The Author

My photo
I am a high school English teacher, and mother of two charming little ones of my own. I teach in a high poverty urban charter school, while I live in a typical American suburb that has frequently been rated one of the safest cities in the country. It is a paradox I struggle with constantly, but it is my life.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


     After a long day of de-cluttering my bedroom, I looked pleasantly at the perfectly clear white dresser… and then painfully at the eyesore in the corner- the shoes.
     This cheap shoe rack had the fake appearance of a light maple wood- it was actually made of a cheap particle board- and matched absolutely nothing in our shabby chic black and white bedroom. This monstrosity took up a ridiculous amount of space, causing the rest of the room to feel unbalanced, but worst of all… it didn’t even hold the shoes we wear regularly! Those, our every day shoes, lay messily in a pile in front of the shoe rack. Of the 28 pairs of shoes in the shoe rack, perhaps only 4 had been worn in the last year.
      The shoe rack had to go. Intent on dragging the rack out to the front porch to be given away, I dumped out all of the shoes and began to sort them into piles- trash, donate, or keep. As I came across a pair of transparent, hot pink, plastic mules, a cross between Crocs and jelly shoes, I wondered, Gosh, what was I thinking when I bought these?
     But I didn’t wonder why I had kept them so long. They were from Romania.
     The shoes were purchased in 2002, in a tiny boutique in Transylvania, during a last minute shopping trip for souvenirs on the day before we left. My friends and I had spent the past two weeks living and serving at a camp for Romanian orphans, located in the Pădurea Neagră, or Black Forest.
     Although the forest itself was beautiful, lush with abundant greenery and winding creeks, the name “Black Forest” felt fitting for the deep sorrow I felt upon leaving the camp; however, the delightful orphan children who attended the camp probably found the name “Black Forest” rather ironic, since their one week at camp was the brightest week of each year, rich with happy memories.
     I had traveled to Romania with a team of college students to run a camp for children from a local orphanage in Popesti. My friends and I had planned our weeks of camp carefully. We’d worked for months to plan games, activities, skits, and songs that would cross the language barrier and the cultural divide and bring joy to these children. We’d packed suitcases and duffel bags full of craft supplies, sports equipment… and shoes.
     In our preparation for the camp, we had been in contact with the foundation that coordinated the camp, and we had asked if there was anything we could bring to the children.
     Many of the children did not have proper footwear, which could be very painful in the cold Romanian winters. So we gathered shoes in a variety of children’s sizes. We committed to pack light to have enough room in our luggage for all the shoes we had gathered, and we flew across the world, eager to give away the shoes to the children.
      On the first day of camp, there were butterflies in my stomach as I sat on the cold steps of the plain, large, two-story building that would house both the children and us for the week of camp. The dull beige paint stood in stark contrast to the thick, dark green trees that enveloped the camp. As the blue and red vans wove up the dirt road to the camp, I smiled and stood alongside my teammates, eager to meet the children we had prepared to love this week.
     When the van doors slid open and the children jumped out, it was instantly clear that these were not normal children. Normal children take time to adjust to new people, but not these children. These children ran up to us, jumping into our arms, wanting hugs and attention. Many children wore uniforms, hideous multi-colored button up linen shirts and shorts, which hung limply on their bodies. Some of the more fortunate (or probably tougher) children had clothes of their own, mostly t-shirts and sweats.
      True to what we had been told, their shoes were in need of replacing. Most wore the uniform shoes- thin, black vinyl, worn ragged with constant use. Some had white Adidas sneakers, the most popular shoes in Romania, so popular, in fact, that the word most of the children used for all shoes was “adidas” (pronounced “Ah-dee-dash”). Even many of the Adidas shoes were worn down in the heels and soles.  These sweet, bright-eyed children deserved better.
     The first afternoon, a couple of our girls worked out a system for distributing the shoes, while the rest of us started off the first day with a game some of the guys had devised- a makeshift slip and slide. My sense of logic and my training as a lifeguard told me that painters plastic, dish soap, and water sounded like a recipe for an injury, but all was quickly forgotten as I had the time of my life sliding on my belly, soaking wet, giggling alongside the children. The language barrier was less of an obstacle than I had imagined it would be. I guess I had forgotten that all children laugh in the same language.
     They all cry in the same language too.
      We had given out the shoes. We had watched the children rejoice and show their shoes off to one another. We had watched them tuck their old shoes away in their bags. We’d been thanked, “Multumesc!” And we’d felt that inner sense of fulfillment from giving to others... until we’d found out why the orphans have so little in the first place.  In our American arrogance, we hadn’t considered the consequences of bestowing gifts upon these children, even just shoes. In our youthfulness, having been raised in California in the 1980s and 1990s, we could not comprehend that societies still existed where outright bigotry unapologetically reared its ugly head.
     That evening, my friend Nicole and I stumbled upon a beautiful little blonde girl, Csilla (prounounced Chee-luh), crying in the hallway. The name Csilla means “bright light,” and this little girl became my bright light in the black forest, with her glowing eyes, her cozy hugs, and her contagious smile, but on this night, I got to know Csilla as we dried her tears and tried to understand what was wrong. She had changed back into her old, worn out Adidas, and we eventually figured out that her new shoes were gone.  Through a translator, we discovered that a worker from the orphanage had taken the shoes. We could not understand why an adult would take away a child’s shoes. The translator, a caring Romanian teenager, seemed to somehow understand, but helped us confront the worker anyway. The worker explained, matter-of-factly, that Csilla’s shoes would fit her daughter, so she had taken them.  I stood there, speechless, unable to find words to respond. Nicole, who had helped coordinate the shoe distribution, asked the woman, “Will you return Csilla’s shoes if we give your daughter some shoes?”
      The woman had no intention of returning the shoes, and the irony of her explanation never left me. I sense the translator attempted to soften the tone, but indignation is clear in any language. “Because,” she scoffed, “I already gave them to my daughter. She’d be disappointed if I took them away!” Clearly, Csilla’s disappointment didn’t bother her.
     We realized we should have given the workers’ children shoes in the first place. We had not realized that these workers were not paid well and often envied the charity bestowed upon the children. Sadly, we had also not realized that an intense bigotry exists in Romania. The orphan children are of Romani gypsy descent. The Romanian people hate gypsies.  The gypsy people are second-class citizens, and being orphans makes these children even lower. As gypsies, and orphans, they had no rights and no one to protect them, and stealing from these children was not considered a wrongdoing. We later learned that a hierarchy existed within the orphans as well. The stronger children stole from the weaker ones, and only those willing to fight for their possessions got to keep them.
      Nicole and I helped Csilla pick out replacement shoes and made sure all of the other workers had a chance to grab shoes if they wanted them, and then we retreated to the privacy of our bedroom, where we burst into tears together. 
      As the week went on, Csilla and the others stopped wearing their uniform shirts and began happily wearing the shirts they had tie-dyed at camp.  We spent the mornings playing games and doing crafts. In the hot, humid afternoons, we had free time, where we lounged around in the shade, played soccer or basketball, or took groups of kids to wade in a nearby creek. Csilla must have been a tough little girl, because she was one of the few with a bathing suit of her own.
     In the evenings, we sang songs together and taught a Bible lesson. During these times, Csilla would often climb into my lap and nuzzle her way into my arms. I had never been the type of young girl who babysat or proclaimed my love for kids, although I imagined I would have my own someday. While other girls at church volunteered in the nursery and let the kids climb all over them, I happily steered clear, but when Csilla or little Florin climbed into lap, I felt so perfectly warm and fuzzy, as if I could stay like that forever, like everything was right with the world. Now, as a parent, I recognize that feeling as the same warmth I feel when my own children climb under the covers in the morning to cuddle with me. 
     Although I had only known her a week, Csilla felt like mine. I loved her so dearly, and it hurt so much to think that she had no mother or father to go home to each day, to hug her and love her with that powerful unconditional love of a parent. Everything in my soul wanted to drag her home with me. On the last day of camp, she pointed to my engagement ring and asked, “Ai un sot?”
     I had an idea what she was asking, but I looked at the translator who confirmed, “She wants to know if you have a husband.”  I told her I would soon.
     Usually, the translators quickly translated the questions the children asked us, but this time, the translator responded sharply, directly to Csilla, without translating to me, but Csilla insisted she ask me. The translator looked sad as she gave in and said, “Csilla says, ‘Will you come back and get me when you are married?’”
     I cried as I held her close and whispered, “I can’t. I’m sorry. I can’t.”  She didn’t need it translated, but she held me close and cried on my shoulder. As much as I wanted to bring her home, the government would never let me. Romanian adoption had been closed to foreigners for some years.
     Then Csilla did something that forever changed my perspective on love. She reached into her hair and unsnapped a little metal clip. It was red, chipped in some places. I hadn’t even noticed it in her hair that week, but she probably wore it daily. She handed it to me. “Keep it. Please don’t forget me,” she said.
       I’ve kept my promise. I have never forgotten her. I have remembered all of those children. Ten years later, as I moved about my room, de-cluttering and simplifying, I opened my jewelry box and went about trashing crooked bobby pins and broken costume jewelry. I spotted the little red hair clip. I quickly scooped it up and put it in my bedside drawer, where I would see it every day and think about Csilla. 
       I think about my pile of unused shoes. Many are covered in dust from years of sitting in the shoe rack. As I stack the “keep” pile on a shelf in my wardrobe, I gaze at the variety of shoe choices- my tall black boots for cold days, my black leather sandals for warm ones, my soft brown TOMS, my purple Converse All Stars, my sturdy brown hiking boots. Romania probably still has orphanages full of little children whose shoes are falling apart.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Feng Shuing Our Bedroom

This is my last week at home with the kids before I am back to work full time. I have gotten very little lesson planning done at home, so it is really going to be full speed ahead once I go back, but at least it has been a relaxing week. Marc has gotten up to bring Vinny to school each day, and I have stayed in my pajamas until at least 10am, watching tv and watching Tiana play.  She is so adorable. It has been a wonderfully relaxing time.

I have also spent a lot of time at home decluttering this week. I was watching a video on working through clutter, and their number one tip was to start with the master bedroom. Hmmm. This was an interesting tip, because honestly, I was kind of saving that for last. I was working through the spaces we use the most first (kitchen, living room), followed by the most cluttered areas (back closets full of boxes). Meanwhile, the dresser in my bedroom was covered with stuff. 

Their logic for starting for the master bedroom was that it is where you sleep each night, so it will make you feel relaxed and accomplished at the end of each day, motivating you to continue the next day. Interesting. So, I decided it must be done.

Honestly, I love my bedroom. When we bought the house, I knew I wanted to make the bedroom a place of peace. We painted the walls a simple black and white (we have chair railing, it is white on the top and black and the bottom). We hung up simple photo decorations with black frames, and there are mirrors on each side of the room. It makes it feel bigger and full of light, and I love it. We bought an older furniture set to repurpose, which we sanded and painted white. It has a "shabby chic" feel (although I hate that term, it is really the best word to describe it). But sadly, the dresser was always completely covered in crap, and it really destroys the simple beauty of the room. 

The dresser was feeling overwhelming to me, so I decided I need to deal with it in a mode I had already been dealing with all week- a box. I dumped EVERYTHING that was on the dresser into a large box, brought it into the living room and went about working through the box one item at a time. It took me longer than any of the boxes had so far- about 3.5 hours. Geez. 

But the results were beautiful and make me feel wonderful. I decided to just go super simple, aiming for some zen feng shui. I decided on three candles. Although they are not my best smelling or biggest candles, I had to put a pair of handpainted candle holders. These are very meaningful to me because they are one of the only gifts I have ever received from a student. I work with lower income students, so I don't expect to receive gifts at Christmas or the end of the year, but a senior gave me these candle holder last year, and they really meant the world to me. This student had been in my class sophomore year and slacked off, so despite being really smart, he only got a D. He retook the class to improve his GPA and did wonderfully. These were his thank you to me, and they have a significance that words cannot really describe. 

Now the only issue I have is the lack of balance in the room because of a terribly cluttered corner I need to attack. In the corner of this room, just out of view in this picture, is a shoe rack. It is full of shoes, and there is a huge pile of shoes under it. Bleh. It didn't used to be there, so the dresser used to be centered under the mirror, centered along the wall. The shoe rack moved in there once we needed the spare bedroom for Tiana, but it throws everything off. We had to move the hamper out of that corner to make room for it, which meant moving the bed over a little, which means now the bed is not centered under the window and the dresser is not centered under mirror. Right now, it is bothering me a lot. 

The real solution is getting rid of the shoe rack. Which means getting rid of a bunch of shoes. The problem is... most of them are Marc's. Marc can always think of a reason he might use these shoes, even thought he pretty much wears the same 3 pairs of shoes all the time. To be fair, some of them are specialty shoes. We do have water shoes and stuff like that, things that get used once or twice a year, but are worth keeping. But the Heelys we bought 10 years ago?  I think those can go.

I'm thinking the specialty shoes can go in a storage box under the bed and the other shoes can go on the shelf in the wardrobe, but a bunch of them are still going to have to go. 

At least I am making progress. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Simplifying: Decluttering will save us money

So, Marc and I pretty much had it out this weekend over my buy nothing new compact and desire to simplify and de-clutter. My new rule is, if you buy it and it didn't need to be purchased, or even if it did need to be purchased but ended up having to be purchased new, then stuff needs to be sold to cover the cost.

It kills two birds with one stone. It saves us money (the ultimate goal here) and helps us to de-clutter and simplify our home and our life. I am doing very well with this. Marc came home from winter camp yesterday with a tie dyed bandana. Now, it was only $4, but he didn't need another bandana, so my question was, "What are you going to sell to pay for it?"  He found something in his drawers that I could list on Amazon Marketplace, and we moved on with our day.

Then, I got started on my "This place is a disaster" kick tonight. I am dying to get this place completely in order. I feel like de-cluttering is going to be the key to simplifying my life and increasing my happiness quotient. Let me explain why....  Yesterday, I spent an hour looking for 6 AA batteries for Vinny to put in a toy he got for Christmas that we hadn't opened yet. It was a cold and rainy day, and he was trying to find things to do inside, so I tried to help. After an hour of digging through 5 different drawers, I had unearthed 5 of the 6 necessary batteries. So the project was a fail. What bothers me most about this incident is that, if there weren't 5 drawers full of clutter, I wouldn't have wasted an hour of our day figuring that out. This lead me to clean out Marc's nightstand yesterday. When I showed him today how beautiful it looks now, the first thing he said was, "What did you throw away?"

Marc is not a hoarder, really, he isn't, but the problem could be summarized by something Marc said to me tonight when I was complaining about a cluttered drawer. He says, "What? If it's away, then it's okay."  And so, when he wants to "clean up," he just puts stuff "away" although not always in a logical spot. Just... away. It then is forgotten about until someone (usually me) goes looking for it. Either someone eventually finds it, or it is forever forgotten and a new one is purchased. This is why we have 6 opened packages of AAA batteries. Because we don't have the time to look through every drawer in the house, so new ones get purchased.

I started explaining to Marc today that I feel like this is costing us money and time. We have more nightlight bulbs than we will ever need. We have multiple tubes of open super glue. I am finding this stuff as I attempt to de-clutter and reorganize. This stuff all cost money at some point. This is making me feel like it is even more important than ever for us to make every effort this year to buy nothing.... heck, chances are, we probably have whatever we need already here! But the only way to know this will be to have an amazingly organized house. Marc just doesn't think it is that big of a deal and doesn't feel like taking the time to deal with it. He says, "All people have junk drawers." Okay, maybe, but we have like 8 of them! It may seem like a lot of time and work right now, but if it prevents me from spending an hour just looking for batteries, then I feel like it will be worth it in the long run.

Ultimately, with much prodding, Marc helped me clear out our kitchen junk drawer, and he even cleaned out an old wallet that he found in the drawer. He promised me he would clean out the bottom drawer of his nightstand (I only got to the top) by next Saturday. I have a week left until I go back to school, and I think, with his support, I can make a lot of progress in this week.

A Feel Good Week

I feel like I have so much to talk about, but I want to highlight the important stuff first, so I might go kind of out of order today. Sorry if it gets confusing.

First of all... my children. They are such amazing little people, and I just adore them. They have such interesting personalities. Lately, Tiana basically worships Vinny. She spends her entire day trying to entice him to play with her. And he is a rather obliging big brother. Pretty much any time she wants to play, he is up for it (as long as it is not in his room). Vinny recently set up his play tent in the living room, and her favorite game is getting him to chase her into it. She runs in the tent, waits for him to come, and then if he doesn't, peeks her head out and stares at him until he comes after her. They are way cute.

Tonight, she decided to attack him in the bath by standing by the bathtub tossing in every single bath toy in the bathroom, laughing hysterically the whole time. They were both pretty hysterical. She was soaking wet by the end. I tried to drag her out to put her pajamas on, since it was past her bed time, but the kicking and screaming fit was not worth it. Finally, we had to get Vinny out of the bath and get him to turn off the light and tell her to go put on her pajamas. Then... and only then... she went without a fight. Pretty funny.

We took Tiana to Disneyland for the first time this past week. She is sort of obsessed with Mickey and Minnie (and all their friends too really), so Toontown was pretty much the highlight of her life. The first time we brought Vinny, he was cautious. This is sort of understandable, considering that these huge costumed creatures are like giants compared to a toddler; however, Tiana has no fear. She ran into their arms with the hugest hugs. She was as giddy as I have ever seen her.  I love my January especially for times like this. :-)

This weekend I went to my friend Janelle's bachelorette party in San Diego. I didn't get to stay the whole weekend since Marc was busy, and I had the kiddos to get home to, but it was really important to me to be there for some of it. This friend is my longest friend. No, she is not super tall... I mean, we have been friends since 5th grade. It is sort of special to be able to help a friend you have known for almost 20 years say goodbye to the single life. We've lead completely opposite lives. We started acting together in 6th grade and went to school together from 5th until 8th grade. Then she went to the performing arts school and did the drama thing, while I went to the traditional high school and did, well, everything. She went away to a liberal arts college to study drama and had the traditional college experience, while I stayed local, got married at 19, and had a kid during my senior year of college. She took time to live abroad and try a bunch of careers, while I fast tracked it to a teaching career and bought a house. It is miraculous that we have stayed friends at all, but we have. We might not be each other's closest friend, but we have always been there, and there are things about each other that we just understand. She is an awesome person who always stuck by me, and she really deserved the awesome showing of love and fun from her best friends this weekend.   :-)

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Buy Nothing Year

If you are a regular follower of my blog, you may remember that this year, I set myself two simple goals, the main one being to simplify my life. 

I have made great progress on this, getting rid of tons of stuff we don't need. There is actually empty space on the bookshelf, and I am making progress on our garage every day- I even have several empty plastic storage bins now (and I may even just get rid of those)! I have sold stuff on Craigslist and eBay and given a ton of stuff away on Freecycle. Life is getting simpler. 

When Marc and I were looking at our finances this week, we realized something. Although we are in a better place financially this year than we have ever been, our beautiful spreadsheet and perfect financial planning now shows us how we keep getting into an ugly cycle of debt- we spend more than we make. (Duh... and we are not alone in this. Sadly, this is most of America). The way that my salary works, I get bonuses (which are kind of bonuses, but not really, since I sort of count on them) twice a year, and we usually end up paying off our debt with these bonuses or other money that is not regular monthly income (gifts, tax returns, etc.), but this is not how we want to live. We want to be able to use those bonuses to work on extra projects around the house, to travel, etc., but first, we need to get in a spot where we don't ever need to use credit cards to cover shortcomings, like when we need new brakes or tires or stuff. 

Tracking our spending on for 8 months last year really helped us get a good idea of how much we actually need to cover our expenses for things we can't help (cars will always need to be registered, kids will get sick and need to go to the doctor occasionally, etc.), and now we can budget better, but we have realized, we need to cut down our spending, because what we have leftover each month after the absolutely necessary expenses (bills, auto expenses and gas, food, health, etc.) is not a lot (like less than $100). 

There are certain things we value, like the occasional date night and opportunities to go out with our friends. We don't want to eliminate these things. We already live relatively simply. So where else to cut down? 

Well, very simply... we just need to buy nothing.

I was looking on the internet and found there is a movement of people who believe in this and make a compact to buy nothing new for a year. We are joining the compact. It will be a year of buying nothing. 

Now, you might be thinking... how is this possible? Well, obviously, certain things need to be purchased new. One cannot buy used underwear. Food and health items need to be purchased new, but other things can be purchased used or found free. The internet makes this easier than ever. In addition, what the compact is really all about is understanding the difference between needing something and wanting something.

What this really looks like is our trip to Disneyland yesterday. We went to Disneyland to take Tiana for her first time and for a special family time together before our life gets very busy again with school and stuff. Buying Disneyland tickets does not count as buying "something." It is a service, not a material. However... while we were at Disneyland, Vinny of course asked us to buy him many things. He was told, "No, you do not need that," because he doesn't. Even Tiana was begging for these princess dollies that looked like her favorite dolly, and the part of me new to having a little girl really wanted to buy her the princess dolly, but I know it will not replace her favorite dolly, and she has 3 of those (preventive measure to ensure that "the" favorite doesn't get lost), so she doesn't need a princess one. We bought nothing yesterday. We left the park without a single souvenir. Woo hoo! Mission accomplished. 

There will be certain things we cannot get around. Vinny's teacher asked them to bring in Valentine's for a class project about the post office.  Tiana needs new diaper covers, and while I usually buy these used, I could not find the size she needs available right now (the bigger she gets, the harder they are to find used because they get used for longer and suffer more wear). Buying them new became inevitable.  How I plan to deal with this is to make sure that, any time I need to buy something new, I am selling something to cover the expense. I have books listed on Amazon. I sold a bunch of Tiana's old diaper cover to cover the new ones. If none of our monthly income goes to cover expenses like these, then it will help us keep our finances in check this year. 

In addition, I think that the idea of items going out of our home to make room for new ones is a healthy mentality to have. When we keep bringing stuff in and not having stuff go out, it just leads to clutter. People are happier when they have less clutter.  There is this great blog called "life edited," about living happier in less space. On the blog, it actually follows a man's journey to live in less than 300 square feet. A family of 4 cannot do that; however, our house is so small, we do actually have less than 300 square feet per person. I am okay with this. I do not see this as a starter house. I see this as the house. But staying happy in this house means staying free of clutter. 

And thus begins my one year journey to buy nothing new. To remember the difference between "need" and "want" and to fight the urges to buy. To have more stuff go out of my home than comes into it. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

My Anti-Drugs

I want to thank all of you for your outcrying of support in response to my last blog, as I opened up about our struggles with Vinny over the past few months. It is not easy to admit something like that about your child. I hate labeling him, and I don't want anyone to think differently about him. He is still an amazing little man. He is so kind, compassionate, and respectful. He is a creative genius, an overall well-behaved child, and a good friend. I am lucky to have this little man as my son, and I just want to do whatever I can to help make his life easier.

Speaking of making his life easier, thank you to everyone for all of your suggestions. I finally got a mental health specialist on the phone from our insurance company, and she was very helpful in getting me a long list of people to call for therapy. We are going to go this route first. I also found some books on Amazon about parenting an OCD child. These books have great reviews, so I am hopeful. In addition, I have sent emails to the UCLA OCD specialists. Many friends whose children have similar mental health issues have suggested looking into naturopathic things like changes in diet, and since since so many parents seem to swear  by the difference in their children's behavior with different foods, I figured it was worth looking into.

The suggestions for dietary changes are diverse, but it seems that all across the board, parents with OCD children find results from limiting sugars (particularly sucrose sugars, not really fructose), banning caffeine altogether (which he rarely gets anyway), and limiting or eliminating at least simple carbohydrates (white pasta and white bread, donuts and cookies, etc.), if not eliminating gluten altogether. Since food is very much a comfort to Vinny, I don't want to make radical changes to his diet right away, but since most of this is just healthy eating, I am making the effort to make some simple changes. I planned meals for two weeks attempting to really limit the simple carbs. I bought some gluten-free cookies and treats that Vinny thought looked yummy. I bought a lot of other healthy snacks that Vinny enjoys already- like popcorn and fruit and stuff. Since he already has eaten and enjoys gluten-free waffles and cereal from Trader Joe's, I bought some of those too. Although I tend to pride myself on feeding my children relatively healthy food anyway, I guess I am just going to try to make a more consistent effort at keeping a close eye on his diet. When I think about it, it got a lot worse over the holidays, and he ate a lot of junk food over the holidays, so it does kind of make sense. I am going to remember to give him his multivitamin every day and we are going to try probiotic smoothies, a little bit each day, in hopes that, since it seems to be autoimmune related, boosting his immune system will help.

Honestly, we have had a great weekend. Vinny has been great since Friday night. Fantastic behavior and no real meltdowns. He even let Tiana play in his room for like 5 minutes while I got dressed yesterday, and that was huge for him.

People have reminded me to take care of myself, as dealing with a high strung child can be mentally taxing. I think I am actually pretty good at taking care of myself lately. I think the best way I take care of myself and my mental health is through taking time for myself. I am so lucky to have a husband who understands this and is so supportive. Yesterday morning I went to yoga with a good friend and soaked in the spa afterwards. I could not have possibly had a more relaxing morning. Then, last night, it was Mom's Night Out with The Mommy Network, a playgroup/mommy support group of sorts that I belong to. These women are a uniquely awesome bunch. Mom friends like this are not easy to find. Everyone is willing to take turns driving on these Mom's Night Out events, and everyone is laid back and into just having a good time. Plus, they are genuinely willing to try anything. We've gone go cart racing, dive bar hopping, shooting pool, bowling, dancing, you name it. Last night was no exception. You know you've had a good time when you end up running barefoot through In N Out at 1:30 in the morning. Although I could barely force my body off the couch this morning, my spirit felt renewed today. To all my mommy friends... you are my favorite anti-drug.

Friday, January 13, 2012

PANDAS- A very difficult blog to write...

This is hard to write about... but I feel like I need to. I have been grateful in the past when I have shared about difficult subjects, both for the support offered and for just how much better it feels to get it off my chest. I would like you to read about my morning.

Our Morning
Vinny has good days and bad days. Today is apparently not a good one. I was only awake for 15 minutes before he left, but this is what happened in that 15 minutes. 
Vinny freaked out that his pants were falling down and he needed a belt. They weren't falling down, but since he felt like he wanted one, I tried to help him find one. His top drawers are packed, so I had to really dig through them to find one. He cried and yelled because me digging involved "messing up" his drawers. I close one drawer; he opens it and re-closes it. I go to the next drawer and fortunately find the belt. I leave the drawer open and start putting on his belt. He screams at me and runs to shut the drawer before letting me put on his belt. I pull a tag off his belt and put it on the couch next to me while I start putting on his belt. He grabs the tag and throws it away. I finally put on his belt. We walk out of his room and he pushes me out of the way so that he can shut his door, yelling behind me, "I'LL shut the door," although I wasn't even going to try to shut it. 

We proceed to the kitchen, where he asks Marc what is for lunch. We are running late today and at the end of the groceries (I shop on the weekend), so he has a pizza lunchable. Vinny starts crying. This is odd, because he normally asks for these when we go shopping. I try to calm him down and explain that we are running late and need to go and that is all there was. Marc opens the lunchbox and tries to show him it is a good lunch, and he even packed him chocolate milk. Vinny starts to yell at us explaining, "When I open the sauce, it will get all over my hands!" I put a napkin in. It doesn't help. He is crying and complaining, too upset to listen. Marc starts to get upset and threatens to take away quarters if he doesn't stop complaining and get in the car. 

Marc zips up the lunchbox, but Vinny determines it is not zipped all the way and starts to fuss with the edge of the zipper. In the middle of all of this, he starts to cover his mouth and gag, declaring that "something smells bad." Marc insists that nothing smells bad (truly- nothing did) and Vinny eventually stops gagging. Although the lunchbox is most certainly zipped all the way, he cannot get it zipped to his satisfaction and determines he needs to hold it by that corner of the zipper. Since the corner has no good place to hold, the lunchbox keeps falling on the ground, which is not helping matters (or helping us get him out the door in time). I calmly insist that he hold it by the handle or put it in his bag. He eventually acquiesces, distracted by the baggie of cereal that I am handing him. He opens the baggie and starts to eat some. As he is on the way out, he tries to close the baggie and can't, so he asks me to. I close it and hand it back, but he hands it back and again and says, "Close it all the way." I give it an extra squeeze for good measure and Marc and Vinny walk out the door. I hear more yelling on the way to the door. Who knows over what....

I wish I could say that this was just an abnormally bad morning, but it is not. It is sadly pretty typical. There are times when things are better, but there are times when they are worse too. As you have probably figured out, Vinny has obsessive compulsive disorder. For anyone who has thought I was joking or overreacting in any prior comments about Vinny's OCD, please understand that I am completely serious. It is a real problem, and I am really tired of always seeing my child upset and crying.

He wasn't always like this. He has always been a little particular, but it wasn't the cause of crying and meltdowns until this past year. It has gotten drastically worse over a relatively short period of time. I started doing some research and found that there is a cause for sudden onset or sudden worsening of OCD in children... scarlet fever. It was like a light bulb went off in my head.

Vinny had scarlet fever in June. It was pretty bad. His fever was so high he was practically limp in my arms. It was a Friday night, so I rushed him to urgent care. Despite having both Tylenol and Mortin in his system, his fever seemed unbreakable and he was throwing up all over. At the urgent care, they rushed him right in. He laid there on the examining bed, throwing up and crying. They gave him a strep test and discovered he had strep. With the red rash all over his body, they diagnosed him with scarlet fever. They eventually got his fever down with ice packs and sent us home. It was a sucky weekend, but with antibiotics, he was better by Monday. He had missed his preschool graduation carnival, which was sad, but other than that, everything was fine and we went on with our lives...

.... or did we? Shortly after this, Vinny started having anxiety attacks. At first, they would happen if he felt like he was being left alone, even for a brief moment, like alone in a room. I even blogged about it on June 23rd. When this was happening, I did a bunch of research, searching for answers to why my totally normally kid would all of a sudden act so irrationally. I couldn't find any reason.

But now, it is starting to make sense. This disorder is called PANDAS, which means Pediatric Autoimmune Disorders Associated with Streptococcal infections. On the National Institute of Mental Health's website about PANDAS, it says additional symptoms associated with PANDAS (in addition to the OCD) can include separation anxiety, which they describe as, "Child is 'clingy' and has difficulty separating from his/her caregivers. For example, the child may not want to be in a different room in the house from his/her parents." This is a perfect description of what was happening with Vinny. He also has some of the other symptoms too. Since June, he has started waking up in the middle of  the night and calling for us or attempting to get in bed with us. It happens almost every night, usually around 2-5am. Sleep disturbances are a symptom of PANDAS. When I described all of this to his doctor and showed him dated blog entries describing the symptoms, he was surprised but completely agreed with me that it is probably PANDAS. However... he has never seen it before. He had read about it and knew what it was, but had never seen it. 

So, it is real and it has a name, but... what now? 

Vinny has an awesome doctor who genuinely cares about him, and he wanted to do more research on it. As he did more research, he found that some cases seem to be worsened by the child actually still carrying a resistant streptococcal bacteria, so he sent us for blood work to see if this is the case. If it is, then we will start aggressive antibiotic therapy. In 4 out of 12 cases, the symptoms completely resolved by doing this. While that is only a 25% chance, it is still a chance that this could go away. (We are waiting for the results of the blood work to see if this might help us). 

Other theories suggest that some autoimmune therapies, such as being given intravenous immunoglobulin, but there have only been clinical trials on this, and none of the results have been conclusive. So, there may not be a "cure" to Vinny's OCD. Most research suggests that, in patients with PANDAS, the scarlet fever infection actually damaged the basal ganglia, the part of the brain responsible for movement and behavior. (Incidentally, the good news is, in some cases what this has resulted in is tics like Tourette's syndrome. I suppose I should be grateful Vinny only developed OCD). If this is the case, then like other people with brain damage, the only thing to do is therapy to re-train this part of his brain. At first, the thought of considering this as "brain damage" seemed frightening and like a life sentence, but if people can re-learn walking and talking after a major stroke, then Vinny can certainly un-learn some of this anxiety. 

The doctor also offered drugs to help deal with it in the meantime, suggesting that I might have great difficulty getting him the therapy he needs quickly. I initially turned down the drugs, since I have a hard time thinking about putting my 5 year old on Prozac, but I don't know if I am completely closing the door to this option, because the doctor was right... I can't find a therapist. There are NO child psychiatrists in the area, so I started calling regular therapists, psychiatrists, and psychologists on our insurance plan. None of the ones I called were accepting new patients. One of them just didn't answer. This is not going to be an easy road. What to do now? I can't afford him having therapy without it being under our insurance. I guess I will just keep expanding the miles in my search area. If we have to drive him to Los Angeles, well, then, I guess we will have to. 

But in the meantime... I kind of feel like crying. On Sunday, he decided that my hands were dirty (they weren't) and wouldn't hold my hand unless I pulled my sweatshirt down over it. He cried that the kids in Sunday school were touching him. He asks us to "play with him" but then yells and screams at us for touching his stuff. The tension in this house is so thick you can practically smell it. I am tired of walking on eggshells around my 5 year old. I am even more tired of watching my 5 year old have anxiety attacks.

This parenthood stuff is a whole hell of a lot harder than it seems on the surface.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Day 4 of Drama Trip to New York

Today was exhausting and emotional for me. I woke up sad and tired. I had a hard time sleeping, and I was feeling homesick for my children. Unbelievably homesick. I longed to feel Tiana's sweet little arms around my neck again and just wasn't up for the long day ahead before we would finally be home in California.  Every time I leave California, I always find myself remembering how happy I am to live in California and how much I miss it. The sunny, beautiful January days are so completely worth the high cost of living.  (It really makes me wonder why it costs so much to live in New York. Seriously, people... I would not pay that much to bundle up every day of the winter).

Anyhow, so I bundled up warmly for the early morning ferry ride to the statue, which I knew would be cold, despite the forecast for the day being nearly 60 degrees at midday. It is a good thing I did too, because while waiting for the ferry in the morning I was rather cold, despite the multiple layers I had packed on.

We took the ferry to the Statue, but we did not get off since the Ellis Island Immigration Museum was our ultimate destination, and there was plenty of time for looking at an taking pictures of the Statue while on the boat. Seeing the students see the Statue of Liberty was a beautiful thing. As I watched them all gleefully snapping pictures of Lady Liberty, laughing and joking with each other, tired from a dream trip they had worked so hard for, I kind of got choked up. These beautiful, intelligent, hardworking young people are almost all immigrants or children of immigrants, whose families came here for the same reason as the families who passed by the Statue of Liberty a hundred years ago, on their way to Ellis Island- to give their children better lives. And there were my students, and, well, if this trip isn't the quintessential experience of that better life, well, then I am not sure what is.

Marc and I really enjoyed wandering around the immigration museum. The museum did a great job of honoring all of the elements of the melting pot that is America and covering the history of how they all got here. Sometimes, as a "white" person, I feel like I have no culture at all, like a mutt has no pedigree papers, but Ellis Island sort of reminded me that I too have a history. We were able to find the history of and artifacts from all of our ancestors- Marc's family is Cajun originally from France, German, and Ukrainian. My family is English (from a long, long time ago), Irish, Italian, and Cherokee Indian. We saw the stories of all of these groups, and it was sort of a beautiful picture of what makes up our wonderfully diverse children (especially since Marc and I essentially share NO common heritage; if diversity makes for strong DNA, well then my kids have incredibly strong genes).

After this, it was off to the hotel to pick up our luggage then on to the airport. I decided that with the warm weather and our week of experience with the subways, we could handle public transportation to the airport, and it actually all worked out very smoothly. In fact, it was even so warm, that many of us shed our coats for the walk to the subway. We got to the airport in plenty of time. I was much more relaxed on this flight and actually slept a little, probably because I was so relieved to be going home to my children. Until we were almost in Los Angeles and the pilot informed us that there was going to be some bad turbulence on the way in to the LAX and that it couldn't be avoided, so to expect it. He had the flight attendants take their seats, and shortly... it began.

Oh my. I am starting to hate flying. I am going to need a prescription for Xanax before our trip to Louisiana in February. Even Marc's knuckles were turning white as he gripped the seat, and I have never seen him get scared by turbulence before. Even when I am near tears, he is usually rolling his eyes at me. I was trying to stay strong for the students, especially the one next to me who had never even flown before this trip, but I was so scared. The plane jerked and dropped several feet, several times. It was even worse than on the way in. It was like a terrifying roller coaster ride, and many of the passengers would yell as if it was each time the plane dropped. I kind of wanted to cry. My hands were still shaking long after we were safely on the ground.

Once all the students had been picked up by their parents and Marc and I were in our car, on our way home to our home and our children, I felt this huge weight lifted off of my shoulders. It was over. Everything had gone smoothly. I had stayed perfectly within the budget. I had not lost any students. Throughout the trip, several students called me "Mom." Two of them accidentally, and one of kept saying, "Okay... mom," each time I reminded him to be on time or to put on another layer of clothing. Truly, although I tried very hard to treat them all like adults and give them some independence and trust, I had been counting heads, checking clothing, and making sure tummies were full for 4 days, and well, mentally parenting 14 teenagers is exhausting. It was a wonderful time, but I sure am glad it is over.

The big question on everyone's lips today was, "When are we going back?"  My answer in short was... eventually. After doing some thinking, I am torn between Summer 2013 and Winter 2014. It takes at least 18 months to get it together, especially since these kids cannot quickly raise the kind of money required. It was a lot of work to raise the money. If we want to go in Summer 2013, we need to start planning again like... well, now. Planning this trip took hours of my time each week, and I just don't know if I am up to beginning that process again quite yet. Well, I guess I will think about.

Playbill does say that a new Houdini musical starring Hugh Jackman is on the radar for 2013 and Evita will also probably still be there. Hmm.... something to think about.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Day 3 of Drama Trip to New York

Today was wonderful. This morning was a sign that the students are adapting to my expectations of them, which happen to mirror New York style... meaning, I expect them to be punctual and prepared. Haha. Up until today, we have been rushing everywhere (although, fortunately, making it just about right on time). Today, we were actually early everywhere. Woo hoo!

This morning, we got to participate in a Broadway musical theater workshop. Our group met with one of the performers and a musician from Phantom of the Opera. The actress, Kris, plays Madam Firmin and understudies a number of other characters as well. She was awesome! She taught our group a few bars from Masquerade. We learned the 4 part harmony and the dance that goes along with it, and we did pretty darn well, if I do say so myself. Well, and she said so too. She commented that they all take direction very well, which is true. It is one of my favorite things about this group.

I felt like the instruction moved pretty fast, but we only learned like 30 seconds of a 5 minute song, and it took us an hour. Whoa! (This is the piece we learned on the right. We only learned up to "look around, there's another mask behind you") I don't know how those Broadway performers do it. I could never keep up with all the choreography they keep in their heads.

This workshop made me realize that I need to boost my dance skills if I am ever going to be successful at directing musical theater. So far, I have done alright doing shows with very limited dancing, but I don't wanted to be this limited for the rest of my career. I am thinking about taking some dance lessons. It is just hard to find beginning musical theater dance lessons for an adult.

In the afternoon, we decided to stay together as a group, since most of the students all wanted to do the same things- see Central Park, shop, and go ice skating. Marc and I did some research and found the cheapest way for the students to do outdoor ice skating in New York City, which was at Bryant Park, where admission is free. The students had to pay for skate rental, and where they really stick it to you is on shoe locker rental and bag check (over $22 for both), but we solved that problem by carrying all of their stuff for them. It was pretty funny. We looked rather ridiculous carrying around 10 pairs of shoes, purses, shopping bags, headphones, etc. It was a sight to be seen, but the kids had a wonderful time and pretty much had the quintessential New York City winter experience. :-) 

In the evening, we headed out to Ellen's Stardust Diner, where the singers also serve food. Haha, yes, singing wait staff. It reminded me of a place I used to love as a teenager, called Ed Debevic's, which was this neat little 50s cafe in Beverly Hills (which has since closed). It was also kind of like my favorite karaoke place, Dimples, if Dimples was a diner. The food was actually great too. I think my favorite part of this dinner was the fact that I didn't do any of the work. One of the students found it, obtained the catering menus, and made the arrangements. She did a great job and everyone really enjoyed it. 
Finally, we saw our last Broadway show of the trip, Chicago. It was a completely different experience from what the other shows were like, since the other shows were all about spectacle, and this one is all about the music and the dance, with a very simple set, but a featured live orchestra, that is actually all over the stage. The students didn't enjoy this one as much as the other ones (which is funny to me, since I had highly recommended we take the excellent deal I had on orchestra seats at Godspell instead, but this is what they wanted to see), but I think that it was a good experience for them, especially to really see the musicians, since that is not an experience you get most of the time on Broadway. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Day 2 of Drama Trip to New York

Thursday was our second day in New York, and we really made the most of it. In the morning, we had an appointment for a guided tour of the United Nations Headquarters, which was a very interesting experience. Inspiring in a lot of ways. It made me proud as a teacher of international studies students that my students know about the United Nations Declarations of Human Rights and about the UN's human right's work. The gift shop was also really neat, since it had little gifts and trinkets from tons of different countries, and I enjoyed seeing the vast differences between each country's items.

The girls loved messing with Christian's hair. He is too good of a sport about it. 
In the afternoon, we split up to go sightseeing. I took a small group of students out to lunch at a Greek restaurant and then did some shopping in the garment district. We ended up heading back pretty early, since they were still tired from the day before (and probably stayed up later than they admitted to me). Honestly, this was sort of nice for me, since I hate the cold. They went back to their rooms to nap, and I turned on the heater and cuddled up with my book and read for almost two hours, which was a wonderful feeling, especially since it was a really good book.

Marc actually ended up with a large group of students who wanted to go to Times Square. I think the size of his group had more to do with the students not wanting to spend every minute with their teacher. Haha. They all loved Marc. He kind of has that effect on people.  Apparently, Marc was a very good sport, who put up with an excessive amount of time shopping in Forever 21.

In the evening, we got all dressed up nice and headed out for dinner at John's Pizzeria. This place was a combination of everything I wanted the students to experience. It was packed with people and the hustle and bustle typical of Times Square. The restaurant is in an old cathedral. Despite having been converted into a restaurant, it still has the old world feel and charm, with beautiful staircases, vaulted ceilings, and bright stained glass windows. The food was fantastic. Real....New York... Pizza!  Growing up as the child of a New Yorker, I have always been a pizza snob, and I know real New York pizza. There are a handful of places here in Cali that come close, but each of the three times I have visited New York, I have tasted pizza that really reminds you that you can only get the best pizza in New York.

Marco learns to fold his pizza.

The kids agreed. I overheard several of them saying that it was the best pizza they had ever had. My favorite part was when I heard someone at the other end of the table ask a girl, "Why are you cutting up your pizza?" and she replied, "Well, it is hard to eat by hand." I looked over and realized they were all trying various methods to eat the giant slices. I promptly gave a lesson on how one must fold New York pizza. John's is right across from the theater we were headed to for Phantom of the Opera.

Seeing Phantom of the Opera has been an item on my buried list for a long time, and it was as wonderful as I imagined it would be. In the first 10 minutes of the show, as the minor chords reverberated throughout the theater, and the chandelier swung into its place above our heads, I seriously had goosebumps. It is hard to describe how amazing this show is. The music is so challenging, yet these professional performers just make it sound so easy (although I know it is not). The effects were amazing. I will never understand how they so realistically transform the stage into a lake glittering with candlelight. Ahhh... Theater magic. This was definitely the students' favorite show.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Day 1 of Drama Trip to New York City

So, we left for the airport Tuesday night. A couple of students ran late to the airport, and our music teacher and her guests took the flyaway, which also ran late, so we started off the trip with much waiting and I was getting very anxious about getting through security with all these teenagers, many of whom have never traveled before. Fortunately, everything went swimmingly. Everyone followed my instructions for security and getting through it all was a breeze. I'd been worried for nothing.

Since it was a red eye, I had planned on sleeping and had encouraged everyone to do the same, recommending that they not get any caffeinated beverages at the airport and such. Sleeping on this flight was next to impossible though. About 20 minutes into the flight, the turbulence was so bad the flight attendants had to return to their seats. I was gasping out of fear each time it dropped and fearfully watching the wings bounce up and down through the window. The woman next to me (a stranger, not part of our group), was even more anxious and kept grabbing my arm or leg each time we dropped. This did not help. I think after this point, no one was able to sleep much, since the rest of the flight was still pretty bumpy. Every time I would start to drift off, the turbulence would start again and I'd be wide awake. Sigh.

This made for a very tired group that first day. We dropped our luggage off at the airport and spent the morning in South Manhattan, where it was FREEZING. This was by far the coldest day of our trip. It was 18 degrees, but felt much colder, particularly by the water. Yikes. We did some wandering and sightseeing and then visited the 9/11 Memorial.

The memorial is beautiful and, well, perfect for what they represent. When I visited New York in 2005, I remember wondering what they could possibly "build" in that spot in memory. It seemed like nothing would be quite right, especially since what I remember of the towers from visiting in 2000 was just how remarkably huge and magnificent they were. I remember looking up at them from the street in awe, unable to see the top. It seemed like the buildings went on and on forever, straight into the sky, as if they had no end. I remember seeing them from the water, and how distinctly they stood out from the rest of the cityscape. Looking at them sort of made you proud to be part of this generation.

But what they did with the memorial was perfect. Two... giant.... holes.  Because what 9/11 really represents now is the emptiness it left in so many ways. Yet, I am glad that they are rebuilding. As you visit the memorial today, you gaze into the beauty of the fountains while standing in the shadow of towers that will someday be even more magnificent than their predecessors. When I first heard they were rebuilding, I thought... Is that really necessary? But now I understand that it is. Without the new towers, the memorial is just a sad tribute to lives lost. But with the new towers, it seems a statement of, "Terrorism may have hurt us and left permanent scars on our country... but terrorism didn't win."

By the time we wrapped up our visit to the memorial, everyone was just completely spent and ready for some rest. We checked into the hotel and most of us napped for several hours, waking up feeling refreshed and ready for an exciting evening out. We got a casual dinner near the hotel. A handful of students and I checked out this little chicken place across the street from the hotel. It was authentic Southern comfort food, but the best part was the downstairs dining room, which was tricked out like an early 1960s rec room, complete with pop art, mod furniture, and rock 'em sock 'em robots on every table. With the delicious chicken, the ambiance, and the cane sugar Boylan soda fountain drinks, this cheap meal was actually one of my favorites.

Our first show of the week was Mary Poppins. This show really highlighted the element of theater that is spectacle. The elaborate sets and costumes and effects made the show just magical. Honestly, I didn't care for some of the new songs, and this Mary Poppins had an accent that was almost Bostonian (odd) and made me miss Julie Andrews, but the show overall was a real treat.

The people seated behind us actually provided an excellent lesson in theater etiquette. You can teach students about theater etiquette up and down, which I do each and every year, but this experience really reinforced everything I have taught through her lack of etiquette. They walked in late, which was an annoying distraction from the beginning of the show. They took their time noisily getting comfortable. A few minutes into the show, she starts digging into her paper shopping bag, which- being in the balcony, was right in my ear. They talked through the whole show. After intermission, they were noisily opening and rustling candy wrappers. Grrrr.....

My students, on the other hand, were dressed well, seated on time, and were polite, quiet, and attentive throughout at every show, all week long. They made me very proud.