Death and Homework

I have a new (or renewed) pet peeve.  I know…I hear all of you sighing a collective sigh of relief that I have something new to rant about. You’re welcome!

How many of you have day-jobs? By that I mean how many of you are not self employed, students or stay-at-home parents but instead have a place of business you are expected to be every day at fairly specific times?  Now, stay with me here…

How many of you who fit the above description of having a day job AND are NOT in management have homework expected to be completed every night?  I’m not excluding management to be bratty. Having been in management and also self employed, the nature of your job description automatically means you DO have homework.  You signed up for it when you chose your job/career and you (hopefully) are compensated for the huge interruption in your and your family’s life.  Are you following?

Here’s my issue in a nut-shell:

At 6:55 a.m., a big yellow school bus takes my sixth-grader children away. At approximately 7:30, the school day begins.  They don’t get 10 or 15 minute breaks ala retail or office jobs. L&I and OSHA stipulate that you with the day job does. Hey, if you choose not to take your breaks OR you choose to work for a company that encourages you to skip them, that’s on you.  They do have four minutes to get from one class to another and try to use the bathroom then.  The school gym is on the other side of the school from all of the sixth grader classes. If, after changing out of your gym clothes and gathering your books at your main locker you find yourself late for class, you are given MANDATORY lunch-time detention (working lunch?) on the stage in the cafeteria where all the other students who weren’t late for classes or are lucky enough to have gym after lunch get to watch you not get to go out to recess or eat with your friends.  Really, those on lunch-time detention get to provide the rest of the timely kids with something to watch while they eat with their friends.  During lunch-time detention, you are not allowed to do homework. You are allowed to eat and read while others stare at and tease you.

At 2:05, the kids are released on their own recognizance to get back on the big yellow bus (or have parents pick them up) and head off towards home to start their (on average) two hours of homework.  Don’t even try and throw in after-school activities.  The only way to manage those is with lots of tears, late-night homework fests and/or lower grade expectations.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have AMAZING summers with longer than you’d expect periods of daylight.  It’s really one of the ten best things about living here.  On the converse, we have very short periods of daylight in the winter and much of those periods are filled with rain, fog or general gloom.  Going outside when there is sunlight is not just a luxury; it’s an absolute necessity to keep Seasonal Affective Disorder and possibly scurvy or other Vitamin D deficiency issues at bay.  Winter Solstice on December 21st will gift us with a sunrise at 7:56 a.m. (yes, over an hour after the bus takes our kids away) and sunset at 4:18 p.m. When the bus doesn’t get them home until around 2:40, tack on the two hours of homework and it’s been long dark before they have a chance to go out and play.  If they were unlucky enough to have to wait for access to their gym locker making them late for the following class, then their punishment is being give ZERO access to the outdoors while the sun is up.

Is it just me or does that sound like cruel and unusual punishment?

Why is the two hours of homework necessary on top of the seven plus hour school day?  An hour? I could possibly let that slide and still consider it a reasonable accommodation of their ‘job’ as students, but two (some days more)?  I don’t consider that reasonable.  We are so busy teaching ‘to the test’, having assemblies about fundraisers or national fitness programs and other distractions from learning that we don’t have time to teach our kids.  Sending them home with two hours of homework and a suggestion of websites they can visit to explain the complex math that there was no time to be taught in class is unacceptable.  We are letting our kids down and teaching them nothing of ‘real life’ or time management.  I consider it gross negligence that we can’t make time during daylight hours to play.  We aren’t teaching work/life balance and without that, how do we expect our kids to maintain hope as they grow older that life is worth living?  If one only lives to work, it’s very easy to understand how so many grown-ups see life as bleak, dismal or hopeless.  It was the main topic of conversation  my brother and I had in the year before he killed himself.  No. I’m not being overly dramatic.  We are setting our kids up to fail under the current state and federal teaching and testing requirements, and I am going to start rebelling.  Our kids deserve better. They deserve outside interests and friends. They deserve a life that they WANT to live, not one they feel conditioned to accept.  Don’t you?

You say “Plastic” like it’s a bad thing

Once upon a time, I spent a lot of time staying home watching TV, drinking too much and cursing like a truck driver.  I was masterful at using not just F-bombs, but mass quantities of other colorful colloquialisms throughout my everyday speaking. Becoming a parent changed those things about me.  Seeing how much little eyes and ears pick up on and how quickly has made me mindful of my words and actions, especially around the kids. Sometimes I slip, but I try really hard to say what I mean these days using MY words rather than the colorful stand-ins that don’t quite say what I want them to anyway. I’ve been called “Vanilla”. I’ve been told I’ve become “Plastic”.  I’ve been name-called for being too “good”?  Language aside, while I have never been a nominee for sainthood, I don’t qualify as a bully or jerk either.  Although not everyone would agree with that statement, I know me better than anyone else and can honestly say that if you are one who disagrees, you should probably take a long hard look in a mirror and see what it is about me that bothers you so.

Social media has heralded in a new age of public shaming.  There are lots of behaviors that deserve to be called out as negative, but why is living a relatively clean life and embracing the low-tech considered fair game?  #liveauthentic has become a target spearheaded by a young woman who still has a good ten or more years ahead of her before she gains a clue as to what ‘authentic’ even is, let alone how to live that way.

Socality Barbie has taken Instagram by storm.  I smiled when I first saw the images. I thought the photos were creative, funny and interesting.  As someone who spends a lot of time hiking and exploring around the PacNW, I loved the idea of using such an iconic prop…much along the lines of parents who take pictures every year of their kiddlet with the same stuffed animal or dad’s dress shirt from newborn-college graduate.  I interpreted the use of the icon as ‘if she can do it, so can you’ and smiled that the idea aligned with my own philosophy on hiking and sharing photos via Instagram.  It wasn’t until the photographer spoke (via interview and in an article) that the images were ruined for me.  You see, the images were interesting enough from an art standpoint that, like good art, many people could interpret them in many different ways.  Unfortunately, the photographer explained her idea behind the images and gave it her own words criticizing and mocking those who get off their asses, turn off the TV and actually go outside rather than just watching the world go by on the internet or television.  Do I sound a little miffed?  It’s not because I took Socality Barbie seriously or personally on its own. It is that a few people who presume to know me sent me the article with no qualification or follow up as an apparent comment on my own Instagram posts.

In a nut-shell:  I live my life in spite of all the crap people have said about or to me and I make no apologies for it.  No one person on this planet knows all of what I’ve weathered or survived in my lifetime and I do not presume to know your details either.  I DO know that the places my feet take me inspire me. They impact my artwork. They charge me emotionally and bring me such peace where I used to harbor anxiety and fear.  If the few photos I post from my excursions inspire even one person to go outside and find places that they too can connect with, then I am satisfied that I was right to share.  They aren’t about YOU. They are about me and my hope for others who may need hope.  When dealing with others, be kind.  Remember, if you can’t say anything nice…don’t share it with me.

PS-My self-worth isn’t measured in ‘like’s or ‘followers’ and I’ll continue to live my life as I see fit (don’t get me wrong…it’s good to be ‘like’d but I’ll still be pretty content with my life even if this blog garners no ‘like’s).  If you choose to add to the conversation in a non-constructive or negative way, please don’t ‘follow’ me and feel free to unfriend me.

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What’s Not To Get?

Today, with the help of my brain and probably contributed to by my previously diagnosed PTSD, I was reduced to a sobbing mess in front of a school bus full of kids and my own children.  I could hear some quiet voice in the back of my head yelling at me to snap out of it, but it seemed to be on the other side of the canyon that was quickly filling with my tears.  Frankly, looking back on the events of the morning, I kind of want to kick my own ass, but that is both challenging to accomplish physically AND it wouldn’t solve anything.

Yesterday afternoon I received a phone call from our daughter asking me to please pick her and her brother up from school.  As they were boarding the school bus at the end of the day, they saw a student on the bus eating Reese’s Pieces. Knowing that our son’s peanut allergy is off the charts severe, our daughter told the bus driver that they couldn’t ride the bus while someone is eating peanut-products as it wouldn’t be safe for her brother.  The driver raised his voice to her and informed her that it is up to each individual bus driver whether to allow eating on the bus or not and told her to take her seat. She said “NO!” and she and her brother got off the bus and walked to the office to call me.  My husband wisely chose to pick them up wanting to spare the school from having to deal with me when I was so riled up.  We’ve done this dance every year since Kindergarten.  Here we are, still in the same school district, but now in our third school still having to fight for the basic safety of our kid.  My husband went in to the office and spoke with the secretary who told him no administrator was around but she’d pass along the message.  The vice principal called him back shortly thereafter and again later last evening after she spoke with the transportation department.  It was better that he handled that. Really. For all of us.

I  am somewhat of a bad-ass when it comes to sticking up for the ‘little guy’ who hasn’t yet found his voice. That’s why I was so irritated with myself this morning when I went to stand up for my own son. I told my husband that I would take the kids to school in the morning rather than have them ride the school bus while this food on the bus mess gets sorted out.  I also fully intended to wait for the bus to have a conversation with the driver.  I had practiced what I was going to say. I had rehearsed various scenarios and dialogues and, in my head, I had made my argument compelling and irrefutable.  Instead, as I addressed the bus driver and explained why I wasn’t allowing my children to get on the bus this morning, I found myself sobbing and barely coherent. I tried for the um-teenth time to explain why the bus driver needs to enforce the no-eating-on-the-school-bus policy, but all I could get out was “Do you not get that he could DIE?!?”

We are not new to this affliction, nor to this school district.  Our son was diagnosed at the age of two with the blood test.  He had his first severe reaction the day after the blood draw and just days before the diagnosis officially came back.  He is re-tested every two years now, and each time, his reactions and ‘numbers’ get worse.  The allergist has diluted the serum used for scratch testing down to 1/200th of the usual potency and he still ends up with fist-sized welts at the test site.  He is not air-borne reactive (knocking on wood and knowing that that could change), but peanut residue on a bus seat would send him in to anaphylactic shock if he were to unknowingly touch it to a cut on his hand or touch it to his face.

I have never been a torches and pitchforks down-with-peanut butter in schools sort of allergy mom.  We’ve made our son very aware that he lives in a world where his food allergy is HIS to manage and other people aren’t likely to understand the severity unless they live with it too.  Now that he’s in middle school, he’s finally met another kid with severe food allergies.  Just this morning, he told me how lucky he feels that his is only to Peanut (o.k., so a few other legumes were added in this last round of testing, but I don’t need to add to his worry over white navy beans or lentils when he’d never volunteer to eat them anyway) since one of his new friends is allergic to all nuts.  He has a great attitude!

The problem really boils down to marketing.  Allergy medications have been so loudly marketed that when most people hear the term FOOD ALLERGY, they imagine someone coughing or sneezing as they take a bite of the offending food.  I have for years referred to our son’s medical condition as Food Anaphylaxis in the hopes that the less educated/understanding general public would ‘get’ the distinction.  While I can appreciate the desire to snack on the 10-30 minute bus ride to and from school, I feel like the need to protect your kids from watching mine die in front of them and the need to not let my kid die should be inspiration enough to enforce the no-eating-on-the-bus policy.  I’m not being overly dramatic. That really IS what it boils down to.  If hundreds of people on an air plane can endure the several hours on international flights forgoing peanuts and peanut products, I’m quite certain these kids can last the short bus ride without them as well.

I already knew I was broken.  I seldom see the triggers coming, but when they do, I make a mental note and try to create a strategy for managing better next time.  Now pardon me as I mop myself up.

Not all laundry is dirty

Earlier this year, my husband and I sought marriage counseling.  We had no question that we loved each other and neither of us had a ‘grass-is-greener’ complex to worry about. We simply had stopped communicating well and struggled with the most basic attempts.  “How was your day?” turned into a competition for who navigated through the most drama.  “Did you get a chance to change over the laundry?” became a personal attack.  “What’s for dinner?” became a judgement.  I cried. A lot.

It wasn’t that either of us was in attack mode. We were both so tired, so beaten down by several years of major life-in-your-face monuments that we’d stopped turning to each other for solace and instead retreated to our own corners like wounded animals.  The problem was that we’d STOPPED talking to each other in trade for talking AT one another.  The fact that we were back to opposite sleep schedules similar to when we were first living together back in 1996 didn’t help. Neither of us were well rested since, aside from a minor-ish sleep apnea development, he would wake up briefly when I finally came to bed and I’d awaken when he got up to go to work in the middle of the night.  He was feeling like a slave for our family and I felt like a slave to it.  That’s no way to live, and no way to keep a marriage healthy.

My husband works for a major area employer.  By most accounts, depending of course on whom you ask, the employees of this employer have a considerably higher than the national average divorce rate.  The work is physically demanding. In the summers, employees are mandated to work three weeks/seven days per week shifts before they can have a weekend off.  Having been an employer, I’m not sure how they skirt the labor laws on that, especially with such a huge Union presence keeping an eye on the goings-on, but aside from nice paychecks, the time demands on its employees are both physically hard on the workers and emotionally exhausting on their families.  We joke about being widows of this employer, but it’s not really funny when you’re in the middle of it.  It shouldn’t have been a surprise to learn that the company keeps counselors (stress management, grief and marriage) on staff and allow for x-number of visits per year as an employee benefit.

My husband and I don’t come from families who talk it out.  His folks divorced long ago, and mine split when I was a senior in college only to spend several years trying to keep it together and to learn how to be nice to each other again. They celebrated their 51st anniversary in August which is a testament to their stubborn natures and unwavering commitment to not getting divorced. They like each other again, but it took years of sticking together to get there.

Growing up, physical therapy was the only reasonable type to undergo and if one had emotional issues, they were best shoved down and set aside to be addressed at a later time that never came.  My husband and I wanted better for ourselves, and ultimately agreed to start counseling in search of a bigger tool box.  Our counselor made it clear that she was on our team. She reminded us that it’s o.k. to take some time to process ideas and to retreat to our corners to do so so long as we return to the conversation before bedtime.  We were reminded that dating each other only once a year on our anniversary isn’t really conducive to maintaining intimacy nor clear communication.  That’s really what it boiled down to.  We’d forgotten to prioritize each other.  Even with our ridiculous schedules parenting twins and balancing day jobs with family and other obligations, there was time if we only chose to make it.

We started off small with short walks around our neighborhood while the kids (now age eleven) stayed home.  We expanded on that by running errands together.   We slowly but steadily rebuilt our team.  By summer’s end, we’d regularly walk, hike, nap or even cook together and were holding hands often.  It didn’t happen over night, but the little moments we set aside with each other each day amounted to a huge improvement in communication and overall in our happiness.  In February, we will celebrate 20 years of coupledom…not that anyone’s counting.  This wasn’t our first rough patch and it certainly won’t be our last. At least we know we have resources to turn to when we need a bigger toolbox.

Find Your Tribe

I have not always been an outdoor enthusiast.  I have not always enjoyed hikes, the woods, camping or being outside in general. I wasn’t raised to be, but knowing a little about how my parents were raised, I have to chalk it up to location rather than inclination.  I grew up in a desert on the Mexican border. While lots of people do hike around there, I think the combination of excessive heat and rattle snakes along with general unfamiliarity of the area dissuaded our family from really exploring.   We had a lake front summer home in the San Bernidino Mountains where I’m sure hiking was easily accessible, but we were much more inclined to spend the summer in the boat and water-skiing than going for hikes.  I wouldn’t trade out those summer memories for anything, but I have to wonder if they would have been fuller had we explored a bit by foot.

Prior to moving to Washington in 1994, my hike experiences had been limited to one family hike in Switzerland when I was eight and a few group hikes in Germany when I was an exchange student at sixteen.  I didn’t see the point of hikes. At eight, I was focused on the prize at the end (Dad had promised us there was a fantastic restaurant at the top but it was just a snackbar) and at sixteen, I was too cool to be impressed by the hikes although I had a great deal of respect for the castles that were the destination of the hikes.  I’d never been camping in a tent and didn’t see the point.

My first year in Washington, my roommate invited me to go with her on a company camping trip to Ike Kinswa State Park. We were loaned gear from her coworkers and really had no idea what to expect.  Fortunately, her coworkers took great care of us and made it a fun weekend.  It was easily ten years before I went camping again.

My brother went to college in Utah where he fell in love with hiking and camping.  He spent a few summers working in a survival camp for at risk boys.  At one point in time, he came to visit us and we borrowed our friends tent-trailer and took him camping up at Lake Diablo.  He loved being there with us and couldn’t believe we hadn’t spent time exploring the area.  After he died, we spread his ashes out there and spent the weekend hiking.  We’ve been hiking ever since.  At first I wanted to hike to feel closer to him.  Over time, I realized that in hiking, I was feeling closer to me.  The sights, sounds and feelings that hit me while out in the woods influence my artwork.  They bring me back to center when I’ve been feeling overwhelmed.  The biggest surprise I’ve found in becoming a hiker is how many great people we meet in the woods.

This past Saturday was beautiful and around 80 degrees out.  My husband had to work, so the kids and I decided to explore a new-to-us trail.  We loaded up our day packs with our 10-essentials, water and trail mix and headed out.  About a mile in, my daughter realized she had left her water in the car.  We agreed to share and ration rather than turn back since it was only a 4 mile hike.  We passed only a few people on the first part of the trail.  Each of them made eye contact, said hello and made some friendly comment about the beautiful day or the nice trail.  Nearing the last half mile of the trail, we met a group headed back who showed us the path up and over a rock slide.  They helped us decide that we were strong enough to continue on to that last somewhat dicey part of the trail and gave us some advice of what to expect. We crested a rock pile to the top of the rope secured to help descend the next steep slope and waited as a pair of hikers ascended. As we started down, I noted they were waiting and watching us.  One said to me they would wait to make sure we got down okay.  We did, and waved to them as they headed down the rocks.  We traversed some pretty big obstacles, both real and imagined, to get to the end of the trail but we were so proud of ourselves for getting there and so inspired by our beautiful surroundings.  As we emerged from the last tunnel on the path back, a young couple stopped us to ask how we did and to ask the kids what their favorite part of the hike so far had been.  My daughter mentioned her least favorite was forgetting her water bottle in the car.  Without hesitation, the young man opened his pack and handed me two bottles of water saying ‘We have plenty more and I insist you take them’.  Then they asked the kids a few more questions about any hazards they may need to watch for and went on their way.

The rest of the trek back was fairly uneventful, but both kids kept talking about the friendly people we’d met on the trail.  They recalled other friendly people we’ve met on other hikes as well and it occurred to me that hikers are a tribe.  They are explorers.  They are nature enthusiasts.  They aren’t necessarily overzealous environmentalists but do firmly understand that we impact nature and vice versa.  We may share a trail but we are each on our own path. In fellow hikers, I am reminded of some very basic principles: Be kind in word and deed. Look out for your fellow man.  Be prepared for the unexpected. Offer unsolicited encouragement. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Make time.  #GoOutside

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Little Conversations

Some days a phone call comes that makes my heart stop. My experience with these calls has taught me there is a  50/50 chance that my world is about to significantly change. While my favorite of these calls result in nothing to worry about beyond the reminder to show people you love them, the others inform me that it already irrevocably has changed. It’s no wonder that I screen my calls.

Sometimes the little conversations are all we’ve got to cling to, so here’s to them.  Please keep us in your prayers.

Getting Uber it.

I know, I know.  I’ve been quiet on my blog for awhile, but it’s largely because the thing I most wanted to write about needed more processing before I could put it into words.  Here we are, almost a full year later, and I still am processing.  I’m realizing that in putting it into words here, I may finally get over the hump so to speak.  I’m going to just lay it out here and hope that then I will be able to finally put it to rest.

One year ago this week, I became a driver for Uber in Seattle.  I have always enjoyed driving. Having spent a decade as an appraiser in the area, I know Seattle and surrounding areas well enough to not need a map or GPS.  Best of all, I am a major off-the-beaten-track and tourist-attraction-geek around my favorite city, so it seemed like a really natural fit for me to shuttle visitors around when I needed income to supplement my art habit.  I waited until the day our kids’ school started to start driving for Uber.  I was excited that I could make my own schedule.  I loved that I could work around art days and kid obligations.  I believed I’d be readily available if anything came up.  I was wrong.

Our now sixth-grader son has an off-the-charts food allergy. He’s a smart kid and he doesn’t take unnecessary risks, but it’s not HIS risks about which I worry.  The nature of being a parent of a kid who could be ended because someone else didn’t wash their hands after eating a PB&J means that there’s always some part in the back of your brain that is awaiting a call from a nurse, doctor or other emergency contact telling you your worst fears are being realized.  This was not in the forefront of my mind as I set out about my day as an Uber driver.  Again, it’s always quietly gnawing at me as it has been for nine years now, but it wasn’t where my mind was engaged on that October morning.

On October 24, 2014, I was happy to get the beeping tone that meant I had a fare awaiting pick-up.  He needed to get to SeaTac Airport which just so happened to be my favorite place to take people. It also happened to be in the next county over and a good 60+ minutes away from home in typical traffic.  My passenger was in great spirits and fairly chatty about his experiences in the area. I was happy as a clam when he asked my opinion about what places he should check out when he came back next month for another work meeting.  We had just crossed the county line when my phone rang.  I don’t have a hands-free device and have always maintained a ‘don’t-answer-calls-when-driving’ policy, and there are no exceptions. I noted the call was from the school district emergency line, but let it go to voicemail knowing that if it were really important, my husband or non-related emergency contact would handle it.

Thirty seconds later, my husband called.  Again, I don’t answer when driving AND I had a passenger on a fairly tight window to make his flight.  Again I let voicemail answer it knowing that my non-related emergency contact could handle whatever it was.  Of course, that fear in the back of my head started to gnaw at me.

Thirty seconds later, my phone rang again.  It was my non-relative calling.  My passenger looked a little uncomfortable and asked if I needed to answer.

“Nope.  I’m sure everything is fine.  We’re ten minutes until we reach the airport.  You’re going to be on time”.

Gulp.

As my phone chimed that I had yet another voicemail, I could feel the sweat forming on my upper lip.  I was overwhelmed with nausea and I had a very clear and disturbing image of my son having an anaphylactic reaction at school and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.

I got my passenger to the airport and unloaded his bag. He shook my hand and said “I hope everything is o.k. and next time I’m in town, I hope you’ll drive for me again!”  Then he grabbed his bag and headed into the airport.  I got back into my car and drove to an area where no one was loading/unloading. As I dialed my voicemail, I began sobbing and shaking uncontrollably.

We live in Everett, WA. North of us is Marysville, WA.  The school emergency line, my husband and my friend/non-relative-emergency-contact were all calling to notify me of the school shooting that happened in the freshman class at Marysville-Pilchuck which claimed the lives of five freshmen and to inform us that our children in OUR district were never in any danger from this student-shooter in the neighboring city.

[Breathe, Kristol. Breathe]

I sat there in front of the airport sobbing and shaking for a full ten minutes before I could see and think clearly enough to drive home.  I never took another Uber fare again.

At my son’s request, I got an emergency substitute teaching credential and became a substitute at our neighborhood elementary school.  I don’t love the work; certainly not nearly like I loved being a driver for Uber. It keeps me tethered close to home like a dog on a short leash, but I know it keeps me where I need to be for now.  At least I have kids for whom I CAN stay close to home.  I know the parents who lost those five kids that day would give anything to trade places with me; so for that, gratitude beyond measure.