Monday, December 31, 2012

Old Year Out, New Year In

The view out the back door - beautiful in its own way in the winter.

Such a lovely end to the old year here in Central New York.  There's lots of blue in the sky, the birds are at the feeder outside my window, and I've got a little bit of time to myself.  The kids and my husband are occupied elsewhere in the house, so I've got a few minutes to relax.

We had a good year as a family, and I'm very thankful.  It even got better as the year went on, which was a pleasant surprise.  I've made new friends, tried new things, had more teaching experience, seen my kids grow up a little bit more, enjoyed good health, spent time with my loving husband and our families, and I can hardly ask for more than that.

Full Moon Koi, 8" x 10" ink drawing

Some good things have come to an end, like my time selling my art at a local gift shop - Hartsville Hollow Gifts closed today after a two and a half wonderful years.  The economy hasn't been kind to small businesses for a handful of years now, and in a down economy art is even less of a priority than ever with many people.  I can understand that, but it still makes me sad.

I have to decide how much energy I want to put into my Etsy shop, since it's never been a money-maker for me.  However, it is an inexpensive online venue to show my work; essentially it's low-cost advertising.  I'm not a consistent artist; I keep going hot and cold on various projects.  The second half of this year I've been really discouraged about creating art.  I have to find it in myself to create it for myself, then others can make of it what they will.  If I want to pursue having my work at a gallery, though, I need to keep creating and put myself in the way of those opportunities.

Snowflake sun-catcher, a gift from my sister Debbie.
She made it - stained glass is one of her many interests.

Subbing has been steadily busy for me this fall, usually four days per week.  I know there will be at least one upcoming job opening at our school that I'm qualified for, and I have to decide if that's an opportunity I'm ready to pursue.  I like the flexibility of subbing, but there's no doubt our family could use a second full-time income.  The kids are getting older, college or vocational school looms on the horizon, retirement is starting to rear its head in the distance, we need to replace both of our cars in the next few years, and now would be a really good time to get our finances on a firm footing.  I've had several teachers encourage me to pursue a full-time position.  We'll see what job openings come up and I'll pray about it from there.

Thank you, Jesus, for the gift of the year that has passed,
and thank you for the days to come.

Looking forward with hope to doing 
whatever I'm called to do within Christ's will,


Sunday, December 30, 2012

Garden Catalog Season

It's the most wonderful time of the year - the time when the mailbox bursts with colorful garden catalogs, bright pictures of plant porn startlingly bright against the snow and gray skies.  So many catalogs!  So many dreams!  So many ideas!  If you get on one mailing list, you'll soon be on many lists and getting catalogs from companies you've never heard of, selling stuff you've never imagined.  Some catalogs are really good (I love Bluestone Perennials, Select Seeds and Pinetree Garden Seeds), some are just so-so (usually catalogs from big companies who have bought out multiple small seedsmen and plantsmen and have them all selling the same stuff from the same major suppliers), and a handful are just cheap dreck, the supermarket tabloids of plant sales, selling plants via photoshop and iffy cartoonish drawings, with tomatoes the size of cantaloupes, cantaloupes the size of watermelons, and watermelons the size of VW Bugs).  Then there are specialist catalogs for whatever plants really float your boat - those catalogs you have to go looking for, they don't tend to find you by accident, but they can be the most fun of all.  My vice is daylily catalogs.

Ordering plants and seeds from a catalog is just plain fun, just like Christmas shopping, only for yourself.  Once you've ordered from a few places, you'll quickly make your own judgement about who sends quality merchandise, and who cuts corners.  It's even better to find out ahead of time where the good places to order from are, via word of mouth  from friends (or word of blog, as the case may be), so you don't waste money and time.  Sites like Dave's Garden Watchdog are also a great way to get reviews of garden catalog companies.

I don't order a large number of plants each year any more, for several reasons.  One is that I have most of what I really need already established in the garden, since we've been here a few years.  I'm not landscaping new beds on a large scale any more, so I don't need lots of new plants.  Another reason is that I can grow most of what I want from seed by winter sowing, and I have for the past almost decade.  That's saved me a HUGE amount of money each year, and it makes it cheaper to try new things.  The last reason is that I don't have unlimited funds, so I have to pick and choose what I really want, carefully.  Usually I take my favorite handful of catalogs and mark them all up, circling what I'm interested in, mulling over my choices, reading the catalogs several times, then culling the list down to the essentials plus a few extras.  I try something new every year, just for fun, even when money is tight.

One of my own daylily seedlings, 
which I call 'Oye Como Va' - unregistered (yet).

I usually order a handful of plants from Bluestone each year (perennials), and a whole bunch of seeds from Pinetree (mostly veggies and herbs, some annuals) and Select Seeds (annuals and perennials).  This year I'd like to get a couple plants from Select Seeds, too - they always have a nice selection of fragrant-leaved old-fashioned pelargoniums (traditional window box geraniums, not to be confused with true geraniums, which are a temperate climate woodland flower).  I'd like one pelargonium scented like roses, and one scented like lemons.  I can bring them inside for the winter.  (Maybe Molly the cat won't be so eager to eat them, with their strong aromatic oils - she keeps eating my fuchsia, which is really annoying).  And, I want white heliotrope:  nothing smells like white heliotrope, and I haven't been able to find it locally since we moved almost four years ago.  If I have to, I'll get some when we visit my sister, who lives near the only nursery/greenhouse I've ever seen sell white heliotrope in bloom.   It smells like vanilla, just so you know, and is wonderful in containers.

White heliotrope, from my old garden.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Who Moved My Routine?

 How to get space in New York City - Central Park.

Those of us with kids on the autism spectrum (and many of us with just typical kids) know that routine is our friend.  Well, it's our friend most of the time.  Except when the routine is broken, then the backlash blowup can be a real PITA.  So routine is good, when it's business as usual, but really a pain when it's broken and our kids can't adjust easily to it.  It's the Catch-22 of autism:  routine as a comfort zone making life easier, or as a straightjacket that paralyzes them when it's removed.  Life with a child with autism is a constant stretching game, a balancing act between having enough routine to make the day run without too many problems, and teaching them to adapt to changes in routine and dealing with the inevitable meltdowns when you change their routines. 

Let's face it:  routine is an illusion, a dream, a temporary state of being.  Everyone eventually has to learn to go with the flow or ride the wave when life gets chaotic and our plans get derailed.  For people with autism this is never easy.  For someone with autism, change can be frightening, overwhelming, paralyzing, maddening, uncomfortable, sad.  Daily routines are their comfort zone, so vacations or big events that upset that routine can be a real trial for them and for their parents, families, and caregivers.  Even little changes can cause huge problems, so big changes can be big trouble for the whole family.

Back to school last September - the return of the school routine.

Every day of Christmas break Safety Guy has asked us, "What are we doing today?"  He wants to know where we're going, who we'll see, what we'll do, how long we'll be out, and when we'll come home.  That small measure of "control" on his part is a big deal.  If he can sort of see the shape of the day ahead, he can better deal with whatever goes on.  He's become quite a bit more flexible over the years, but it's been a long time coming.  He still gets upset over sudden changes.  It's a learning curve, a looooong learning curve.  We still have to push him to deal appropriately with change, put him in situations that stretch him and help him learn new coping skills.  It's like stretching a muscle - it hurts and aches and is uncomfortable for a while, then you get used to it, then you do it all over again, only more.

Broken routine can be almost as much fun as being chased by a T-Rex.

All this is to say that it's been a full week off of school already, and our kids are handling it fairly well so far.  Other years it's not been that way at all, so I'm grateful that we haven't had a major meltdown - yet.  BUT there are still five more days to go before the kids go back to school.  The odds are against us having smooth sailing for all of that time, but we're doing our best.  Thank goodness for a house where we can get away from each other when we really need to.  Togetherness is good, until it's not, if you know what I mean.  My husband is off work this week as well - the most family togetherness we get all year.  Some years we've been at each others' throats after three days, so we're doing better than usual this year.  Maybe we're all growing up?

Sometimes we all need a little space.

So we're keeping it light.  No more big holiday to-dos (we survived those, and they were fun).  No big New Year's wingding - we're staying home.  No long-distance travel, no appointments, no busy-ness.  But having a planned small diversion each day is still a good thing.  They help give an amorphous, unstructured free day some shape, which helps Safety Guy a lot.  For instance, Safety Guy is going out with his Dad later today, just to run errands to the hardware store.  The day is now divided into before and after that planned event, and he's happy with that.  If the kids are in a good mood later, I'll take them to the local animal shelter to hang out with the pets for a while - that activity is always a winner.  The Princess might invite a friend over tomorrow, in which case I'll ask the girls to give SG his space.  He has a fairly low tolerance for silly girl noise.  At least he has his man cave rearranged and somewhat cleaned out now, so he has more space there.  I'll probably create an errand or outing tomorrow so he can go out with me and have a break out of the house, away from the girls.

I'm grateful for the down time from work and school, but I'm just as glad that we'll be back to our normal family routine soon enough.  Then we'll be dealing with the usual challenges of school and work.  And that routine will be good - for a while.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Let It Snow!

Christmas lights, 2012 edition.  
I love Christmas lights.

After last winter's "winter that mostly wasn't," and the latest first 1" snowfall in history around here this year, we were thinking a white Christmas was out of the question for 2012.  But the weather finally shifted, the cold air and moisture and wind aligned, and we got a nice bit of snow a few days before Christmas.  It was so lovely!  Then the weather decided once wasn't enough, and we got a good-sized storm a couple days ago.  (Winter Storm "Euclid."  Really, weather guys?  "Euclid"?  Why not Elvis?  Then you could at least have made bad jokes about it as it rampaged through the eastern U.S.)  All told, we've got about 18" on the ground right now, and the winter wonderland is sticking around due to the low temps.  It's even hanging on the branches of the evergreens, so the landscape looks like something out of a Hallmark Christmas special.

The snow on our back porch is level with the seat of the picnic table, and piled magnificently on top.  We didn't get as much wind as they had anticipated from the storm, which was a good thing - that much snow drifting in 25-30 mph winds would have been a real mess.  But the snow was very welcome to all of the avid winter sports-folks around here, since last winter was such a dud for them.  My snowboarding and skiing nephews are rejoicing over the white bonanza, and even the Princess was happy to get outside and play in the whiteness yesterday.

The Princess making a snow angel.  
After this she blazed a path to the side stairs 
and literally dove into the snow drifts.

I'm glad to have the snow too, although not for play or sport.  I'm glad to have the snow cover for my garden.  We had very little snow cover last year, but we did have some very wide temperature fluctuations.  I lost some plants to the exposure, including many of my irises, which really made me sad.  I planted a handful of new iris varieties this fall, and I have high hopes for the garden in 2013.  But, really, every year I have high hopes for the garden - it's just a matter of wondering what good stuff will happen.  I'm ready to start winter sowing in a few weeks, and the garden catalogs are arriving by the handful.  I'll enjoy having the garden under a white blanket for a while, and plan for warmer weather beauties to grow soon enough.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas!

From my family to yours, 

we hope you've had wonderful holiday!

Merry Christmas!

You can hardly see her, but Molly is under the Christmas tree.  
She loves hiding under the tree - 
fortunately, that's all she does with it!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

School Safety Ideas

From an emergency drill Safety Guy's Boy Scout troop 
participated in earlier this fall - local firefighters.

This has been rattling around in my head for a while, for quite a long time - in fact, since long before the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook last week.  I've been troubled by how to keep students safe in the event of an armed aggressor entering the school since I returned to substitute teaching just over a year ago.  It's a mark of our times that when I was working as a teacher over 15 years ago, we weren't really thinking about school shootings very much.  We did deal with a couple bomb threats from disgruntled students that resulted in school evacuations, so we weren't naive.  It just that protecting ourselves from an armed and violent intruder wasn't in the forefront of our minds.  While we had a couple evacuation drills and many fire drills, we didn't do a single lock-down drill during the three years I was at that school.

Our son was less than a year old when the Columbine school shooting happened, and I was not teaching at that point in my life.  It wasn't the first school shooting I'd ever heard of, but it was by far the worst, with the greatest loss of life.  I was, like most of our country, horrified.  "Never again!" our nation cried.  But it wasn't the last time.  Tragedy has struck our schools again and again since that day in 1999.

I'm not going to debate gun laws.  I'm not going to debate health care and mental health service availability (although I do have a suggestion related to that).  I'm not going to cry about poor parenting, violent video games, or the breakdown of the nuclear family.  All are arguably factors behind many violent crimes, and there are more issues than those to consider.  But I do have some practical suggestions for improved school safety, coming from the perspective of a teacher and substitute teacher.  Please take these ideas as they are meant:  one more voice in the dialog about how to keep our children safe at school.  Some of these ideas are very expensive, I realize, while others are really simple.

1.  Have a quick way to cover windows in classroom doors in the event of a threat.  Most classroom doors have windows in them.  In a lock-down, teachers in many schools are told to put paper over the windows so no one can see into the room.  Um, THAT'S NOT PRACTICAL. Yes, they can keep paper and tape by the door.  But the time spent putting up the paper is time that would be better spent getting the children to a safe area.  Instead, mount inexpensive window blinds above each door-window on the inside of the classroom.  ZIP!  Ta-da, no one can see in.  Or, even cheaper, put a strip of velcro above the window, and keep a piece of felt or fabric with the corresponding velcro beside the door.  Now THAT'S inexpensive.

2.  Make sure classrooms can be locked from the INSIDE.  That sounds like common sense, but you'd be amazed how many schools have doors that can only be locked/unlocked from the hallway.  It doesn't make sense to have the teachers expose themselves with their doors open while they lock them as a potential shooter is in the hallways.  Retro-fitting doors with all-new locks can be very expensive.  However, slide-bolts are NOT expensive, and could be quickly added to the top inside of any door as a simple, quick deterrent to someone trying to get into a classroom.

3.  Make sure substitute teaching staff have a way to secure their classrooms.  Day-to-day subs don't usually have pass keys like regular teachers do.  In my school, if there were a lock-down, I would not physically be able to lock any classroom door, since they all lock/unlock by key from the hallway.  I could barricade a door, but that's precious time lost that an assailant could take advantage of and force their way into the room.  Perhaps a daily sub teacher key sign-out/sign-in system would work, or the above-mentioned dead-bolts so subs wouldn't need keys to secure the room they're working in.

4.  This is undoubtedly very expensive, but bullet-proof glass in the doors and windows at and near entrances would safeguard the public areas found at the front of every school.  The Connecticut shooter entered the school by breaking a window.  Replacing every first-floor window in a school with bullet-proof glass isn't practical (and the fact that we're even talking about the idea is depressing beyond belief), but it would make sense to make the first-floor accesses at the main entrance the least vulnerable to breaking glass.

5.  Many schools have rules prohibiting the carrying of backpacks, bulky purses, and gym bags in the halls during the school day.  Those rules should be enforced.  If those rules aren't in place, they should be.

6.  Better communication of concerns, threats, and incidents from the top down and the bottom up - from the administration to the teachers and students, teachers and students to the administration, and from the schools to the community and the community to the schools.  There was an incident at our school earlier this week, and most of the teachers heard the details about it from the students, other teachers, or from people in the community, not from the school administration.  No email, no phone call, no letter, just hearsay and word of mouth.  Come on!  Treat teachers like the professionals they are and keep them in the loop when things happen, so they know the truth and can be aware of what's going on.  No teacher should have to find out details about a problem or incident at their school from someone who doesn't work there.  Heaven only knows what the parents make of the rumors their kids bring home from school, and what they hear from other parents when something happens at school.

7.  Have regular lock-down drills.  You'd be amazed at how many schools have not had such a drill in YEARS.  Neither the teachers nor the students are familiar with how to react in such an emergency.  If it's a lock-down, what are the procedures?  If it's an evacuation, do the teachers, support staff, AND PARENTS know what to do and where to meet to pick up their students?  Are the students familiar with the "safe zone" in their classroom, and will they go there quickly and obediently?

8.  Don't let students open the doors for anyone during the school day.  All access to/from the school should be through one main entrance, controlled by adults in a central office.  There is no reason for all schools not to have video surveillance and a buzzer/intercom system to let people in during the school day.  But students need to know that they should not let people in through side doors, nor should they go out through side doors.  This is also where the "open campus" idea needs some tweaking, where senior high students can leave campus for lunch.  Again, they should go in/out through one set of doors, monitored from the office, not in/out the exit closest to the local fast food row, with their friends ready to let in stragglers.  It's not convenient, not for the students and certainly not for the office staff, but it's a necessary safeguard, and a relatively simple one.

  9. (ADDED 12/21/12)  This is neither simple nor local, but it HAS to be put forward:  Streamline and speed up the referral process to get mental health help for troubled students, both via the schools and via their own family insurance (whether that's publicly funded or privately held).  I'm amazed and confounded by how long it takes a troubled student to get mental health services and changes in educational placement (different school settings appropriate to their needs).  It seems like many (most) schools are reactive rather than proactive in this regard, with cumbersome local and state procedures and laws hindering how quickly someone can get help.  In my experience, it seems like school administrations wait for a crisis before a troubled student will get the help they need.  Student difficulties often drag on and on with teachers and counselors documenting increasing levels of difficulty and acting out for the student.  Teachers and counselors spend a lot of time trying to help their students, redirect them, encourage them, discipline them, but the student is often trapped in a cycle of reaction from the school.  The student acts out, gets a referral for detention or suspension, then returns to the school after serving their discipline, and the cycle repeats, in many cases dozens of times each school year without further steps outside the school setting being taken to help the student.  Too often it seems that no real change occurs until there's a crisis requiring the student's immediate removal from the school, forcing the parents to seek outside help.  It shouldn't take months (or even years) for students to get serious help for serious issues.  Also, many students move around due to shifting family dynamics, and services are lost or lag as they change schools and communities.  Many parents don't advocate for their children because they don't know they can, and sadly some parents just don't care.  When it comes right down to it, PARENTS need to advocate for their children, and getting their children help shouldn't be an obstacle course, and it shouldn't be solely up to the schools.  There is no simple fix for this problem, but it has to be discussed.

10.  (ADDED 12/21/12)  Have a panic button in school offices like you do for banks, directly connected to emergency services.  The system should not only sound an alarm at the police station/dispatcher, but also include sound-activated recording so that events could be recorded in a "black box" activated when the button is pushed.  That way there would be a sound recording of the situation as it occurs from one or more points of view in the school building.

The last suggestion on my list has merit, but is the most expensive and least palatable one to me, since I still value the idea of our schools as places of study without the intrusion of a police presence.  It's controversial, no doubt about it, and I go back and forth with myself if it's a good idea.  I confess I'm insulated, having taught in small suburban and rural schools, not in major urban areas in an inner-city school.  I have trouble getting past the idea of having a police officer at every elementary, middle, junior and senior high school everywhere.  It just shouldn't be necessary.  But our world is so broken, the idea has to be put out there now:

11.  Have a police officer or a hired armed security guard on duty at every school.  Some schools (mostly high schools, mostly urban) already do this; most schools do not.  Budget constraints and practicality limit that kind of manpower on the ground, and frankly, who would have thought a primary school would ever be a target for that kind of violence?  Still, having a police officer at all schools is a good idea on many levels, starting with safety, and including having another positive role model for the students.  The school campus I sub at now had a local police officer there for a long time.  I'm not sure how long he was there, since I've only been working there for just over a year now, but I get the impression he was a fixture at the school; everyone knew him, and students still talk about him.  This past fall his position wasn't funded and he's not there any more.  Having Officer B. at the school was a GOOD thing, and the staff and most of the students miss him.  (You can guess which kids don't miss him.)

This is far from a perfect, comprehensive list of solutions to school safety issues related to violence.  I know some schools have security guards with metal detectors at all entrances.  Some people favor arming teachers with concealed-carry permits, or keeping guns in schools for trained staff to use if necessary.  I have my opinions about guns in schools aside from law enforcement, even ostensibly for the protection of the students.  I've even heard some people suggest somehow monitoring anyone and everyone taking anti-psychotic or anti-depressant meds, and locking them up if they refuse to take their meds (Big Brother ring a bell?  How about civil rights?).  But the practical ideas I put forward above are worth mentioning and debating. What do you think?  What would you suggest?

Added 12/21/12:

Other things that may be considered, keeping cost in mind as a limiting factor:

         1.  Fencing all playgrounds and having them monitored by surveillance cameras.

         2.  Surveillance cameras for all parking areas associated with the school.

         3.  Metal detectors at school entrances, with trained security staff (already in place in
              schools in troubled areas, but Sandy Hook shows that anywhere is vulnerable; no
              school is immune to the possibility of violence)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Bourbon Pecan Cake and Christmas

Molly under the Christmas tree.

It's not white outside yet, but it's most definitely Christmas time anyhow.  The tree is up, I've got the presents wrapped (I'm ahead of myself on that this year - yay, me!), and I'm baking up a storm.  One more family get-together to go this weekend, then a quiet easing into Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  I'm ready for the slow-down after the build-up.

I'd like to share a recipe my parents have made occasionally over the years, a family favorite:  Bourbon Pecan Cake.  Technically I guess you could call this a fruit cake, but it's not like any "fruit cake" you've ever tried.  It's WONDERFUL.  I haven't made it since before our move and then some, so maybe 5 years, and Mom and Dad haven't made it in longer than that, so I'll be sharing this with everyone who wants it in my family this year.  Here's the recipe, the original as my Mom makes it, and my modifications for more fruit and nuts:

Bourbon Pecan Cake
(original recipe from Mary Thompson; modifications by Laurel Rudd )

2 c. whole red candied cherries (I use 3 cups of cherries - I like lots of fruit in my fruit cake)
2 c. golden seedless raisins
2 c. bourbon whiskey (any smooth brand – don't use cheap, harsh stuff)
       (add ¼ cup more bourbon if you use extra cherries)
2 c. butter, room temp. soft
2 c. sugar
2 c. packed dark brown sugar
8 eggs, separated – yolks into a smaller bowl, whites into a mixing bowl
5 cups sifted flour
4 c. pecan halves (I use 5 cups of pecan halves)
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. ground nutmeg

Combine the cherries, raisins, and bourbon in a glass bowl. Cover and refrigerate overnight, stirring a couple times. Before baking, bring the fruit to room temperature. Drain the fruit and reserve the bourbon.

In a separate bowl, combine ½ cup of flour with the pecans and mix to coat. In another bowl, sift the rest of the flour with the baking powder, nutmeg, and salt.

In a mixing bowl, beat the butter until light and fluffy. Add the sugars gradually, until well-blended, then add the egg yolks one at a time.

Add two cups of the flour mixture to the eggs/butter mixture; mix thoroughly. Add the reserved bourbon and the rest of the flour mixture alternately, ending with flour. Beat well after each addition.

Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Transfer the batter into a LARGE (32 cup) bowl. Fold the egg whites into the batter, gently, then stir in the floured pecans and the fruit.

Grease and flour foil loaf pans. If you use large ones, 5-6 will do. If you use medium ones, you can get 7-8 loaves, or 11-12 mini loaf pans. Bake the cakes at 275F for 2-3 hours (2 hours or so for the minis, 2 ½ or so for medium, 3 or so for the large ones). The cakes will be golden brown when done, and a tester inserted in the middle will come out clean.

Turn the cakes out of the pans while still slightly warm. Wrap the cooled cakes in bourbon-soaked cheesecloth and wrap them in plastic wrap and foil (or place them in plastic bags) for strong bourbon flavor, or you can just refrigerate the cakes in plastic wrap and foil for less strong flavor.  You can also cool and store the cakes in their pans for easy gifting.  Either way, the cakes should “mellow” in the fridge for a couple weeks before being used.  They slice best when chilled.

This recipe is truly one of the “tastes of Christmas” from my childhood memories. Mom and Dad used to make a weekend afternoon project of this wonderful treat. Mom would cut brown paper and line the bread pans with it, greasing the pans first, then greasing the paper again before putting the batter in, to make a very neat looking loaf when done and cooled and the paper was removed. I remember helping with the paper cutting process – and the eating, of course.  The house smelled AMAZING as it baked. 

I cooled the cakes, put about a tablespoon of bourbon 
down the middle of the top of each one, 
then wrapped and refrigerated them in their little foil pans 
for easy gift-giving.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Wrap the Cat

It's the Christmas season again, pretty and nostalgic, busy and even hectic, sometimes peaceful and often happy.  I'm trying to consciously enjoy the beautiful moments, since life rushes on even through the best of times.  Subbing and baking, family issues and house cleaning, laundry and wrapping gifts, it all has to get done somehow.  Some days I'm pretty organized.  Some days (like today) I'm a bit scatter-brained and unfocused.

For instance, I stopped at the mini mart to put gas in the car and get the kids a drink between school and an appointment for SG.  We got the drinks and I paid for the gas - then we got in the car, and I drove off WITHOUT PUMPING THE GAS.  And didn't notice for almost 5 minutes, most of the way to SG's appointment.  I dropped him off, went back to the mini mart to find that they'd credited my card, then back to the appointment to pick him up.  Sigh.

This was after a morning of subbing (three different classes - good students, but I mixed up some names of students I know quite well), then some down time (where I had good intentions of doing some serious cleaning, and wound up watching "Miami Vice" and "Starsky & Hutch" on YouTube), and wrapping presents (which went better than I had any right to expect, given my track record for the day).

I think I'll have to make myself a list to get everything done by Saturday for a family Christmas party.  Who gets what, what gets wrapped, what I have to bring for dessert - at this rate I'll be lucky if I don't wrap the cat and bring a nice box of tissues for dessert.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Hug Your Family

 (Photo by Kelly Sikkema)

So strange - to still be be celebrating Christmas on the heels of the tragedy in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.

I couldn't write about it a couple days ago.  I still can't write about it, really, except to remark on the utter sadness and oddness of continuing to celebrate the holiday with my family (together, alive, well, safe) while other families are distraught and destroyed.

Hug your family tonight.  Let them know you love them.  Kiss them goodbye in the morning.  And pray for all of the families of Sandy Hook, for the families of the victims and of the survivors, for the family of the shooter, for the first responders who will never get the scene of the tragedy out of their minds,  for the teachers and students who may have to return to that school in spite of tragic memories, and for friends, neighbors and clergy who offer words and gestures of comfort. 

We may never know why evil took this particular form of expression.  But I know that evil and grief have not triumphed now and will not last forever.

May the Lord bless you, my friends and your families.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Warning:  long post.  I need to talk some things out to myself, and you get to listen in.

Safety Guy had a really rough time at school last week.  I'm not sure there was a single underlying reason, but he was frustrated, angry, touchy, and generally off-kilter all week.  He lost his temper twice in school, and served two detentions for inappropriate language and disrupting class.  Almost all of his angst revolved around school, and the students he spends the most time with, although we'd also had a tough weekend at home before that.  I was maxed out and not coping too well myself.  Whatever the reasons, it was a long, long week emotionally for all of us.  He couldn't calm down or back down, and it was a toxic combination.

Safety Guy has a bad case of what a friend of ours calls TTP (The Third Parent), and I call "being The Rules Police."  I can't tell you how many times I've had the "you're not in charge of your friends or your sister and they won't listen to you" conversation with him.  (I can guess, though:  dozens of times.  At least.  Maybe hundreds by now.)   I can see where sometimes he puts himself in situations where he's almost guaranteeing that some of his class-mates will react negatively to him.  Most often it's when he's trying to be the "classroom police."  Do you see a pattern here?

SG has this inborn urge to tell everyone around him what the rules are in any given situation, and to tell people when they break the rules.  Of course, his classmates don't take kindly to that approach.  Some of his classmates don't listen to adult authority, so why should they listen to Safety Guy?  Authority - the crux of so many of Safety Guy's aspie issues.  I gather this isn't an uncommon young Aspie thing, that they feel and act as if they are equal to everyone around them (including adults and authority figures).  They don't see why they shouldn't be listened to by everyone else.  They act as if they have the right and obligation to inform everyone around them of "the rules" and how the rules should be obeyed, as if they're the enforcers and we have to listen to them because they're undeniably RIGHT.  It's certainly frustrating in a family situation, when SG tries to tell his sister what to do, and tells his father and I off, as if we were his equals instead of his parents.  You can imagine how well this goes down at school, when he tries to take his teacher's place as the authority figure in class.

You can see where this leads to trouble, I'm sure.

There's another issue going on at school, too:  bullying.  Sometimes some of his classmates just get on his nerves, and that's not bullying.  That's just LIFE, and we've had umpteen billion discussions about how to deal with life's ongoing frustrations and stupid little aggravations.  That's something everyone has to deal with.
But the bullying is NOT something SG brings on himself.  Yes, he can be the annoying self-appointed "Rules Police."  Yes, he's hypersensitive to auditory stimuli, and his classmates know that very well.  Sometimes one of them will do something quietly annoying (like finger-tapping, or whispered snide comments) just under the teacher's radar until SG snaps.  Of course, when he tells the noisy person to be quiet (often quite loudly), he comes to the teacher's attention in a negative way and is asked to not be rude or interrupt class.  Often he'll react strongly to the perceived injustice of being "yelled at" (his words, no matter how calm his teachers are) when the other person provoked him, and he'll make the situation worse.  But that subtle, annoying auditory provocation IS bullying, no matter how SG reacts.

When the teacher catches kids provoking him she calls them on it.  SG has an awesome teacher, by the way.  But a couple of the students know exactly which buttons to push to set SG off, and sometimes do so just for the heck of it.  When pushed too far, SG will yell at his classmates and use offensive language, interrupting class and disrupting everyone within earshot.  Then SG is in trouble for his offensive language and noisy outburst, whether or not he started the problem.

I have to back up the schools handling of the situation in general, although I am very frustrated with some of the students' behavior toward SG.  Safety Guy has to have some consequences for his actions when he's disruptive and offensive.  We can't just let it go every time, even though early in the school year there was a "grace period" as he got to know the new teachers, classes and routine, and they cut him some slack.  Now he knows everyone and is comfortable enough to act out more - be more "himself" and less uncertain about how teachers will react to him.  Of course, the answer is still that the expectation is appropriate classroom behavior no matter what provocation to lose his temper is involved, or no matter if he's just having a bad day and flies off the handle at someone for no particular reason.  It's public school - there are rules and consequences for breaking those rules, for the good of everyone there, including SG.

But he's not stupid, and he's said to me many times, "Why do I get punished when they're the ones bullying me, and they get nothing?"  When the provocation is obvious, the other students do get in trouble and have to face their own consequences.   But that's between the teacher and the other students and their parents; SG may or may not be aware of the other students' detentions or conversations with the principal.  And if SG doesn't see/hear of the other person's punishment, he thinks that the other student just got away with their bullying while he's the one being punished for standing up for himself.  It's a tightrope walk, helping him take responsibility for his own actions while trying to help him deal with the bullying that provokes him.

(Another mantra in our house is, "YOU are responsible for YOU, not for your classmates or your sister."  Repeat.)

It's a constant balancing act for me, as a parent and as a substitute teacher in his school.  I know his teachers.  I know his classmates.  Some of the students have difficulties at home that SG cannot understand, or doesn't even know about.  Sometimes he does know about their home issues.  I can't (and don't) defend the bullies' actions, no matter what their home life is like.  But Safety Guy doesn't deserve to be bullied, no matter how differently he thinks, or how he reacts to auditory stimuli, or how he sometimes misunderstands social situations.  I find myself constantly trying to sift each situation to see where SG has stepped over the line in his behavior, and where and how the other students are involved.  Sometimes SG is 100% at fault, losing his cool at someone who wasn't targeting him at all (overheard and half-understood conversations are not an unusual thing for SG to overreact to, for instance).  Sometimes it's 50/50, and both SG and his classmate are at fault, being typical 8th graders who sometimes don't know when to back down or be quiet.  And sometimes another student has baited SG into losing his temper - bullying - but by his outburst, SG also earns some kind of disciplinary action from the school, like detention for yelling and swearing at the teacher who was trying to intervene in the situation and get SG to back off and calm down.

It's not unusual now for other students to tell me when SG is having a bad day, whatever grade I'm subbing for at the junior/senior high.  I have to tell them thanks for their concern (if it is concern - some kids hope I'll lose my cool and go rushing to "deal with him," while some genuinely care), but the teacher or the office will call me if they need to talk to me.  It makes subbing feel like a minefield when he's having a bad day, like I'm just waiting to have his teacher come talk to me during a free period - never a good thing to see her in the middle of the day when I'm not expecting her. . . .

I never feel like I win or he wins or his teacher or classmates win completely in these situations.  As soon as he loses his temper, we've all lost to some degree.

So what does the title of my post, "superhuman," have to do with all of this?  Well, I often think that students with Aspergers or similar autism-related issues are unfairly expected to show almost superhuman self-control in the face of provocation that seems trivial to the average, neurotypical person, but is overwhelming to them.  Instead of being given some extra personal space or greater intervention to head off bullying situations, it seems like I often hear (from professionals and many others as well), "He just has to learn to deal with it."  Yes, he does, but then again, no, he shouldn't have to.  Why should he deal with it in such constant doses beyond his ability to cope?  Everyone has a breaking point; why push him past his constantly and then punish him for breaking?  There has to be some middle ground, where he can stretch his coping skills but not be bullied.  Who ever really thought being bullied was the best way to learn coping skills?  And yet, that's how it sometimes comes across from well-meaning people who say, "He just has to learn to deal with it."

Safety Guy feels like he has to be SO controlled, SO on top if his emotions, no matter what anyone else does around him, that when he finally loses control it's often much worse than you'd expect of an average, neurotypical student having a bad day.  But that's the point, isn't it?  He's NOT neurotypical.  He has Aspergers; he is autistic.  His disability IS primarily in the realms of social skills and emotional control, and immaturity is part and parcel of the particular difference in the way his brain is wired and the pace at which it's developing.  He's 14, he looks 17, and he's emotionally closer to 11.  People expect him to act older than he is, he's in 8th grade (a hellish year for most people when they're honest about it), and he has the coping skills of a much younger person.  He has to exercise MORE self control to appear even close to average than the average student does under similar circumstances.  He has to exercise EXTREME control under trying circumstances, and when he snaps at the end of his rope, it's ugly because of the built-up tension and frustration he feels, and his difficulty dealing with emotions and expressing them appropriately.  Then he's just chided for losing his control, instead of also being encouraged that he kept his control for so long and being built up to handle the next situation even better.

Discipline and build up, discipline and build up.  I often think the school struggles with the building up part, because it takes TIME that just isn't there sometimes, and SPACE, which is at a premium in the physical structure of the school.  And if there's one thing aspies seem to crave, it's mental and physical space.  SG gets space with his iPod and his music, and very recently his teacher started allowing him to use it during a resource class to "tune out" his peers while he does seat work/homework.  It seems to be helping.  When I sub and I'm free during his lunch period, he has lunch with me instead of in the cafeteria.  Every little bit helps.

Safety Guy says he feels like a doormat if he doesn't say something to the bullies when they pick on him.  He doesn't want to appear weak in front of his peers (and a couple of them don't hesitate to call him weak to his face, which just throws gasoline on the fire).  But when he tries to handle the situation appropriately, often his peers ignore him and continue their baiting and picking.  They have no idea the strength it takes for SG to ignore them.  It's just not FAIR (says the mother who understands completely that life isn't fair, but who still cries inside for her son going through the torment of bullying).

I confess I would also like to go all mama-grizzly on the butts of the bullies and their parents.

Safety Guy needs structure.  The school does pretty well with that.  He needs discipline.  Ditto.  His resource teacher, regular teachers, counselor, and both principal and assistant principal are wonderful with him, and show great judgment about when and how to deal with his behavior.   They work with and around his autism diagnosis as much as they can.  But I wish that more could be done to head off the problem situations before they become BIG problems, and that's out of my control.  It's often out of his teacher's control, in the sense that she didn't get to choose her students.  They've been grouped together due to similar needs.  They've been together for several years or more now; they'll most likely be together all the way through high school.  SG's classmates have a range of different needs, and wildly differing social and emotional issues, and home lives all over the map in stability and support.  SG's teacher can't control the personalities, baggage and special needs of her students.  She has to manage every one of them to the best of her ability to meet their needs individually and as a group, educationally and socially.  I really respect her for what she does.  The Lord knows, it's a tough job, so I'm not complaining about her at all.  I just wish that SG wasn't in such close proximity to the same kids all the time, day after day, year after year.  They know each other too, too well.

Our school district clusters the special needs students with resource teachers that follow them through their days and provide extra help for their academic subjects.  There are only three resource teachers for the junior high; one for 7th, one for 8th, and one for a self-contained class.  SG is too advanced academically for the self contained class.  In a perfect world, there would be two resource teachers per grade, so that the students could be divided up and recombined each year as needed to balance needs and personalities.  Sometimes people just rub each other the wrong way - that's true for everyone from birth to death.  But this isn't a huge school, space is limited, and so is money.  Staff and budget cuts over the past decade have eaten into the special education program as well as the regular education program.  There isn't any extra to go around.

So the situation will continue much as it has, with all of us (parents, teachers, students) coping as best we can.  I really worry about SG for the rest of this year.  I keep telling him that it gets better in high school, because there are a few more choices as far as electives, and he may not spend quite so much time with the exact same students in the exact same classes.  I certainly hope it works out that way, for his sake mostly, but for my family's as well.  Because what happens at school doesn't stay at school, and what happens at home doesn't stay at home.  And we're all in this journey through autism together.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Summer-ish Day, Summer Recipe

We're having heat wave in CNY today - it hit 70 officially at the airport in Syracuse!  It was sunny, too, which was a nice change from the grayness of the past few days.  I spent the day enjoying wearing flip-flops and short sleeves, pulling weeds in the garden, and generally doing house stuff.  I was supposed to be subbing, but the Princess woke up under the weather today (headache, nausea, general ick), so I called in and kept her home.  She was back to mostly normal by the afternoon, so thankfully it wasn't the full-blown flu that's been making the rounds of the school.  Maybe the flumist really did help.

Fun with Photobooth and the Princess, a couple years ago.

I don't have a picture, but I kitbashed a recipe yesterday that I really liked once it was done, so I thought I'd share it with you.  It's a Mexican pasta salad - a little spicy, and quite tasty.  We're having it tonight with indoor "barbecued" chicken to have a taste of summer.

Mexican Pasta Salad

1 16 oz. box of pasta (I used rotelle pasta - a.k.a. "wagon wheels")
1 can of black beans, drained and rinsed
1 small red pepper, diced
1 small bunch of scallions, sliced fine (about 1/2 cup)
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese (I used a combo of mild and sharp cheeses)
3/4 cup Kraft Chipotle Mayo
3/4 cup lite regular mayonaise
1/4 tsp. chipotle powder (more if you want more kick)
1/4 tsp. smoked paprika

Cook the pasta until al dente; drain and rinse with cold water until pasta is cool.  In a large bowl combine the two mayos and mix well.  Stir in the black beans, scallions, red pepper and cheese.  Mix in the pasta and stir to coat.  Refrigerate until serving.  You can sprinkle additional cheese on top prior to serving.  It has a little kick, but not too hot - a good spicy-cool combination with nice textures.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Teen Talk

Rose at sunset, beside our front porch, October 2012.

I am so glad, and so blessed, that Safety Guy will talk to me about literally anything and everything.  Sometimes it's like going down Alice's rabbit hole, since his conversations tend to twist and turn and progress by obscure association rather than linear progression.  I know him so well I can usually keep up, but occasionally I'll stop him and ask him what the connection was between topics.  We do practice appropriate conversational skills, and I reinforce those most of the time, but there's one time of day when he knows he can just talk with me, with no one else to have to please.  Most nights, right after he takes his meds but before he goes to bed, he'll come talk with me while I'm at the computer.  I stop and listen, and the topics cover an unbelievable amount of territory.

Some nights he's silly, telling me humorous things he's heard or seen during the day, online or in real life.  Some nights he's serious, upset about something that happened earlier, or disturbed by something in the news or in our community.  Most nights are a combination, with the conversations ranging from trivial to heartfelt and back again several times.

It's a little mind-bending, and if you don't know SG and he tries to talk to you like that, it's even a bit disconcerting.  It's during these conversations that his "aspie-ness" is most obvious, from his syntax and occasional use of scripted lines (things he's internalized from reading or seeing them elsewhere), to his abrupt changes of topic and lack of eye contact, and his perseveration on favorite topics.  I just let him go on, occasionally guiding or commenting or encouraging.  Sometimes I can help him understand an event by explaining how other people may have seen it or experienced it.  Sometimes I can relate a difficult to understand social byplay in a way that he can understand better.  Often I'm surprised at his insight and comments.  Last night I was very pleased to find that he's internalized more of our moral guidance than I sometimes give him credit for (especially regarding relationships and other common teen issues, like peer pressure, alcohol and drug use).

I have to confess that I'm very relieved that he's not actively trying to find someone to have a relationship with.  He has some girls who are friendly to him at school, but no one is seriously interested in him, and he's only wistfully interested in them.  He wants a serious relationship someday, but he's in no hurry.  I'll enjoy that while it lasts, since he's 14 and in 8th grade, and I know soon enough he'll be much more interested in young women and have fewer social skills than the average teen guy to deal with the complexity and craziness of teen girls.  I can tell right now it's going to get UGLY and he's going to get hurt, and it's a part of growing up that I wish he could skip until much later.

Oh, the joys of teen-hood.  I do have to say, Safety Guy gets easier to deal with in some ways as he gets older, while his sister is getting harder to deal with as she plows through the tween years.  Someone told me many years ago that boys are harder to deal with while younger, and easier in their teens, while girls are the opposite.  In my ongoing experience, I think that's likely to be true.  Which means I'll need serious prayer to deal with Princess for the next 9 years. . . .

But in the meantime, I'll keep talking with both of our kids.  No topics are off-limits, no question too personal, no question is stupid.  I know I'll make mistakes (well, MORE mistakes), and I won't always "hear" what they're really saying, but I'll do my best.  I'm glad they'll both talk to me so readily. I hope that openness between us continues for the rest of their lives, and I hope and pray for wisdom as I try to answer their questions and give them advice when they need it.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

I'm Back

I know it's been ages since I've posted.  Sometimes I don't have much to say, and sometimes I have too much on my mind to focus on any one thing and make a coherent post.  If you're still following me, thank you - I'll try to catch you up a little on what's been happening in my corner of the world.

A double rainbow behind our house in late October - 
it was magnificent and spanned the whole sky.

The kids are back to school, and doing pretty well.  Princess Yakyak (who has requested that I not call her that any more, so I'm changing her blog nickname to simply Princess) and Safety Guy (who still merits every bit of that nickname) are doing pretty well.  It hasn't been perfectly smooth sailing for SG, but it's still a little better than last year.  Both kids have awesome teachers, and I am so very glad.  Princess is in an inclusion classroom (mixed regular and special needs students) with two teachers (regular and special ed), and she's doing great. Safety Guy has the same resource teacher I subbed for long term last year, and she's amazing too.

Safety Guy still struggles with the same anxieties and stress triggers.  He has many of the same annoying classmates as the last two years, but he's not lily-white and innocent of provoking either.  It's a constant battle to help him monitor his own behavior and own his own actions while not letting the other students pick at him till he explodes.  He's comfortable enough with his new teacher to relax with her, but also to yell at her - not a happy thing, and he's discovered that consequences do indeed come down in 8th grade.  Still, it's better than last year.  I keep telling myself that, and him too:  it's still better, and getting better as time goes on.  I can't wait for 9th grade, however, when he's likely to be split off more from this core group of students he has most classes with.  His counseling group was mixed up and he's no longer with the student who annoys him most (because they're the most alike), so that helps.

Safety Guy and his Boy Scout troop participated in an emergency drill 
with local fire stations, ambulance crews and police.  
His troop were the "victims" of a bus accident.

Speaking of counseling, Safety Guy now sees a psychologist who specializes in youth/teens with Aspergers and other autism spectrum disorders.  I can't tell you how blessed we are to have Mr. R. working with us!  Most of the time SG sees him alone, but when there's a crisis we have a family meeting to address the issues.   The biweekly sessions give SG someone safe outside the family and the school to talk with.

Princess has had a great fall.  She's continuing her horseback riding lessons, and has joined 4-H with the other girls from her riding instructor's stable.  She also won a local writing contest, taking first place in the 10 and Under Short Story category.  (Short is relative, and she's definitely my daughter:  her story was 20 handwritten pages.)  She went to the award ceremony, won a $25 cash prize, and got her picture in the paper with the other winners.  Way to go, Princess!

Princess made her first pie (pumpkin) this fall with my help.  
Oooh, it was so good!

My art pursuits have gone in fits and spurts.  I spent a lot of the fall making teddy bears and teddy bear Christmas ornaments.  I've sold a handful, and used some as gifts.  I just haven't had the urge to draw or paint.  I have been very busy subbing, almost every day, and prebooked most days.  A number of teachers have been out (maternity leave, illness, surgery, personal issues - all sorts of troubles), and subs are in short supply in our district.  Good for me, but hectic.  Some days I stay in one place; some days I get moved around.  The worst day I was in 7 classrooms in two adjacent schools - what a marathon.  And of course at the beginning of the school year the only way to figure out which classes to avoid was to sub in them at least once.  But I'm grateful for the steady work, which will allow us to have a relaxed Christmas, and take care of a few extra needs and wants this year.

Bad Cat in a sunbeam.  So comfortable, so warm, so fuzzy.

The garden is tucked in for the winter, which I hope will provide adequate snow cover, unlike last year.  I planted spring-blooming bulbs like a squirrel burying nuts; dozens and dozens of daffodils, tulips, grape hyacinths, crocuses, regular hyacinths, and irises (which technically aren't bulbs at all, but rhizomes).  I can't wait for spring blooms!  In the meantime, I'm saving milk jugs for winter sowing, and planning what I'd like to plant as the seed and plant catalogs roll in.

Sophia with a new cat toy, on my lap, 
a couple weeks before her death.

On a sad note, we had to have our cat Sophia put to sleep last month, which was terribly sad for all of us.  It's so hard to let go of a beloved pet, even when it's best for them.  Sixteen wonderful years with my fluffy cat; I miss her so much.

I'm going to try to get back to blogging a few times each week.  Sometimes I'll have recipes, sometimes I'll talk about the kids, sometimes it might be autism-related posts, sometimes gardening stuff.  I still don't want to focus on one specific topic to the exclusion of others.  Please bear with me, friends, as I share bits of my life with you.

Safety Guy with his baby cousin at Thanksgiving.  Soooo cute!
SG spent most of the day watching his 3 year old cousin; 
the two of them ran each other into the ground.  
Upstairs, downstairs, all around the yard and the house, nonstop.
SG was so good to keep little M. occupied so his aunt and uncle
could have some time kid-free on the holiday.