“For a while they stood there, like men on the edge of a sleep where nightmare lurks, holding it off, though they know that they can only come to morning through the shadows.”

Sunday morning. On my way down to the laundry room with arms full of sheets and towels, I pass Gus at the kitchen table. He has a new Lego set. It’s a motorcycle. He unwraps every tiny piece of plastic with glee. I try not to panic. Instead, I consider that the new Gus may just put it together 1-2-3. By himself! I even say the words: Look at the picture, it tells you how!

I carry my laundry and my optimism down to the laundry room. Before long though, I hear a moaning upstairs: Oh no. Oh no, Oh no, no, nooooooo. I stuff the clothes in the washing machine and slowly walk up. Gus sits at the kitchen table, every single tiny piece of the new motorcycle lego set spread out in front of him.

Except of course the single most important one: the front wheel of the motorcycle has gone missing.

The very spectacle of it makes me itch all over. I long to pick up every piece and throw them in the garbage. I long to put on my ice skates and stomp all over them.I long to place a household ban on tiny little plastic pieces of anything. I feel my face go all Joan Crawford. No more wire hangers!

Lego set + the ADD child + busy Mom = a tumbler of vodka and ten hours binge watching some HBO dramatic series. Granted, I am no good at Math, or Lego for that matter, but I begin to fear that my beautiful Sunday is in danger of being highjacked. So what to do? Make it worse, of course.

Honey, you just got this last night! Why does this always happen? Where did you have it last? And the kicker, maybe: Put it together without the wheel!

(I am the youngest of five children. We never had every piece to anything. One of the most beloved possessions that came into our playroom was a jeep. One could peddle his way around the neighborhood in that thing at high speeds. One could, but not me. By the time I was even allowed to sit in it, the wheels were gone.)

Gus gets up from the table. No, I don’t want to do this.

You’re just going to give up? I say. I look at all those now useless pieces of plastic in panic. I am just about to add something about how spoiled he is, when a bell goes off in my head. I have been attending numerous conferences and support groups and book clubs about early childhood development lately. I feel like the rat who has gone from the boring old cage – where we tell kids they are spoiled – to the enriched rat cage where we actually have other wheels to try. Oh. I remember, OK, that won’t work.

Almost

Almost

Gabor Mate, in his book Scattered Minds, writes: “When we endure our children’s anger or frustration with compassion they will often move on to the sadness of not having what they wished for.”

Gus, I say. You must be so frustrated that you don’t have the wheel. The wheel is the best part!

He sits down. Tears spring to his eyes. He touches all the other pieces lovingly.

I go to the drawer and pull out a ziplock – one of Gus’ favorite things in the world. And it’s a big, new one. (I try to reuse them, and use the smallest one I can, but clearly, this is an emergency.)

So I say, Please put all the pieces in here. Take the bag up to your room. Oh, and please, get your shoes on.

I don’t know where they are, says Gus. I lost them.

I did not take that bait. (I am a rat, but my brain is plastic!)

Five minutes later, Gus is back downstairs, happy as can be.

Shoes on.

 

 

 

 

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“And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.’”

Stay with your group.

I have been repeating this mantra — with increasing panic — ever since Gus started school. To my credit, I have just begun to say it out loud.

Now that Gus is 13, I have been thinking a lot about peer groups and independence. At school, Gus thrives on exercises that require teacher interface. When he sits on his own at a computer, he is easily distracted. What’s the point? He is not motivated by scores and games. He is motivated by people. What is success if no one is watching?

There is a Catch-22 – the very computer exercises that Gus neglects are the ones designed to shore up the neural connections that will empower him. At some point, motivation must come from within. But how to challenge Gus without abandoning him?

I sit in the lodge at Cypress Mountain, thinking about this. For two ski seasons, Gus has skied with his own private instructor Marc. Marc is strong. He picks Gus up if he falls – literally and figuratively – and most important, he believes that Gus can ski.

And so, after many long Saturdays together, he can. He follows Marc down the mountain, and, most of the time, if he falls, he gets up by himself. (When he does not, he is called “Princess”.) It is not independence – because Marc is there at every turn with a rallying cry – but it is on the way. So close in fact that, for the first time this week, Gus is in ski camp. In a group. At the beginning of the week, Marc told me he did not want Gus in his group: “I am tired of being mean to him – making him do things on his own. I just want to be his buddy.”

And so, Gus went into a different group with similar ability. But by the end of Day 2, his group was skiing blue runs, and they were tired of waiting for Gus to pick up his gloves or put on his skis. I was tempted to come down hard with a double dose of broken record: Stay with your group (aaaagggghhhhhh)

cool jib ski hat!

cool jib ski hat!

Luckily they know more about kids than I do at Cypress Mountain Ski School. Instructors Jamie and Cam requested Gus join their group. You see, they have the younger kids and they could really use Gus’ help with them. Gus skis right behind Jamie, in the lead. Then there’s the rest of the kids, and then there’s Cam. He did so well that Cam even rewarded him with red jello.

They were able to take my mantra – stay with your group – to a higher level.

(Help) Lead your group?

That’s one step closer to independence.

 

 

 

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“He was thinking of the fabled Cracks of Doom and the terror of the Fiery Mountain.”

At Whistler last week, we stayed in a “ski in – ski out” condo. It’s funny they call it that, because it’s really the other way around. First you must ski out, and then you can ski back in. I contemplate this as I lie on the snow on lower Blackcomb, with Gus on top of me.

It happened like this: In order to get to ski school on time, we had to ski out and down what was essentially a noisy, steep hill covered with chunks of ice. It wasn’t big, and it wasn’t that bad – it was the kind of thing you just have to get through. But Gus took one look and refused. He planted his Hot Wheels skis in a pizza wedge and growled at me.

I was having none of it. I did not want him to be late. It’s expensive! Plus I wanted to hurry and get up the mountain myself and start having fun. So I forgot the crucial x factor when it comes to skiing – or parenting for that matter.

No one can do much of anything – except freeze or flee – when he is afraid. Neither of which is very conducive to skiing or having fun. I know this, and yet I forgot this, and I pushed. And Gus – he is a master of this, really – pushed back.

I tell him – and maybe not so nicely – that all he has to do is ski to me, which he does, and then runs into me and knocks us both over. And that’s how I end up lying on the snow with one of those sharp little Hot Wheels skis on either sides of my ears, thinking about fear.

It’s not about how expensive ski school is, or how much I want to get out skiing myself. What’s bothering me, I realize, is Gus’ fear. I don’t like it. I don’t like having a kid who’s afraid.

no worries!

no worries!

I stand up, take a deep breath and exhale all my stress about getting to ski school on time. I let go. Not because I want to, but because I have to. And we get down the hill. Gus gets to ski school, on time. He is happy and smiling and ready to have fun.

I board Wizard Chair, brooding about Gus and fear and why is he so afraid? As it whisks me up Blackcomb Mountain I consult the trail map. Where should I ski on my own before I meet up with Jim later?  I don’t know the mountain at all, I realize. And as I debate about green and blue and groomed and ungroomed and Gus and his fear and when will it stop it hits me.

When will mine stop? And then I smile and do a few green runs before I meet Jim.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“…but the stairway was almost as steep as a ladder, and as they climbed up and up, they became more aware of the long black fall behind them.”

Prisons are full and getting fuller. Does this mean that punishment doesn’t work?

In his essay on tantrums, child psychotherapist Adam Phillips suggests that “we punish children when we don’t know what else to do with them.” I wrote this down. I put it on a card above my desk. And still I ran out of ideas.

try harder!

try harder!

About a month ago, Gus stopped trying very hard at school. When he did that, there were repercussions. His teachers asked for more, and this made him angry and defensive, so he started misbehaving. How else is a kid going to keep it interesting? When this came back to me, I was sympathetic. I understood, and I spoke in a calm tone of voice, but I announced some changes: more exercise, earlier bedtime, better food choices and no TV.

Things got worse. Gus fell asleep in the car on the way to school. When we got there, he wouldn’t get out of the car. He threw his backpack around. He frowned constantly. There were meetings. There was soul searching in the middle of the night. One night Jim said, let’s let him watch TV. Oh right, I thought, that’ll work.

I had made my ultimatum and there was nowhere I could go. The thing is, nothing scares a parent more than “regression” or “losing ground” – especially the parent of the learning disabled child. This fear was preventing me from remembering that this life of ours has highs and lows.

Fear of punishment is poor motivation. Nobody ever climbed Mount Everest to keep their Mom from getting mad.

The Program is like a foothill that turns into a mountain, that turns into a rock face. You can stroll up a hill quick enough. But what do you do when your legs start to give out?

You rest. You try to forget the mountain up ahead. TV is good for that. It’s a little blue light in the middle of a tunnel.

Gus’ teachers worked with him to create goals – steps – that he could handle. If he made all his goals for the day, he could watch TV when he got home. If he made all his goals for the week, he could get crispy fried tofu at Lin’s on Friday night.

There was even some leftover for breakfast on Saturday.

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“Most of the trees are just trees, of course, but many are half awake. Some are quite wide awake.”

As long as it takes.

Someone asked me recently how long I would keep Gus in ski lessons. Before thinking, I replied: as long as it takes.This was a surprise because I had just told my friend — as we sat on the Easy Rider chair watching from above as Gus pouted his way through his lesson — that I was done. Finito. But when these words came out of my mouth, it felt right. Like I could let go of the whole thing. Like the whole thing was not up to me.

The thing about society, or community, or family is, we make schedules. That would be OK, except they soon become expectations. Once you get there, failure is swift and merciless. We make these schedules for ourselves. But we make them for our kids even more. Milestones at the pediatrician. Comments at family gatherings. Gossip at the playground. And then there’s school. aaahhhhhh!

downhill from here

downhill from here

I guess that schedules are brutal for children who do not have learning disabilities. Parents expect solid food, walking, tricycle, reading, two-wheeler, writing, sailing camp, arithmetic, Comp Lit, Mandarin and Vector Calculus pretty much in rapid succession. Before you know it, Cambridge Mass and Goldman Sachs and wedding for 400 at the Plaza is on their radar. Sorry  kid. You are screwed.

But if your child has dyslexia, it’s not like you can forget about the schedule. It’s out there, always ready to mess you up when your defenses are down. This usually occurs around 2 am.

One of the best things about coming to Vancouver and starting Gus in the Arrowsmith Program has been the experience of checking out of that schedule thing. I can forget, for the moment, what other 6th graders are reading and writing. I can forget what their mothers are thinking when they look at me. I can forget that high school and Algebra and sock hops and  SATs and college and the lousy job market and LIFE are breathing down my neck like Harry Potter’s Dementors, ready to suck all the happiness out of the room.

Or can I?

The whole schedule thing wafted in the other day when I realized it will take Gus four years instead of three to complete his work here. And even after that, the transition into a typical school environment will be tough. There are big gaps in his learning. His path has been non-traditional at best.

That’s the big fear about stepping off the grid, I realize. If you don’t know when you’re supposed to be where doing what — just who are you?

After I said that thing, after I put that out into the universe (yes, I am going whole hog new age on this thing here), I went up the mountain with Gus and his ski buddy Marc. Gus skied down the whole way by himself. He turned on both sides. He stopped when it was necessary. He did not pout. He was stoked. Watching him filled me with joy. I have one of those kids, I told myself. The kind that, years ago, before I had a baby, I always wanted. Skiing in the tracks of the grown up, but making their own way down.

It’s true, the kids I used to covet, in my childless years, were probably younger than 12.

It doesn’t matter a bit.

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“But we must go on; and it is no good our delaying the passage of the mountains.”

 Today I decided to go down to Wreck Beach. It’s not that I’ve been avoiding it, it’s just that once you know how far down – and how far up you have to go to see it, you forget how nice it is. This morning, I scampered down the steps, passing a woman on the way. At the beach, I lay like a cat on a log in the sun.

the view from step #200

the view from step #200

And then it was time to go back up. I don’t know how they work this but there are a lot more steps. I counted them. At 200, my legs began to hurt. There is a totally non-coincidental bench there that I did not sit on. I kept going. At the top, I was just about to give myself a fist bump when I saw the woman I had passed going down. She was headed down again. How many, I asked her. She said six. And it’s not that I hate her, it’s just that it might be a while before I head back to Wreck Beach. Doing those steps makes you feel alive (it hurts).

For a while now, I have been letting Gus coast. The program is so hard, I figure, that I will do my best to make the rest of his (and my) life easy. I will let him have the iPad as soon as he gets home. I will let him whine and moan about everything from dip serving size to lunchbox contents. I will let him sleep so late that we are late to school. I will repeat my requests (orders?) three times before expecting a response. I will put his shoes on.

But then I remembered something – the hard part. We resist it, we ignore it, we avoid it. It doesn’t care. It stays right where it is, and unless you put your shoulder into it, and push, you’re not going anywhere, dude.

After putting out zero effort at ski camp on Saturday,  after getting out of his chair 800 times at a party on Sunday, after thrashing around in the back seat as I navigated a busy southbound Granville Street, Gus finally lit the match.

I blew. He cried. And here’s the thing. I didn’t feel bad. For the first time in days, the air between us was clear. I remembered that great scene in Jerry Maguire when Cuba Gooding says to Tom Cruise: Jerry, you think we’re fighting, and I think we’re finally talking.”

At bedtime, after the Seahawks had won, I told Gus that I loved him, and he frowned at me.

How do you feel about me, I asked him.

Well, I used to think you were the best mom in history. Now I just think you’re the best mom in the world.

I can’t save Gus from the hard part. Not even if it means further demotion.

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“Listen Hound of Sauron! Gandalf is here. Fly if you value your foul skin! I will shrivel you from tail to snout if you come within this ring.”

Fog was all around us on our way to school this morning.

There was no conversation in the car, just music. Usually, we shuffle songs until we find something rock or rap, and Gus is quick to jettison anything else. He hears one note and calls out: “No violins!” or “Too slow” or “Can we have some Jay-Z?’

But today, we listened to Amy Winehouse sing Valerie all the way through. After it was over, Gus said, “that’s a sad song.” I played it again, and we listened to it again. By then we were at campus. I parked and we walked up to the school in silence. The Vice Principal greeted Gus at the door, but he just walked past her and on up the stairs. Without saying good-bye to me.

I miss your ginger hair  and the way you like to dress

I miss your ginger hair
and the way you like to dress

I missed my chance to do what I usually do before he walks up those stairs, which is to say I love you, have a good day, or do your best, give it your all, or some kind of cheerleading. With each step I felt sadder and sadder, until it dawned on me that I do all that for me, not for him.

And there it is, right on time – just when I think I’ve made it through January without a visit from my inner loser. It’s a full blown attack too, beating myself up on everything from client feedback on my latest ad copy to sky-high wireless bill charges. I am in it deep when I get in the empty lane to do my laps and promptly get passed by two UBC swim team nymphettes. I panic.  I don’t think I can handle, in my current frame of mind, the next time they blow past me. What to do? Move to a slower lane, with the other old ladies?

So I just start kicking my heart out. I figure I’ll  finish 100 and stop, instead of my usual 6. I will swim until they pass me again.

I finished my usual workout.

Afterwards, as I paddled over to the shallow, trying to decide if I should ask the lifeguard for the defibrillator, it hit me: cheerleading does not work on the inner loser. You have to beat that sucker down yourself. And I was glad I did not tell Gus something cheap and cheerful on his way up to work. Where he is going, I can’t follow. I can’t even push.

I thought of what another mom told me. Her son is back to work here even though his close friends moved back to Australia. Now’s the time to chop wood and carry water, she said to him.

Chop wood, carry water.

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