Monday, January 22, 2001

Short story: Space aliens ate my car

Every so often, it is the privilege of a publication, even so meagre an online one as this, to introduce the work of a promising new talent. And so it is with great pride that Mothers with Attitude presents the first work of fiction produced by ... well, by my son, age 7.

To be more accurate, he is creating works of fiction constantly, sometimes to amuse himself, sometimes to get out of trouble. This is the first to be recorded in print and, significantly, the first not to be merely a creative recycling of the normal, everyday activities of his family and friends. It is entitled, simply, "Outer Space People."

An alien from outer space took our engine and he never brought it back. He ate it for lunch yesterday. It's in his tummy. He will never show anybody the engine. I looked under the hood and there's no engine.

The alien is big. He's red and the alien has a big car on his head. He has a big long tail that can go around the world. My grandma saw it and she said "Whoa!"

I told my mom when I was playing with my big red car. And I told my dad too after he came home from work. And my sister saw the engine was missing and she cried. And I'm sad too. And that's it.

Agents, publishers, please send your queries directly to this Web site.

The story has already had its first public reading, in my son's special-ed class, and I am told the audience enjoyed it very much. It's all quite heartening because it's been apparent to me for some time that although my boy will never be able to be in the world in an ordinary way, he may be able to find an extraordinary one. Unless we start medicating him with horse tranquilizers, he's never going to be a desk-job kind of guy, but I feel (and his teacher agrees, God bless her) that he might be just fine in a creative field, one where energy and lack of discipline and following your impulses are not necessarily detriments. He could be an artist, an author, an actor, a comedian, a composer, a computer visionary. Anything where somebody serious handles your day-to-day details and you just get to be your own special spontaneous self.

Friday, January 19, 2001

Politically inexcusable

I never watch the ABC late-night talkfest "Politically Incorrect" because...well, frankly, because I can rarely stay awake much past the kids' bedtime. And also because I can hear plenty of political incorrectness in my very own home, workplace and place of worship--I don't need to tune in for more.

But word of a recent episode has been buzzing around special-needs circles, and so I made a point of hopping over to ABC's Web site and checking out the transcripts. To save you a trip, I'll go ahead and quote them here--just in case you, like me, enjoy a good dose of righteous indignation of a morning to get your motor running.

The episode aired on Thursday, January 11. Appearing with host Bill Maher were guests Cynthia Garrett, former host of NBC's "In Concert" and the late-night talk show "Later"; Jay Nordlinger, managing editor of "The National Review,"; Sarah Ferguson, sometime royal and Weight Watcher's spokesperson; and Martin Short, who just really needs some TV exposure right about now. The part of the chat we're concerned with this morning went something like this:

Bill: But I've often said that if I had --
I have two dogs --
if I had two retarded children, I'd be a hero.
And yet the dogs, which are pretty much the same thing --

[ Laughter ]

What? They're sweet.
They're loving.
They're kind, but they don't mentally advance at all.

Cynthia: I'm going to throw my shoe at you for that one -- oh!

Bill: What? Dogs are like retarded children.

Jay: The show is living up to its name.

[ Scattered boos]

Sarah: Boo.

Cynthia: My 9-year-old nephew is retarded.
I've never thought of him like a little dog.

Bill: Well, maybe you should.

[ Scattered boos ]

Sarah: But I don't think you ought to use the word retarded.
I don't think that's right.

Bill: Don't use the word "retarded"? Well, what word should we use?

Sarah: Just a regular person.

Bill: But they're not a regular person.

Sarah: Well, they are regular people.
They have a heart and a soul.

Cynthia: Limitations.

Bill: They have a heart and a soul and a brain that's retarded.
That's a fact, people! Excuse me!

Sarah: No, because you can't say that.
Do you know their brain is retarded --
this word retarded? They could just be lacking in the ability.

Bill: That's what we call retarded.

[ Laughter ]

I mean, people, are you all retarded? I mean --

[ Laughter ]

That's a fact.

Martin: I'm not gonna comment.
You're a hideous, cold person.

Bill: I'm a truthful person.

Now before you start flexing your angry e-mail fingers, you should know that, contrary to everything his show stands for, Maher has already apologized for his insensitivity. It is not known how many ABC-owned guns were pointed at his head, but he has even told the New York Times that he feels terrible about what he said. Sure you do, Bill.

Still, though it's possible to doubt the sincerity of the apology, it is nice to know that there is still a line, somewhere, over which it is possible to step. And that the demeaning of disabled persons is still on the unacceptable side of that line. So many people are taking so much pride these days in being so insensitive, one can never be too sure about these things. Perhaps it's good, every now and then, for someone to go too far, just to be sure there's a too far to go.

Thursday, January 18, 2001

Does paying a fee buy you a baby?

No sooner has Ally McBeal and her baby faded from the front page than another adoption story takes its place, this one considerably less warm and fuzzy. Those of us who have jumped through the adoption hoops may wonder how celebs like Calista Flockhart get babies so easily, and gossip about how much money must have changed hands, but that's never part of the media's take. But this latest tale has even nice-guy Matt Lauer from the Today show talking about baby-selling.

It's certainly a tale that brings "buyer, beware" to mind. An Internet adoption broker matched a pair of twins with a California couple, for a $6,000 fee. Then--because the birthmother changed her mind? because they hadn't made enough money? because they could?--the broker placed the children with a couple from Wales. Since California gives birthparents 90 days to change their mind, the birthmother was able to take the kids from couple one on the pretext of a closure visit, deliver them unto couple two, and presumably pocket some of the $12,000 that changed hands.

Not wanting to wait 90 days--they'd sure seen the pitfalls of that--the Welsh couple hightailed it to Arkansas, which waives any wait, and obtained a legal adoption. They then headed home, way off in Great Britain, leaving the California couple crying foul and threatening lawsuits.

This is the sort of thing that makes adoption look bad, to be sure. But as we tsk about paying brokers, anybody who's gone through an international adoption will have to admit that they paid money they would not want Matt Lauer to look too closely at. We think of it in terms of paying for the service of being matched with a child, not paying for a child, and that's no doubt the trappings of this new situation, too. Unless you're adopting a child from foster care--and good luck doing that--money is going to change hands somewhere. Whether you pay a birthmother's pregnancy and birth expenses or make large donations to foreign orphanages, the process costs money, and has no guarantees. If you were indeed paying money in exchange for a child, you'd at least have some recourse. But since we don't do that, adoptive parents are pretty much acting on good faith and prayers.

So it's hard to feel too sorry for the California parents, who may have been moving toward adoption but presumably knew that the birthmother had a right to restake her claim. They may be unhappy that she did so, and unhappy that she misrepresented why she was taking the children, and unhappy that she turned around and gave them to somebody else, but it's hard to believe they have any legal resource. It's not like someone stole their TV set. They did not yet have a legal right to those babies, and the person who did exercised hers.

And at the same time, it's hard to feel too good about the Welsh couple, who knew about the Californians, fled from any chance of contact with them, arranged what can only be thought of as an inappropriately expeditious adoption, and left the country. The mother has been quoted as saying "It may not be moral, but it's legal," and she's right--it's not moral. What kind of start is that for a forever family? If you can get away with it, it's okay?

And it's certainly uncomfortable to make a justification for the birthmother and agency, although they are probably the ones most within their rights here. The birthmother, under the laws involved, had the right to choose her babies' birthparents. And if the broker was indeed paid not for the specific child but for matching the parents and birthparents, then she certainly had a right to collect again if the first match went bad. It's a service, don't you know. If you pay a matchmaker and you have a bad date, you don't get your bucks back.

All of which is why so many people find international adoption to be so appealing. No birthparents to return, no laws sympathetic to them, and a world between you and your baby's past. There may be bumps along the way, but chances are, if you get those children home, you're going to keep them. Hey, it works for the Welsh.

Wednesday, January 17, 2001

Coaster caution

Good news for us chickens! There is now a serious, studious, medically-sound reason for not riding roller coasters: They make blood clots on your brain.

That's right, we no longer have to admit to being scared or worried about wetting our pants or losing our lunches. Neurologists in Japan have found that riding those super-monster-mega roller coasters that every amusement park is erecting, each one more towering than the last, can actually rupture tiny blood vessels in your head, causing subdural hematomas. Who knows exactly what subdural hematomas are, but they sound nasty, and you need to have surgery to remove them. Victims have suffered from terrible headaches before being declotted. One 73-year-old man died. And what was he doing on a roller coaster, anyway? His grandkids have a lot to answer for.

Kids, of course, think they're bulletproof; they'll never say, "Wow, that roller coaster looks awesome, but I might get a subdural hematoma. Better go on the merry-go-round instead." They'll gladly risk blood clots for a few minutes of sheer terror. And that's why they have parents. To ruin their fun, dampen their sense of adventure, and guard their tiny blood vessels. It's a thankless job, rife with wrestling and whining, but one I'm up for.

Especially if it means I don't have to ever ride a super-monster-mega coaster ever again.

Tuesday, January 16, 2001

Watching the watchers

We're not one of those families that outlaws television. Are you NUTS? Parents who do not sometimes need to tie small children in front of the TV to get a few moments blessed peace are made of stronger stock than I. We try not to let it interfere with homework time and meal time, but sometimes TV-watching is our family time. And I won't apologize for that. Though I will be defensive about it.

My kids' taste in programs often skews too young; they'll both be happy, at ages 7 and 10, to watch the little-kid cartoons on Nick Jr. My 10-year-old daughter watches Zoom, which is somewhat age appropriate, but also watches DragonTales, which is somewhat not. Happily, though, she seems to have lost her interest in Barney.

My son does enjoy the evening Nicktoons, and my daughter does watch the horrible Nickelodeon variety and comedy shows as well as the way-earnest Disney channel dramas. But each of them is starting to make non-kid-oriented choices in their viewing, and I wonder if it says something about their future tastes and directions in life.

My son, for example, will sit rapt in front of the Food Network. For him to sit rapt in front of anything is a small miracle, since he is a boy who needs to move. But to watch him watch, say, Martha Stewart make pancakes with such unwavering attention makes me wonder if we have a budding chef on our hands. He does like helping his Papa in the kitchen. He does have the play stove that originally belonged to his sister in his room now. I've always felt he would have to find some creative way to be in the world because the normal ways would not contain him; I suppose cooking is creative. I can see it now, 20 or so years down the road: "The Hyper Chef!"

My daughter's TV tastes, on the other hand, are more spiritual. Her channel of choice: the PAX network. Hardly a night goes by when she doesn't finish her dinner quick so she can go watch "It's a Miracle" with Richard Thomas. It's a show with all the cheesy hallmarks of reality TV--cheesy reenactments, fervent descriptions by the real-life participants. But in this case, the stories aren't about crimes and mysteries but about miracles, ordinary and extra-. The woman who found her long-lost friend in a diner after car trouble stranded her there. The man who saved people from a car crash at the very spot where he earlier crashed. The people who by sheer coincidence were in the right spot to save a drowning boy. The adoptive mother who fell in love with an ailing baby while somehow not noticing the daunting array of machinery surrounding him. The planeload of passengers who should never have survived an airline disaster.

Pretty predictable stuff, all of it. Not profound, really, and yet it does bring a tear to your eye. Even as I realize that just about any story that involved any degree of coincidence could become a miracle just by editing and Thomas's gentle urging, I do believe there is a higher force guiding us. And while it's hard to believe that He has enough time to guide not only the humans on "It's a Miracle" but the animals on "Miracle Pets," it's nice to think so. I mean, how else could that blind dog have saved that rip-tide-caught teen swimmer?

My daughter loves this stuff, though how much she really understands is debatable. She's something of a miracle herself, my girl. They thought she was going to die! She languished in an orphanage for nearly five years! A New Jersey couple who never wanted to adopt overseas was mysteriously led to look at her referral! Authorities in Russia delayed, but this family was meant to be! Tests shows her to be severely delayed in language; would she ever be able to function in her new land? They said a regular-ed classroom would destroy her, but she's thriving now in 3rd grade!

That is, if she doesn't waste too much time watching TV.

Monday, January 15, 2001

No battle zone

My kids started a new school this year, and I have to say, it's nice. It's very nice. It's too nice. Nice things keep happening, and my fight-the-school reflexes are twitching. I'm used to doing battle. It's hard to do coffee instead.

Yet that's what I was doing last week. I arrived early for a meeting with my son's teacher, and the principal took me down the teacher's lounge for a cup of coffee. This is a refreshing change from last year, when the principal regarded me as Public Enemy #1. Had I consumed any cup of coffee she offered me, I might not be here typing today. But of course, she never offered.

On the way back to the office, New Prinicipal made a point of telling me how well my children are doing. He thinks my son is funny, and will grow out of his behavior problems. Old Principal liked him just fine except when he was jumping and making noise and disturbing her assemblies, which was pretty much all the time. She wanted him OUT of her school, and only the fact that I wanted him there--and that principals can only make life miserable for special-ed students, they can't actually evict them--kept him around.

Am I remembering the old school in too harsh a light? Probably. We were happy there for many years. I got along fine with everybody until I forced my daughter to be in a mainstream class nobody thought she belonged in, and forced my son to be kept in a special-ed class where everybody thought he was disruptive. Folks, that's why he's in special-ed. Deal with it. They did, but not happily. The year was far more of a struggle than it had to be. When the opportunity to transfer the kids to our neighborhood school arose, I jumped at it. The time had come to cut and run.

And what a nice place we've run to. The principal is friendly. The secretary lets me roam the halls; no more waiting outside the office for somebody to come and fetch me for meetings. The teachers think my kids are in the right place and doing fine. The Child Study Team has gone out of its way to accommodate my parental whims. It's nice. Nice, nice, nice.

Alright, the principal did yell at me once, when I dropped the kids off in the wrong place. There's no proper parking lot, so I have to battle sidestreet parkers and then hike to the school. And they still have those ridiculous Christmas pageants that take up weeks of class time for rehearsal. But at least the kids only had to learn a few songs, and the thing didn't go on forever. It was really very ... nice.

Friday, January 12, 2001

Star child: Another celebrity adopts

Call her Ally McMom: The big celebrity news yesterday was that Calista Flockhart, she of the dancing baby and anorexic physique, has adopted a baby boy. The birthmother is reportedly a medical technician who already has four children, and the actress was there on New Year's Eve to watch the birth. The new mama says she's always wanted to adopt, and may do so again.

And so, we wish her well, and offer congratulations. We guess.

It's hard, when celebrities adopt, to not feel just a little bit catty about it. Or maybe a lot catty. How long did she have to wait for that baby, we wonder. Many of us normal mortals who have adopted have jumped through hoops for the privilege, gone through months and years of paperwork and forms and suspense and heartbreak; why is it that celebs seem to be able to order up a baby like they were ordering a pizza? (Not to suggest that Ms. Flockhart actually orders pizza.) How much money changes hands? Who handles these transactions? And how on earth do some of these people pass homestudies? Don't social workers ever read the National Enquirer?

And why do they always adopt healthy newborns? When you think of all the money and time and support and resources celebs possess, it seems a shame that they're not all adopting older children with special needs, who need all the resources they can get. It's nice that they want to form their families through adoption, but why does it always seem they're bopping to the head of the line to score those perfect infants, probably plucking them from the arms of perfectly nice unknown families who have been waiting years and years.

And yet... If we all had had the ability to bypass all those hoops and headaches, would we not have done that? We can wish that the system was that streamlined for everyone, but I don't know that I can begrudge stars that ease. Should they insist on waiting? The upside of celebrity is that some things just come easier, and while it's uncomfortable to think of a baby in the same terms as a table at a chic restaurant, there's probably an analogy there. The downside of celebrity is that every problem that kid has down the road to adulthood will be recorded, analyzed, and overexposed; and when he finally reaches adulthood, he'll write a nasty book. In the long run, I think I'll take the extra hassle at the beginning in exchange for being able to make all my parenting mistakes in private.

None of us much likes to have our adoption choices and family make-up second-guessed, though that certainly doesn't keep our friends and relatives from doing so. Perhaps we should extend a little grace to celebrity adoptive parents, and give them the benefit of the doubt. If nothing else, stars' adopting publicizes adoption in a positive light and makes it seem a more desirable thing to do, and that's got to be good for all adoptive families.

So congrats, Calista. Good luck with that little guy. And keep your strength up, okay? You're going to need it.

Wednesday, January 10, 2001

Buying is easy. Reading is hard.

You remember the Scholastic Book Club. You get the little flyer from school, and you pick out the books you just must must must have or your life will be dark and dreary, and you beg your mother to buy them, and she does because she believes reading is good and enthusiasm about reading is better, and a few weeks later the slender little paperbacks come home, and go into a pile with the other slender little paperbacks you've had to have and then never looked at again, and the overall clutter of your house increases by .05%. That's the way it works around here, anyway.

This time around, we are adding to our clutter a 107-page book about a dog, "Red Alert"; a trio of small chapter books called "Winter Love Pack," and an unauthorized biography of Brittany Spears. I will be thrilled if she reads them. I will be thrilled if she even ruffles the pages. But why should they be unlike any other books? She'll admire the covers, and put them away.

Yet when the next flyer comes, we'll buy more. And one of these times, we'll institute a reading program to make her read. How we'll do that with the 17 hours we already spend on homework, and the four hours a week of Sylvan, and the remedial sessions I've just had the teacher add, and pesky things like sleep and eating, who knows. And given the pace at which she reads, that 107-page book should do us for a few years.

But at least she's asking for chapter books and Brittany Spears, and not picture books and Barney. That's a step up. Her TV tastes run toward "Dragon Tales" and "Clifford," hardly suitable material for a 10-year-old, even a 10-year-old who's in 3rd grade due to learning disabilities and general developmental delay. She's already taken some heat at school for not denouncing the purple dinosaur; good thing I don't let her watch Teletubbies.

So let her friends see her buying books. Let them fill up her room so there's no space for the Sesame Street toys. Let her at least aspire to appropriateness. Let's hope that one day, she'll actually crack the things.

And let's hope she doesn't notice how many books mama buys and never gets around to reading.

Tuesday, January 09, 2001

Smelling trouble

My son won't go near me in the mornings.

I creep into his room, gently rouse him from slumber, and he opens his big blue eyes, fixes me with his solemn gaze and says, "Go away! You smell bad! Take a shower!"

It's a touching moment.

If I were the sensitive type, this would cut me to the quick. But I have learned not to be sensitive with this child. He repeats phrases he's heard. He gets into routines. He sometimes says, "I hate you!" with the same loving tone as "I love you" (though thankfully, he says "I love you" more.) He understands language and uses it creatively, but he doesn't understand feelings and sort of disregards them entirely. He's a sweetheart, but tact ain't his strong suit.

So it doesn't bother me when he says I stink. Much. I can pop on my therapist-mom hat and speculate that his sensory-integration difficulties make him sensitive to certain smells, and therefore it's a medical thing, not a judgemental thing. Though, come to think of it, there are no other smells that bother him. And in my humble olfactory opinion, his Papa has smelled worse and received no such objection. It's just me who's banished until he detects the gentle bouquet of Lever 2000 on my skin.

I could let it worry me. I could obsess about bonding, and whether this represents a snag in our fabric of attachment. I could worry about cruelty, and whether he thinks its funny to say mean things. I could reflect on all the times I cleaned his stinky, poopy butt when he wore diapers, and hold a grudge. I could punish him for hurting my feelings, I could force him to be in my malodorous presence, I could report it to a neurologist, I could drag him to a psychiatrist.

But mostly, I just take a shower. And I think about the day when inevitably his body will change and he will no longer smell sweet for days at a time. It is then that I will get my revenge. For now, I wait. And use extra deodorant.

Monday, January 08, 2001

'Tis the season

Holiday highs and lows: Are the holidays finally over now? Is it official? Can we all go back to our regularly scheduled lives? Can no new toys enter the house now until birthday time?

Let the conspicuous consumption end. Even the kids -- the very same kids who nagged us to put it up -- are nagging us to take down the Christmas tree. Time to put away the lights and the bulbs and the garlands and the outdoor decorations we never quite managed to get up this year. Time for the kids to get back to school and not have any days off again, ever. Or until the end of February, whichever comes first.

We had a good holiday season, considering I was too exhausted to appreciate most of it. Against all odds, the presents that needed to be bought got bought and the packages that needed to be wrapped got wrapped and the mail order that need to be shipped got shipped. And the mama who needed to collapse collapsed. Maybe I'm a Grinch, but I'm glad it's over. I now have nearly a year to gather the will to gift again. And if I ever wonder how many days I've got to go, my children will be happy to tell me.

The low point was probably Christmas mass, when my son was so out of control he had to go to the baby room for the first time in months. There, he developed an elaborate little routine for himself wherein he collected all the programs from all the pews and pretended they were Christmas cards he was going to mail. One little boy watched him, and then said, loudly, "Somebody's loony," and made the spiral around the ear that is the universal sign of contempt for crazy behavior, and kept doing it and making faces until I had to go over, put my hands on his little shoulders, and say, "You are in church. It is not okay to be mean in church." He stopped, but he still rolled his eyes any time my son went by. Didn't phase my boy in the least. He had mail to deliver.

The high point, though, came at a party where we saw a number of old friends who we knew as singles, and then through all our marriages, and now with all our children. I hadn't met some of their kids, and the kids hadn't all met each other, but they all played together fine. My son had a bit of trouble sharing, but so did all the other kids. No one called him loony, and I had to issue no threats.

Just as a parent and a friend of the families, it was nice to watch the little ones interact. (Plus watching the kids gave me an excuse to hide out in the basement instead of interacting with the adults, but that's another story.) But as a parent of special-needs kids, it was especially interesting to observe the different levels and abilities. For one, I was shocked by how old some of the kids looked -- kids I could have sworn weren't born that long ago -- and then I realized that I was judging them by my son, and that kids who looked about his age were actually only four or five. He's seven, but tiny and developmentally delayed; when I don't see him around "normally developing" kids, I lose track of that.

Then there was another boy, a huge child, bigger than my son, who turned out to be only two. His mother has a problem I've never experienced: Everybody thinks her son is much older than he is, and expects behavior he's just not capable of. What a blessing that my guy, whose behavior lags so far behind his chronological age, has a physical appearance that lags far behind, too. I think he gets away with a lot that he wouldn't if he really looked seven.

I watched one little girl, adopted from China early last year, warily take in the scene of playing kids, and then orbit on back to her mother. No attachment problems there. I watched how a pair of energetic little boys loved to jump off a step and onto a beanbag chair, and wondered if they might have sensory-integration related issues that made crashing a desirable feeling for them. Or perhaps they're just little boys. I watched how jealous my niece got when somebody tried to play with my daughter. And I watched how nicely my daughter -- much the oldest kid in the room, having been adopted at age 4.5 when most of our friends were having babies -- played with the much younger children.

Maybe a career as a teacher isn't that farfetched for her. My son, on the other hand, has decided he wants to be a principal. Good thing they're both getting back to school.