Friday, September 29, 2000

Whatever happened to fall?

I don’t know what the weather’s like where you’re at, but here in the northeastern U.S., it’s cold. Not as cold as it’s going to get, to be sure, but colder than it should be in late September. This is a continuation of a trend that’s been going on at least since summer. I can’t say I missed the usual endless days of 90 and 100 degree temperatures, but there was something odd about the not-so-hot hot season. And now, we seem to have lost fall.

I grew up in the Los Angeles area, where people pretend there are seasons but it’s mostly a formality. Some parts of the year are hotter than others, some are colder, some rain more. But you don’t have the extremes of 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity in the summer vs. 20 degrees with a foot of snow in the winter. And so you don’t get those delicate gradations in between--the gradual warming of spring, the growing awareness of a crispness in the air in fall. Fall has been one of my favorite parts of living in this part of the country. The month or so of hanging between weather types--too cold for a t-shirt, not yet cold enough for a jacket--where you could run around in a long-sleeved shirt and enjoy the clear light and the crunchy leaves and the lack of sweat. It’s a cool time of year.

Especially cool this year, unfortunately. Downright blustery some mornings. Usually I stash a few transitional outfits in everybody’s closet and they’re good for about a month of procrastinating in bringing out the winter clothes. Usually I can wait until late October to haul out the heavy sweaters. Usually we don’t need the down jackets on Halloween. But here in late September, I’m already rummaging through storage bags in the morning looking for something warmer to wear.

Isn’t there supposed to be some global warming going on? Can we get some of that over here? Because I’m freezing, and I’m not ready to be freezing yet. Scientists will tell me that the warmer winter will be a sign of that warming, but it won’t be warm enough, and it needs to be warmer now. Temperature perception is definitely a matter of what you’re used to--I’ve worn essentially the same winter clothes for frigid 50-degree winter days in L.A., -20 winter days in Kansas City, and +20 winter days in New Jersey--and what I’m used to now is a little more temperate fall.

Come to think of it, I guess we already had it. In June.

Wednesday, September 27, 2000

Back to school

Last night was my kids’ back to school night, finally, fact is, I have nothing to report.

This is in marked contrast to last year, where a group of unhappy parents attacked my son’s special-ed teacher and made her cry. They had a legitimate grievance (well partly; they were right to be upset that their sons were in the same class as the year before, but they were wrong to be upset that my small son was in there with them), but they hauled off an attacked the wrong person, a young and inexperienced teacher who had only found out she would be teaching the class a few days before it started. She certainly wasn’t responsible for class placements, and couldn’t really even be expected to have a complete plan for the class laid out. But the parents lit into her anyway, and we felt the repercussions from that evening for the rest of the year, as many students were transferred out and the remaining kids’ parents dictated a much more strict atmosphere than I would have liked for my guy.

I’d never seen anything like that before at a back-to-school night, and I didn’t see anything like it this year. We’re at a new school, and everything is just exceptionally...nice. The teachers are nice, the parents are nice, the staff is nice. Parents seem to be treated with somewhat less distrust than at our old school. My son’s teacher this year is experienced and in control, teaching a class she’s taught before, and the parents are happy the kids are there. My daughter’s teacher went to the school herself as a child, and nobody had any arguments about how she planned to run the class. I spoke to the gym teacher by the baked-goods table after the presentations, and she knew who both my kids were and said they were doing fine. She had a hard time getting my son to stand still, so she put a hula hoop on the floor around him and told him to stand in the hoop. And he does.

That’s the kind of thing parents of special needs kids have every right to expect, but seldom get. Last year, I had the feeling that my son was a problem to be gotten rid of. Here, he seems to be a challenge to solve. No one seems too shaken up by him, and that’s great. The child-study team has been working with me to come up with the right plan for my daughter, who’s in a mainstream class and is supposed to have an instructional aide. Since she’s the only classified kid in the class, this would have made it an individual aide, and I don’t want that for her--she doesn’t need that. So the teacher and case worker came up with the idea of having the Basic Skills teacher, who will be coming in to help other general-ed kids, help my daughter too. It’s a nice, non-typical solution, and the case worker set it all up herself. Last year, whenever I needed anything, I was told to call the special-ed director myself. So this is all a welcome change.

Everything’s going smoothly. It’s going too smoothly. There’s bound to be a collision sooner or later. But until then, I’m going to enjoy the ride.

Monday, September 25, 2000

Smoke-free schools

Joe Camel is no longer Joe Cool. According to a recent survey of more than 15,000 students conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), high-school smoking has finally begun to decline. On the rise for most of the 90s, the percentage of teens who light up has gone from 36.4 in 1997 to 34.8 in 1999. That’s a whopping one and six-tenths of a child out of 100 now refusing to follow in the Marlborough Man’s footsteps. We are to feel enthused about this.

Well, it is the first time the total number of smokers has gone down instead of up, anyway. But there's some variation in those statistics. The number fell in overall totals. It fell at a greater rate for black students (22.7 percent to 19.7) than for white students (39.7 percent to 38.6 percent). It fell the most for freshmen, who were 17 percent less likely to be smoking in the boy’s room. But seniors in high school are actually smoking more--a rise of 39.6 percent to 42.8 percent. And the kids who are smoking are smoking more; the number who smoke 20 out of 30 days has risen by a third in the past decade.

So does this overall decline mean anything? And if so, what? The government, whose goal is to halve the number of high-school smokers by 2010 (why not wipe smoking out altogether? If you’re going to have a goal, why not have a big goal?) would like to think that any decline is due to all the education programs it’s been running. All that money spent must be making some difference, right? But analysts also credit the rise in the cost of cigarettes, and that seems more on the mark to me. All those incoming, allowance-dependent frosh can’t afford the habit, but by the time they’re seniors, with lucrative after-school jobs in the food-service industry, they have money to burn, so to speak.

The answer then, clearly, is to keep raising cigarette prices until they are out of reach of the average fast-food slinger. Then you’ll see teen smoking plummet (and convenience-store thefts rise, no doubt). Alternatively, adjust the educational programs to include endless replays of the recent tobacco settlement commercials being paid for by the tobacco companies. You know, the ones where they outline what good, law-abiding citizens they are and how they aren’t going to do bad things anymore. How they’re dropping funky ads and paying for boring education. Can you imagine anything more uncool? Would any self-respecting teen want to ally themselves with those bozos? Your average juice commercial is more hip.

Can you see it now--a generation of teens hooked on Gatorade? Tell the CDC to get ready.

Friday, September 22, 2000

A word in Spanish

I knew things were going too well this year. My special-ed daughter is in a mainstream class, without an aide, doing well with only a round-the-clock study effort at home that is exhausting her poor mama. She remembered enough to get a B on a reading test, an A on a spelling test, a 100% on a social studies test. She’s happy, the kids appear to be friendly toward her, the teacher has been sending notes home to tell us what to study, and not complaining that my girl is a drain on her resources.

Math, English, Science--she’s getting along quite well, all things considered. But then there’s Spanish.

The foreign-language program in our city is still in its early stages, gradually complying with the state’s mandate to teach languages to kids when their brains are young and sponge-like, not later when their heads are full of rap lyrics and plans to shoot the student body. Only a few schools are currently giving the language lessons. Our old school didn’t. Our new school does. My daughter, who only started speaking English at age 5, is now being presented with Spanish words which mean nothing to her. (Better than English words that mean nothing to her, of which there are plenty, but still.) The other third graders have been learning this stuff for a year or more. She hasn’t. She’s clueless. And when she’s clueless, she cries.

I heard about this not from the teacher, and not from her, but from our new child-study-team case-worker, who called all concerned to find out if we wanted an aide for our daughter because she cried. (To what, tote tissues?) I’ve been explaining to all these people since the beginning of the year that if you give her work she is unfamiliar with, and she doesn’t know what to do, she will cry. If you give me the work ahead of time so I can show it to her at home and she is not surprised in the classroom, she will not cry. It’s so simple. It’s much simpler than putting an aide in the classroom. The teacher has sent me a few notes and a full set of textbooks, but not the sort of detailed advance warning I’d hoped for. And apparently the Spanish teacher hasn’t been clued in at all. Would it be so hard to send home the Spanish worksheets so that the language-disabled girl who has never had Spanish before will not be broadsided by them?

I’ve been requesting meetings since the beginning of the year, too, and everybody’s been too busy. Now that there are tears on the table, though, we suddenly need to talk. And I’ll have to make a decision. Do we want her to have an aide? (No. She is enjoying being like everybody else.) Do we want to demand that, as a classified child, she be released from the Spanish requirement and sent to do something else during that time? (Maybe. She still has such grave deficits in English, I hate to give over any brain cells to another language. She’s pulled out for speech twice a week, and maybe the speech therapist could switch her sessions to coincide. Or maybe I could request the resource room teacher work with her during those segments.) Or do we really want her to be like everybody else, and stumble through her language lessons? (When she cried, one boy admitted that Spanish made him nervous last year, too.)

I’m inclined toward the latter, though I think my daughter would just as soon give the whole thing a skip. But it’s not going to go away. As long as she’s at this school, there will be Spanish, and pulling her out now will mean that we have to pull her out always. So perhaps it’s time to get a Sesame Street Spanish tape, and find a teach-your-child Spanish workbook, and get cracking. There is some hope: After going on and on about how she doesn’t know Spanish, my daughter did manage to sing a little song she’d learned in class. It took a little time and some salvaging of my rudimentary junior-high-school Spanish to figure out what the heck she was saying, but we finally got it: “Buenos dias! Good morning! Como estas? How are you? Buenos, gracias. Very well I thank you. Y tu? And you?” Or something like that. As I said, my Spanish is rudimentary. But she is learning, emotional outbursts or no.

So I’ll go into battle to get some Spanish early warning, and I’ll hope that keeps her from panicking. I’ve told her a million times that it’s really much better to say “I don’t understand. I need help.” than to burst into tears. But desperate times call for desperate measures. This time around, I’m just going to teach her to say “No habla EspaƱol.”

Wednesday, September 20, 2000

Risky business

Have the folks who do the parent advisories for TV shows been watching the Olympics? Because I think they need to put a warning label on this stuff. Maybe: “The following program contains scenes of people doing things with their bodies that, if you tried to do them, would result in significant emergency-room and/or chiropractic bills. Kids, don’t try this at home.”

The disturbing thing is, most of these Olympic atheletes, the pinnacle of their sports, are doing things I’ve been trying for six years to stop my son from doing. Things like slamming his head against hard objects. In the early days home from the Russian orphanage, he used to whallop his head against the wall, slam it into the floor, bop it back on my nose if he was sitting on my lap. There was a hole in the plaster next to his crib from where he periodically hit. Since he felt no pain, we had to persuade him that really, there were more interesting things to do than inducing concussions. But now, let him get one look at those soccer players stopping flying missiles with a head butt, or those female gymnasts hitting the balance beam with a crack in mid-maneuver, or the male gymnasts practically bouncing on their heads against those unforgiving mats, and he’ll know that head-hitting is not a bad habit, it’s a sport!

Or let’s look at inappropriate vocalizations. Now, my guy has a habit of yelling out annoying words or phrases over and over. So does the man who’s calling the soccer games. I dread the moment when my son hears the word “Gooooooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaallllllllllllllll.” Because I will then be hearing the word “Gooooooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaallllllllllllllll” 20 times a day for a month. Do we need this? Then there’s the incessant chatter of the commentators, trying desperately to make things up to make the pre-taped events seem interesting and suspenseful, and they clearly don’t know when to shut up, so why should my kids? It’s supposed to be bad when people talk on and on and on with nothing really to say. Isn’t it?

Crazy risk-taking is a hallmark of many neurological troubles, and I've long had an eye on my boy to make sure he doesn't, say, run out into the street or use a banister as a balance beam. But watching some of these atheletes, it looks like crazy risk-taking and a disregard for consequences are necessary qualities for sports superiority. Could they all have FAS/E? There was a time, I suppose, when you’d watch the Olympics and hope that your child could someday be like one of those glorious atheletes, but these days... I look at what these atheletes are attempting, and I don’t want my kids to even think of doing that.

I suppose you have to keep striving to go farther, higher, stronger, but especially in fields like gymnastics (and ice skating in the winter) that are largely subjective, I think it’s possible to push the human body too far. The things they’re doing are just impossibly hard and complex and punishing, and you can see by the injuries and the screw-ups that perhaps human bodies were not meant to do this. Call me a philistine, more interested in good TV than the glory of sport, but I liked it better when the routines were easier and the performances were better. And you could let the kids watch.

Monday, September 18, 2000

Popping pills

Talk about mothers with attitude. Two New Jersey moms are suing the makers of Ritalin, the anti-ADHD wonder drug, claiming that the company conspired with the American Psychiatric Association to make the definition of attention deficit disorders impossibly broad and then conspired with the parent advocacy group CHADD to promote the heck out of them. And why did they cause a large percentage of American boys to be classified as clinically challenged? To bring peace and order to our classrooms? To allow families to gain control of unruly members? No, the suit alleges a much more prosaic reason: To create a wider market for its medication.

Nice work, that. Not peddling enough pills? Convince a large portion of the populace that they’ve gotta have ‘em, even if there’s no real compelling proof that they do. Better still, convince them that the pills will make their children behave. Can’t resist that. Throughout the land, parents and educators devote countless hours to persuading young people to Just Say No to drugs. But when it comes to this particular drug, the message is: Just Try It. No harm. No side effects. No wait for results. You can go off it any time you want. Why not just try it. A schoolyard drug dealer couldn’t make any more seductive pitch.

It’s hard not to look at the definition of ADHD in the "Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”--the book that psychiatrists use to diagnose the disorder, and the book in which the drugmakers are accused of planting it--and wonder if they’re not just pathologizing childhood. Amongst the behaviors that can get a youngster a diagnosis and a perscription are fidgeting, squirming, difficulty waiting turn, losing things, interrupting, and ignoring adults. All sound like fairly typical, if not mandatory, childhood behaviors. (Many are fairly typical adult behaviors, too.) When did traits that annoy parents and teachers go from matters of discipline to matters of medication?

And yet I’ve heard plenty of testimonials to the drug on parenting e-mail lists, from parents who’ve agonized over the decision, delayed it as long as possible, then wished they’d done it sooner. They feel that it has given them back their child and their family. I respect their opinions, and know that no amount of legal maneouvering will ever convince them that their children’s affliction is not real. At the same time, I have a very active small boy whose fidgeting, squirming, interrupting, and ignoring are causing me no undue distress. We’re coping fine, he’s learning fine, behavior modifications are working fine--and I’ve been having to beat off drug-offering doctors with a stick. Five minutes of observation is usually enough to convince them that he needs Ritalin, quick. And if I want to wait, I’m holding him back.

Proponents of ADD/ADHD will tell you that it’s a medical malady, a chemical imbalance in the brain, and medications like Ritalin simply right that imbalance. Yet no doctor has ever said, "I can see with my chemical x-ray vision that your son's level of serotonin is insufficient to cause the appropriate firing of neurons in his cerebral cortex. Please allow me to give him some medication that will boost his serotonin levels." No, it's more like "Geez, does that kid ever sit still? Give him a pill already." The diagnosis seems to be purely observational, and often the opinion of a few peeved adults is enough to get a kid on drugs. That sort of lack of objectivity is bound to lead to trouble. And in this day and age, trouble naturally leads to lawsuits.

Friday, September 15, 2000

Drill sergeant

Yesterday, we received a big bag of textbooks from my daughter’s teacher. I’d asked to be informed about upcoming assignments so I could pre-review them with my girl, who needs all the review she can get. And the teacher, accommodatingly, possibly with images in her head of her student lugging home the entire contents of her desk every day, gave us a spare set. So now we can study anytime, anywhere. Oh, boy.

Homework hasn’t taken long to take over our lives this year. Gone are the days when my daughter could flake out in front of endless hours of Nickelodeon or set her watch by “Supermarket Sweep.” About her only down time is dinnertime. Between the actual assigned homework, and my attempt to keep everything else fresh in her mind, she’s working from school’s out to lights out. Fortunately, she enjoys working. Me, on the other hand...

The homework I pretty much make her do on her own--hey, I graduated 3rd grade, I don’t need to do it again. But this elaborate plan of enrichment I’ve devised, the constant review, the repetition of math facts and vocabulary words, the reading of textbook passages again and again until the words stick in her slippery brain--those all require an adult drill sergeant to enforce and enable the practice, practice, practice. And that drill sergeant would be me.

The good news is that she can memorize things. The bad news is, it’s not quick. We’ve been going over the same set of reading vocabulary words since Monday. She sits down with the book, she studies, I quiz. She consistently gets half right. It is not always the same half. She will often dutifully repeat a definition word for word, but for the wrong word. That thumping noise you hear is me banging my head against the wall. Last night, she seemed to have them all. This morning...well, it’s anybody’s guess. But we’ll drill them again, right up to the point when she hops out of the car at the schoolyard. Then the test will tell the tale.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to drill reading comprehension, and the test may tell that tale, too. In the future we’ll read the story every night, starting on the weekend. These are long stories. Goodbye, “Rugrats.” Then there are the math flashcards that are mandated by her Sylvan Learning Center handlers. Just six minutes! they say. Anybody can find just six minutes to do flashcards! We do them after dinner, post vegetables, pre ice cream. And it does help. But those six minute increments represent another thing to fit in amongst all the other increments of time for all the other essential facts. It’s exhausting--and I’m not even the one who has to learn this stuff.

All in all, it makes me feel like I’m running a learning boot camp. But there are compensations. Just now, she came in and ran through her words, and she knew every one. I couldn’t be more proud. Of course, then I had to push it and drill her on the continents, and she named Asia, Europe, Africa, Antarctica, and New Jersey. Back to work, private.

Wednesday, September 13, 2000

I'm in sales

Wanna buy some wrapping paper?

How ‘bout some candles? Pistachios? Thin mints? Thirty feet of curly ribbon?

Yes, it’s school fund-raising time again. And though we’ve switched schools, the goods are the same. Gotta get that gift wrap. When did that start being the gold standard of school fund-raising? Did I sell gift wrap as a kid? I can’t remember. I remember selling Girl Scout cookies, and I most certainly remember selling tickets to concerts by my high-school choir, and I dimly recall something involving giant notebooks full of Christmas cards--but if in elementary school I toted home a big fat pouch full of brochures to use in selling my friends and neighbors tissue paper and gift bags, I’ve forgotten.

Of course, in those days, I would have been selling it door to door. That’s a no-no now. Maybe not everywhere, but in New Jersey, where memories of an 11-year-old boy who was killed while peddling candy door-to-door are still fresh, it’s gone from being no longer encouraged to specifically discouraged. DO NOT GO DOOR TO DOOR reads the instruction sheet, and we all know that means one thing: Make your mom sell this stuff. Kids can’t sell to strangers, but mom can tote the brochures to work and sell them to co-workers . . . who are trying to sell exactly the same merchandise for their kids.

Personally, I think the schools are missing the boat. Sure, we all need gift wrap, but if they sold school supplies, right now at the beginning of the year, they’d make enough to keep themselves in cupcakes straight through to June. Get a bunch of folders and notebooks and pens and pencils and rulers and glue sticks and scissors and pencil boxes and whatever all else the teachers are asking for in their start-of-year lists, print ‘em up with the school name, pile them on a table in the gym, and charge parents for the privelege of not having to run around town to five different stores to find book covers. I’m telling you, I’d pay top dollar.

But then, come Christmas, I wouldn’t have any wrapping paper, and that would be sad. You always need wrapping paper. You always need wrapping paper. I bet you need some right now? Wanna buy some?

Monday, September 11, 2000

Leave her alone

Every day, on the e-mail lists I belong to for parents of kids with challenges of one sort or another, I read about struggles to get children more services. Battles with child-study teams, hotly contested IEPs, near fistfights with teachers or principals, tireless efforts to make sure what’s promised is what’s delivered.

Which makes me kind of embarrassed to be fighting to get my daughter fewer services.

Well, it’s not really fighting, yet. It’s sort of specifically not fighting. Our old child study team appears to have bungled my kids’ transition to their new school by not delivering their IEPs on a timely basis, so nobody knows what support my daughter is supposed to be getting in her mainstream class. Nobody knows how strongly the old child study team felt about her having an instructional aide to hold her hand. Nobody knows how they thought she would be destroyed to be left in a cold cruel class all by her little sweet self. And I’m not going to be the one to tell them.

Probably I should be screaming bloody murder because she’s not getting something that’s spelled out in her IEP. But frankly, I’m delighted. I’ve always wanted her to go it alone. She’s never been given the chance. So I’m taking this small document-less gap to let everyone know that we’d rather work with her furiuosly at home to help her keep up than have her shadowed by an ever-helpful grownup in the classroom. She’s been so proud these first few days to have done well without an aide. Why not let her keep doing so, even if it means we have to paddle like crazy below the surface?

So far, the teacher thinks she’s doing fine, the child study team is clueless, and the one resource-room person who did call me seemed amenable to doing less. Goodness knows, the school does less when it suits their purposes; why can’t they do it when it suits a parent’s? This week, the dreaded document should finally arrive, and then we’ll see whether the new child study team listens to me or sticks with the opinions of their colleagues. If so, I’ll have to fight for our right to get nothing.

Friday, September 08, 2000

Oh, behave

My kids started a new school on Wednesday, and already it’s turning out to be a no-nonsense place. Day one, a sheet came home in backpacks with a Classroom Discipline Plan. Each of the kids’ teachers had filled it out with her own personal classroom rules and the consequence for breaches thereof. We were to read the rules over with the kids, then sign to indicate we all understood.

For my daughter’s mainstream third-grade class, the rules are:

1. Follow directions the first time they are given.
2. Keep hands, feet and objects to yourself.
3. Walk quietly in the building.
4. Return homework, test envelope and notices.
5. Only one person in the class or in a working group may talk at a time.

I think there are plenty of adults who could benefit from that last rule. Consequences in the classroom “if a student chooses to break a rule” are:

1st time: Name recorded in book = warning.
2nd time: Name x = student completes a problem-solving worksheet.
3rd time: Name xx = note to parents.
4th time: Name xxx = after-school detention.
5th time: Name xxxx = student sent to another class for 30 minutes.

Now, these all seem reasonable, but that last one--is it a punishment for the kid, or for the other teacher. “Hey, I can’t to anything with this child, he’s already got detention, YOU deal with him for half an hour.” Seems odd for an ultimate consequence, unless the other teacher is Cruella DeVil. But no matter; my girl is good, and she’ll never make an appearance in that book.

My son, on the other hand... Well, he’s in a self-contained special-ed class, and his expectations are appropriately somewhat lower. Here are the rules for his group:

1. Stay in your seat.
2. Your eyes are watching the teacher.
3. Your ears are listening to the teacher.
4. Take turns and share.
5. Keep your hands to yourself.

And now, the consequences, though with my impulsive guy, it’s hard to say he’s always choosing to break a rule:

1st time: Verbal correction.
2nd time: Teacher-student talk.
3rd time: Thinking chair.
4th time: Loss of free time.
5th time: Note to parent.

Now, my first reaction was: Wow, he can screw up five times before I have to hear about it! But then--now, is that five times for each thing? Because he’s guaranteed to break each of those rules at least once a day. If it’s cumulative for each one, then maybe... But does it accumulate all day? If he does it four times in the first hour, and then is good all day, then does it one time before he leaves, is that really so bad? And if he’s not able to stay in his seat, will he be able to stay in the thinking chair? And if he’s not listening to the teacher, will he listen for a teacher-student talk? And... And...

Well, it’s good to have a plan, anyway. Good to have rules spelled out. Good to let the parental units know up front. Good to have positive consequences for good behavior planned out, too. For my son’s class, there’s verbal praise, stickers, and notes home (love those notes). For my daughter’s, it’s special activities, extra computer time, and stickers. Wonder what sort of rewards they offer for parents who reinforce the rules and don’t whiningly defend their out-of-control children? Hey, we need incentives, too.

Wednesday, September 06, 2000

Keep it clean

My house is a mess. This is nothing new. I've been housekeeeping-challenged for years. You figure there's a job around the house that's hard, disgusting, and endless, and I'd be right on it, but you'd be wrong. I hate cleaning. I'm bad at it. And so, I ignore it.

I guess I'm lucky my husband isn't a neat freak, though if he was, my whining for a cleaning lady might have been more successful. But he doesn't notice dirt much, and if he does, it doesn't seem to bother him. The food caked on the stove, the mildew darkening the shower, the dust caking every surface--well, we don't need help with that, we'll do it eventually. Never mind that if eventually takes too long it's virtually impossible to get this stuff clean. Worse comes to worse, we'll move.

What bothers him more is clutter, and that's something I've long ago learned to live with. It doesn't help, to be sure, that our son is developing into a packrat, too. It used to be just little cars that he kept scattered around, but now he's into a heavy cycle of recycling play, in which he goes around the house filling bags with junk and then moving those bags back and forth between his play schoolbus and his room and the middle of the living room floor. None of the recycling actually leaves the house, because this is pretend play, which is every so healthy but not a real boon to home decor.

The papers that he doesn't get around to stuffing in his bags gather on the dining room table, their own personal dumping ground. It's gotten to the point where we give parties every now and then just so we're forced to clear the table off, because otherwise the stuff would have hit the ceiling by now. Summertime's not too bad, because it's just junk mail and old newspapers and church bulletins and lost bills piling up. But with school starting now, we'll have the daily backpacks-full of school papers, and those get out of control fast. My husband would just scoop them right from the packs into the trash. I can't do that--my babies worked hard on this stuff. I prefer to wait and weed things out bit by reluctant bit, until by the end of the year I have it down to a crate or two for storage.

At least with the clutter, when you do pick it up, it's picked up, and the place looks better. Often you've only moved it someplace else, but the decluttered spot is much improved. If only actual cleaning were that satisfying. Most of the time, whatever magical new cleaning fluid I try, I can't really make much headway with dirt. Maybe I'm low on muscle. Maybe I give up too quickly. But rather than feel a glow of satisfaction after a hard session of scrubbing, I mostly feel the shame of incompetence. I can't do this. I'd rather take on extra work in a field I'm good at to pay someone who likes to clean to come and clean for me. Isn't that how the world should work? But somehow, we're all expected to be able to keep it neat.

There is one area in which I do shine, and that's cleaning the inside of sinks. A little Comet, a little scrubbing, and man, those things sparkle. Now, the faucet may always have mysterious uncleanable parts, and the metal trim around the outside of the sink always has some unscrubbable yellow gunk around it that might be dirt or might be the cement that's holding it on--but the inside of the sink, the inside is a slam dunk. Scrub that sink to brilliance, spray a little Murphy's Wood Soap in the air, and you might almost have the illusion that my kitchen is long as you don't notice the coffee grounds on the counter, the spaghetti-sauce stains on the cabinets, the sticky spots on the table. Hey, maybe I should move some of the clutter in here off the dining room table to cover this stuff up. Isn't that what all those school drawings are for?

Friday, September 01, 2000

Nagging or nuturing?

Next time your husband tells you your nagging is going to kill him, give him the news: A new study indicates that in fact nagging saves lives. Men whose wives work too many hours to nag them effectively have more health problems than those whose wives devote themselves to giving their husbands hell. We nag because we love. Isn't that what we've been saying all along?

And now we have scientific proof. Or, at least, a survey. It's the Americans Changing Lives survey of 2,867 couples that has researchers thinking about the therapeutic effects of nagging. When wives worked more than 40 hours a week, the survey said, their husband's odds of being healthy plunged 25 percent. Now, my immediate hypothesis would be that this meant the husbands were spending more time with the kids, and this was wearing them down, but the researchers don't think like me. Their supposition is that men, rather like kids, can't be trusted to eat right or take their medicine or go to the doctor. They need to be nagged.

As Ross Stolzenberg, the study's lead researcher and a sociology professor at the University of Chicago, explains: "What we saw in the study was a fully institutionalized set of gender attitudes and expectations that we learn from the time we're children. Men are taught that it is not masculine to worry about health issues while women take on a nurturing role." So all those times you've felt like your husband was an extra child who had to be coddled and monitored and mothered, you were right. Gotta nurture those guys. Gotta watch 'em every minute. Gotta make sure they don't eat too much or drink too much or exercise not enough. Can't expect a man to take care of himself.

There's a subtext here that I don't like: Women who work too much aren't taking care of their family right. It's okay to work 40 hours, missy, but then you better get yourself home and take care of that man of yours. If he gets sick, it's your fault. The survey showed that men working overtime made no difference in women's health at all, because of course all that nurturin' and lookin' after and takin' care of is women's work. Time to change those particular gender assumptions, I'd say. But I'll put all that aside for now, because an excuse to nag is an excuse to nag. And when my husband complains, I can show him I'm doing it for my own good.