Parenting

Never Tell Me The Odds

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My son’s prized book collection hidden behind a clay tank he created and his Pop characters

Dyslexia. For most of my life, the word conjured in me a sense of doom. Like so many people, I imagined a dyslexic person would be sentenced to a life without reading, a life without higher education, a life being thought of as a dummy. I never imagined dyslexia would touch my life. And then I tried to teach my sons to read.

Joe struggled with simple character reversals, consistently transposing b and d and 2 and 5. He couldn’t say his alphabet, always leaving letters out, skipping from p to v. His first grade teacher gave him a failing grade in reading during the first trimester that year, and I could not figure out how a child in first grade who was learning to read could be failing at it. We later discovered Joe had ADHD and mild dyslexia. Luke’s reading issues were worse than Joe’s. Luke not only transposed letters but couldn’t seem to stop confusing entire words, like what and that and the and who. When we tried to get him to read to us, he had every excuse imaginable. When he hit third grade, he began falling behind and we had him tested. Luke was diagnosed with moderate to severe dyslexia. We were told he needed to be taught to read in an entirely different way from his classmates and would either need to enter an intensive reading program for three months, which meant taking him out of school for that period, or be moved to a remedial school. I was crushed.

At that point, we made the decision to put both boys into a private school for children with learning disabilities. There they received not only reading instruction delivered in a way that allowed them to catch up to their peers, but also individualized math lessons and time with occupational and speech therapists. They began to blossom. We all began to see their strengths more than their struggles and started feeling hopeful about their prospects despite their dyslexia.

People often speak of their heroes: brave soldiers, firefighters, police officers, and selfless volunteers. I have never believed heroism belonged solely to people who save other’s lives or make immense sacrifices. I choose to find heroism in those who face adversity and rise above. My sons are my heroes. They started out behind their peers and have been working to catch up since birth. They’ve never given up. They’ve never accepted less for themselves. They’ve figured out how to embrace their strengths while working to overcome their struggles. It’s been a gift watching them develop and grow and push beyond the limitations inherent in the way their brains are set up. They inspire me.

Luke reads every day in his free time. He is not a fast reader, but he soldiers on. He challenges himself. He never quits. In seventh grade, he got 100 pages into self-chosen Mein Kampf before deciding he might not be mature enough for it yet. Last year in eighth grade Honors literature, he read White Fang, 1984, Watership Down, Of Mice and Men, as well as Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, and in his spare time he also read the 650-page biography of Steve Jobs and The Man in the High Castle. This summer he chose to read Homer’s The Iliad and then followed it with The Odyssey. On his Christmas list is a rare book about World War II written in 1948 by a Jewish soldier in the British armyHis teacher this year assigned Bless Me, Ultima and then said she was hoping they could compare that to Like Water for Chocolate, which she hasn’t yet assigned but he has finished reading anyway. I have no idea how this is the same kid who fought us when we asked him to read Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.

A few weeks ago Luke said something I have been turning over in my mind since. He said, “Dyslexia is not a reason not to read. It is a reason to read.” And that sums up Luke. He’s Han Solo who says, “Never tell me the odds” or John Locke from television’s Lost when he exclaims, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do.” I’ve thought a lot about his attitude, about taking what is difficult and turning it to your advantage, about being told who you are and proving them all wrong. As a child, it’s easy to take what you are told about yourself and believe it. I know I did. But I think it’s time I start looking at life through Luke-colored lenses. Maybe all the things I was told I can’t do should become all the things I have to do. By my side will be the child who has shown me what it means to believe in yourself, naysayers be damned.

My Wandering Heart

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India photo op 

“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”   ~Elizabeth Stone

Right now, if the above saying is true, my heart is walking around India. On Saturday, we drove our oldest to the airport at 7:30 a.m. so he could board a flight to Asia with fifteen classmates and three of their high school teachers. We had spent the better part of two weeks making sure he was geared up for this trip, both mentally, physically, and personally. We bought him the requisite power adapter and made sure he had adequate, quick drying clothing along with several sticks of deodorant we knew he would need in the 100 degree summer-in-India weather. Oddly, both my husband and I were calm and collected as we said our goodbyes to Joe and left him at the airport to embark on a 24-hour travel day, including a 15 hour flight from Newark to Mumbai, without us. There were no tears or histrionics, not even in the car on the ride home. I’m not sure how we pulled it off.

The decision to let your child travel without you is a leap of faith. Like a child learning to ride a bicycle, we began with training wheels. First, we sent Joe to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to do some service work for five days during his freshman year. Last summer, we left him for a week at summer camp at the foot of Long’s Peak. This past March, Joe went to Grand Cayman to earn his scuba certification. Each time we let him go, he returned a little braver, stronger, and more self-possessed. Each time he left, we grew a little more resigned to the reality that he really is growing up.

Each time Joe has gone away, he has done so without a phone. For the trip to India, we were given the option to get him a cellular plan or let him take his iPad and use hotel Wifi to reach out when he could. For us, it was a no brainer. We weren’t sending him halfway around the world so he could ride in a van creating bunny-eared Snapchat photos as India teemed with life around him. He was traveling with responsible people who would be updating us and who had cell phones. He didn’t need his. He would experience more without it.

It never occurred to me that not letting him take his phone might seem foolish. It wasn’t until I was met with incredulity from other parents regarding my son’s phone-less status that it even crossed my mind that our actions might be beyond the pale. How could I let my son go halfway around the world without a way for me to check in on him? What if he needed me and was unable to get a Wifi signal? What if there was an emergency? I don’t let my son walk 1.5 miles to Target without his cell phone. What the hell was I thinking sending him to ASIA without one? I questioned my sanity.

Then while talking to another mom with a child on the trip, she showed me the app she uses to track her son’s whereabouts. She showed me exactly where our kids were at that moment, in their hotel, near a hospital in Mumbai. That was when I remembered why we sent him without a phone. As uncomfortable as it may be for a mother’s heart, this is Joe’s experience. He deserves the room to have it his own way without constant input and monitoring. If something comes up, he can be trusted to to figure it out. What he needs is the freedom to experience India and Sri Lanka without my two-cents.

Right now, it’s 1:35 a.m. in Mumbai, and my second heart is probably sleeping, exhausted after a day touring the slums of Dharavi and viewing that world through its first-world, teenage boy filter. My second heart, the one I grew over nine months and delivered into the world seventeen years ago, is having an 18-day adventure in life in southern Asia. It’s feeling and stretching and evolving. It’s not simply going through the motions and it’s not staring at its phone. It’s living in the moment unencumbered by its usual reality. That is worth a little sacrifice and emotional malaise on my part, being out of instant touch with my boy, one of my favorite people on this planet.

I won’t feel whole again until my heart is back with me. When it gets here, though, it’s going to be fuller than it has ever been. And the experience it has had will be a gift to me, not only because Joe will have grown in ways he never could have without this solo journey but because this time apart has given me an appreciation for what an open, curious, resilient person we’ve raised. He’s a rockstar, far braver than I was when I was his age.

Someday maybe Joe will give life to his own second heart and let it wander the world, adventuring without him, and he too will stretch and grow in ways he never imagined possible when he had only one heart.

Run Your Race

“I am better than I was yesterday but not as good as I’ll be tomorrow.”  ~Anonymous

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This kid 

Our oldest is coming to the end of his second track season. When he chose this sport last year (after I convinced him that coed track would allow him to spend more time with girls in shorts than boy’s baseball would), we were track virgins. We knew nothing about the sport save that the kids ran in circles and some jumped hurdles and some leapt into sand pits. As the season progressed, we began to understand the events, the lingo, and the skills necessary to be competitive in the sport. We learned that track is a race against yourself even as you race with others. The whole thing fascinated me. By the time this spring rolled around, we were honestly excited to drive an hour to sit for five hours to watch Joe run for no more than 7 minutes total. It’s official. We’re veteran track parents now.

Joe is a daddy long legs. The kid is 5’8″ tall with a 34″ inseam. His coach usually puts him in relays, as well as the 400 meter (once around the track) and the 800 meter. The 800 meter is considered the most difficult race because, unlike longer races, you don’t have time to pace yourself. You need to give it your all for both laps. It looks miserable. I don’t know how he does it, but he does.

Last week he told us that his goal for this season is to run the 400 meter in under a minute. He’s finished a few seconds off that mark a couple times now. This past weekend, I watched anxiously as he tried to break that minute goal. He almost always starts at the back of the pack and, bit by bit, as the other kids run out of steam Joe turns it on. He’s very incremental about it. He looks at the guy ahead of him and challenges himself to get ahead of just that one. Once that is done, he sets his sights on the next kid and so on. As he started down the last straightaway in the 400 last weekend, I noticed he kept looking around him, making sure no one was coming from behind. He finished well, with his new personal best time in the event, but still off his mark by .84. Less than one second now separates him from his season goal.

That night Steve and I told him that his goal is completely achievable at this next meet. Steve suggested wearing his cleats instead of traditional running shoes to shave off that final second. I told him to stop checking out the runners behind him, focus on his own lane, and keep his eyes on the finish line. That bad habit is slowing him down. There is no time for paying attention to others. Stop doing it and you will reach your goal. As the words rolled off my tongue, it occurred to me I should take my own damn advice.

The phrase you hear around the track is “Run your race” with the emphasis on your. And this is what I told Joe after he missed his goal by that fraction of a second. I have been repeating it to myself for days now. We all do what Joe does. We look around and make comparisons. We slow ourselves down by worrying about what someone else is doing or thinking or saying. And all it does is ruin our momentum and peace of mind.

Life is basically a giant track meet. What we have in common is that we’re all signed up to run. That is it. We come to the race with our different skills and baggage and attitudes and strengths. How we handle ourselves, how far, how focused, and how efficiently we go is up to us. We sabotage our own progress when we spend too much time worrying about what others are doing or looking back rather than focusing on the road ahead of us. Oh, the amount of time I have squandered perseverating over what others were doing or had done in comparison with my own efforts before I recently realized none of that matters. I could not have run anyone else’s race just as no one else is as uniquely qualified to run mine as I am.

Run your race, people. I wish you luck. Just stay out of my lane. I’ve got a personal record to beat tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after that.

 

 

Out Of My Hands

The other day I was sitting in the car with my youngest while we waited for the high school to let out. I glanced over at Luke who, per usual, was already busy scribbling responses in a vocabulary notebook. As he worked diligently to get ahead on his homework for the evening, my eyes were drawn to his hand. I don’t normally notice the boys while they are ensconced in their school work. But, sitting in the car without much to amuse myself, I got curious to see what he was working on. As I looked over, this is what caught my eye.

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How does he even do that?

Luke has one of the most unique ways of holding a writing implement I have ever seen. This visual sent me tripping down memory lane, thinking of all the teachers and aides and tutors who were flummoxed by it. It was labeled maladaptive. When he was young and spent hours drawing and coloring, his grip constantly broke crayons. Beginning in preschool, teachers pointed it out as if it made him a freak, the Hunchback of Handwriting. I was told he’d never be able to get through school with that grip. His hand would tire. His writing would be illegible. Quelle horreur! Occupational therapists spent hours working with him to redirect it, to bring it in line with what is considered “normal.” For my part, I consistently deferred to their assessment that the situation was untenable and needed to be corrected because, well, what did I know? I was no expert. So Luke continued to do therapy and classroom work and tutor time in an effort to fix it, even though he didn’t see it as broken. In the end, no matter the effort that went into ameliorating it, he reverted back to what was natural for him.

Eventually, I found a reason to stop thinking about his odd pencil grip. When his third grade teacher mentioned it in our first conference with her, I told her we really could not care less. It was a non-issue. She looked at me like I had three heads and rattled off the reasons I’d heard myriad times as to why this was, in fact, a huge deal. I slid his psychoeducational evaluation across the desk and told her improving our dyslexic son’s reading skills was our only focus. Nothing like a bigger problem to make a smaller problem diminish. His pencil grip and handwriting blipped off the radar screen. It became nothing more than an extension of Luke’s character: creative, unbridled, and charmingly quirky. Nothing wrong with that.

Years later, I one day noticed my own pencil grip. It also would be considered maladaptive. It too would make preschool teachers cringe. Maybe if I’d considered it sooner, I could have saved Luke all the hassle of hours in occupational therapy, knowing I’d survived school and life with my own weird grip. Like mother, like son? Sorry, buddy.

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Apparently I owe Luke an apology

The little things aren’t always the big things we imagine them to be. Our fruitless attempts to remediate Luke’s pencil grasp taught me to choose my parenting battles more wisely in the future, to listen to experts but to weigh their advice against the bigger picture and my own gut feelings. With time and practice with my Little-Miss-Rule-Follower self, I’ve started to recognize I don’t always have to follow common procedure. Some things will improve with time and some things aren’t worth the trouble. My son who, despite his dyslexia, struggled his way from two years behind reading level in third grade to become the kind of kid who at 12 was reading adult, historical non-fiction books like Band of Brothers for fun, never needed help getting a grip. He needed help teaching the adults to let go of one.

People ponder the question of nature versus nurture. I posit it’s a bit of both. Sometimes one wins out, sometimes the other. We would like to be in control, to manage, to create order from perceived chaos, but the universe seeks to teach us otherwise. Maybe it would be better if we accepted that sometimes things are simply out of our hands.

Country Tunes, Rose Ceremonies, and Expectations

IMG_0921It’s Valentine’s Day, the one day of the year when expectations of all ilks band together to form a super group of disappointment. You might recognize some of their greatest Country hits.

  • How Could You Not Know
  • Lingerie…the Gift for You That’s Really For Me
  • Ended up at Chili’s in my Best Dress and Pearls
  • Don’t Give Me Chocolate and Complain that I’m Fat
  • I Paid For Lobster and Got Cold Fish
  • My Dog Loves Me More Than You Do
  • Stalled in the Friend Zone
  • Valentine’s Day Threesome – Me, Myself, and I
  • Sleeping on the Sofa Again

Traditionally, this has not been my favorite holiday because I’ve never been great with expectations. Based on something that happened last night with my son, however, I have evidence my attitude may be changing.

Him: “If I wanted to buy some flowers, what would be the best way to do that?”

Me: *silently processing* Flowers? What for? Oh shit. It’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow. OMG. This may be the cutest thing he’s ever said. *squeal* Act cool. Don’t let on that he’s being adorable. And, for holy lizard’s sake, don’t be patronizing. Whatever you do, do not ask who they are for. Crap. Where will we find roses in the morning before school and how early will we have to get to the store? Maybe we should go tonight. Oh man. I don’t want to drive all over town tonight. If we go quickly, maybe I can still catch the men’s half-pipe finals. 

“We could hit Whole Foods after dinner if that sounds good,” I replied with my best game face, as if it were barely an issue. “Whole Foods usually has nice flowers.”

“Okay,” he said.

We geared up and drove the five minutes to the store and, being Mom and being something of an expert on expectations, I prepared him for multiple scenarios surrounding the endeavor. There could be no flowers left. There could be a million flower choices. The store might be inordinately busy. The flowers might be more expensive than he was thinking. We might have to go to a few different places. He might have to change his game plan.

He seemed not at all fazed by the prospects. He shared that some of his friends said he was crazy. Some expressed concern he would get hurt. Some said nothing because they had done something similar last year and were reserving judgment. I told him that if he was being honest about his intentions, there was no way to lose. If you act from a place of thoughtfulness without return expectation, you can’t go wrong. Giving should make you feel good, no matter where it leads. The act of giving selflessly is actually a gift for you too.

He was in luck. Whole Foods had dozens of buckets of roses. He had (quite charmingly) done his research about the meanings of rose colors and had decided against yellow. He and the recipient were already friends, so friendship roses seemed to express the obvious. He further knew that red roses were way beyond what would be proportionate to his feelings. He decided on light pink roses so she would know he admired and appreciated her. We inspected the pink rose bouquets to select the optimal bunch. I helped him pick out a small, blank card in which he would later write “Happy Valentine’s Day from your friend” to make sure she knew he simply wanted to do something nice to make her day more special. When we got home, he selected four flowers from the assortment and we put them into a vase.

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This morning he was nervous, not about the gift but about the managing of the gift. Where would he put the flowers until they saw each other? How much shade would his classmates give him? How awkward was his morning going to be? What had he gotten himself into? He had no idea what to expect. I told him that was a fair place to be and wished him godspeed.

I have spent most of my life sweating the constant, crushing, considerable heft of expectations. I was raised under them and unconsciously came to regard them as a weighted blanket, a comfortable and secure place from which to operate. Only recently have I examined them more closely and accepted their truths. Expecting too much from others or yourself only causes trouble. Expecting too little from yourself or others leaves your self-esteem vulnerable. Somewhere in the middle of that see saw, around the center at the pivot point, is the best place from which to ride life’s waves. I think I will find that sweet spot eventually. For now, I am enjoying the remainder of those pink roses we purchased last night, admiring and appreciating myself for getting closer to where I hope to be.

Justine 2.0 Eclipses The Original

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Our Nebraska eclipse home

Back in February, at the bequest of my eldest son, I added the eclipse on August 21st to our family iCalendar. Then I forgot about it. In April, Joe mentioned he wanted to travel to Casper, four hours north of us, to view the eclipse in totality. He told me this eclipse was a huge deal and we should make a plan. I shrugged it off. August was months away. I told him I would get to it. By early June when I finally got to it, there were no rooms available. No rooms. Zero. In Casper. Wyoming. No camping spaces anywhere within the Wyoming area of totality either. On AirBnB, houses were renting for upwards of $1k per night with a two-night minimum. I thought I was in a parallel universe. This is a state where you can travel for hours and see more pronghorn than people. Joe enjoyed a hearty told you so, and I ate crow and dug out Plan B.

So on August 21st, we awoke in Nebraska. Through ludicrous amounts of searching, I managed to discover a spot within the Nebraska area of totality to park our rPod trailer for a bona fide, eclipse-mania bargain of $50 a night (two night minimum, of course). We spent the previous night camped in a grassy field in the Morrill County Fairgrounds in Bridgeport with about fifty other families who also had put off nailing down an eclipse plan until the last possible moment. These likeminded procrastinators were my eclipse tribe, and we were poised to use our verified, paper, solar-eclipse glasses to see our magnificent star blotted out momentarily by our only satellite. We lucked out. The morning fog had burned off, and the Nebraska sky was clear, blue, and ready to oblige us with an unobstructed view.

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Rocking their eclipse glasses waiting for totality

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As midday became night

I struggle for sufficient words to describe what I felt as the moon eclipsed the sun. As a family we had made a conscious determination to spend our minute seven seconds of totality present in the moment and not absorbed with the misguided notion we could capture and catalog this singular experience with an iPhone. When the moon made midday in Nebraska into dusk and exposed me to a 360-degree sunset, I exclaimed to myself (but somehow loudly enough for my family to remember): This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. It was incomparable. I could not hold back the tears.

I recount this personal tale not because I felt the world needed yet another #solareclipse2017 story, but because I realized on our way home from Nebraska that an older version of me, a Justine 1.0, would have missed the experience of totality. Being ever realistic and focused on the big picture, I would have done what many Denverites did. After finding lodging completely booked and reading road signs warning of high traffic and news articles advising travelers to bring extra cash, extra food and water, and emergency gas cans because of the unprecedented amount of day travelers expected to make the trek, I would have cut my losses and stayed home. I would have decided it wasn’t worth the risk or the expense or the vacation day hubby would take or the potential 8-12 additional travel hours in endless traffic or the missed first day of school for the boys. I would have determined that 93% of an eclipse was close enough. I would have told myself I would catch the next total eclipse in 2024. And I would have shared all those same rationalizations with my son in lieu of an apology for making him miss something he had been begging to see. I would have told him he had an entire lifetime to catch one later.

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The one photo I took during totality that proves you can’t capture an experience with an iPhone

But I am no longer Justine 1.0. I am Justine 2.0. Because of my sons, I am daily aware how short life is and how quickly time goes. I know you don’t always have a second shot, a do over, another day. I have learned sometimes if your intuition tells you something might be important, you have to take a leap. You have to decide the adventure is worth it. You have to make it a priority. You have to tell the myriad excuses to talk to the hand. We left the house Sunday night hoping to see a total eclipse, but knowing we might not. We discussed all the things that could go wrong, including rainy skies, running out of gas, and wasting hours in traffic to see not much more than we could have seen from our yard. We decided that at the very least we’d come out of this with an amusing anecdote of a crazy family trip. At most we would fulfill our expectations and maybe even be surprised by something greater.

We weren’t disappointed. Despite the glitch that left us scrambling for lodging at the last minute, Justine 2.0 proved a definite improvement over the earlier version. I’m starting to suspect that Justine 2.5, currently under development, will be even faster on the uptake.

Running Out Of Time

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Before our run this morning, my son summed up how I felt about our run this morning.

Joe decided after his successful foray into track last spring that he would go out for cross-country this fall. A couple times during the summer, he received emails from his coaches encouraging training plans and providing workout schedules, emails which he deleted because denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. Once August hit after an entire summer of remaining exercise free, I suggested he do a few weeks of a Couch to 5K training app to dip his toes into the water again. Being a teenager dripping with disdain for anything requiring effort, he had less than zero interest in or enthusiasm for such an endeavor.

If there’s anything anyone who truly knows me knows about me, it’s that I don’t run. I think you should only run when you’re being chased by something bigger and heavier than you, like a large carnivore with sharp teeth or a runaway grand piano. While I have participated in a plethora of 5k events because I enjoy doing fun activities with people I like, I have not finished even one race where I ran the entire course because, as I mentioned, I don’t run. I. Don’t. Run. If you know anything else about me, though, it’s that I am doggedly determined once I set a goal. And this goal was to get Joe on his feet again.

To that end, being the super annoying mother I am, I downloaded the Couch to 5k app to my phone, waltzed into his room at 8 a.m. one oddly cool morning, tossed some socks and his running shoes onto his chest, and told him we would be leaving in 10 minutes. That was two weeks ago. I have been running with him every other day since then because it turns out I love complaining about running while running with Joe more than not running.

Today we were finishing up the last minute of our brisk-walk warm up when I noticed an elderly couple traveling side-by-side on the narrow path in front of us. He was moving along unsteadily with the aid of a cane while she held a walking stick in each hand to assist her. It was a bittersweet scene, at once a charming vision of long-term commitment to a life partner and yet a heartbreaking exhibition of the difficulty of aging. I couldn’t decide how I felt about it.

The gentleman heard us approaching, turned to verify our presence, and slowly moved behind his wife to allow us room to pass. Billie (our annoying, imaginary running coach) barked from my phone that it was time to jog. Joe sprinted off with his long, sixteen-year-old legs. I plodded along behind him and offered a polite greeting as I prepared to pass the couple. The gentleman replied in kind.

Then as I hit my stride next to them and began to leave them behind the way Joe had left me, she sighed and spoke.

“To be that young. Oh, to run again.” 

That hurt. I mentally clutched my heart with my hands.

We spend a lot of time bitching about what we must do. Our monkey minds run a non-stop chyron of obligations through our heads, preemptively sucking the joy out of doing. I’ve spent considerable time the last two weeks bitching about running, mainly while running. It didn’t make the running any easier.

Life is not about what you have to do. It’s about what you can do, even if you haven’t found your way to enjoying it yet.