Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Worry is unproductive but I can't help it

I'm a worrier. Always have been. Usually I can "get past" a worry, or at least get along with it. I'm having trouble with that at this particular moment, however.

Two big worries are on my mind: Abby's success in school, and the H1N1 flu virus.

I hadn't really been worried about the swine flu. We're all healthy; Earl, who is at higher risk because of his asthma, will get the vaccine, and we'll all be fine. We'll wash our hands a lot, I'll disinfect the piano and doorknobs like a madwoman and that will be that. But a healthy 18-year-old from Hingham just died from H1N1. This has given me pause. I'd been thinking that the news coverage has been hype, bordering on sensationalism, but now I'm not so sure.

My second worry was born of the twin events of open house at Abby's school last night, and an impending math test for her today. She is capable of doing the math; we've reviewed all the concepts together and she understands them. But getting her thoughts down on paper, legibly, is really hard for her, and it takes her a really long time.

At open house, her teachers stressed that third grade is a big year, the year in which students go from being little kids to big kids, and independent learners. From ongoing Readers' Notebook assignments to more sophisticated math to independent spelling work to cursive writing, I worry that Abby is going to be faced with big challenges at every turn.

By far the biggest issue for her has to do with output. The physical process of writing her thoughts is really hard for her. Combine this with her low executive function skills, and I fear that the foundation on which her teachers plan to build for more sophisticated learning will be a weak one.

I know they will scaffold these skills for her, but I think I will need to do some extra practice with her at home, too. Not that I mind -- I'm happy to do whatever is needed -- but getting her to comply with extra work is difficult. It may have to be a team effort -- extra work in theory assigned by her teachers, and presented to her as such, but really my doing and my responsibility.

We could start by some extra typing practice. It would be best for her to move toward typing instead of struggling with handwriting, as the output requirements get larger and more complex. Her teachers recognize this, but I don't think the practice time they outlined at open house last night will be sufficient.

The best antidote for worry is action, so I need to create a plan. Right after I wash my hands.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Making room

I came home from church last night to hear a very strange sound from the basement. It was of such low frequency, coming up through the floor, that I almost felt it rather than heard it.

I knew Earl and the kids were downstairs, so I didn't really pay it much mind, and walked around on the main floor for a good five minutes before I realized that it was Earl playing his bass.

Earl hasn't played for years. He did some gigging in the early years of our marriage, but was far more interested in the orchestra business than in being a performer. And then, he left his job at New England Conservatory (he had been the ensembles manager for the prep division), joined Prudential, and has been enjoying his career ever since. He's rarely picked up the bass in that time.

Sadly, the bass has been in the basement for at least 5 years, ever since it was moved out of the "extra" bedroom that became Brian's and Timmy's room. It is in need of repair, although the sound is still decent -- no rattling or anything. I suggested that he take it to The E String, with another one of my 20% off coupons, but he quickly informed me that it would be at least a $5000 repair. Perhaps another day.

We looked around the house for better place to store the bass, but it's not something that one can fit just anywhere. We finally decided on the corner behind the piano, which necessitated some rearranging of toys, books, and our gigantic Christmas cactus, which should be getting ready to bloom soon. (The plant's internal clock is a bit off; I call it my Veterans' Day cactus.)

Because of the rearranging, I buckled down and dealt with my disaster of a bookshelf and the numerous piles of music books on the piano. I now have a very organized set of drawers where the messy bookshelf used to be, and all my piano teaching music is clearly labeled. The piles on the piano are gone, or rather, relocated to the basement, until I can go through them and put them away, which will also mean going through lots and lots of old files that are stacked up in front of my music bookshelves down there. It's just as well, though. I've been thinking that we probably don't need to save every note from every team meeting from Abby's preschool years any more. They're not of any practical value now, and I'm certainly not sentimental about the files, nor the times from which they came.

So the living room, which is also my teaching room, now has more open space, along with Earl's bass in the corner. (There are also four violins in the room, and another one upstairs, but that's another blog post.) I dread dealing with the piles downstairs, but will do it 15 minutes at a time if I have to, until it's all done.

Abby had a pretty rough day today, with no school for the Yom Kippur holiday. Now that I'm thinking about all the rearranging we've done in the house, I wonder if that's what threw her off. She was really out of control at times.

If it was the environment that was making Abby crazy, then maybe it's what enabled me not to be crazy in dealing with her this afternoon. I'm always better put-together, mentally, in orderly surroundings. That is not to say my surroundings are always orderly, but that I'm much more serene when they are.

As long as I stay in the living room, I can be a calm mama. Ohm.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Good news

I've blogged many times about my struggles with being overweight. In mid-August, my dear friend Elaine gave me a book called Lose it for Life. It's different from other weight-loss books I've read, in that it really made me think not only about what I eat, but why I'm eating it.

It's also different because it approaches weight issues from a Christian perspective. I was initially skeptical, thinking that it would be written in the evangelical/born-again/over-the-top approach that I really have never been able to relate to. I was pleasantly surprised in this regard.

Because of this book, I've been making small changes in my eating and exercise habits, as well as trying to manage stress differently, and making time to nurture myself spiritually. It's been up and down, both the effort and the scale, but this morning, I made the pleasant discovery that I have lost 5% of my body weight since August 23rd.

Five percent is a fraction of what I need to lose in order to bring my weight into a healthy range, but it is a significant start. God is good.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Weekly wrap-up

Things are moving at a pretty fast pace around here, and I'm not blogging as much as I'd like. Here's the weekly wrap-up of the lives and times of the Fay family:
  • Abby continues to make progress on her new violin. I received the "Don't Fret" in the mail and successfully installed it myself, albeit with nervously shaking hands. She's working on dynamics for "Long, Long Ago" and has a pretty good feel for the terraced dynamics. We're working on crescendo and diminuendo. which are harder.
  • Brian is nearly finished with the Twinkle variations on piano. He learned legato playing this week, and is justifiably proud of himself. We will probably start Honeybee today or tomorrow.
  • Timmy and I are falling into a good routine for school days, playing games after lunch and each having our quiet time at 1:00. He had a playdate yesterday, which he enjoyed very much, despite the fact that I inadvertently locked the hosts out of their own house.
  • Earl has given two Special Needs Solutions presentations this week, which were very well-received. He's at a conference all day today, doing the same presentation for the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts Caregiver Conference.

I'm plugging away with my various activities: teaching, writing, FLYing, mothering. I had an arts feature in the Ledger this week, about local orchestras and their fall concerts. My story on Tommy MacDonald and Bob Richard, who create custom-made furniture by hand, came out in the October issue of South Shore Living magazine. And this is a "Just a Minute" week, as I posted below.

I also had writers' group on Monday, which was very helpful for fine-tuning a query letter, which I sent on Tuesday. I think it's a perfect pitch for a national niche magazine, and am hoping that the managing editor thinks the same thing. I'll follow up with her next week.

I'm still up a little, down a little, weight-wise. We soldier on, as my sister would say. I've been enjoying my daily walks and really look forward to them. Today is a work-out-with-Abby day, doing weightlifting at the Y.

Last night there was a dessert potluck and social for the Milton PAC, the Special Education Parents' Advisory Council. It was really fun, and wonderful to see so many families there. My family and this group have had a bit of a rough road at times, and I was relieved and happy that everyone was so friendly, and appeared willing to let bygones be bygones.

It's a three-day weekend, as the kids have no school on Monday because of Yom Kippur. I'm hoping we can do something fun that day, maybe apple-picking.

And that's the week that was. Time to make breakfast.

Honey-dos and don'ts

Here's today's family column, about my two lists: the Honey-do and the Honey-don't. Enjoy.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

New violin for Abby

Abby started violin with a new teacher on Monday. The first thing her new teacher did was to confirm what I've suspected for at least six months: she has outgrown her 1/4 size violin.

So, today, after a full morning of practicing, exercise and swimming lessons, Abby and I headed over to The E String, a relatively new string instrument shop in Quincy. I had blogged about it when we tried out a new restaurant right across the street last fall, but hadn't had the occasion to visit until today.

It's a pretty small shop, but there are lots of violins, violas and cellos of all sizes for sale and rental. My thought was that we would simply rent a violin, since it would have to be traded up for the next size within a year or two. But, after speaking with the proprietor, we realized that it actually was more economical to buy, even given the growth factor; we'll get 75% credit on the purchase price when we go to trade up for the next size.

To top it off, I subscribe to the South Shore Sudden Values e-mail, and The E String had a 20% off coupon on strings and tuners in the e-mail. Of course, the coupon didn't apply to instruments or shoulder rests (which we also needed) but the owner decided to honor the coupon for our entire purchase. So, even given that we didn't buy the most expensive 1/2 size violin, we still got quite a deal. We are the proud owners of a violin with decent tone, a bow, case and shoulder rest, for $177.

Of course, we realize that Abby will have a bit of an adjustment period to the bigger instrument, and the fingerboard isn't marked yet. I ordered a Don't Fret for her new violin on eBay for less than $4 with free shipping -- much better than some other online places who wanted $5 for the Don't Fret and another $4 for shipping! Anyway, that should be here next week, and then Abby will really be off and running.

All in all, a lot of musical equipment for a very reasonable cost. Anyone in the area looking for a good student instrument, check out The E String on Cottage Ave. in Quincy.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sunny Friday

We've reached Friday of the first week of our full fall family schedule. Despite a rough start on Monday, the week was a pretty good one.

I've written before that I swear by to-do lists, but I'm now completely addicted. Between the daily lists, email reminders (from myself and FlyLady), my teaching schedule, the kids' morning and evening routines, and their new reward chart, we had a very efficient week.

More on the reward chart: A few weeks ago, tired of constantly telling the kids what to do and when to do it in the morning and at bedtime, I borrowed my dear friend Kathleen's idea and created written routines for them.

Here is Brian's morning routine. Now, all three kids were all excited about their routines when I first created them, but the luster was wearing off last week, and I found myself having to remind them to get moving in the mornings, often with yelling. It's not a good way to start the day.
So I found a reward chart online, tweaked it to include rewards they really like (Abby and Timmy like movies or TV; Brian is motivated by cold, hard cash) and told them they would get a star for every day that they completed their morning routines without being reminded.
It worked like magic for a couple of days. All three kiddos were talking about their reward charts a lot, counting their star stickers and calculating how many days it would be until they'd reach the first reward level.
Then, Abby had a tough morning on Wednesday. She managed to complete her routine, but with no small amount of intervention (and, to be honest, frustration) from me.
Later that day, I realized I was sabotaging my own system. There was no need for me to intervene, and certainly no need for me to yell. If she completes her tasks, she will get a star. If she doesn't, she won't. Simple.
Thursday morning, she again seemed headed for a tough time. I pulled her aside, and calmly explained to her that she had her routine and she knew what she had to do. I told her that I wasn't going to yell, or even to remind her, but that if she gave me trouble with anything (such as brushing her hair or practicing her violin) I was simply going to walk away, and come back when she was calmer.
She still didn't seem to understand the impact this would have on her morning, so I connected the dots for her: if I was going to walk away and wait until she was calm to come back and help her, that would take more time. The more time each step on the routine took, the less likely it would be that she would complete her whole routine before we had to leave for school. And, of course, if she didn't complete the routine, she wouldn't be able to have a star for that day.
Then she saw the light. After trying to argue with me a little ("But I want you to yell!") and testing me with hair-brushing and practicing (from which I walked away, in both instances), she settled down, did the rest of her tasks, and was all smiles when she could pick a shiny star for her chart. And this morning, she moved through her routine with no problem.
I don't believe the reward chart will work forever, but it's been a very good and simple solution for us as our schedules have gotten busier this month. And, because we've been consistently practicing in the mornings, Abby has learned all of "Long, Long Ago" since Tuesday, and Brian has blown through two Twinkle variations (piano) since last weekend, plus the G major and D major scales. They're very proud of themselves, as they should be.
We're rushing less and doing more, and making music, too. It's a great way to start the day.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Blue Monday

Today hasn't been a good day. It's 5:45 a.m.

I woke up just past midnight, heart racing, from a singularly horrifying dream. I was with two of my children in the World Trade Center. The plane hit. I started down the stairs, holding one child's hand, carrying the other. People were still working in the offices. Very few were evacuating. Didn't they know the tower was going to fall?

The child whose hand I was holding couldn't keep up. I let go of the hand and kept going.

I woke up just before the tower collapsed, and had to talk myself out of going upstairs and making sure all three children were snug in their beds. I knew it was just a dream, but had a hard time convincing my hammering heart.

Not as horrifying, but still a downer, was the discovery that I gained 1.5 pounds yesterday. In one day! I've been trying to stay positive, but as I looked at my weight chart, I realized I've been essentially holding steady for nearly 3 weeks. Up a little, down a little, but basically plateaued.

Then I saw a photo of myself from a neighborhood cookout yesterday. I'm always surprised to see just how fat I look in photos. I'm not sure why, as I've been quite overweight for a couple of years, now.

Mondays are hard enough without waking up and feeling like a double-whammy failure.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Today's family column

Here is today's family column, from the Patriot Ledger. Score: pitching machine, 2; Julie, 0.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Busy bee

It's been a fairly productive week. I've been living by my daily to-do lists, which are tremendously motivating to me, help me organize my time and stay on task. I love reaching the end of the day with everything on the list crossed off.

Yesterday, I didn't quite make it, however. I had an internet connectivity problem, which took me more than 1/2 hour to fix. On the upside, I was my own network administrator. On the downside, my filing and ironing piles didn't get any smaller.

The thing about filing and ironing is that they keep. The piles are still there today, and I will get to them. I will.

I could have put in some time on the piles last night, but I wanted to watch President Obama's speech about health care. As usual, the President gave a great speech, which made a lot of sense to me. I do have some questions about how his plan would work, especially on the issue of cost, but I liked what he had to say.

And I am grateful that fixing the nation's health care system isn't on my to-do list.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Brian goes to kindergarten!

Here he is, the big boy, on his way into his first day of kindergarten at Tucker School. He had a great day, and especially loved lunch (pizza!) and recess.

He learned a song about saying hello to children around the world, and he was trying it out on me, greeting me with "Shalom!" as he came in from playing outside this afternoon.

When I told him at bedtime tonight that he gets to go back tomorrow for another whole day of kindergarten, he gave a sleepy cheer. Brian loves school; always has. He just wishes he had homework, like his big sister.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Date night

Earl and I went out Saturday night, for the first time in quite a while. True, we did go kayaking a few weeks ago in Canada, but we hadn't gone out for dinner in ages. After settling the kids in with the babysitter, we hopped in the car and headed for Cambridge.

Normally we wouldn't voluntarily venture so far north. There are few things on this earth I hate more than sitting in traffic, and the thing about Cambridge is that you have to go through Boston to get there. But we had a gift certificate to dante, a restaurant that looked very promising from the website, so off we went.

We were lucky; no traffic on the expressway. We found parking at the Cambridgeside Galleria, and I realized that I don't just hate South Shore Plaza; I dislike malls in general. But the parking was cheap, and we found our way across the street to the Royal Sonesta, which housed the restaurant.

The friendly hostess seated us on the patio, which overlooked the Charles River. It was a gorgeous night, and we took our time with the menu.

I wish I could report that the food was stellar, but it wasn't. It was adequate, and hot, and impeccably served, which was great. Just being able to eat it while it was hot was a treat, and something I always appreciate when we go out, since that's the only time we're not helping the kids with their meals, while our own go cold on our plates.

At any rate, we had some wine, some laughs, and both realized we're turning into fuddy-duddies. Neither of us could stand the music, too loud, even on the patio, and dance club-esque in a variety of languages. Earl looked at me during dessert and asked, "Do people really listen to this stuff?"

My particular contribution to the fuddy-duddy department was my visceral reaction of distaste to see grown women in baby doll dresses. I'm no fashion maven, but anyone over the age of two wearing that style looks ridiculous, and all it would take is a mirror for one so dressed to realize it. So simple, and yet it eludes so many.

Overall, a good date. It was wonderful to reconnect with each other as the summer wound down and we geared up for back-to-school.

Friday, September 4, 2009

A little space, please

No matter what I did with the line spacing on the entry I just posted, it wouldn't do what I wanted. Thank you for trying to read it, even though there's a 400-line paragraph.

Girls' day out!

Abby and I had an outing today. We'd been looking forward to it all week, and we both had fun and enjoyed each other's company.

We started at the Y, where Abby used her workout book for the first time. It worked like a charm, and charmed the trainers at the Y, too, who oohhhed and ahhhed over it. Abby did every machine independently, although I helped her with one that was hard to adjust. She worked hard and I did my whole workout, too.
Next stop was the mall. As regular readers of this blog may recall, I hate South Shore Plaza. I try not to set foot inside the place more than a couple times a year. But Abby had received several gift cards for her birthday from stores at the Plaza, so that's where we headed on our first leisurely mother-daughter shopping excursion.
Though we weren't in a rush, we were on a bit of a mission: she needed new sneakers, so we stopped at a shoe store first. Of course, the style she liked wasn't available in her size, so we had a pair put on hold at another store. We'd go get them later.
Next stop, Macy's, where Abby (with encouragement from me) found a very sporty scooter skirt/jacket outfit, in pink, of course. I helped her pick out a shirt to go with it. She was pleased.
We decided we needed lunch, so off we went to the food court. Pizza and a kiddo smoothie for her; chopped chicken salad sans bacon or cheese for me. Very nice conversation, too. It was so wonderful to be out with her without her brothers, and without worrying about whether it was getting too much for her. It wasn't. It was fun.
We stopped at another store (for which she had another gift card) and she bought new headphones for her portable CD player, and a couple of CDs. We were done in the mall, and we stopped by a friend's house for a quick visit. Very nice, again.
Then, off to the other shoe store to get her sneakers. One last stop, the bank. We were done!
When we got home, we shot photos of her beloved stuffed dog, Puggie, and made movies of Puggie, Brian's dog, Lucky, and Timmy's dog, Francois. We capped off our girly day with a manicure in purple for her, upon which she drew snazzy pink polish stripes.

For years, I've despaired of ever having what I've considered a "normal" mother-daughter relationship with Abby. I've believed that she doesn't, and wouldn't ever, have the ability to, or the interest in, doing any traditional mother-daughter stuff together, let alone have the ease of conversation that I'd longed to have with my daughter. But as I think of it, there are a few things we do together. We practice her violin; we cook and bake; we exercise; we successfully went shopping today. We did nails. And I only redirected her conversation (for perseveration) a few times, toward the end of the outing, when we both were getting tired.

We're not shopping til we drop, but that's not my thing, anyway. She's not confiding the dark secrets of her heart, but she may be too young for that. Or she may not have any dark secrets.

But today, on our outing and at home, we've enjoyed one another's company. What a gift.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Timmy's exercise video

Timmy and I did a yoga video earlier this afternoon. Apparently he was inspired. Here is his first exercise video, for your workout pleasure.

Photo Sharing - Video Sharing - Photo Printing

(Visual) support can be beautiful

I'm newly enthusiastic about the effectiveness of visual supports for my kids on the autism spectrum. We've been using them for years, of course, along with their teachers at school, but I'm starting to think of some creative applications on my own.

A simple example: Brian's kindergarten orientation was this morning. He "felt sick" before we went, and I knew it was nerves. On our way out the door, I tucked my camera in my purse, thinking that maybe a few photos of his classroom could help him manage his anxiety until Tuesday morning, when his classes will start.

Toward the end of the orientation, I asked his teacher's permission to snap some photos of the room (not the children), which she readily granted. I took a few shots of the various areas of the room: the meeting rug, a play area, the computers and clock (always Brian's favorites), his cubby, and the room number sign.

When we got home, I printed them out in wallet size, all on one piece of paper. No text, nothing fancy. He was thrilled. He looked at them for a few minutes, hung them on the refrigerator, then promptly announced, "I'm not worried about kindergarten any more!" That's my boy.

Another example: Last week I blogged about Abby being trained on kid-sized weightlifting machines at the Y. She completed her three training sessions, but still has difficulty managing the multiple steps required for each machine, let alone actually being able to record her progress. The Y does have a weight training class for kids with Asperger's, but it's designed for older kids, and they meet in a quiet training room with adult-sized equipment, which is too big for Abby. That will be great in a few years, but doesn't help her now.

I then contacted the director of the Partnership Program, which trains and provides volunteers to assist people with disabilities. When I called, I was informed that the program is for adults with disabilities, not children.

The director then asked me if I could be Abby's volunteer.

Now, I love the Y. Earl and I have been members there for something like 15 years. The kids take their swimming lessons there; the babysitting staff is terrific; I've burned countless calories there and the organization does a lot of wonderful things for the community, as well. But I have to admit, it was hard for me to control my irritation when it was suggested to me that I work with Abby, myself.

I love my daughter. I would, and do, go to great lengths for her. But there are two reasons I will not work with her on her weight training:
  1. I want this to be something she can do without relying on me, to develop a healthy habit, to enjoy the self-esteem from accomplishing something out of the ordinary for her; and
  2. I want my own workout time! My idea is that she can exercise on the kids' equipment while I use the adult equipment on the same floor (per Y rules.) Of course, I could shadow her, and then she could shadow me, but that's not time-efficient in a busy family, and getting to the Y involves 20 minutes of travel time, as it is.
After grumbling about this situation for a little while, I decided to make Abby a workout book. I took the outrageously complicated (for a kid with Asperger's) workout card and created a simple, step-by-step process for each machine. I cut these out, and put them into the pages of a pocket-sized photo album, with a few clip art illustrations of exercise, equipment, stretching, and even a squirt bottle (to remind her to clean the machines after using them.) I even found a pug clip art, and put it in there after the stretching page, and wrote "Good job! Rozzie would be proud!" (Rozzie is my mom's dog, whom Abby adores.)

She loved the book, and is very excited to try it out. Test flight, tomorrow morning, when Abby and I have a girls' outing at the gym and the mall. I'm crossing my fingers that it works for her. I may need to tweak it, but I'll do it, if it means that she'll be able to do it, by herself.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Third grade, day one

Abby had a good first day today. She followed her morning routine willingly and cheerfully, and didn't seem too anxious about the new school year beginning. By her account, she had a good day, and brought home a note from her teacher to the same effect, along with a prize. Off to a good start.

Here's a photo of her smiling face at drop-off this morning.