Well, lookee here, lookee here…a GAUNTLET!!!!

Have you seen that t-shirt that reads: Come to the Dark Side.  We have cookies!   I didn’t buy it for J because I didn’t want to influence him.  I might as well, he’s negotiating cookies with the skill of Kissinger and the relentlessness of a toddler…  Last night’s theme?  COOKIE?  NO!  COOKIE?  NO!  COOKIE?  NO! and cue the crocodile tears and the haka alternately.  At one point I turned around and told my husband See?  THIS is why I work out.  For these arguments?, he asked.  Endurance.  If I hadn’t gone back to running and doing my yoga I’d have given in the second time he said COOKIE.  My husband simply stated that the house would be quieter and we’d have our dinner without the one-word equivalent of the roaming violinist at the restaurant…  If it’s any consolation, the cookies were consumed when I friggin’ felt like it and not when J insisted on having them.  Personally, I hope they tasted like sour grapes to him.

I think it’s the upcoming change of season.  Maybe it’s the “being seventeen” thing.  Perhaps it’s just that he’s testing my patience and his latitude.  Regardless, I am bound and determined and so is J.  This will prove to be an interesting turn of events over the next few weeks.  At one point or another, we will either reach an impasse or turn a corner.  For either thing I will have to be ready.

Some people (not any of you) have asked me why I sit and write this.  Other people have asked me why I’m so peppy about stuff like this.  There have been those who ask: what if no one is reading this?  My answer to all three types of question is: I’m thinking out loud and it helps me clear out the emotional cobwebs because either I let myself get tangled in the nasty bits or I find the silver lining, and -right now- it’s silver lining time.  No, it’s not one of those overwhelmingly bad times in J’s autistic patterns, but -like Roger Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon movies- I’m getting too old for this shit, and I know it…

Yesterday’s suggestion of going for a walk met with less resistance than the previous day’s.  J, happy enough to hang out with Dada, put on his track pants; away they went to take the trash out and walk for a while.  As I was getting dinner ready, the front door opened and in ran J, visibly agitated and screaming BATHROOM!  Behind him, looking a little down-in-the-mouth, was my husband.  Dog, my husband said; a piddly, tiny, completely harmless dog…and all Hell broke loose.  In the bathroom I could hear J breathing heavily, coughing as if he was about to hurl and nervously repeating a sound over and over again.  A few minutes later, J stepped out, still looking agitated, with his heart racing and asking for food.

I had him sit down on the steps and take deep breaths.  He asked for noodles between breaths and I had to say NO.  For one, I don’t believe in feeding the agitated; for another, I could sense a hint of manipulation in the request: I’ve been through a traumatic experience and some noodles would make me feel better.  Of the legitimacy of his agitation I had absolutely no doubt; J was scared and anxious, and it showed, but the main focus was to get him to calm down and then we’d move on to the next thing.

The dog, as I mentioned, was small and apparently friendly, but J can’t process that idea with the same clarity as I’m expressing it.  In his “dog” catalog he sees every single dog he’s ever encountered (even the ones printed on paper or in movies,) all the way back to the one that nipped his arm when he was three and there ends the love affair of J and the canine species.  I work hard at keeping him calm around dogs, and we reassure him of his safety as we approach an area where a dog is; I remind him that there have been dogs he’s liked in the past, and I remind him that he is bigger than the dogs and that we are here to protect him.  Leashes help.  A leashed dog, to J, looks to be under the control of its owner (this can be true or not…I’ve seen owners being walked by dogs) and he seems to be more willing to remain levelheaded around a leashed dog.  Yesterday, however, the small, friendly dog was loose and, while not yapping, barking, whining, yelping, jumping, sniffing or even approaching J, it was loose and that was enough to cause a meltdown.  I believe the word Dada used was “jogged”…as in “J jogged all the way home.”

To a walk that has been, mostly, uneventful over the past nearly seven months, add a new degree of difficulty: the dog belongs to the caretaker that lives a few yards up the road from J’s bus drop-off.  At the hour when he arrives from school the dog is nowhere to be seen, but -of course- the image of the tiny dog is now embedded in J’s brain and, I’m sure, he will want to run up the hill in a panic.  Lucky me!

We have mentioned before that J is autistic, not stupid.  Do we really think he’s not going to use this little incident to manipulate me?  Do we really believe that J won’t get home and, looking like a man who’s just had a really bad day at the office and needs a shot of whisky, he won’t try to finagle some sort of treat out of this?  I am prepared for this, and I am hoping I am strong and patient enough to see through the upcoming tug-of-war.  J is at an advantage here; he can breathe heavily, turn on the waterworks, grunt and try to hit his head (which he was doing yesterday as he sat on the steps) only to throw me off and soften my resolve…

If you’ll excuse me, I have to go train now…I’m about to run the emotional version of the Olympic Marathon…

Negotiations are fast and furious…well, furious anyway…

On the walk home from the bus, I told J the disc for the Wii Fit Plus was missing.  No sooner had I revealed this detail that J developed, in quick succession, an interest in visiting the management office, a desire to check the mailbox (I waved a travel brochure we’d received in front of him,) an urge to observe cloud formations and the construction site behind our row of townhouses, and a hurry to get home that can only be described as “I really have to GO!” or “There’s something I need to do at home NOW!”  To slow him down, lest he get overheated, overexerted or clumsily try to hurry up the stairs and trip, I told him I didn’t care where the disc was, I just wanted it found.

With that, I let the matter go and J came home to his usual routine of updating his weekly board, putting away our jackets, hanging the keys (which he asks for signing and saying I WANT KEY OPEN DOOR PLEASE,) starting his snack, requesting his soda and informing me that he is going to change his clothes.  The Great Gonzo, without being asked to intervene, came up and asked me if I’d found the disc because it was not among the ones he’d brought up from the basement.  J must have overheard this exchange of information.  I told TGG not to worry about it for now, and I went to change into my “at home” clothes, and to gather laundry.  A while later, after J had had his snack and we’d taken laundry downstairs, TGG and I sat in J’s room looking through his stacks and binders of DVDs and CDs to no avail.

It wasn’t until my husband came home and asked “well, no sign of the disc?” that I figured the amnesty I’d offered had been either unnecessary or declined in name of something grander.  TGG walked past me and said “are you sure it’s not in the machine?”  I said: “it isn’t.  It wasn’t there this morning.  Regardless, J’s going for a brisk walk as soon as Dada changes.”  And from the bottom of the stairs came a loud AHEM! and there was TGG, disc in hand, crouching in front of the Wii console.

Now, any loyal reader of Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey and Ellis Peters will tell you that this makes TGG a suspect, and I’d agree with you except that, once we got to the top floor and mentioned to J “you’re off the hook.  We found the disc.  It was in the machine all along!” a giggle (with something of a Vincent Price quality to it) followed the click of the door’s closing.

In putting together his snack box, I was more measured than usual.  This is not, I would like to point out, punishment; J has been handsomely regaled with snacks, but the problem is that he has been wanting to snack in the middle of meals.  I know the feeling.  It’s called PMS or eating out of boredom or emotional eating.  It is stopping now.  Today he is getting, as he did yesterday, a reduced allotment of snacks and I expect his whole pork chop dinner to be consumed.  And once the clock hits seven, no more food.  Period.  Don’t worry: the child is getting sufficient calories each day, and they are not empty calories (aside from the soda we’ve negotiated with him and that’s going to get watered down.)  He gets plenty of food, but J wants to manipulate us into giving him what he wants…

That J has discovered the effect his haka has on the floorboards and glassware stored on shelves is adding to the melodrama.  I can see the wheels in his brain turning: ooh, did you hear that?  That’s the clinking of glass!  That’s also the clanking of dishes.  Are THOSE your good dishes?  Is it me or does the TV look a little wobbly on that NEW piece of ANTIQUE furniture you just brought into the house?????  Without even making eye contact, I repeat NO for whatever reason I’ve been using it and, with a sound that resembles Charlie Brown’s AAAARGH!, J stomps up the stairs.  The respite doesn’t last long so I have to regroup, and my husband (who has come home to find himself enmeshed in the conflict of the ages) sighs and asks how long this has been going on; seventeen years, I tell him, well…almost 21 if you count the other kid.  I smile and JINGLE…stomp stomp stomp stomp…COOKIE?  The Greek chorus says NO.  (Count to three slowly.)  COOKIE?  NO!  (Deep breath.)  COOKIE?  NO!  Stomp, stomp…  J!  Stomp back.  I am NOT going to say YES just because you want me to; I will say YES when I want to say yes.  Understood?  J closes his eyes and clinks Slinky, puckering his lips and slowly turning towards his room.  Understood?  Hem and haw, shuffle, stomp, and BYE!

My husband asks if that is it.  I hold up my hand, signaling that the next few seconds are pivotal to the resolution of this argument.  From behind J’s closed door Seals and Croft sing “My Fair Share” from One on One.  Steps from TGG’s room to J’s and the door opens: Dude, she’s totally NOT going to give you the damn cookie if you play the Robby Benson card.  The music changes to something from Paul Simon’s Graceland and the door closes with a jingle.  I put my hand down…THAT, I tell my husband, is it.

An hour or so later, without further ado, I walk up the stairs and hand J a bowl with the cookies.  I say “would you like some cookies?” and he glares at me ever so briefly before deciding to accept my benevolence as a pleasant surprise.  If he had one of those stock market tickers installed on his forehead I’m sure the word of choice would not have been THANK YOU.  But he smiles, accepts the cookies and thanks me, and as I walk out and close the door, I am followed by Billy Joel’s “My Life“…with emphasis on the “leave me alone.”

I will keep this in mind when we’re doing our run with the Wii this evening…  🙂

I’m sure it was Keyser Söze who took it…

An exhaustive search of the house has failed to turn up the disc for the Wii Fit Plus.  Coincidence?  I think not!  The usual suspect is at school, but I’m sure he knows where the disc is and will refuse (on grounds of moral conviction and principle) to turn it over…in a word: I told him we would be resuming our exercise routine today and, lo and behold, the disc is gone.  As I said: coincidence?  You tell me…

This morning I was reduced to running in place for 25 minutes (yes, you read right…I ran in place for 25 minutes…bored out of my skull in spite of the musical background, thank you) and I intend to take that child for a vigorous walk in the great outdoors that, hopefully, will convince him that I am bound and determined to not let the little detail of the missing disc interfere with my plans.  Prepare yourselves for loud complaining…he WILL be vocal about this.

It seems to us that this new wave of protest responds to J’s desire to mark territory once more.  He does that once in a while; J determines that it’s time to stretch boundaries, push envelopes, stomp on toes and crush egg shells, and we negotiate the expansion of his freedom and self-determination like any other set of parents would, but with the caveat of the dang autism lurking in the background.  We figure that we have to take THAT into consideration while trusting that we’ve done a good-enough job of giving J…wings?  Some sort of propeller?  At least a parachute?

Little by little J’s pushed his bedtime back…on a weeknight he will lurk in his room, fighting the desire to curl up and snooze, as late as 10:30…11 PM when he’s feeling feisty.  He’s taken to fishing out the pants he wants from the hamper, and I could make him wash them every single day, but I think that would interfere with some of the “normalcy” he thinks he’s gleaning out of this particular action.  He brushes his teeth religiously, until the morning when he just doesn’t want to be bothered to go back upstairs to do it and pops an Altoid in the same fashion any other kid would when trying to sneak out of the house with dirty teeth.  When I brush his hair (more to massage his scalp after hours of being constricted by his scrum cap than to make him look a certain way), J messes up his hair with his hands, all while rolling his eyes at me.

I have to give in on some things, but for others I am forced to put my foot down.  In the absence of the disc we need to follow the workout we designed for him, we will have to be firm about making him do it with us, no technology involved other than his iTunes account playing in the background.  It’s possible J thinks he has foiled us in hiding the disc…if that is what he intended to achieve, then we have even less room to negotiate.  With fine weather becoming more abundant, he is now in a position to walk outside…shouting out his discontent to the neighbors if he is so inclined.  If he wants to walk around like the Mayor of Halloweentown in The Nightmare Before Christmas, so be it…but his girth must be put under control and his heart has to be exercised with something other than the excitement caused by Katy Perry’s boobies.

On Saturday my husband cut my hair.  Well…he mowed my head is more like it; I now sport the same haircut that everyone in the household has right after I sit them down and swoosh with the hair clippers.  J happily ran his hand over my head and giggled when I’d first shown him; the next time he ran into me, he looked at me as if appraising a painting or sculpture, and then patted the top of my head in an attempt to make the fuzz flat.  Walking past me, he will stop and gaze or he will walk around me, staring intently at my head.  This morning, as I brushed his hair, he kept touching mine and closing his eyes, more interested in the texture than in the way I look.  I wonder what is going through his mind…

I am sure that the severity of my haircut, combined with the severity of my insistence in exercising this evening, will not endear me to J.  If he is the party responsible for the current absence of the Wii Fit disc, well, we might be in for a long tug-of-war with him.  J likes to get his way, and he can be a handful when he’s trying to prove that he is right.  There is something of the melodramatic in him: I have seen him dragging an empty laundry basket down the stairs as if it had one-hundred pounds of rocks in it, all the while sighing and stopping to wipe his (dry) brow.  J will react to a request for assistance with bags of groceries with such horror that one would think we’ve asked him to club baby seals to death.  Ten minutes later, he will be dancing and leaping with enthusiasm over something HE wants to do…

So…I’m going to be Big, Bad, Bald Mom today…that child is going to exercise, and he is going to do it for the prescribed half-hour even if it kills ME.  He’ll be fine.  He’s always fine.  He just whines a lot when he’s so inclined.  He doesn’t need Tiger Balm, Epsom Salts, warm compresses, a massage, ice packs…no…he’ll be peachy and happy once we’re done.  Throughout the half-hour, though, I will not have respite from the wailing and protesting, and afterwards I will be sore and exhausted and cranky and I won’t be able to complain because this whole exercise thing is supposed to be FUN for all involved…

I sure hope I can find that disc somewhere…I like it so much better when he complains at the TV!

Head in the clouds…

Sundays, as a general rule, speed up to make it seem like the weekend didn’t really happen at all.  One crawls out of bed and midway through coffee, it’s noon and then it’s time to cook dinner.  We don’t know how this happens, but it does.  J consumed four or five hours leisurely putting together a Lego…I know it was that long because I suddenly looked up as he put the last piece into place, and it was time to start dinner.

We snuck in a walk, but this was not as happy an occasion as it could have been…dogs were out and about, their owners enjoying the weather which has been rather fine.  We’ve been told that once the Dairy Queen in town reopens after its winter siesta we will get a massive snowstorm (I believe it’s a tradition around these parts,) but today was lovely and we couldn’t resist leaving the house.  A brindle boxer and a fuzzy Yorkie appeared out of nowhere (not together) and spooked J.  Once those two disappeared from view (something that we couldn’t convince J of,) barks from behind closed doors jolted him frequently.  It figures that a kid who makes dog treats for a living (as it were) would be deathly afraid of anything canine.

So the outing was something of a mild disaster, but the final portion of building the Lego helped J refocus his energy.  By the time dinner rolled around, though, he seemed a little out of sorts and I couldn’t put my finger on it.  Was it still the dogs?  Did he not like the ribs we grilled?  Was Rooney Mara’s dress too ethereal for his taste?  Nope…like a dork, I had failed to update the weekly board and our poor routine-conscious son was utterly confused by the absence of BACKPACK and BUS from Monday through Friday.  I quickly fixed it and, with a roll of the eyes that conveyed relief and disbelief at my lack of presence of mind, he soon forgave me.

What can I say?  We have noticed on the calendar that we get to change the clocks soon.  Spring is seeping into our consciousness and we are getting antsy.  With new furniture (old, of course) and spring cleaning looming ahead, we are a little distracted.  Tomorrow, even though none of us has one bit of enthusiasm for the idea, we are back to running with the Wii and trying to prepare for when the pool opens in May.  J, of course, is enthused by the idea that the doors now remain open longer, that we don’t have to trudge through snow for a while.  I wait for him with an umbrella, but these past few days gloves, scarf and hat have not been necessary.

The days are slowly getting longer.  We can’t yet put away the winter clothes, but we don’t have to turn on the lights in the kitchen as early as we used to…cotton sheets cannot be too far away in our future…

Yes, spring is mere weeks away, and we’ve already surrendered to the idea of it…it’s all Emily Dickinson’s fault.  You know how it goes?

A LITTLE madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown,
Who ponders this tremendous scene—
This whole experiment of green, 
As if it were his own!

Unless we get our act together, we will be the clowns…and J will do his best to be patient, but the empty board is something that to him means idleness he doesn’t appreciate.  Memo to me: don’t get so distracted that you throw J for a loop…

Hey, Noah…I know it’s raining and all, but I sort of want all these cookies…

Grown-up furniture is a term we use around these parts for anything that doesn’t look like it would have belonged in our abodes during the college years.  We are slowly acquiring such pieces; you know what I mean: an actual sofa, an actual dining room set, a sideboard, a dresser…things we don’t have to assemble ourselves using as a guide instructions that come in English, Spanish, French, Swedish, Japanese, Taiwanese, things that don’t bring their own assembly tools.

This trend does not prevent my husband from dreading the sound of those words: I just had a most scathingly brilliant idea!  Not my original thought, of course; this is one of Hayley Mills’ recurrent lines from The Trouble With Angels; it never boded well in the movie, it doesn’t bode well here either.  From time to time (very rarely) my scathingly brilliant ideas involve construction, and -quite frankly- I cannot be bothered with either cautious execution of my harebrained plan or patience.  We once built a platform for our bed that was a) askew, b) supported by hope and too many L-brackets and c) weighed more than a hundred pounds.  Yes…we once built a platform bed that weighed MORE than a hundred pounds.  Notice how I have yet to mention the word “sturdy”…because it’s not one that would be applied to that platform.  J’s bed was an unmitigated disaster; if we’d been building a raft to escape from a deserted island, we wouldn’t have made it past the reef…

As soon as we pulled into the parking lot of the lumber/hardware store, J started worrying.  I explained to him that we were there for a specific size piece of wood and it had absolutely nothing to do with a bed for him.  He seemed relieved.  I think he still has nightmares.  The arrival of the sideboard last night was celebrated by all.  J already knows which drawer holds the place mats and has been happily removing them and putting them away for meals.  The trip to the hardware store this morning had the sole purpose of providing us with a piece of wood that would serve as a top for our new kitchen island.  (This is the part where I’d stood up suddenly, in the middle of dinner, and announced a most scathingly brilliant idea, and when The Great Gonzo had to leap over the table to almost perform the Heimlich maneuver on my husband.)  Once we knew for sure that he wasn’t choking, having a heart attack or had access to any sharp objects, I informed my husband that I was going to put a piece of wood on top of the stainless steel shelving unit we’d removed from the dining room to make space for the sideboard, and that this would be our “island.”

I’ve mentioned the rule where something new comes in and something old has to come out.  Well…for a moment the dining room looked like a rather heated discussion in the UN.  People were trotting out “the agreement” and much ballyhooing was taking place.  J took this moment to grab a second helping of pasta, add Parmesan cheese to his Parmesan cheese and kept eating calmly so as not to attract attention to himself.  He was unsuccessful at grabbing cookies behind our backs, and when we stopped him he let out a loud yelp that sounded more like a curse word, and marched upstairs in a huff.  I prevailed; not because I was right or had a particularly brilliant plan in mind, but because I can argue longer than anyone in the house.

Off we trotted this morning.  In town, J and I walked down to Pinocchio’s to see about some Slinky replacements, but there were none to be had and, instead, J picked out two small toys he paid for himself.  The store owner asked me to send her a message on Facebook to remind her we wanted to reserve Slinky when the shipment arrived.  From there we went to the hardware store and J, relieved at the puny size of the wood we picked out, was happy.

We put together the “island” and, thank goodness, it turned out just fine.  Again, it is not the epitome of craftsmanship or cautious planning, but it holds rather well and looks like an actual piece of furniture.  Even J, who walked around it several times, crouched to look under it, and made note of the fact that the bread basket is now on the shelf rather than the countertop, gave it the seal of approval.  The maiden voyage of the “kitchen island” will be completed when we finally put something on top of it, something we’ve yet to do because I stained it (found something that dries in an hour and has a suggestion of 24 hours before direct use of the surface…which we won’t heed because this is us we’re talking about.)  J looked at where things are hanging from its frame; he was reassured by the fact that the pots and pans he prefers and the colander are all where he remembers them being yesterday evening and this morning.  He also located the cheese grater and the mixing bowls.

Some people can just bring things into their homes and use them.  We have to give J the grand tour of whatever it is we acquire.  We move into a new home and we walk through it with him, room by room, taking our time, and he acts as if he’s an archaeologist at an important dig site, treading carefully, observing every detail and making sure he has mental markers for all there is.  When I move furniture, J is the one who gives final approval, the one who sits on the steps and takes it all in from a strategic point of view rather than an aesthetic one.  Until he is completely accustomed to the presence and location of the new kitchen island, the kitchen curtains will stay open at night, the light from across the way reflecting on the furniture in case J decides to come downstairs and has forgotten where it is.

You should have seen him.  Here is a guy who sees a roll of duct tape, Velcro, assorted screws, a T-square, “sidewalk” chalk, a kitchen mallet, his parents crouching over some upturned piece of furniture and thinks to himself: ah!  We’re getting new stuff!  And he gets the scathingly brilliant idea (they’re hereditary) of using our fragile state (read: that we’re cursing and using Velcro for something that requires screws) to talk us into giving him a snack.  He fails miserably.  He is insulted by our refusal.  He looks at our pseudo-kitchen island and lets out a loud HA! and stomps up the stairs…

Is it a coincidence that down the stairs floats “anything you can do I can do better…I can do anything better than you”?  I…think…NOT…

Shopping habits of the not-so-average pseudo-American family…

We watch the news.  Depressing as this exercise is, we do keep up with what goes on in the world…and then we take an antacid.  To alleviate the stress and tribulation that actual news broadcasts give us, we augment the experience with The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report.  I guess you could say that we are “bleeding-heart liberals,” but we prefer to think of ourselves as thoughtful people who put a lot of effort into making an educated decision before casting a vote in any election.

If you are unfamiliar with either one of these shows, they are basically well-informed political satire conducted by intelligent men who happen to be ridiculously funny.  My husband, who is an old-school Reaganite, enjoys the way Stewart and Colbert satirize the Republican Party as much as I do, and my husband’s Reagan-years were very different from my Reagan years: upper middle-class kid with a homemaker mom vs. blue-collar family with white-collar mom.  My dad spent a great deal of the 80s on strike while my mom cooked blocks of frozen chicken that, to a box, fed us for a whole week.  Choctaw Maiden was the brand…I still cringe when I think of what it looked and tasted like.  Mind you, my husband did not live in the lap of luxury, but the economy in his household was a little less “the waves and wind are going to make us crash into the roooooooooooooccccc….” than it was for us.  The differences don’t stop there: my dad is a socialist-agnostic who married a conservative Catholic; his parents shared ideology and theology.  I will gladly boycott, protest, fire off an angry letter, stand on a soap box…you get the picture.  My husband is more laid back, passionate about what he believes in, but I’m more likely to get arrested for civil disobedience than he is…

I’ve made him more of a liberal and he’s made me less of a “hell no we won’t go” looney.  (The word looney is entirely affectionate.)  Between the two of us we are trying to foster something more than just walking into a booth, casting a vote and saying “but I thought he/she seemed like a nice choice.”  We make The Great Gonzo watch the news; we ask him questions about what’s going on in the world and, with eyes rolling, he gets ready for the “informative session” if what he says sounds ludicrous.  Yes, it’s fun growing up in this household.

SO…Stephen Colbert did a piece on Wednesday night’s segment The Word about the information retailers know about their customers.  Here is the link:

http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/408981/february-22-2012/the-word—surrender-to-a-buyer-power

After the show, my husband and I sat for a while sorting laundry into baskets (making sure J’s red scrum cap and Rasta hat were easily found, and that his green cargo pants were on the top of the stack of hangers) and talking.  If you watch the video I’ve attached you’ll understand why we were laughing so hard.

My husband’s take on what Target knows about us: “we buy baby wipes, but no diapers or baby food…we buy shaving cream, shavers, men’s deodorant, cream for athlete’s foot, and Dora the Explorer DVDs.  We are constipated, but insist on eating massive amounts of cheese…  We never have enough bookshelves, but we never buy books.  DVD players are disposable in our household.  We go through tubs of Vicks VapoRub, have a sugar addiction that is quelled only by the consumption of massive amounts of Pixy Stix…the Slinky is self-explanatory…”  We couldn’t stop laughing…the kids worried about us when they came in to grab their clean laundry and found us rolling around on the floor.

Here we are, worrying about what people who SEE us might think, what they might glean from J’s appearance.  The video says they send coupons and sales announcements to customers based on the information they gather from your shopping habits.  We have never received one.  Somewhere in the corporate offices for Target there are employees who just STARE at the data collected from our sales receipts, and they are scratching their heads…possibly developing a drinking problem in the process.  Oh, George Orwell…you were a little ahead of schedule, but you were so right!

I come home from the grocery store and find, with my sales receipt, coupons for menopause supplements, acne medication, fiber-rich foods.  The store thinks it knows when my cats are running low on litter, food and deodorizer.  The store can’t quite make out why I shop the way I do.  Big Brother must be asking “why the baby wipes?  She’s starting menopause any day now…they haven’t bought any single item that might indicate they’ve adopted a child or babysit one.  Someone in that household…GASP!!!!…has a hairy ASS!!!!!!!!  OMG, OMG, OMG, TMI, TMI, TMI!!!!!”  Big Brother, than overly informed cyclops that peeks into our existence with such zeal that he wants to anticipate any allergy we might develop when spring rolls around, is running around his office screaming and bumping into walls.

If we look weird as we enter the store, a little band of interesting looking people equipped with boxing gloves and Slinky, what must we look like to analysts who try to determine our shopping patterns?  What must the bank think?  I have sometimes asked myself why the debit/credit card terminal at the register doesn’t ask some significant questions:

Terminal displays: Sales total is $45.38.  Is this correct?

You can choose YES or NO

Why doesn’t the terminal jump in and display: Really?

You can choose: Um, yes or Uh, maybe

The terminal displays: Last I checked you spent too much money last paycheck and were scrambling about to make it through to this week.

You can choose: so what?  It’s my money or How do I say to the cashier that I’ve changed my mind?

The terminal responds: well, either you change your mind or you’ll be eating ramen noodle for a month.

The truth is the terminal doesn’t care.  The bank is enjoying this while you writhe in horror once you notice you forgot to subtract that ONE transaction that will push you over the edge.  The store, well, it’s just scratching its head wondering if you’re pregnant or if you just bought your sanitary napkins elsewhere or it’s trying to determine WHO has hemorrhoids among the four of you that show up…

If I don’t laugh thinking about these things…well…they’ll know I buy and need a lot of Kleenex at around 6 PM every evening as I watch the news.

A pair of green cargo pants and a red scrum cap walk into a school…

Every year we decide what it is we are giving up for Lent.  Every year God reacts in the same way:  HA!  He knows what he scoffs at…this year we barely made it to seven o’clock on Ash Wednesday before I, Eve of the household that I am, tempted my husband with a piddly amount of dark chocolate chips that were left in a small bag.  God, perched on his lovely oak throne up in a cushy cloud in Heaven, started laughing his fanny off…a loud roar of thunder announced this fact.  We made him cry so hard it started raining buckets.  I, for one, was glad I could tickle the Big Guy’s funny bone for it is better than when I make him angry…

J seems to have given up any pair of pants that is not his pair of green cargo pants.  They were his Fat Tuesday pants (Monday was a holiday) and his Ash Wednesday pants.  Today they were his “hey!  It’s Thursday!” pants.  Right now I’m making him wash them or they will be his “don’t come near me, I’ve been wearing the same pants all week” pants for tomorrow.  His sudden fascination with that ONE particular pair of pants is surprising…he has another pair in another color, and treats it like it’s got mange.  Five pairs of long pants he owns, and only one is he willing to wear.  Is that a “guy” thing?

The horror on his face as I take the green cargo pants and throw them in the washer is only exceeded by his horror when I do the same thing with the red rugby helmet.  Toddlers might sit in front of the washer waiting for their blankie to emerge and then be remanded to the care of the dryer, J waits for his helmet and his pants.  The machine has just started its cycle and I feel like I personally shot Bambi’s mother.  J’s reaction tells me I have stripped him of his beloved helmet, stomped on his dignity and he must now ignore me until I make amends by returning his pants and his scrum cap to him…until then I am on the crap list.

The funny thing about all this is that, while The Great Gonzo seems -from time to time- to have outgrown that type of reaction, J never truly will.  These are the moments when the melodrama of the eight year-old bubbles up and overflows.  Just like when I say no and he lets out a loud complaint and stomps around, I am taken aback and realize that his size can be deceiving.  In my heart I expect him to sniff and pout as he stomps up the stairs and slams his door, but I know he will stomp around in circles, howling and yelping, possibly scaring the neighbors in the process. There have been moments when I’ve wondered if, during one of those stomps of his, he will go through the floor and get stuck between levels of the house…we will walk downstairs and say hello to his legs and then go back upstairs and say hello to his chest, arms and head.  Other times I wonder if the next-door neighbors will suddenly find them in their dining area if J accidentally goes through the wall as he’s running up the stairs.

We no longer worry about his as much as we did before.  When J was having his behavioral issues, he could easily clear a store of all its shoppers by letting out a growl.  He was not the Cowardly Lion either, with a growl that meant to intimidate because he was truly not as fierce as he seemed…no, J could scare the crap out of people and mean it.  Now, he expresses his discontent and acts as if we’re being the most amazingly unfair parents the world has ever known, also known as every single teenager’s parents.  My reaction is no longer “will he scare people” because I now think “this luxury townhouse is not very sturdy.”  That is about size and weight, not about fierceness…well…yes, if he’s really pissed off he will put more effort into the stomping, but -as a general rule- he stops when he hears a suspicious creak.

If I could rationalize Lent for J I would probably ask him to give up the stomping.  I know it gives him pleasure to mark his territory and express his displeasure in that manner so it would, indeed, be a sacrifice.  I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that he give up his green cargo pants or his red scrum cap; I wouldn’t even suggest putting aside Slinky or the boxing gloves.  I don’t worry about those things as much as I used to because, in all honesty, they now seem natural to everyone here.  We used to feel self-conscious, but we now realize that, after the initial impression, people aren’t really that put-off by them.

God made the platypus.  I believe Robin Williams has indicated this particular piece of creation as proof that God gets stoned.  God gave bees the ability to make honey.  God, I suppose, made porcupines and hedgehogs…he also made human beings that resemble all these creatures in one way or another.  My aunts, bless them, each looked like a different type of hen, something that always caused quite a bit of joy in me and which would have prompted a rather long, drawn-out and unpleasant speech from one of them in particular.  J comes from the same catalog as all these things, and I think he’s yet another way God has of gleaning entertainment out of us.  I am certain of this because, as I type this, I can hear my son shifting his weight on the bottom step of the kitchen stairs, waiting to make an entrance and casually stand by the washer, attempting to fish out his helmet and plant it, soaking wet, on his head…

I’m glad we don’t give up mirth for Lent…it would be too hard, and God would not enjoy it either…

Something along the lines of a culinary conundrum…

I don’t think J’s ever watched Kung Fu, so it’s not likely that he’s aware of Kwai Chang Caine’s tiger and dragon marks, seared into his skin by an embrace with a cauldron.  The reason I mention this is that we are truly stumped by J’s desire to consume a plate of scalding-hot food in five seconds (while looking tremendously uncomfortable and refusing any offer of assistance,) but will happily spend an hour in eating a cup of cereal.  This is a mystery, and not one that we enjoy being faced with, if I must tell the truth.

Try as I might, J will turn down all my offers to delay his consumption of a steaming plate of noodles.  My attempts to trick him are also cut at the pass; he seems to have learned to time how long it takes for the noodles to boil and be served, and with his superhuman hearing, he can sense all my movements in the kitchen.  Short of hanging from the ceiling like Tom Cruise in the first Mission: Impossible movie, I’m basically fighting a losing battle.

J will take his sweet time eating anything else, but hot food is something he sucks up like a vacuum cleaner.  We have witnessed a cup of cereal sitting on his bed, eaten one flake at a time with the same sybaritic savoring Cleopatra must’ve applied to eating grapes while being fanned by her many servants as she floated down the Nile on her barge.  You’d think every piece of Cinnamon Toast Crunch has been crafted with the utmost care and that J is a gourmand who can actually and truly appreciate it like no other human can.  Of course, Cinnamon Toast Crunch is room temperature…steaming-hot noodles are not.

On a good day, when he’s feeling inclined to collaborate, J and I will slowly count to 20 and wait for his food to be cooler.  He eggs me on with his hand (speed it up, lady!  My throat isn’t hurting or steaming or scarred for life yet!  What are you waiting for????) and I slow down some more.  I’ve made counting to twenty last a whole minute; I make him enunciate clearly and repeat himself when he is lazy about the signing or the speaking.  This, mind you, is a risky move and has resulted in a head first dive down the stairs the next time he’s eating something cooked, a movement so swift that he gets to the plate and the food gets in his mouth faster than I can move.  Even in the middle of his discomfort, J will manage to give me a look that says “HA!  OW!  But HA!!!!!!”

The trick of putting his plate in the freezer doesn’t work.  Either he realizes that the sucking sound he heard was the rubber around the freezer door or he moves quietly down the stairs and catches us in flagrante delicto.  I’ve seen him cross his arms and tap his foot impatiently at our audacity.  We try to use the same gestures on him but he remains unfazed by them, he thinks it’s funny that we are trying to look “serious.”

The timer helps once in a while, but J is impatient when it comes to noodles.  J can be impatient with just about everything.  So far, the one thing that seems to slow him down is my insistence on having his place set with a mat, napkin, flatware and his hands washed thoroughly…that gives the food less than two minutes to cool completely, especially if J decides to be tremendously obedient and smiles his way through setting the table while I’m still taking off my shoes after coming in from our afternoon walk.

There you have it.  I’m getting hoodwinked by a seventeen year-old.  I’m getting hoodwinked, furthermore, by a seventeen year-old who doesn’t enjoy what he’s doing to hoodwink me…if I could say “well, at least he’s happy” it would be a different story, but J is obviously uncomfortable when he pushes the hot, hot, hot food into his mouth and forces it down.

Any ideas?  Anything you think I can do to negotiate a respite from this self-torture of his?

Mind you: J is a negotiator of the highest caliber.  He will take a fancy to things that belong to us and we will have to negotiate with him to get them back.  In exchange for a 2-dollar hair clip I had to give J a jar of Nivea cream, a package of clothespins, a roll of Scotch tape, a whole box of new pencils and use of the electric pencil sharpener.  An hour later he was slip-sliding around the house…the whole jar of cream gone and his arms and legs as shiny as egg bread.  Two days later I discovered a ball of Scotch tape stuck to his closet door, all my socks pinned together with clothespins and twelve one-inch long pencils hidden inside a mound of wood shavings from the pencil sharpener cup.  It would have been easier to just buy a new hair clip.

I don’t know if J wants to eat the food that hot because I say “don’t do it.”  I don’t know if he does it because he wants to get it over and done with.  I do know, however, that his stoicism is totally fake…he is burning his tongue and the roof of his mouth, but he is determined to not acquiesce on this one.  Maybe I need a house with a dumb waiter so that I can slowly crank food to wherever J will have his eating area; maybe I need to let him eat upstairs in his room (which I refuse to do because I LOVE that he only eats in the kitchen/dining area as he SHOULD.)

Oh, let’s face it…I just need a sufficient amount of rope, some pulleys, and nerves of steel that will allow me to cook and serve while floating above the ground…

Yeah…that’s not going to happen…

 

 

 

The scale at the doctor’s office confirmed that it’s Fat Tuesday…

I didn’t schedule my appointment with the doctor for Fat Tuesday intentionally.  I also didn’t expect to walk out telling myself “I’m fat and it’s Tuesday,” but that’s a little how it has worked out.  I’m not FAT…I’m heavier than I expected the scale to tell me I was.  I don’t know if I was expecting politeness out of her, or if I was merely delusional, but I weigh more than I thought…ten more pounds than I really, really, really wanted to be told I weigh.

Sigh.

All that fish in the freezer, all the steamed vegetables that usually weave their way through the Lent menus will be out in full force as of tomorrow.  Today it’s too late to change my mind about the pork chops, and too late to feel badly about all the ice cream we (in anticipation of the sacrificial diminution of culinary pleasures that doesn’t end until Easter Sunday) consumed with a little too much gusto.  Our friends allowed us the honor and privilege of sharing our family life with them, and that comes with lots of food and the laziness good company and winter elicit from us…we are glad they didn’t come a week later when pickings would have been slimmer and we’d have sadly passed the carrots and celery around.

Yesterday afternoon, J made his way down to the basement to help me with laundry.  The living room looked as it had before the guests came.  The couch was in its spot, as were the chair, the side table, the coffee table.  The downstairs bathroom was spotless, as if four people had not been sharing it for four days and three nights; the laundry was slowly being washed, dried, folded and put away.  There were no dishes to wash and, had we not been certain that we’d had visitors a mere few hours before, it would seem as if we’d imagined it.  The house was tremendously quiet, and J kept waiting for them to return.

I don’t know if we have become more sociable.  I think we simply had people we love and feel comfortable with around us.  I don’t know if the mood would have been the same with others…if we would have been as successful with different people.  We’ve had visitors before, and the mood has been strained or tentative.  I think we were all happy to be together and willing to enjoy things as they were.  J tuned into this particular feeling and was exactly as he likes to be: master of his own time and regulator of his interaction.  Grandparents want the grandkids to show themselves, to validate their presence with their acknowledgement.  J doesn’t respond well to this type of pressure, even when it’s kindly meant.

We now have hopes that we can do this…that we can be like other people in the sense that we can socialize with those who, like my friend and her family, will understand the interesting position we are in.  They asked questions without the hesitation of strangers; they were curious in a healthy way.  They didn’t treat us like we reinvented the wheel or discovered a cure for cancer…they just accepted that we are ordinary people with an extraordinary hiccup in the middle of our existence.  My friend, who has known me since time immemorial, isn’t in awe of the fact that I can do this even though she knows my many foibles.  Neither one of us was intent on getting proof of extraordinariness…and so we didn’t even attempt it, but we made a fantastic cheese sauce for home-made gnocchi.

Isak Dinesen writes in Out of Africa about how even bad years for rain are blessings because there is an esprit de corps that arises, a common thread of memory that runs from one person to another about the bad year.  She talks about her visitors to the farm, even those who never return, and she uses the expression I will not let thee go except thou bless me.  We ate too much this weekend; we drank wine and chatted congenially as we had not done in a long time; we had eight people in one house and the noise that goes with that; we had children ranging from early teens to early twenties, video games, computers, cell phones, boxing gloves, Slinky, cats running up and down the stairs, people sneezing because of cat hair, allergy medicine being handed out, mother saying “wash your hands,” children rolling their eyes…and J smiling pleasantly and heart-feltedly in the middle of it all.  We even managed, I promise you this is a fact and it can be verified by the stunned children who witnessed it, to take a quick nap on a Saturday afternoon.

My husband and I talk about 2010 as a bad year.  And it was.  All hell broke loose and we came out on the other side with all the accoutrements of comfort that J depends on, and which we’ve grown accustomed to…we thought we would never recover; we thought we had PTSD.  Yesterday I was reading and I ran into this: It was during those long days that we were all of us merged into a unity, so that on another planet we shall recognize one another, and the things cry to each other, the cuckoo clock and my books to the lean-fleshed cows on the lawn and the sorrowful old Kikuyus: ‘You also were there.  You were also part of the Ngong farm.’ That bad time blessed us and went away.  

I know J remembers the weekend.  I can see it in the smile that he displays as I mention things we did while our friends were here.  When he sees the picture my friend e-mailed of him, J will be enamored of it…in part because he looks beautiful, very much like himself, and because he will recognize the smile in it.  I think this is one of those moments in his life that he will recognize anywhere when it comes to mind.  I think he knows he did something fantastic this weekend…he gave us a gift…

 

 

 

 

That championship season…

Ever know a weekend that worked out well beyond your expectations?  A weekend when, against every odd stacked against you and all the trepidation with which you’ve anticipated it, everything falls into place and works beautifully?  Weekends like that one (any stretch of time like that one) comes along very seldom and is then eternally etched in your memory…a paragon of perfection that you will cherish and think about -harking back nostalgically- for years to come.  We’ve had such a weekend…

The guests arrived after a long car trip during which, we’re sure, they were hoping that their presence wouldn’t be disruptive to J.  People spilled into the house…people we’d not seen in approximately six years…people spilled and family merged with family, and soon we were all one happy and comfortable group sharing three levels of living space, crowding around tables, arms reaching past plates, utensils being handed up and down the table while people laughed and chattered noisily over meals.  People sat comfortably; people leaned into things, piled onto things…and J, without missing a beat, remained pleasant J; inquisitive J; curious and happy J; “oh, you’re HERE!” J.

The story I kept going back to in my mind was The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant with illustrations by Stephen Gammell.  The Great Gonzo and J loved this book when they were younger; it was once featured on Reading Rainbow and the idea of visitors immediately became appealing to The Great Gonzo.  As time progressed and J started changing and becoming more difficult to figure out, the idea lost its glossiness in our collective mind.

And yet here we are…in the afternoon of Monday after a weekend of happy cohabitation with people we hadn’t seen in a long time.  The house feels empty.  There hasn’t been any of the “sigh, we can now relax” that usually follows such interactions.  There isn’t a scramble to set our lives back to rights, to resume the course of our usual routine…we all segued into a shared normalcy that was very comfortable to us.  In all honesty, we hope they are driving home at a reasonable speed and not dialing the phone company to ask for a different number, planning to move incognito or hoping we will never repeat the experience.  We are not emotionally or physically exhausted; we haven’t been walking on egg shells or hoping that nothing goes awry…we were comfortable, relaxed, and yet very much ourselves.

Yesterday morning J opened the basement door and stood on the steps while our guests slept.  My friend noticed him. He didn’t bother them; he didn’t intentionally interrupt their rest.  She asked why he’d do that and the explanation was simple: he was taking a head count and making sure they were all still here.  On Saturday the grown-ups had trekked to town and the younger folk (not children anymore, of course) had gone their way to the mall, and J had been a part of the expedition of the younger set.  And he had fun.  And he was relaxed.  And we felt blessed and grateful…and I told my friend he would have already expressed discontent if he’d felt any, and he’d been tremendously vocal about it…

The loveliness of the experience wasn’t just that J behaved, but that no one expected him not to and yet, if he had, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world for any of us.  The kids were, as kids tend to be, quietly polite with us and tremendously relaxed with each other…and J, in his own way, would emerge from the inner sanctum of his room and observe the general hubbub with a smile, eventually asking this new outcrop of companions to do something for him, and reacting to them with the same affectionate detachment he applies to us…

We are happy they came.  We feel better for having risked opening doors and mingling families, been noisy, cooking for 8 rather than for four, generating more dishes and pots and pans to wash for one meal than we do for a holiday celebration.

It was worth it.  We want to do it again…we hope they do, too.  For a long time to come conversations around this house will start with “remember that weekend when M, H, P and N came to visit and we had such an awesome time…”  The roar of the crowd as the last ball beats the buzzer, entering the net neatly from the three-point line and the tie is broken and we win, we win, WE WIN!!!! will be ringing in our ears for a long time to come…