Thursday, November 27, 2008


"Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn, or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude." --Denis Waitley

When we think of things we’re grateful for, we often think big: our God, our health, our country, our freedoms, our planet, our churches, our communities, our families, our friends. I am deeply grateful for these all the year through, but this Thanksgiving, I’m consciously focusing on the little stuff that makes the big stuff real in my daily life, as well as the little stuff I sometimes take for granted or might occasionally find annoying. So here’s a thoroughly random and definitely incomplete list of little things from 2008 for which I am grateful.

*Traffic lights and the people who pay attention to them

*Gloria at Barnes and Noble who always asks after Jack while she’s making my mocha

*My in-laws for buying Ghirardelli’s hot chocolate mix so I could make mochas at their house last summer

*Stampin’Up!’s 50+ colors of coordinating cardstock and inks

*Binary code

*The mailman, UPS man, FedEX man, and DHL woman who bring stuff right to my door

*The tote bag my mom and sister bought for me at Monticello that says “I cannot live without books”… Thomas Jefferson and I have a lot in common

*Dog fur…because I found a single, six-inch strand of Shemya’s white fur in my leather-bound copy of The Lord of the Rings, proving that she’s really still with me nine years after leaving to wait for me at the Rainbow Bridge

*My new gravy boat from Target

*Sugar, in all its forms, but especially when accompanied by chocolate

*The wonderful pictures of our kids that George takes, his cooking, and the way he plays Monster with the boys almost every night

*Nick’s imagination, enthusiasm, and hugs

*The way Jack says, “Mommy, I love you sooo much!” all day long and how he wants everyone to be happy

*The leather seat warmers in my car…because a warm bottom is a happy bottom

*The cards my friends Angela and Liz and Lois sent for no reason other than to make me smile

*Company, because I love that people will come to stay at my house and it makes me clean the whole house a couple of times a year whether I want to or not

*Pine Sol

*Avery address labels

*Red wine

*The dictionary

*Being able to flip a switch and have light

*Color and the eyes to see it

*Craft store coupons

*The basket I keep all my bills in and the fact we can pay them all on time every month

*The tiny twinkling stars in the night sky…because they remind me of an important thing called perspective and make me wonder all sorts of things, and wonder is very, very good (sort of like thinking, but with awe thrown in for good measure)

*People who read my blog

Happy Thanksgiving!

What are you grateful for?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

It’s All in the Numbers…or Not

When I turned 16 years old, I thought, “Wow, I’m halfway to 32.” Thirty-two looked really, really old and far away at the time. Today, I turned 42, so I’m halfway to 84. Weirdly enough, 84 doesn’t look nearly as old as 32 looked then.

Much of what I thought at 16 turned out to be wrong, and not just the idea that 32 was old. I felt like I was just getting started at 32 because by then I realized that life experience is the best teacher ever and I still had much to learn. At 16, however, I didn’t appreciate the value of life experience. All I cared about was acquiring knowledge from books and regurgitating that knowledge on tests and making perfect grades. My life was all about the numbers.

I am not a genius. From early childhood, lots of people told me I was smart—and I was—but my actual IQ score disappointed me. The school counselor gave me an IQ test around age 16, and my score was high but not in the genius range. Since grades were the be-all-and-end-all measure of my worth as a human being (a standard I never applied to anyone but myself, by the way), my IQ score felt like a huge failure on my part. That score became my dirty little secret, a source of shame, something to hide because it wasn’t good enough. At 16, I lacked the benevolent perspective gained only from experience and desperately needed a prescription for Zoloft.

A recent article in Scientific American Mind magazine reported that people with really high IQs and fantastic grades in school are generally not the most successful or happiest in adulthood. Merely good grades, good intelligence, and a good work ethic are more likely to lead to happiness and success. Book learning isn’t everything, so those scores and grades that measure book learning and IQ don’t actually mean much in the grand scheme of life. How is it, then, that so many high-achieving kids and adults never learn this? Why are some—like me—driven to the point where they would rather die than fail anymore at the unachievable goal of academic perfection?

For 16-year-old me, the answer to that question had two parts. First, my personality had perfectionist tendencies and a teeny, tiny bit of OCD. (Those of you who know me are laughing right now; I can hear you.) Second, while everything I did was wonderful in my mother’s eyes, my dad saw me differently. Here’s a random sampling of his commentary on my accomplishments: “No one ever remembers who finishes second.” “You made four A’s and an A plus, so why aren’t they all A plusses?” “You got a 99 on your chemistry test. Why wasn’t it 100? A careless error? Don’t let it happen again.”

Combine my over-achiever personality with years of this sort of motivational talk, and it’s no surprise I felt like a failure at 16. You’ve heard the saying “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Well, George recently encountered a variation on it: “What doesn’t kill you really hurts and sucks a lot.” So very true. Life experience eventually taught me that beating myself up over test scores and grades was pointless and cruel, that those numbers have only limited usefulness in real life, and that they bear no correlation at all to my value as a person.

This enlightened attitude comes in handy these days. Our son Jack has autism, and Jack’s brain just doesn’t understand why he should care a fig about what grown-ups want him to do. When confronted with a testing situation, he doesn’t think, “Gee, this grown-up really wants me to do this, so I better do it well.” He thinks something like this: “Why is this person asking me what letter is on this sheet of paper? There’s a fly buzzing around. Buzz off, fly! Oh, look! The walls are blue. I love blue. Blue is my favorite color. Thomas is a blue tank engine. What’s under the table? That woman is tapping the paper. How annoying. Oh, okay, that’s the letter P. Can I go play with my cars now?” You can see how he might not score very well on tests, especially if they are timed. Fortunately, he’s not bothered at all by his scores yet, and I hope it stays that way.

His teachers, however, have a different attitude. At Jack’s last parent-teacher conference, his kindergarten teacher and special education teacher both dwelled on how low his DIBELS score was and what we need to do to bring it up. For most children, the DIBELS test is an excellent predictor of future literacy success, and our district administers it at the beginning, middle, and end of kindergarten. The test results are used to determine which children need serious reading intervention, which need just a bit of intervention, and which are doing just fine. I volunteer as a tutor for the middle group, while the lower scoring children go to a reading specialist.

Jack’s DIBELS score wrongly indicated he hardly knew his letters at all. His special education teacher said she was amazed the first time she worked with Jack because he really did know almost all his letters. At first, I was confused. Why did these two teachers—one of whom presumably knows something about autism—care so much about Jack’s score? I said, very politely, “I honestly don’t imagine that Jack will ever do well on standardized tests, at least until we can find a good motivator for him. Besides, he’s not going to learn like the other children, and that’s okay. He can learn and is learning. That’s what’s important.” Duh.

I expected them to relax when they realized I didn’t blame them for the low score, but they just kept talking about strategies for getting his score up. Then it dawned on me why they were so obsessed with the DIBELS. The No Child Left Behind Act places insidious pressure on teachers to focus on test scores. Jack is dragging their numbers down. This realization made me want to say unpleasant, very foul words to the universe in general, but I took a deep breath and reminded myself that getting mad about bureaucratic crap and legislative stupidity is a waste of energy. (I learned that lesson through years of experience as a dependent military spouse.) Plus, taking my anger out on the teachers would be horribly unfair. I deeply appreciate their efforts on Jack’s behalf and tell them so as often as I can. They are doing a great job; Jack has made wonderful progress in the last three months. I’m particularly happy that he is finally showing interest in early literacy skills. But I refuse to care a fig about his DIBELS score. He’s not going to be left behind. Lots of people are seeing to that.

My firstborn, Nick, does pretty well in school…except for math. For the last two years, he has struggled with learning his math facts. Those pesky sums and differences just don’t stick in his head. Now that he’s starting multiplication and division, he’s getting particularly frustrated. His third-grade teacher grew alarmed in early October and suggested having him tested. The test results indicate that he probably has a math learning disability.

Unfortunately, Nick fixates on grades just like I used to do. Last week, he brought home a timed test of multiplication facts. He told me and George at dinner that he’d failed a math test. “I got an F minus,” he said. I responded, “What do you mean by F minus? Your teacher didn’t write F minus on your test.” I was certain of this. She’s wonderful and would never do such a thing. “I got them all wrong, so it was an F minus.” In truth, he had gotten most—but not all—of the problems wrong and had written the F minus on his paper himself.

Doesn’t this just break your heart? It sure broke mine.

Early this week, I attended an Intervention Assistance Team meeting to discuss Nick’s math issues. The principal, school psychologist, school counselor, special education teacher, and Nick’s third-grade teacher were there. When I told them about the F minus, every woman at the table gasped in shock and sorrow. I knew we were all on the same page. I also knew we were in a position to do something about it.

After all the discussion of Nick’s scores and grades, the principal concluded, rather boldly and bluntly, “What we have here is a young man of fine intelligence who has a learning disability in math.” I wanted to applaud. If you never attend these sorts of meetings, you don’t know how much dancing around the teachers, therapists, and administrators usually do in an effort to be tactful. To hear someone with the courage to speak the truth, speak it clearly and with great compassion…well, it just made my day.

You see, Nick’s problems with math have been going on for two years now, and finally, he’s getting focused and constructive help. George and I hope he will feel the love and encouragement that surround him at home and at school, and we will do our best to make sure he knows he’s more than a score, more than a grade, more than a child with a math disability. Scores helped us identify a problem, but human intervention and compassion will help him through this.

As for my own numbers…last year, I took an online IQ test, thinking I’d probably grown dumber since age 16, mainly because having children gives you the sensation of having your brain sucked out via your uterus. To my pleasant surprise, my IQ has increased. At this rate, by the time I’m 84, I might even be a genius and am absolutely certain I won’t care in the slightest.

Life is just too rich and complex and wonderful and full to boil it down to a number, unless of course it’s 42, which, coincidentally, is
the answer to life, the universe, and everything, according to Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

No wonder I’m gloriously happy to be 42 today.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Fighting the Chickens

My sister once told me, “There is no such thing as PMS. People can sense when you’re going to get your period and they do everything possible to irritate the hell out of you.” Of course this isn’t true, but that’s EXACTLY how I have felt for at least several days every month since I turned 14. I’m about to turn 42, and frankly, my hormones appear to be going a little wacky which would explain why this sort of PMS paranoia breaks out randomly several times a month now. Fortunately, it’s only half of what’s going on in my head.

You see, the other, logical half of my brain watches all this nutty irritability like it’s entertainment. When all the little stuff that ordinarily occurs in my life starts irritating Hormonal Me, Logical Me sees exactly what’s going on and smirks in a smugly superior way that just further irritates the heck out of Hormonal Me but also occasionally keeps Hormonal Me in check.

Does this make sense? If you’re a woman, you’re probably nodding yes and you know exactly what I’m talking because you have years of personal experience with it. If you’re a man, you’ve probably already clicked off this webpage.

Logical Me knows that because I have two little boys, a husband, an old dog, and a house with three toilets, I am bound to experience little irritations daily. Logical Me just rolls her eyes at these irritants and gets over them almost immediately. Logical Me is mature, realistic, smart, and happy. Logical Me has a healthy sense of perspective.

Hormonal Me feels like she is being pecked to death by chickens. Keep in mind—nothing in my life has changed from the previous day (or minute) that Logical Me was in charge. But when Hormonal Me takes over, I yell, I mutter under my breath, I scowl, and I clean like crazy because Hormonal Me has obsessive-compulsive disorder. Hormonal Me is immature, unrealistic, stupid, and miserable. Hormonal Me is, in short, crazy.

Like my husband says, “I don’t know how you women put up with this crap.”

Allow me to illustrate. Consider Jack. My darling son is the sweetest thing on earth. Whenever I say “don’t stand on that chair” or “don’t jump on the bed” or “no more candy,” my little angel throws his arms around me and says, “But I thought you LOVED me, Mommy!” Awww, how cute is that? This same angel turned into a devil recently when we were waiting for his speech therapist. He wanted to play with the light switch in the waiting area, and I said, “No.” He turned on me with a demonic expression and snarled, “But I WANT to, you IDIOT!”

The very first thought that popped into my head—and thankfully not out of my mouth because Logical Me was in charge—was “What the HELL?” This child worships me. I am the center of his universe. Logical Me, who is a reasonably good parent, responded to this shocking development like a grown-up and immediately told him he was in “red”—meaning he can’t watch movies for three days. Going to red is pure torture and totally traumatic for Jack. It’s also highly effective. He has told me daily since, “Mommy, I’m not going to call you idiot.” He remembers this lesson and will do so for a l-o-n-g time. Logical Me experiences such sweet fruits of victory frequently.

Logical Me also knows that Jack has issues with change, and I usually plan for this. For example, the transition from summer to winter means Jack has to wear new clothes, which really bothers him. With a little planning and patience on my part, he adjusts to dressing appropriately for the weather. Hormonal Me forgets this and just reacts in the moment, which leads to scenes like last Sunday when I yelled at my angel while forcing long pants on his body so we could go to church. He cried “No! No! NO!” the whole time, and when the pants were on his reluctant little body, he threw his arms around me and said, “But I thought you LOVED me, Mommy!”

Grrr. Defeated by my own childishness. Do you think there’s a special circle in Hell for mommies who yell at their children before church? Please don’t answer that.

Another chicken pecking Hormonal Me to death right now is my son Nick. He’s addicted to a hot new toy called Bakugon, which appears to be like Pokemon only on steroids. I’ve been hearing a lot about these strange toys and their levels, abilities, and trips to the Doom Dimension. Logical Me remembers that as a young teen I was addicted to Battlestar Galactica, the old series with Lorne Green, Richard Hatch, and Dirk Benedict—how sad I remember those names! Who am I to complain about my children’s annoying obsessions? It’s entirely pointless to fight karma.

But when Nick learned there was a Bakugon television show weekday mornings at 6:30, Hormonal Me just about exploded with an irrational desire personally to hang, draw, and quarter whatever idiot invented this crap. Then, Hormonal Me thought, gee, if I get him one, maybe I won’t have to listen to the whining. I told you Hormonal Me was stupid. Employees at Target and Toys R Us told me these toys fly off the shelves as soon as they are stocked, which made Hormonal Me shop multiple times in hopes of “getting lucky.”

I remember a time when “getting lucky” really was a lot more fun.

Because Nick’s birthday is coming up and these are the only toys he wants, Logical Me enlisted the aide of my mother, mother-in-law, and sister—who all live in different states—to look for Bakugons. I have received cell-phone calls from Target in Charlotte, Walmart in Grand Junction, and Toys R Us in the greater Annapolis area. I can now report that the Bakugon trend is going strong in the south and west, where none of the individual Bakugon packs are to be found for love or money. Maryland, however, has either moved past the trend or is lagging behind, or my sister just got lucky, because she easily hit the mother lode. She kindly bought a boxful of the stuff and shipped it to me.

Then my sister-in-law asked what Nick wanted for his birthday, and I told her about Bakugons, thinking maybe she’d get lucky, too. She walked into Target, found a Bakugon tin, and reported that “a kid staring at the stuff with his eyes glazed over said that it was ‘way cool.’” So she bought it for Nick.

Thanks to Lisa and Angela, Nick’s ninth birthday will not be a tragic event to be analyzed by his psychiatrist at a later date. Aunts are wonderful, and Logical Me is very grateful. Hormonal Me, not so much, because we did finally find a Bakugon for Nick to buy himself, and I’m still hearing about this nonsensical stuff daily, about trading the cards and toys, about the Doom Dimension. Really, don’t we have enough doom in our own dimension without having to look for it in others? I think after he opens the Mother Lode of Bakugon Birthday Presents on his birthday, Hormonal Me is the one who’s doomed.

Logical Me cleaned the basement a few weeks ago. It’s a really, really good thing that Hormonal Me was quiescent at the time or I would have gone postal by the time my family got home. The basement was a total mess, not only cluttered and disorderly with storage bins vomiting forth their contents onto the floor, but also dirty with dust, cobwebs, dead spiders, and those little round balls that get trapped in old cobwebs and look like mouse poop but aren’t. Eww. There’d also been an accident with a leaf-bag full of shredded paper. I handled this all quite cheerfully, and six hours later, my basement was clean and orderly.

Last Sunday night, however, Hormonal Me couldn’t take another minute of the mess in the family room. It had been there all week, and Logical Me would just glance at it, shrug, and go to the craft room to make something fun. The kids were in bed when Hormonal Me struck, which really ticked me off because they should have been cleaning up their mess, not I. George was trying to watch television while I dashed madly back and forth tossing toys into a bin, picking DVD cases up off the floor and organizing them on the shelves, and toting cups back to the kitchen. The whole whirlwind cleaning process took about seven frantic minutes.

At the end, George asked, “Susan, why do you do this? It’s time to relax, and here you are running around like it can’t wait.” Hormonal Me wanted to scream, “Because it CAN’T wait another MINUTE, you IDIOT! Can’t you see that!?!?” Logical Me intervened and sent Hormonal Me skulking back into my ovaries for some time in “red.” Logical Me sat down and watched something highly interesting on television with my ever-so-logical and darling husband. If we hadn’t both been so tired, he would have gotten lucky that night.

On the whole, Logical Me seems to be winning this war for my soul, which is some small comfort on those occasions when Hormonal Me scores a victory.

How DO we women put up with this crap? Pecked by the chickens as I am, I clearly don’t have a good answer, but I do recommend prayer and deep breathing.

A little red wine certainly won’t hurt, either.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

And Now for Something Completely Different...

No, you haven’t fallen into a script for Monty Python, the British comedy show that obsessed my darling husband years ago and which still takes up valuable synapses of his brain. No Dead Parrot Sketch today, gentle readers, but we are going to talk about something completely different: metablogging.

Ooooh, what a hook! Metablogging. Makes you want to keep reading, doesn’t it?

If you’re scratching your head wondering what the heck metablogging is, I’m not surprised because I first came across this term in the secure and very strange corners of my own brain. It popped magically into my head Monday after I woke at 5:00 a.m. unable to fall back asleep. Here’s your chance to see the random and bizarre turns my brain takes that lull me away from sleep so frequently. Aren’t you lucky?

Upon waking, it dawned on me that I didn’t have a completed essay for this week, though several are started and will wait patiently for me to get back to them when I feel like it. So I contemplated what I’m doing in my life now that might interest my forty or so regular readers plus the poor innocents who accidentally click on my blog.

Hmm. I’ve been reading several books about brain development and something called “the reading brain.” (Yes, I’m a geek, in case you had forgotten.) These books have me thinking a lot about how we think, otherwise known as metacognition, a term I dredged up from somewhere deep in my brain in synapses formed in college. I think.

Anyway, if metacognition is thinking about thinking, then of course blogging about blogging would be metablogging. Right?

Sadly, I discovered in a quick Google search that I did not coin this clever new term. As usual, I’m entering into a trend late, which is par for the course of my life, actually. Metablogging, it turns out, is something of a hot topic among bloggers. I make no claim that thinking up words like “metablogging” is normal, but at least my brain is not alone in the way it thinks, which is some comfort to me. Oddity loves company every bit as much as misery.

Anyway, the idea of blogging about blogging intrigues me so I thought I'd show you a glimpse behind the scenes.

You, dear reader, fascinate me. You take valuable time out of your life to read my random blatherings, which I try to keep to sub-five-minute bursts. You have no idea how hard this is for me and how many brilliant sentences and paragraphs I delete in the interests of not trying your patience. Having spent years editing other people’s writing does not make editing my own any easier. Because I know how valuable your time is, I really do try to give you my best—and briefest—no matter how painful it is to me.

When I started this blog almost five months ago, I thought only my mother and sister would keep reading past the first essay. They are obligated by the closest bonds of blood, and it would hurt my feelings if they didn’t read it every week. All I expected from the rest of my friends and family (who received pesky emails that first month) was that they check it out. Beyond that, I figured a random handful might stick with it but most would probably roll their eyes and say to themselves, “Susan has waaayyy too much free time on her hands.”

Happily, I was totally wrong and more than a handful of friends and family have offered amazing encouragement and support, which drove me to submit my first-ever article for publication. No word yet from the magazine, but thank you from the bottom of my heart for getting me over my fear and acting on that life goal.

What totally floors me, though, is the number of complete and total strangers who have signed on. That strangers would click on my blog did occur to me; but that those strangers would stay, read, and even sometimes subscribe to Questioning boggles my mind and fills my heart with profound gratitude.

What do I know about you, my kind readers? If you are one of the ten or so who read this blog through various feed services like Windows RSS and Google Reader, you’re just a number on my subscriber count—except for Joan B, who introduced me to Google Reader. She reads and comments, so I suspect she’s one of the Google Reader subscribers. Please check out her
blog. Even if you’re not a stamper, you’ll enjoy Joan’s rollicking sense of humor and wonderful artwork.

Thirty of you subscribe to my blog via FeedBurner, which supplies me with your email addresses. I personally know 21 of these subscribers. One of you (whom I don’t know in real life) has an email address based in Brazil. How cool is that? Hello, Brazil!

If one of you unsubscribes, I get an email notifying me of your rejection. I tell you this so you will feel horribly guilty if you quit me, but I promise not to flood your inbox with pathetic emails begging you to take me back. I’ll just eat chocolate until I get over it. It’ll take a lot of chocolate, though, and if I cease fitting into my skinny jeans, it’ll be all your fault.

Depending on how blog-savvy you are, you may or may not know that bloggers can monitor direct hits to their blogs. I use SiteMeter for this. For many hits, I can see the IP address or server, what country the click came from, what internet page referred the reader to my page, and how long the reader stayed. If you check it out (see the sidebar for a link), you’ll notice an alarming number of people whose stay is 0 seconds. I try not to take this personally.

In addition to my delighted astonishment at the number of hits I get, I never expected the SiteMeter information would be so, well, informative. For example, people from Singapore, Australia, Canada, Brazil, Finland, England, France, Germany, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and even China have clicked in. To celebrate this world-wide readership I tried to find an audio clip of “It’s a Small World, After All” but only came across a creepy video clip of the Disney ride on YouTube, which I will spare you the torture of experiencing. Instead, please chime in with a chorus of “It’s a Small World” yourself—come on, you know that you know the words. Lovely.

Now that song is in your head instead of mine. Thank you.

I also know what Google searches lead people here. The most interesting search hits land on my
Bike Porn essay and show the sad limitations of Google technology. Consider the person who lives in Alkmaar, Netherlands, who searched “juicy backside porn hub” and ended up on my blog. Somehow, I don’t think this person got what he/she expected. There were similar search hits from people in Egypt; Kiskunlachaza, Hungary; Billancourt, France; and Pompano Beach, Florida.

Don’t you feel sorry for these poor souls whom Google let down so badly? When I wrote that essay, I never expected to stand between perverts and their porn, but so far, I have disappointed people on three continents. Why does this make me want to giggle?

Blogging has proven very educational for me. You have no idea how excited I was when I successfully installed the SiteMeter and FeedBurner code. It made me feel very internet savvy when, in fact, I am not. For all I know, the internet is run by squirrels and pulleys. I’m no Al Gore. But blogging has taught me a few interesting skills, like how to name a hyperlink (that’s what the little icon of earth with a chain does—who knew?) and how to follow directions for cutting and pasting code that really just looks like gibberish to me. I’ve also learned to edit html code to make words italic or bold. If you know the code for strike-through, please share. I think I could have fun with that.

Hopefully, reading my blog is educational for you, too. I’ll bet most of you have never heard of
Kiskunlachaza, Hungary, but now you know it exists and at least one pervert lives there. I’ll also bet it was news to you that there is a sub-genre of pornography—not the metaphorical porn I blogged about—that involves bikes. Sometimes in the process of questioning my intelligence, I learn things we’d all rather not know. Instead of dwelling on perversion, why not distract yourself by trying out that little earth-and-chain icon in your next email. It’s, like, totally cool!

And speaking of hyperlinks, let’s end our exploration of metablogging with something completely different…
The Dead Parrot Sketch.