Friday, March 27, 2009

The Joy of Dumpsters

There's a dumpster parked behind our house right now, and I LOVE it.

Because of all the renovations Matty's done for our house over the past three years, he's had occasion to rent dumpsters before, so I already knew how liberating it is. Now, whenever I see the pile of rotting planks, chunks of plaster, and rusty pipes that signal the imminent arrival of that huge green receptacle, I look around my home with a different sort of eye. I gaze critically at every knick-knack, every chatchke, every accessory - pretty much everything that isn't nailed down - and ask, Do I really need you?

If you've never had a dumpster before, it might surprise you how many things might provoke the answer, No, I really don't need you.

Here are some of the things I tossed this time around: a broken floor lamp; a stained, shredded mattress circa the Reagan administration; a rusty bicycle; a set of 20-year-old encyclopedias; several board games missing half their pieces; about a quarter mile of plastic track that went with a ride-on train that stopped working before Hilary was born.

Don't think I don't realize that we're committing some kind of environmental terrorism every time we fill up a dumpster with a ton of trash and let the dumpster company take it away. Maybe the dumpster company sorts it all out, and recycles anything recyclable, and refurbishes everything refurbishable before donating the items to needy tsunami victims in Malaysia - I sure hope they do that. But even if they don't, even if they just empty the entire dumpster straight into a New Jersey landfill, that still wouldn't stop my occasional purges. Because once in a while, it really helps to lose all that extra baggage, to get rid of all the detritus, to shake yourself free from all the crap that's weighing you down.

Now, it's time to tackle the basement, before I miss my chance . . .

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Great Potty Race of 2009

We're deep in the throes of potty training, and though we haven't implicitly discussed it, I think we're currently engaged in a race to see who--Ronan, Aaron, or Gretchen--will be trained first.

Since Ronan is 4 1/2 months older than the twins, he certainly has an edge. But since Gretchen is a girl, she's got an edge too. And Aaron? Well, he looks really cute in the mouse costume he's taken to wearing all the time.

The twins definitely started far in the lead. We offer the kids a small piece of candy for peeing on the potty and a lollipop for pooping. Gretchen seemed to learn a remarkable amount of bladder and bowel control, pooping and peeing just enough to earn her prize, always holding back just a little bit of excrement so she could go a few times each hour. Bravo, Gretchen!

Aaron, the dutiful twin, followed suit with a strong start.

Ronan was tougher. I didn't start trying until he turned 3, which was early last month. I thought having an older brother would mean Ronan would train quickly, since he sees Declan using the potty all the time. Ronan did look up to Declan, but in a way that made it even harder for him to potty train.

Since Declan pees standing up, Ronan insists on doing this as well. When you're 37 inches tall, with a penis that's, er, proportionate to that, it's rather difficult to pee standing in front of a toilet. Until you get the hang of it, the pee tends to go wherever the penis is pointing; in this case, right up in the air, into the sink next to the toilet, or right onto the magazine rack. Ronan got frustrated very quickly, and abandoned the pursuit altogether, refusing to even try to use the potty.

Amy gloated. "Can you believe my little prodigy! She's not even 3! She's the bestest potty-trainer in the world! Ronan can eat her dust!" (I'm paraphrasing.)

But then, Ronan suddenly got the hang of it (maybe it was the goldfish crackers I put in the toilet to help his aim). He's got at least 2-inches on the twins--a clear height advantage--and soon started going to the bathroom by himself, even able to hoist himself up onto the potty if he needed to poop. His fierce independence kicked in and he no longer allowed us to take him to the bathroom. "I do it myself!" he yelled at us when we tried to help.

Gretchen seems to have plateaued, but is likely only one weekend in underwear away from being fully trained (you former potty trainers know what I mean). Aaron seems to have lost interest entirely, the candy rewards no longer enticing. And Ronan? He wears underwear after school, but did have an accident yesterday. His teacher said I could send him into school wearing underwear next week, so we'll wait until then...

...unless Amy decides to put Gretchen in underwear first.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Happy Birthday, Erika!

This weekend, we celebrated Erika's birthday with a slumber party for eight of her closest friends.

Which did raise the chaos level in the house, but not as much as I imagine it would in other homes.

Overall, the girls had a great time. We took them all, along with Erika's siblings and cousins, to the Build-A-Bear Workshop, where they made adorable stuffed animals (although it was tough to convince Aaron to take a floppy, un-stuffed version of the bear he had picked out - he wanted the nice, plump, finished bear that was on display). Then, we came home, ordered pizza, and set the kids up with fabric paint, paint markers, and plain white bear-sized t-shirts to decorate. (Note to anyone considering such an activity: I highly recommend fabric markers over paint. Much less messy.) This was followed by the traditional Carvel ice-cream cake and a showing of the recently released, straight-to-video, instant classic, "Space Buddies."

So far, so good.

I didn't expect that getting nine girls to fall asleep would be easy. I was prepared for giggling, chatting, pillow fights, frequent trips to the bathroom, etc. What I wasn't prepared for was half the girls sobbing - including Erika, who made a speech about how this was "the worst night of her life," and how she was "never having a slumber party again, and if [she] does, [she] might invite completely different people."

The problem was that, although a couple of the girls did want to stay up and talk, by 10:30 most of them - including Erika - wanted to go to sleep. And every time one was moved to make a speech about why everyone needed to be quiet, another one would yell at her to be quiet, until things started to get ugly.

The result of this was a series of trips up to my room by a contingent of girls, including Erika, who actually told me the next day that she wished I had been "stricter" with them - which really surprised me. I had tried so hard to treat her and her friends like "big kids." (And I'm not even sure why I put that in quotes, because I do think of Erika as a big kid.) Matty had asked Andy and me if one of us was going to sleep down in the basement with the girls, and I had dismissed the idea utterly. But later, when things calmed down enough for me to go to sleep myself, I couldn't help wondering if my decision to let the girls resolve their problems themselves had resulted in Erika being traumatized for life, or at the very least, never speaking to one or two of her closest friends ever again.

Not to worry: by the next morning, they were all friends again. Literally, it was as if no unkind words were ever said. When I told one of the girls' mothers what had happened, and hypothesized that perhaps eight was too young for a slumber party, she shrugged it off. "Nah," she, also mother to a ten-year-old, said. "That happens at every slumber party."

Monday, March 16, 2009

Following In My Footsteps

I wrote recently about the first time Erika cried at the end of a book, and how much more moved I was by that moment than I've been at more traditional milestones, like rolling over, or eating cereal for the first time, or cutting a tooth.

Here's another date for the record books: Saturday, March 7, 2009.

I was talking to Erika, who was playing outside. "Why are you so dressed up?" she wanted to know.

We had spent most of the day apart. In the morning, Keri and I took her kids and Aaron and Gretchen to the baby naming of a friend of ours, while Hilary and Erika went to their swimming lessons and Jonah attended his drama class. Afterwards, I had taken Hilary out for McDonald's and a manicure, to celebrate her recent good behavior in kindergarten.

"Aunt Keri and I went to Gavi's baby naming this morning," I said.

"Oh," Erika said. "I thought it was for your - " here, she hooked the index and middle fingers of her right hand through the air - "special outing with Hilary."

I stared at her, dumbfounded. "Did you just air-quote me?" I asked.

She giggled. "I call them bunny ears," she said.

I think of Erika as sweet and silly, not sarcastic. But it was good to see a bit of dry humor bubbling under the surface. I, for one, am a huge fan of air quotes.

So, I set her straight: "For your information, they're called air quotes, and to do them properly, you should use both hands." I proceeded to demonstrate.

She listened attentively to my instructions, then ran off to play with Declan. I smiled after her, thinking, it's so cute. At least, it will be until she does it about me.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sometimes, Surprisingly, It's Easy

Jonah has been taking medication to control his aggressive tantrums for the greater part of his life. This means that, twice a day, I would use a mortar and pestle to crush his pills, then mix the powder into some peanut butter, then try to scrape every last bit of peanut butter on to a slice of bread, which was the only way we could get the meds into him.

Not only is this an imperfect system, but as you can imagine, after going through this tedious process about five thousand times, it gets old.

When Jonah was at Kennedy Krieger, I asked them many times to teach him how to swallow pills. I knew there were protocols specifically designed to target this behavior - I believe most of them start with very small edibles, like tic-tacs, but I had no idea how they taught the kids not to chew the candies. The behavior team agreed it would be great if Jonah could swallow pills, but never had the time to go through the protocol, which I understand can take a long time. So at our last IEP meeting, I asked Jonah's teachers if they could do a pill swallowing protocol at school. They also agreed it was a great idea, and said they would look into it, but I haven't heard anything about it since.

Meanwhile, I crushed the pills, and mixed the peanut butter, and scraped the sides of the dish every morning and every night. I told myself that the amount left in the ramikin was negligible, even though Jonah's lithium levels dropped to barely therapeutic levels.

Then, a couple of days ago, something amazing happened. I gave Jonah a melatonin lozenge - which he gets every night to help him sleep - and instead of chewing it like he's supposed to and has been doing, he shoved it to the back of his throat and swallowed it whole.

"Wait, Jonah!" I said. "You need to chew that one - "

At that moment, the proverbial light bulb went on over my head. If Jonah could swallow the lozenge whole, surely he could swallow the lithium pills whole.

So, the next day, I tried it. At first, Jonah did try to chew the pills, but when I prompted him to push it to the back of his throat, he did it - and didn't even want any water to wash it down.

And that was that. All the years of crushing, mixing and scraping were behind us in a virtual instant. No long, frustrating pill swallowing protocol, no tic-tacs, no fights.

I just can't help seeing a lesson in all this. I can get overwhelmed sometimes, because so many things with Jonah are a struggle. But just like any other kid, he can surprise me. And who knows what other surprises are in store, how many other pieces will effortlessly fall into place?

Maybe it's just lingering optimism from the success with the pills, but I can't help but think there will be many others.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Communal Living at its Finest

We don't spend all our time together, sitting arms linked in front of the fireplace singing camp songs and making s'mores, but there are times when we think to ourselves, Why don't more people do this?

Here's one of those times:

I was at a book club meeting. Matty was cleaning up after dinner (then grabbed his camera to snap this pic). Amy was reading to 5/8 of the children in this house.

And this is why we live the way we do.

Of course, not everything works better with more kids involved. Last night Andy filled the big tub with Erika, Hilary, Declan, Aaron, Gretchen, a gazillion bath toys, two scrubbies, and one gallon of liquid soap. It was a swarm of limbs and flesh the likes of which I'd never seen. Erika and Hilary were fighting. Aaron kept hitting Declan's penis. Gretchen was wailing, "Soap in my eyes! Soap in my eyes!" Five was clearly too many kids for one bath.

But for reading a book? Five is just right.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Surviving the Snow Day

Here's my advice to parents whose children have been recently diagnosed with autism: get comfortable driving in the snow.

Snow days are tough. Jonah, like most kids on the spectrum, requires a great deal of structure - left to his own devices, he'll just stim in front of his video, raid the kitchen for thousands of calories in snacks, or sneak off to write cryptic messages on the walls. Without school and the aides who help me out after school to keep him busy, it's just me and him for 14 hours.

So we go out.

There's no better time to go out with an autistic child than in the middle of a blizzard. We had a great day - first, we grabbed a canceled appointment at the pediatrician's office and took care of Jonah's annual physical, which was about two months overdue. Then we headed to the Burger King with the best indoor playland, the one that's always crowded, and that I always take the kids to with some hesitation, afraid that one of these days Jonah is going to get stepped on or elbowed while climbing through those plastic tubes above my head and pitch a major fit.

Know how many other families ventured out to Burger King during the middle of the snowstorm?

That's right: zero.

Jonah had the playset all to himself for a good hour and a half. He would climb up, slide down, then announce to me, "99 more times," "98 more times," "97 more times," etc., etc. I think he got to about 52 before the snow stopped, and the roads cleared, and two other families had the nerve to intrude on what both Jonah and I had come to believe was OUR slide. When he started to show his resentment, we left. Still, we managed to break the day into manageable chunks.

If you've inferred from this post that Jonah has regressed somewhat since he left Kennedy Krieger, that would be correct. His psychiatrist has said that Jonah is showing signs of "breakthrough" - which sounds like it should be a good thing but isn't, because it means that his meds are no longer completely controlling his symptoms. And we are seeing more mood cycling than we saw when he was in Baltimore - agitation, crying, hand-biting, and yes, aggression. As much as I had hoped when he came home that we would no longer have to deal with the hitting, we do. It's very frustrating, because the thought of trying different meds that may or may not help, or may or may not make him worse, at home instead of in the controlled environment at Krieger - where, frankly, it was difficult enough - is an overwhelming prospect.

But we'll do it. Fortunately, we have great support, both at home and at school. And fortunately also, in just a few short weeks there'll be no more snow to keep that support away.

Monday, March 2, 2009


I went to Erika's weather fair at school last week because Amy was, ahem, very busy. Erika was thrilled to see me and proudly took me around the auditorium, showing me her classmates' projects. There was quite a range of talent on display, and by that I don't mean children's talent, I mean parent's talent.

Here is Erika's project, conceptualized and written by herself (in case you couldn't tell), except for the giant hailstone, which Matty made for her (with her participation):

Here is the line to get into the project right next to Erika's:

Yes, you read that right: there was a line to crawl into this black box to see... something. Softcore porn? Tom and Jerry cartoons? Something having to do with lightning? In all likelihood the latter, but I wouldn't know, since I wasn't about to wait on line to see a second grade weather project.

Now I'm no expert, but I could tell from a cursory glance that most of the projects on display had a lot of parental input. And by that I mean the parents did the whole thing. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. When Erika was in kindergarten, she had to do a project on the 13 colonies. Since she could barely write, it was evident that the parents were supposed to help the kids out with their project. Amy and Andy spent a long time with Erika designing her project, helping her glue pictures and facts to the board, and coaching her on her presentation. Erika certainly learned a lot about the state of New Jersey. She also learned that school projects are important.

But Erika was only 5 then. Now she's almost 8. When are kids supposed to start doing their schoolwork on their own? Erika did her weather project on her own and was mortified when she saw how involved the other projects were. She didn't have any black curtains or wind-simulating fans to entice the other kids, so she spent most of the fair like this:

I tend to think that Amy was right to let Erika do all the work on her project, but judging from most of the other weather projects, she and I are alone in this belief.

What do you think? At what age should kids be doing their work on their own?