription I have had in my life was Newsweek Magazine. Until a few years ago, one of the first sections of the magazine was a page of quotes and editorial cartoons from the previous week. Like the newspaper funnies, my boys turned immediately to the editorial cartoons when Newsweek arrived in the mail. As they became older, they’d start reading the quotable quotes of the week and then ask me, “Who’s Dick Cheney?” or “Who’s Donald Rumsfeld?” or whomever it was that had been quoted. I’d like to think their nascent understanding of politics began with the conversations about those quotes and the quoted.

Unknown-2The method by which the boys began reading the New Yorker (once Max and his subscription were in our lives) should be clear. I wonder how many children over the decades have been lured to the pages of that lofty publication by the one-panel cartoons liberally sprinkled throughout each issue?

BI-WEEKLY

Because the big boys seem to love learning about inventions and experiments, I picked up a subscription to Science News a couple of years ago. It’s not cheap and I thought about dropping it this year and said so in passing while processing a stack of magazines in the kitchen, really talking aloud to myself more than to anyone around me. I gathered from the ensuing uproar that the three big boys read each and every issue, cover to cover, and I promptly renewed our subscription.

MONTHLY

Unknown-1I get This Old House, The Sun Magazine, and Creative Nonfiction (the latter I believe I will have in perpetuity without renewing ever again because I’ve submitted so many pieces of my writing to their contests with an added fee for subscription, none of which have won). Claude and Hugo get Esquire. Jules gets Audubon, Living Bird, The Nature Conservancy, Automobile and Cook’s Illustrated. And we all consider ourselves recipients of The Atlantic and The Smithsonian Magazine.

A Bit Much?

I have a friend who for years has supported herself with an amalgam of odd jobs, including house cleaning. Many years ago, she had a client who was a psychologist with a hoarder problem. The woman subscribed to The New York Times and had copies stacked all over her house that she had not finished reading. Not one or two weeks’ worth, but years and years of The New York Times. When my friend tried to help her client get rid of a few stacks of the older newspapers, her client had a fit—she was determined that she would read them all. One day. Well, I do know how she feels.

imagesSimilar but different, my own father could not part with any of his issues of The Rolling Stone Magazine. He had read them when they’d arrived, but he had them archived in stacks three feet deep in corners of the house. If ever anyone wanted to read a particular issue in crumbling newsprint, he had it. Somewhere.

True Confession

I have a stack of my own favorite magazines from over the years. They fill one magazine holder in the living room. If I want to add one, I require myself to eliminate another (and usually do). And, yes, it’s hard to put two months’ worth of The New Yorker that I haven’t had a chance to even look at into the recycling, but we regularly do. Max has taught me to stop reading the table of contents beforehand because there is always something worth reading and before you know it, I’ll be like the newspaper hoarding psychologist. “Besides,” says Max, “another one will be here in a week or less!”

Enjoy it while we can

Last summer, before he moved into the dorms at the University of Michigan, Claude asked if I’d get him his own subscription to Newsweek and The Atlantic. Or maybe Harper’s (because who doesn’t love those crazy lists?), which we used to get but the renewal didn’t happen, more by accident than intention. When he got settled at school, however, Claude quickly realized that he had very little down time and no longer thought he could keep up with Newsweek or anything else coming regularly. Instead, I put together a handful of interesting issues of Newsweek and an assortment of other publications from the aforementioned lists that had arrived after Claude gone off to college.Unknown

I learned of the demise of printed Newsweek in a Facebook post. From an English professor. Who is also a novelist. My subscription ended a month after the magazine went digital and I have yet to renew. Maybe I will or instead, I might switch to Time Magazine, even though I do not share their more conservative bias.

Less than six months after Newsweek stopped being delivered by our mail carrier, The Plain Dealer announced that it was reducing home delivery from seven to three days a week. Owned by Advance Publications, the reduction of The Plain Dealer home delivery potentially means a reduction of its staff and, therefore, coverage. This has been experienced at other Advance Publications’ papers when home delivery has been reduced, most notably at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

From fashion to technology, I’m often slow to adapt. I never cottoned to the wildly popular Ugg Boot/house slippers as fashionable footwear, a trend that continues, any more than I thought Crocs were anything but ugly (except maybe on small children for whom they are easy to get on and off with no adult help). Similarly, I did not believe electronic publication would take off at all, let alone so rapidly, for a variety of reasons—the resolution is not what it is with paper and ink, you can’t hold a computer the way you can a book, magazine or newspaper, and you can’t spread them all over the house and know that the children will find them and read them as much by accident as desire. Well, tablets and electronic books are taking care of some of those concerns. And like other things that aren’t as good as what becomes the dominant product (think Beta versus VHS, vinyl albums versus CDs versus MP3s, 35mm cameras versus digital cameras), the resolution of ink on paper appears to be worth sacrificing for the convenience of instant access. At least for a growing majority.

More Confessing

I’m guilty. I can forever skip television, video games and all sorts of electronic errata that suck out valuable time from the precious few years I will live. But where I’ve been sucked in is the damn smart phone. Most nights of my adult life, I’ve fallen asleep with a book in my hands. Or a magazine. Or a newspaper. Now, I fight the compulsion to check my email one last time and then, time-brain sucker par excellence, Facebook. With a large family, personal reading time is hard to come by. That I give the few quiet minutes I have at the end of the day to a string of pithy postings that I will likely not recall a week, or a day, later concerns me.

Still the Same

For now, the paper still covers the kitchen table each morning. Shortly after our friend, Nancy, moved in with us last month, she subscribed to The Akron Beacon Journal and the Sunday New York Times. Each morning, we continue to read articles aloud to each other in the kitchen as we drink our coffee in our pajamas before heading out into the world. I don’t know what we will do when in August The Plain Dealer begins delivering only three days a week. I suspect, as when Newsweek changed, nothing.

I love reconnecting with old friends on Facebook. I also have found various groups on Facebook, particularly those related to Down syndrome, to provide valuable support and information. Writing essays for a blog that has an attendant Facebook page has come easily to me and I enjoy the format. I’m not interested in a life without the Internet and I have mostly embraced the advances in technology and publishing online while simultaneously trying to balance these benefits with my concerns for privacy.

Earlier this week, I learned late one evening that a friend in another state had suddenly died. Before I went to sleep, I read his Facebook wall and saw, albeit in small measure, what he was thinking about in his final weeks of life. I looked at photos of him and his family and all that they did together the past few years. And I was grateful for Facebook.

Choose Wisely, Choose Wisdom

Two boys came from the exact same background and one went on to work in a gas station and the other became a brain surgeon. You know the difference? The brain surgeon’s mother was Jewish. She pushed him to do his best. All the time.

~The Orthodox Jewish psychologist who tested Claude for his dyslexia in 2002

I have spent my life working, as my grandmother wanted, to stretch my mind. I did not go to college fulltime until I was 21. When I graduated at 26, I had enough credits for two bachelor’s degrees. Still, at times I feel like an autodidact, perennially overcompensating for what I perceive are holes in my education or intellect by reading more, learning more, asking experts. Clearly this has influenced, as much as any one person, how I have chosen to raise my kids. They well may have other things to complain about in regards to the choices I have made, but pushing them to do their best academically, to go beyond what is assigned and find the satisfaction of learning something they didn’t even know they would find interesting, is something I’ll not apologize for. I’m not quite a “Tiger Mother,” I’m too lazy for that and truly do believe in down time for kids. I’d like to think I’m more of a “Jewish Mother” as described above.

IMG_1583The removal of television from our home nearly twenty years ago now seems like a quaint notion, like closing a window on a capsizing boat to keep the water out. We had no idea of the technology that was coming, but getting rid of the television was absolutely the right thing to do. Regardless that four of us now have iPhones, that Claude and Hugo both have laptops of their own, we still keep the screen time pretty low. Line up my kids and ask them how they would most like to spend an evening at home with the family and I’ll give you 8 to 1 odds that they’ll pick sitting around playing cards or board games. Every time.