Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ghosts of Halloween Past

This Halloween Nathaniel decided to go out as Dr. Who. Lemony did a great job on his costume. Somehow, the character fits him. As I take the day off (yes, really), thanks to a virus that slugged me strongly enough to lay me out all weekend (but might not have had I not worked all week while fighting it), Shane and Lemony are preparing to take Nathaniel and Neela around the block, gathering treats. Donnie and Doah are preparing to hand out candy. As for me, I am lounging about on the couch, supervising. (And gathering strength for a wicked week ahead at work.)

One Halloween brings back reminiscences of past Halloweens. Of course, some were spent abroad and, therefore, not celebrated, but most years we have been in the USA in October. It seems that each year, though, there are fewer knocks on the door. At least, here in San Ignatio, life is safe, and kids can walk the streets and knock on doors with no fear. When we lived in Salt, no one in many of the neighborhoods went out because children were hurt and/or candy was deliberately contaminated. The police started a tradition of bobbing for apples and other games at the police stations. Those games were always a part of my childhood Halloweens and induce a sense of nostalgia when I saw children and now see my grandchildren playing them. It is good that Halloween has not gone the way of May Day. Even my old childhood neighborhood no longer celebrates May Day.

Costumes blur into costumes. I never bought any for the kids; I always made them -- mice, turnips, clowns. There were original ideas, as well as the tried and true.

Perhaps the most vivid memory of Halloween, though, comes from my own childhood. I had grown old enough as a pre-teen to stay home to help with the handing out of the treats. While there were future confirming events and situations, that night was when I first learned that we were poor. We quickly ran out of treats. My father then started handing out real food, feeling bad that we had nothing to offer: crackers, even hot dogs. I wondered what we would eat the rest of the week. Then, finally, he sighed and said that we had nothing left to give except our talents. He went to the closet where he kept his violin. When the next group of children chorused, "trick or treat," he countered, "here's my trick," and he would play them a song. How embarrassing! However, the next day, everyone commented on how fun it was to get a trick instead of a treat and how they did not know my father could play the violin so well. (Somewhat after that, I asked my father to teach me to play the violin, but I never learned to play more than a few notes; Noelle played the violine in the elementary school orchestra for a couple of years, however. I guess talent skips generations sometimes.)

I learned a lot more from that Halloween night beyond the simple fact that we were poor. I learned that no matter how little you have, you do have something to give. I learned how to give beyond what is convenient to pass along and to give from one's very essence. And I learned that an intangible gift is every bit as good as a tangible one.

Remembering San Diego

Donnie and I spending time with Fr. Julio in San Diego this last weekend brought back a host of memories of the days when Lizzie, Blaine, and Noelle lived there. They are now scattered into three locations, so the memories evoked a sense of nostalgia for a simpler time (or maybe it just seems simpler in retrospect). I will share of few of the many memories that flooded us during our three days there.

First, there was Angel. Noelle and Lizzie moved to San Diego a year before Blaine joined them. We had no idea where were the good and bad parts of town, safe and not safe areas. We did know where the areas were that they could afford the rent and where they could not. Where they could afford afford the rent was not as comforting to me as their mother as were the areas where they could not. However, the manager of the apartment complex upon which they ultimately decided reassured me, promising to watch out for them as if they were his own daughters. His name? Angel. I figured that was a good a sign.

While Angel was watching over them, I did not worry about them. Then Blaine moved to San Diego, and life became more interesting (for all concerned).

For starters, there was the time that the kids were coming home to visit. Lizzie called me as they were leaving San Diego so that I would know to plan for their arrival and just because parents like to know these things -- where their kids are, when they are leaving for home, and all that stuff. Several hours later, Blaine called to say that they would be home in approximately an hour. I did a quick calculation and remonstrated, "You had better not be!" because that meant that they had been driving too fast for my comfort. Two hours later, they showed up. "That's more like it," I told Blaine. "I thought you could not be only an hour away." Lizze later pulled me aside and told me that they really had been only an hour away, but they all decided to sit beside the road for an hour so I would not be unhappy with their arrival time! (Kids!)

Then there was the time that we had just spent a small fortune on new glasses for Shura. (He brought very little with him from Siberia, so there were many new supplies to be acquired for him, including some very important things such as eyeglasses.) He was quite proud of those glasses, and we did not have to enforce his wearing them. He always did. In between surgeries in Charlottesville, Virginia, where we had been able to set up his care with the help of a philanthropist, John Kluge, a wonderful man who died earlier this year, he came "home" to California and decided to spend some time in San Diego with Lizzie, Blaine, and Noelle. I should not have been surprised by the phone call later that week because there was something scatterbrained about Shura. Maybe it is simply the artist's temperament. In any event, Blaine and he were cruising along the coast, enjoying the sun and wind, and Shura, not used to cars, stuck his head out the window to feel the greater effect of the wind. Whisk! His expensive eyeglasses were gone with the wind, literally. Chagrined, he had to go get a replacement pair. (Kids!)

Then there was the time that Noelle took the wrong bus home. Her trip turned out to be a different kind of joy ride from that of Blaine and Shura. A bit ditzy at times, Noelle, realizing that she did not recognize the areas the bus was traveling through, decided to stay on the bus until she did recognize something. It never occurred to her that she was on the wrong bus. Well, the bus finally reached the outskirts of town and stopped. End of line. It was nor returning. End of day. So, Noelle hopped off the bus, in her braces, with her crutches, carrying her backpack, and hitchiked back into town. Some kind man picked her up and brought her all the way to her house, where Lizzie proceeded to give her quite a lecture on the dangers of hitchhiking (although one thing I have noticed with handicapped children: they bring out the best in people, and rarely do the "bad guys" want to "mess" with them -- I think God keeps a pretty close eye on them. (Kids!)

Of course, if I can complain about kids (!), then I guess they should be allowed to complain about parents (!). When the kids were living in San Diego, I was working on a couple of books for publication, and I loved using Lizzie's library (University of California at San Diego) for research. So, I would visit quite frequently. In the beginning, Lizzie's supervisor at work (she worked in the bookstore while going through college) would offer to give her the day off so that she could spend time with me, but Lizzie would tell her that I had come to visit her library or that if she visited with me she would end up helping with research (which she did not mind doing, but she preferred earning money from working more), so soon her supervisor stopped offering, and Lizzie and I and the other kids just spent evenings and weekends together -- and even on some of those occasions when I had a close deadline, they all ended up helping me with library research. I am sure that their response would have been: Parents!

And the bottom line? The kids needed the parents, and the parents needed the kids -- and the complaints were all just in fun (well, mostly).

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My Children Are Unnumbered

I suppose you could take the title of this post in more than one way, and it would be accurate. I have four birth children, three others who moved in as teenagers, and four more young adults from the Middle East who call me Mom (and treat me like their mother) but never lived with me. And the number of them grows...

What I am referring to in this post, however, is the tendency that was rampant in my children's growing-up years to put a number to each child. That number, his or her IQ, then let him or her enter programs or denied him or her entry into programs. Control by number was the game of the 1970s and 1980s. It continues today, but at least is disappearing in many parts of the country. More and more educators and parents are beginning to realize that our children are more than numbers. Take my children, for example, who, by the way, for the most part, were never numbered by school systems or anyone else who might use the number to their disadvantage or to their advantaging over their peers. I would permit neither the use of IQ for program selection with them nor even testing them for IQ by the schools, but I did have insights into what their levels were and in three cases actually know the number the schools would have attached to them had they had the same information I had.

Lizzie, the oldest, learned much about life very early because of two multiple-handicapped siblings. She probably is gifted. She skipped two grades in school, and by the time she was in fourth grade was studying genetics as a hobby, sat through my university classes when babysitting was unavailable, and was taken into the university honors biology program (the only non-university student there). I could trust her with anything. The Red Cross trained her in CPR at age nine (four years younger than their 13-year-old prerequisitebecause she convinced them that she needed to be able to save Doah, who had a trach at that time, if he stopped breathing while I was in the bathroom); she was their best student (that had a lot to do with real-life, immediate applications of knowledge, I am sure). In fourth grade, her teacher, who had been reading Tennyson with her, proposed her for the gifted program, but that required an IQ test. I demurred because the gifted program was only part-time, would not stretch Lizzie enough, and would serve only to mark her as different from the other kids. I did take her on my own to a psychologist to satisfy my own suspicions that her learning styles (especially reflectivity instead of impulsivity -- we in the USA equate speed with intelligence, erroneously, in my opinion) would result in an inaccurate representation of her potential. It did. At least, it did to the extent that the test could even be scored. Lizzie, in pure Lizzie fashion, refused to give in to those parts of the test that required her to respond in a way inconsistent with her learning style. She is concrete by nature and needs to work from within context. When she was asked to define a list of words, she refused, commenting "words do not exist out of context; give me a context, and I will define them." Keep in mind that this comment from a 7-year-old, whose ultimate score turned out to be high average (probably inaccurately so). In high school, based upon performance and given the fortunate lack of an IQ score in the files which would have held her out of advanced courses, Lizzie was placed in the gifted group, working a year ahead of grade level (on top of skipping two grades), and by the age of 15 had taken two college courses and seven Advanced Placement courses in foreign language, math, and science. Today, she holds a doctorate as a professor of cognitive neuroscience. Not bad for high average IQ!

Noelle, of course, experienced some of the traditional difficulties that spina bifida children with hydrocephalus and Arnold Chiari malformation encounter: specific brain damage from placement of the shunt that destroys the part of the brain that deals with higher mathematical functioning. Nonetheless, Georgetown University Hospital at one point decided that it would be helpful to have an IQ test for her. Her IQ at that time was flat average: 100, just a few points behind Lizzie. However, because she was physically handicapped, she was denied placement in all but special education programs. We sometimes fought successfully to keep her mainstreamed; other times we lost that battle. In fourth grade, because she was in special education, she was excluded from the school's spelling bee. The next year, I began the fight early, she was allowed to participate, and she won first place. Nonetheless, during her years in special education, her IQ slipped down into low average levels; the hospitals, not the schools, tracked it for us, mainly out of curiosity as to how good and poor education and availability and lack of educational opportunities can affect IQ. Clearly, it can, when one compares Lizzie and Noelle, who started out so close. Noelle did complete two years of college, then dropped out to be with her significant other, Ray, who died earlier this year. Now that nine months of mourning have passed, she is working on returning to college. I suspect that in spite of being flat average, she will do fine, as she did in her first two years.

Shane began life very inconspicuously. Situated in birth order between two multiple-handicapped siblings, he pretty much raised himself due to our lack of time to spend with him. I usually found out after the fact what he could do. For example, at 23 months he could read books -- he read one to me; it was the first time I heard him talk (and he was not yet walking because Noelle, who could not walk, would pull him down whenever he stood up, afraid that he would hurt himself). At age 3, when we put him in the university nursery school, the administration moved him the next day to first grade since he was not only reading but also understood science and was able to do math calculations at fourth grade level. By the time he was seven and in the fifth grade, he dropped out of school. We took him to a school clinic for diagnosing educational problems. The answer: too gifted to be educated by public schools. Although we asked that the total IQ score not be added up and our wishes were observed, we were told that no one had ever before achieved a perfect score on the Wechsler math section. So, after money ran out for an ungraded private school, Shane grew up in homeschooling at a time when homeschooling did not yet exist. He studied with college professors, went off to college at 14, and is clearly my best-educated albeit least educated child. IQ unknown.

Contrary to my wishes, Doah's IQ was tested: 52. Two points above the category of "moron." We paid little attention to that. He was fortunate that our push to make sure he had only good teachers saw results. Our "near-moron" lives in a nearly unrestricted group home, was voted "class flirt" in high school (he was the most popular graduate that year -- no one will deny that assertion since his popularity made the front page of the local paper), is semi-lingual in five languages, can take care of all his personal needs independently, travels independently by bus throughout the county, and wrote a book that was exhibited at the National Book Exhibit in Los Angeles in 2003. He loved autographing copies! When his HOPE helper left, I overheard the departing helper say to the incoming helper, "This is a case of the greatest delta between potential and performance that you may ever see." That is probably because we chose not to react to Doah's number.

Blaine had obviously been numbered before he arrived to live with us because he attended the gifted program at the local high school. We know he is also dyslexic, but he manages to keep that under control as head of IT at one of the branch campuses of the University of South Carolina.

Ksenya and Shura have no numbers. Raised in the USSR, where all children were taught with equal expectations of full performance, they never encountered the need to be numbered.

So far, my grandchildren have not been numbered. Their school district appears more enlightened than ones of the past.

Now, I mean no offense meant to educators. After all, I am one myself (my organization is one that hires teachers and focuses on education). I understand why teachers, educational administrators, and school districts like to be able to label, categorize, and "file" students. It is easier and less messy than having to deal with each student individually in accordance with his or her learning strengths and needs. The latter, though, is the only way that every child will reach his or her full potential. Not leaving any child behind is not really the point. The point is for all children to enjoy learning and experience success in learning, and even special education children, taught in accordance with their learning styles and needs, can do that.

Even more important, though, are the traits that go beyond number: trust, resilience, kindness, problem-solving (rather than problem-creating), forgiveness, compassion, insight, faith -- those things that come from the grace of God. I don't care what number my children have. I care that they possess these other traits. I care that they are Good Samaritans. While I have been proud of their better school moments, I am prouder as I watch them sometimes literally go 200 miles out of their way to help friends and classmates. I have watched them accept foreign children into the family as brothers and sister, not complaining about the significant amount that they had to personally give up in order to accommodate their additional "siblings." These things are enough for me. I don't feel any need to know their number because God's graces come without number, innumerably.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


It has been a long while since I have written about Donnie and me, at least in terms of our relationship. There is no particular reason for me to write about that now except perhaps it is time to return to my first post and develop it more.

The odd things about Donnie and me is that 40 years ago no one gave our marriage a chance. It would never last, we were told by nearly everyone, because we were so different.

They were right about the being different part. Certainly, it is difficult to find much that we have in common except a passel of kids and easy to find what we do not share. The list is very long.

(1) Donnie is a scientist; I am a humanist.

(2) Donnie prefers to work outdoors; I prefer to work indoors.

(3) Donnie is an introvert, who likes being alone in nature; I am an extravert, who seeks out people and interaction.

(4) Donnie prefers to stay at home and speaks only English, once trying to learn Russian, that experiment ending in abysmal failure; I am on my 18th language of active study, being able to read nearly fifty and not even knowing what some of those are that I can understand, and as a result, I love to travel and live among people of differing cultures.

(5) When we travel, Donnie looks for comfort and familiarity, i.e. he likes to live at home abroad; when we select a community for settling in, I look for one where traditional American culture shares the streets and institutions with people of other cultures, i.e. I like to live abroad at home.

(6) When we travel, Donnie dreams of flying first class but has never done so; because I travel more than 100,000 miles a year, I sometimes get upgraded to first class, which is unimportant to me, and generally sleep through the whole flight anyway.

(7) In college, Donnie was a poor student, and I helped him with his studies; in college, I was a good student (which is perhaps why I initially became a teacher and then an educational administrator).

(8) Donnie likes to photograph; I like to write -- at least, there is possibility of complementarity and collaboration here (and we do collaborate on publications).

(9) Donnie is a night owl; I am awake during "normal" hours, i.e. day time.

(10) At the end of the day, Donnie would want to know that our kids' bellies were full; I would want to know that their minds were full.

(11) Donnie likes to climb real mountains; I like to climb the allegorical kind.

(12) Donnie likes to watch ball games; I like to play ball games.

(13) Donnie likes moderate climates; I like really hot ones (like Jordan and Uzbekistan where I have spent summers) and really cold ones (like Maine where I grew up and Siberia where I have spent winters) and get confused by moderate ones.

(14) Donnie collects gadgets; I collect people.

(15) Donnie grew up in the middle class in a city and attended one of the best public high schools in the USA; I grew up in the lower class on a farm and attended one of the worst public high schools in the USA (strange then that I would become the better student -- ah, right, motivation and interest...).

(16) Donnie can fix things easily, especially technological ones; I can break them easily, especially technological ones.

(17) Donnie cooks well; I cook abysmally.

(18) Donnie loves to eat; I forget to eat.

(19) Donnie likes to play; I like to work.

(20) Donnie likes to play computer games; I like to play musical instruments.

(21) Donnie wanted no children; I kept turning up pregnant and when I was done with that kept bringing home other people's children to raise.

(22) Donnie likes an empty nest; I fill it with cats since the children I have been gathering lately are fully grown young people.

(23) Donnie likes to drive; I like to be driven (hm, another complementarity, perhaps that works okay).

(24) Donnie prefers air conditioning; I get sick in air conditioning -- fans, including the kind you wave in front of your face, are my preference.

(25) Donnie forgets important dates, like our anniversary; I forget them, too. Ah, finally, something in common!

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I could go on and on and on with all the differences we have encountered over the years. People are right. We are very different from one another. Perhaps they are also right that opposites attract but the marriages of opposites don't last. There is always that possibility. Time will tell. Right now, we are at 40 and counting.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Where in the World Is Elizabeth?

I just thought of an interesting little competition. While I am gone tripping, please leave a comment, guessing where you think I am and why. And since I will not have access to the Internet, no one will see anyone's answers until I return so there will be no influence one upon another!

I will send a surprise gift to everyone who guesses correctly.

This will be fun, no?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

On Giving Away Everything

This year, Lizzie and Shane have needed large weekly monetary infusions due to lack of work. Lizzie's summer semester courses were cut, and Shane, as reported earlier in Clan under Siege, lost his job as a result of a threatened insurance premium hike on his employer for all employees due to the more than two million dollars that the insurance company had to pay out for Nikolina. Without going into the question of the value of life versus the value of money (I always choose life over money, and Nikolina at 18 months is showing that she has the will to make the most of the life she has been given), my son was left stranded with a wife who needed to stay home to care for a baby who could not be given care through babysitters or day care and no income.

I can state without equivocation that life fought for comes at a high cost in emotions, time, and, yes, money. So, here I am again in the position I was in when the children, especially the ones with birth defects, were small and needy, juggling bills. Now the kids are big and needy, and the bills I am juggling allow me to help them to juggle theirs. Of course, no one in the family has any savings. With million-dollar medical bills (not only for Nikolina but for three other children in the family), who would? I have to note here, though, that Stanford University Hospital, upon learning of the critical financial situation of Shane due to his summarily losing his job, told him that they wanted to keep the baby as a patient (the doctors are pretty darn proud of themselves -- as far as we know, only one other such baby, now a small girl living in Pennsylvania, has survived) and would help him however they could. They forgave every cent of the co-pay bills from birth up until Nikolina's second birthday (which will be in the spring of next year), at which point her medical expenses should taper off.

Nonetheless, living expenses remained a problem. Shane burned through his savings and withdrawn retirement funds while unemployed and took a 25% salary cut on his new job. Some day he will catch up to where he was. For now, I help him.

Some day Lizzie, too, will catch up. First, she needs to repay her student loans, and second, she needs tenure and promotion to associate professor. After that, she will be able to be on her own. I hope so since after that I would like to retire and devote full-time to writing and part-time international consulting. For now, that option is only a distant dream.

Recently, I told Lizzie, "I don't mind giving you all that I have. Just keep in mind that based on financial affairs to date, there will likely be no inheritance for you kids."

"No problem, Mom," she wrote. "I hate the idea of getting rich from your death." (Hah! No danger of that! In 2000, we moved from a 13-room house into a small RV and in the process gave away everything to the kids that they wanted, sold all of the rest that we could, and gave away all the rest to a neighbor who provided libraries in the Philippines with our books and needy families there with our household goods. We really did literally what Jesus said: "give away everything" and live for and with God. We have never missed any of it, and the joy of being unencumbered was surpassed only by the joy of all the people we were able to help with our accumulations.)

Personally, I hate the thought of my kids ever getting rich. That would mean a change in values. It would mean that they are no longer giving away all that they can, and I know that they do give away everything that they have at the moment if someone needs it more -- including what I give to them. I also know that they and my grandkids are as chronically happy as I am. I imagine it has a lot to do with not worshipping the god of money.

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