Tuesday, August 30, 2005

You Can't Get What You Want ('Til You Know What You Want)

Last week I received an email from our synagogue's educational director, asking if I was planning to sign Bug up for the Torah for Tots program again this year. It was a simple form email, probably sent to all the parents who are too disorganized to complete the required paperwork before school starts (a group I am part of more often than not). But when you have a child with special needs, nothing is ever that simple.

When the Torah for Tots program first started two years ago, it was only held once a month, and I attended class for the whole three hours with Bug. I felt I needed to be there to help integrate him into group activities, keep him on task, and take care of any special needs he had (i.e. changing his diaper) so the classroom staff would not be overtaxed. That worked out fine - the teacher appreciated having an extra set of hands around to pass out graham crackers and bandage skinned knees, and I was gratified to see that Bug generally did pretty well, or at least was not usually the most disruptive kid there (thank heaven for small favors).

The following year they increased the class schedule to once a week, the same as all the other Sunday School kids. While I was in favor of that idea in principle, I almost didn't enroll Bug because there was no way I could commit to staying in class with him all day every week. But the teacher encouraged me to let him attend class all by himself, assuring me that she would have one of the teenage teacher's aides specifically look after him.

I was a little nervous about this. I am so used to him being sheltered in a cozy, protected special-ed bubble, with other kids just like him and a staff of specialists who understand how to tailor programming specifically to his needs. But I agreed to try because it is so important to me that Bug receive a proper Jewish education and become, as much as possible, a full participant in the synagogue community. And with the teachers and school administration so supportive and willing to work with me, it was an ideal situation to test the waters.

In many ways, it was ideal. His teacher was encouraging and positive about having him in class, and the TA he was assigned to was a wonderful, compassionate teenaged girl who forged an immediate connection with him. It is hard to describe how good it felt to join the crowds of parents dropping their kids off each week, and how thrilled I was that Bug was taking part in the completely normal, typical rite of passage of weekly Sunday School sessions. I even wrote a letter to the board, which was published in the synagogue newsletter, expressing my thanks and appreciation to the school staff for all of their help in making the whole experience possible.

By the middle of the year I had to admit that things were not quite as perfect as I had hoped. More often than not, when I went to class to pick him up he was off in the corner doing his own thing, playing with toys or writing on the chalkboard, while all of the other kids were engaged in a group activity. Now, this didn't bother me too much. Even back when I stayed in class with him I found that by the end of three heavily scheduled hours he just really needed some down time, and at that point it was useless to try to force him to sit quietly and listen to a story or whatever. But it was still always a bit of a blow, because as a parent you want so much to see your kid fitting in as part of the group, doing what all the other kids are doing. And every week I was faced with the reality that no, he is not doing what all the other kids are doing, and that maybe it was naïve to think that I could just throw him into a regular classroom and expect him to be completely, smoothly mainstreamed.

Then one day I arrived at the end of class as usual. It was a hot day and the teachers were wiped out, melted into their plastic orange chairs, the students running wild. One little boy had the idea to play Ring Around the Rosy, so all the kids joined hands and sang and spun and danced around the room. All the kids except Bug, that is. He stood there on the outside of that circle, shouting "Bug's turn! My turn! Can I play?" and pointing and wanting so badly to join in, and not one kid included him or stopped for him or even seem to notice him. It just seemed so symbolic, seeing him standing outside the circle while the rest of the class danced by, oblivious.

Honestly, it broke my heart a little. Of course I don't blame the children - they are all sweet, good kids. I don't think they were purposely trying to exclude him or be mean, and when I grabbed Bug decisively by the hand and inserted him in the game they willingly accepted him (possibly because I left them no alternative). But it still hurt to see him left behind like that, and to imagine how many other activities he was left out of during class that I wasn't around to witness.

It hurt so much I didn't send him back for a few weeks. I always had an excuse - a puppet show I wanted to take the kids to, relatives in town - but the truth was, I just couldn't bring myself to even go near the classroom after that. I know it seems like I am being overprotective - which I readily admit! - and I do realize I can't shield either of my kids from the slings and arrows of their classmates forever. But it is harder with Bug because he can't communicate as well; I have very little way of knowing if his feelings are hurt, if he is being teased, or if he is in fact completely enjoying himself and having a wonderful experience. Which actually, is what I suspect, seeing as he always ran eagerly to class, hugged his teachers, jumped up and down with excitement when he saw his friends, and was reluctant to leave when the day is over. When I finally realized that Bug was perfectly happy going to Sunday School each week, and that I was the only one with lingering issues, I started taking him again.

I wasn't sure if I wanted to sign him up for another year, though. At one point in the summer I decided the answer was no. I was afraid he was too much of a handful for the teachers and concerned that he wasn't really being integrated with the other students or even getting much out of the program. I would still keep him involved in synagogue life by taking him to children's services and family activities, but I was definitely not going to enroll him in class. Absolutely not.

A few days later, my family and I were hanging out after dinner, sitting on the floor in sort of a circle. Bug suddenly jumped up and started walking around us, tapping each person on the head in an impromptu game of "Duck, Duck, Goose." Only instead of using those words, he was saying "Shabbat, Shabbat, SHALOM!" Just like they played it in Sunday School months before! This is monumental for him - it shows that he IS participating, he IS learning and remembering things. So maybe I should send him? After all, the best way to help him assimilate into the temple community is to let him join in as many activities there as possible. And if I keep him home, how will the other kids ever have a chance to know and understand him?

And on and on and on I flip-flopped, all summer long. Part of the problem is that I notice I tend to have a phobia about asking for things. For instance, I stress for weeks when I have to ask my boss for a day off or to leave early, even though people do so all the time and she never has a problem with it. In this case, I want the school to make some accomodations, I want them to provide a designated aide just for Bug, and I want his teacher to openly address his disability with his classmates so they might show him a litttle extra patience and kindness. I want to ask for these things, but I am reluctant because I am so afraid of seeming like THAT parent, the bossy demanding one who always insists on special privleges for her kids.

But I also did not want to leave the educational director's email in my box unanswered for weeks on end, because that would be rude - and I HAD to make a decision eventually. So I took a deep breath and emailed him back with my concerns. I asked if Bug could have the same T.A. as last year, assigned only to him, and I offered to write a letter to send home with all of his classmates, introducing him and explaining why he is a bit different from them - but also emphasizing the many ways he is the same. He emailed back immediately, excited to have Bug re-enroll, agreeing to my ideas, and offering to do whatever we needed to ensure a successful experience. It was as simple as that!

There is still more to be done. I need to gather up my courage once again and talk to the teacher about ideas for fostering compassion among Bug's classmates, I need to sit down with his aide and make sure she at least tries to help Bug join in with the activities and games if he isn't able to initiate this himself. I need to actually write the letter to the parents instead of just talking about it.

But one way or another, we are going forward. I realize we are very fortunate - we have a synagogue administration and staff who are very motivated to help Bug succeed. The educational director is not only progressive and open-minded, but also a good friend who is totally committed to having Bug take part in religious school on a long-term basis. Finally, we have long-standing roots at the temple (my family joined when I was nine) with loads of people who care about our family and want to support us.

I just need to learn how to graciously accept that support, and ask for help when I need it. For Bug's sake, if not my own.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Smooth Operator

Recently, in the course of my work, I was looking over a long list of consultants I needed to contact when I happened upon a name that sounded unmistakably familiar. "Oh god," I moaned. "Oh, no. I think this guy asked me out in freshman year of high school." This is one of the major drawbacks to living and working in the town where you grew up. The moment I heard his voice with his precise, oddly formal way of speaking, I knew it was him.

I hadn't thought about him in decades. We used to sit together on the long bus ride to the private school we attended, which was miles and miles down a winding road out by the South Gate of Mt. Diablo. We probably would have remained friendly travel companions had he not changed everything by calling me one night and stammering out an invitation to see the latest Stephen King movie playing at the Festival Theater.

I was very flustered and taken aback. I had never thought of him in any remotely romantic way and was mortified to discover that he had amorous feelings towards me, and also a little annoyed and angry that he had to ruin the nice, companionable vibe we had going with this seemingly out-of-the-blue act. Unfortunately, my immediate reaction was to bluntly exclaim "No! I mean, ummm, no." followed by a horrible string of inept, lame excuses.

In my defense, I was honestly planning to put Clairol Shimmering Streaks in my hair that weekend. I was really into being a blonde then, as unconvincing as that look was with my natural coloring. But in retrospect, telling him I was too busy doing my hair to go out with him was probably not the gentlest way to let him down. To this day I will never forget the hurt in his voice as he said "Doing your hair? Oh. Okay. Sorry."

I didn't want to taint our business dealings by dredging up painful adolescent trauma, so I mentioned nothing of our shared past to him on the phone. However, in an admittedly too little, 25 years too late attempt to atone for my prior callousness, I lavished him with far more attention that I usually devote to potential business consultants, practically smothering him with daily emails and calls and status updates and positive encouragement and flattery. Because of this, we struck up a wonderful rapport during our frequent conversations.

Still, the more we talked, the worse I felt. Hearing his voice and speaking to him so often brought my high school memories to full focus - and I saw clearly how unkind I had been, and how miserable he had looked when he saw me at school afterwards. I don't think the incident scarred him for life or anything, in fact I hope he forgot all about it by sophmore year. But I still felt deeply ashamed. So much so that I started to think maybe I should tell him who I was, just so I could apologize to him.

I couldn't decide. On the one hand, maybe it would be kinder not to say anything. Having lived here nearly all my life, I know all too well what it's like to be going along, merrily living your life as a competent, well-adjusted adult, only to be yanked unceremoniously into pimply, tongue-tied adolescence by a random run-in with a ghost from your past. Yet as discomfiting as that is, I have also had the opposite happen to me. Very often I will encounter some previously loathed ex-tormentor from my youth and end up having an easy, enjoyable conversation which pleasantly reminds me that the past is all so much water under the bridge now.

Finally we came to the conclusion of our project, and I was on the phone with him for what I realized might be the last time. As we were wrapping up, I impulsively decided to blurt out the truth. "Say, before you go, I just have one more thing," I began. "This may sound strange but I am pretty sure we went to high school together."

As he tried to jog his memory, I offered this helpful tidbit: "Remember, you were working on a novel that you gave to me to read. With the car? And the secret agent?"

In response, I heard nothing but the screeching of tires.

"Hold on," he sputtered, "I think I almost drove off the road!"

"Sorry, I just wanted to----"

"OH MY GOD! That was you? Oh jeez. That was such a nerdly year for me! I'm so embarassed. I can't believe I made you read that novel."

"No, no, it's okay, it was a pretty good----"

"OH MY GOD! I still can't believe that was you. You must be married now, I don't recognize your last name. You were Aimless N_____ back then, weren't you?"

"Yes! That was me! So you DO remember me!"

"Oh, yes. Believe me. I remember!"

That pointed rejoinder was about the closest we came to actually making reference to the Date That Never Was, after which I laughed nervously and quickly steered the conversation in a different direction. We ended up having a lovely (and hilarious) chat, reminiscing about our high school selves. I had mercifully forgotten, until he reminded me, that there was a brief period of time in which I attempted to portray myself as a postmodern, David-Bowie-worshipping hipster. This was accomplished primarily by walking around school carrying a thick stack of Bowie albums that I borrowed from a guy named Josh. In reality I had no knowledge of any of his music other what the top 40 radio station played - 80's anthems like China Girl, Blue Jean and Modern Love - and I fervently hoped no one would call me on this.

I was glad to hear that he is doing very well now - happily married, with a successful management career and a beautiful brand-new house. Before we hung up, he wished me well and thanked me for the trip down memory lane. "No problem," I said "I just hope it wasn't too painful!"

"Well . . . yes and no" he replied, laughing.

I was glad I said something, but sorry that I missed the chance to apologize. I wanted to tell him that it wasn't him, but my own awkwardness and lack of social finesse that made me act the way I did, and that I was really sorry that I didn't handle it more smoothly. Maybe if I had been a little more adept, we could have continued to be friends instead of avoiding each other's eyes in class for the rest of the year. Mostly I wanted to tell him, however belatedly, that I completely respect and admire how unbelievably brave it was for him, at fourteen years old, to pick up that phone and call me.

Lord knows I never exhibited anywhere near that kind of guts. When I liked someone, I could barely speak to them, let alone call them directly on the telephone to ask for a date. That same year, I had a paralyzing crush on a shy, brilliant senior. And despite the fact that I saw him every day, and hung around the Dairy Queen where he worked at every opportunity, I managed to - after screwing up all my courage for a WHOLE YEAR - exchange one word with him. Literally just one word - one single, utterly mortifying word. But that is a blog for another day.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Where Are They Now?

Growing up, I loved spending my summers at Camp Ramah in Ojai. As an adult, I can truly appreciate the value of being immersed for a whole month in such an intense Jewish setting. At the time, I wasn't too thrilled with that aspect of it - the rigorous schedule of religious services twice a day, lengthy prayers before and after meals, and mandatory Torah study classes each morning. But I am very grateful for all that now, because even though I spent many years during and after college being weakly or non-observant, once I came back into the fold I found that thanks to Ramah I was still able to read Hebrew passably, could probably jump in and lead a Shacharit or Mincha service if called upon, and will now and forever be able to recite the entire Birkat Hamazon by heart.

But that isn't what I loved about camp at the time. No, the reason I wanted to keep returning year after year was for that classic summer camp experience, the chance to shed my boring, bookish year-round persona and become someone else - someone who french-braided my hair and wore Esprit mini-dresses and read Cosmo and helped raid the boy's bunk under cover of night with a group of giggling pre-teen girls.

Although my social life at camp was very satisfying, I still never made it anywhere near the ranks of the popular elite. If anything, that group seemed even more impenetrable and exclusive than the in-crowd at my school back at home. Ramah is considered the jewel in the crown of Jewish summer camps - a nationally known, very highly respected institution with a hefty price tag. That, and its prime location in Southern California meant that it drew heavily from wealthy families in places like Beverly Hills and Bel Air. Many of my fellow campers had parents who were famous scholars or writers (Chaim Potok's daughter was my drama teacher) or were heavy-hitters in the showbiz industry.

The popular girls I admired back at home had, at most, cute outfits from The Limited and hair that feathered easily - how they paled in comparison to the girls in the top social strata at camp, with their custom designer couture, professionally manicured nails and blasé, wordly air. The things they spoke of were light-years away from my experience: older boyfriends, trips to Spain and Italy, modeling contracts and Hollywood parties. These girls were like untouchable celebrities to me. I rarely even tried to interact with them on a day-to-day basis - I couldn't imagine what we'd begin to talk about - but I loved watching them from afar, walking across the grass with their flowing hair shining in the sun, their arms wrapped around their tanned, athletic boyfriends. 25 years later, I can barely conjure up the faces of people I went to school with for years, but I recall the girls at camp with astonishing clarity.

J. was the Queen Bee, somewhat surprisingly because, while undeniably attractive, she wasn't nearly the best-looking girl there. Her dad was known to be a powerful movie producer, though his IMDB entry lists "Meatballs 3" as his biggest and most recent credit. J. was sunny and outgoing, with a quick wit, perfect teeth, and long ash-blonde hair that always fell into her eyes. She had been going to camp for years and years and had long since attained the status of "it girl" - she was the star of every play (possibly because she was one of the few campers who spoke fluent Hebrew, a result of attending the prestigious L.A. Hebrew High School) and nearly every guy I knew had a devastating, painfully obvious crush on her. She positively exuded poise, intelligence and confidence, as though she fully expected to take the camp - and then the world- by storm. I always figured she was destined to do something extraordinary with her life, and was not surprised when I Googled her recently and learned that she is living in London and working as Senior Vice President of the European division of Warner Bros.

Then there was H., with her impossibly long legs, lilting South African accent, and dazzling crowning glory of lustrous, thick raven hair. I can still see her sitting under a tree surrounded by half a dozen admiring males, casually twisting her locks into an impromptu topknot with a few stray tendrils brushing softly against her cheeks - a look that would take most of us a few hours, and the assistance of a professional stylist, to achieve. Apparently she possessed not just beauty but brains too, since a simple internet search revealed that she now divides her time between teaching at Harvard Medical School and acting as Director of the Center for Women's Health at the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital.

But no one captured my imagination quite like the sophisticated, beautiful Jess, the first girl I ever knew who went to boarding school. And not just any boarding school - she attended the exalted Phillips Andover academy, which boasts a long list of distinguished alumni including George Bush (Jr. and Sr.), Humphrey Bogart, and JFK Jr. At age 15 she was already an experienced fashion model with an extensive portfolio of print and runway work. She also danced with a professional ballet troupe, and each summer she was in charge of choreographing the all-camp musical. Everything about her was glamorous, including her parents - her mom was a Washington correspondent for NBC news, and her dad was a highly influential judge who, it was rumored, owned a couple of sports teams. I was utterly in awe of her. Of all the girls I ever knew, Jess was the only one I truly, honestly believed had the talent and connections and striking good looks to become a movie star.

And in a way, she did. But not in the sort of films I expected. (Caution: Really, really, REALLY not work-safe. Or parent-safe, or easily-offended safe).

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Countdown to Ecstasy

Steely Dan's songs have provided the soundtrack to my life since junior high school, when "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" and "Hey Nineteen" were in constant rotation at that pre-teen mecca, Golden Skate in San Ramon. Back then I was too young and naive to realize that the lyrics were somewhat disturbing, what with their references to illicit drug deals and sex with underage women. I just knew that it felt good to fly around the rink, holding the sweaty hand of some boy from Junior Kadima while the loudspeaker belted out "please take me along when you slide on down . . . ."

In a way, I even associate them with setting Chef and I on the right path after spending much of our early twenties in a constant state of breaking up and getting back together (due mainly to my relentless dithering). The winter after I graduated from college, he came to visit me in Santa Cruz on a stormy, blustery weekend. His arms were full of gifts, including bags of the strong, dark coffee and Swedish dill mustard sauce that you could only find in Humboldt County as well as a bunch of old Steely Dan albums he picked up at various thrift stores.

We did a lot of fun things on that visit - we went to a fancy Sunday brunch at the Chaminade Hotel and ate hot knishes at a funky cafe overlooking the beach - but what I remember the most is hanging out in my little rented house up in the mountains. We made breakfast together, read the Sunday funnies out loud, and drank huge mugs of coffee by a roaring fire, the whole time listening to the swirling saxophones and refined harmonies of "Can't Buy a Thrill" while rain pounded on the windows. By the time Chef left that Sunday night I knew I wanted to spend every weekend for the rest of my life feeling as cozy and contented and unconditionally loved as I did right then. We were married two years later.

Nowadays we rarely even get a chance to finish a cup of coffee or listen to music other than the Wiggles or Winnie the Pooh - never mind enjoying those long, lazy, caffeine and jazz-filled days like we used to. Maybe I might put on my Two Against Nature CD while I do the dishes or pack the kids' lunches, but that's about it. So I was pleased to discover, completely by accident, that a Steely Dan cover band called Aja Vu was giving a free concert in a park nearby.

The band was playing in Oak Hill Park, located in pristine, moneyed Alamo. We drove past country clubs and million dollar homes with carriage houses and riding stables in the back, finally arriving at one of the nicest parks I have ever seen. There were acres and acres of lush emerald grass, a sparkling lake with picturesque ducks and geese floating by, a sprawling state of the art playground, and a stunning view of Mt. Diablo. It was lovely - so much so that I started feeling a twinge out of place with my ratty green army blanket and my big greasy bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. This was only exacerbated by the group of people next to me, whose picnic area consisted of a little table covered with a linen cloth, tapered candles, and a jug of Italian wine poured into crystal glasses.

Then the music started and the Steely Dan melodies took effect, enveloping me in peace and well-being. All the discomfort was gone, and I was just happy to be out with my family on this wonderful warm night, watching the clouds turn pink over Mt. Diablo. The kids, as usual, were clamoring to stand right in front of the band and dance. Now, I am a terribly awkward, clumsy, self-conscious dancer and in fact I will skip out of weddings and banquet dinners early rather than suffer the possibility of some well-meaning hostess trying to pull me onto the floor.

But on this night, I didn't care - I whirled and twirled and swung the kids around and sang the choruses at the top of my lungs, and people all around me were doing the same. The band was incredible - they played all the songs you would expect: Deacon Blues, Josie, FM, and Reeling in the Years - plus a lot of my favorite songs that are not as well-known, like Black Cow, Pretzel Logic, Home at Last, and My Old School. It was as good as seeing the real thing - better actually, since it was free and we could sit as close as we wanted and the setting was much more serene and beautiful than any stadium or arena.

It is so rare that you experience a truly perfect evening. There is always something - it was too crowded, the traffic was bad, the weather could have been more cooperative, you wish you could have been there with someone else. Saturday night was the real deal. The music was amazing, the warm summer breeze felt good, and there was no one I would rather have shared it with than my two wonderful kids . . . and especially my husband, who has provided me with eleven years of unconditional love. (Happy anniversary!)