Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Tell Me Something Good

I’m hitching up to the Fantasy To-Do List bandwagon, as challenged/inspired by Mary Allison at The Makeshift Revolution. The task:

“the purpose of a fantasy to-do list is to start thinking beyond all of the many obligations that abound long enough to envision what life might look like with a few little added refrains of fun. items on these lists have a strange way of slipping out of the hypothetical world and into our real lives!”

So with both total fantasy and optimistic goal-setting in mind, here we go …

• Attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop
• Publish a book
• Take an annual two-week vacation in an open-air suite in Fiji
• Attend a Prince show at Paisley Park
• Publish another book
• Perform a stand-up show filmed for an HBO special
• Spend long enough in a small, European coastal village to be welcomed as a resident
• Publish another book
• Win the National Book Award
• Or the PEN/Faulkner
• Live without debt
• Change minds
• Sell out a tour of solo acoustic shows
• Swim every week
• Be Oscar-nominated for Best Original Screenplay
• Have (access to) a horse and enough space to ride it at a full run
• Take my family to visit all the places I grew up
• Learn my full genealogy
• Speak at my alma mater’s commencement
• Write a memoir worth reading

Monday, May 24, 2010

In The Air Tonight

I try to steer clear of giving anything that might sound like parenting advice, but I feel that, for the benefit of humanity and my fragile ego, I should share what was probably one of my most dramatic successes as a mother.

A couple months ago, Miss M – who, I will remind you, is 6-years-old - started having some issues about going to bed. She’s never been a great sleeper by any definition, but after three years of being nursed to sleep, and another year of being accompanied until unconsciousness, she’d gotten into a solid, year-plus habit of going to sleep on her own. But suddenly, our usual routine of book-lights-off-story-snuggle wasn’t enough, and she was growing clingier and needier by the night.

Bedtime itself was longer and more difficult, and then, out of nowhere, she woke up in the middle of the night and called out for me. Twice. In the same night. That was more than she’d woken up in the previous year. The next night, it happened again, and I spoke to her about ways she could calm herself down and get back to sleep.

After a few nights of reportedly normal bedtime behavior at her dad’s house, I figured we were out of the woods. But no, the woods were actually all around us, and filled with those really mean trees from The Wizard of Oz. Our usual bedtime routine, normally about 20-30 minutes, stretched into an hour and a half of stalling tactics. She said her stomach hurt. She said she had to pee. She said she had to tell me … something. When I finally told her I had to go and get her exhausted brother to bed, Sassy took my place at her bedside and she eventually settled down.

For four hours.

At the strike of midnight, she was hollering at the top of her lungs, “MAAAAAAMAAAAAAAAA!” I ran to her and checked for bleeding or armed intruders, but no, the only problem was that she was awake. And, according to her, would never be able to fall asleep. Ever. The steadily worsening nights just proved that point to her; she's the kind of kid who will say “I will never …” until the very moment she can say, “I just did.” She continued arguing this point, at various volumes, for the next two hours. I really can’t even convey the intensity of it without using excessive caps and exclamation points and embedded sound files of my head exploding. She was a tornado of illogical arguments and irrational needs, and if you got close enough to engage with her, she’d suck you entirely in. Despite being utterly exhausted and barely able to keep her eyes open, the slightest move to step away from her bed would result in her bolting upright and starting the entire debate all over again. At 2 a.m., when I moved her to the living room, the spot farthest from any other sleeping person in our 9-passenger house, she was finally able to calm down and fall asleep.

In the clear light of the next day, we had a calm and lucid discussion about the inappropriateness of her behavior. We talked about her long history of being a good sleeper and how she needed to remind herself of all the nights she went to sleep just fine. She took it all in stride, and approached bedtime with a renewed sense of confidence.

And then the lights went out.

I could go into deep detail about the subsequent two weeks, but they were basically all a variation on the night described above. Except worse, because as the nights went on, so did the efforts to discourage her behavior through punishment. But no matter how long she was grounded to her room or how many times she wrote, “I can go to sleep and stay asleep,” her 2 a.m. mantra was the same. And it went something like: “I CAN’T SLEEP I NEED YOU I CAN’T SLEEP I WANT TO SLEEP ON THE COUCH I CAN’T SLEEP I DON’T CARE IF I’M GROUNDED I CAN’T SLEEP WAIT I NEED TO TELL YOU SOMETHING!”

Again. And again. And again and again and again.

I was, as you may expect, exhausted and frustrated beyond measure. I felt like a zombie during the day and, well, one of those really, really angry zombies during the night. Nothing was working and I had no idea what to do and this was our new routine for the rest of our lives.

In consulting with the more experienced parents in my household for possible solutions, however, a brilliant new possibility was suggested: rewards.

As a child raised almost exclusively through the power of feared parental disappointment, it never occurred to me that some kids may need to see more concrete benefits for good behavior, but I gave it a whirl. I made up a calendar, and told Miss M that for every night she went to bed quietly and stayed quiet all night (see how I never used the word “sleep?”), she would get a sticker. And when she had five stickers in a row, she could get $5 to spend at Target. If she held out for ten nights, she’d get $10, and so on in 5-night increments.

And it worked! That very first night, she caught herself in mid-whimper and let me leave her room without a fuss. With the condition that I leave her door open and come back to check on her in half an hour (“How high do I have to count?” “Nine-hundred, dear.”). Easy enough.

And, okay, I hedged my bets a little. I got us a bottle if Hyland’s Calms Forte for Kids, a homeopathic sleep aid, and gave her four doses before bed (the recommendation is up to eight). I’ve used multiple Hyland’s products, from teething tablets to colic tablets to our much-treasured boo-boo stick (Bumps & Bruises ointment), so both Miss M and I had some faith that it would help.

Since then, it's like we entered a parallel universe. Miss M has handily reached the first $5 point, and is now saving all the way up to $20, which we agreed would be the end of the chart system. We’ve talked about how the chart is just a symbol, and that the real rewards are the things that happen naturally when you do the right thing: she feels better during the day, she gets in less trouble because she’s not tired and cranky, I have more energy to play with her, etc. We  reduced the Calms dosages until they disappeared entirely. When I tell her it's time for me to go, she says, "Okay, good night, mama." And most importantly, she’s created a new frame of reference she can look back on if she starts to doubt herself again.

And the next time I'm in the midst of a parenting quagmire I can't see how I'll ever get out of, I can remind myself that I just did.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Let's Get Physical

About a month ago, I embarked on my first genuine effort to get in shape. After a lifetime of picky eating and speedy metabolism, including five years of pregnancy and breastfeeding, I hit my mid-thirties, a desk job, and weaning all at the same time. As each season passed, so did my ability to fit into the previous year’s pants. I’m not that skinny girl who’s going to complain about being fat, but the truth is that I have a freakishly small frame, and I can carry a lot of extra weight without looking heavy. And I just kept carrying more. With a beach trip looming and Jillian Michael’s 30 Day Shred DVD on sale at Amazon, the timing seemed perfect to finally take some care of my body, instead of just seeing what it could take.

I’ve had bursts of exercising before, but nothing ever really stuck. Classes were too expensive and hard to get to; walking was too dependent on the weather; workout DVDs took too long. What appealed to me most about The Shred, aside from the $9 price, was the 20-minute length. I figured that twenty minutes was a reasonable amount of time to expect my kids to entertain themselves (or Sassy and RJA to entertain them), and they’d probably even be fascinated enough by the colors my face was turning to watch me for that long. And sure enough, as I fought my way through the first of the three progressive workouts, they’d dash in and out of the room, doing jumping jacks beside me and laughing at my squats.

And frankly, it helped. The distraction of their constant barrage of questions helped me to focus on something other than the white-hot fire threatening to spontaneously combust my quadriceps. I could have used it during the rest of the day, as well, to help me forget that I couldn’t get into a sitting position without assistance.

The Shred promises a twenty-pound weight loss in 30 days. I didn’t need to lose twenty pounds, but I’ll admit that I was a little surprised when my 7-day weigh-in showed that I’d gained 1.5. After a few days of meal-tracking, however, I realized I was taking in a lot more calories than I thought, generally in seemingly innocuous items like bread and pasta. Not wanting to waste the grueling work I was doing, I started paying more attention to my diet. Not dieting, mind you, but giving a second thought to what, when, and how much I was eating. By the end of two weeks, my weight was still the same, but the muscles I’d been fighting so hard to locate were no longer buried under a layer of refined flour.

The pain dissipated, but then I moved up to Level 2. The higher impact exercises did my already-stressed limbs in, and after three days, I was forced to rest a very sore iliotibial band. I was scared that being out of my new routine would make me slide right back into my sedentary ways, but then a funny thing happened. I actually wanted to be active. I walked, I did low-impact cardio, I did yoga, and then in a few days, I went back to The Shred, this time alternating the workout with other activities. Four weeks from the day I first met Jillian, I ventured into the Level 3 workout. I finished the three circuits exhausted and pushed to my limit, but thrilled with the knowledge that, just a month ago, I’d never have made it past the first three minutes.

I haven’t gotten on a scale in a while, and I don’t really care what one might tell me. I can feel that my body is stronger, and see the results in everything from my posture to my pant size. I don’t know if The Shred will remain part of my long-term routine, but it’s gotten me off to a great start, and I’m much more motivated to keep the shape I have now than I was to reach the ambiguous goal of getting a better one.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Chapter Two: I Think I Fell In Love With You

I’m hesitant to put one list after another, but I figure I can consider it inspired by Elizabeth instead of just blatantly copying her gig. She just posted her 25 favorite novels* of all time, which made me think how weird it is that I, as an English major and professional writer, might have a hard time doing the same. And sure enough, when I looked at my list of 5-star books on Goodreads, most of the titles were pictures books from my childhood. I love books, but how many books have I looooved? Turns out, about fifteen.

1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (1885)
2. My √Āntonia, by Willa Cather (1918)
3. In Our Time, by Ernest Hemingway (1925)
4. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
5. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)
6. The Outsiders, by S. E. Hinton (1967)
7. Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
8. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman (1973)
9. Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut (1987)
10. Fair and Tender Ladies, by Lee Smith (1988)
11. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving (1989)
12. High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby (1995)
13. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon (2000)
14. Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)
15. Between the Bridge and the River, by Craig Ferguson (2006)

*I’m an avid memoir/travel/non-fiction reader, but for some reason, those selections seem inappropriate for this list. Suffice to say that this blog would likely not exist were it not for influences like Bill Bryson, Sarah Vowell, and David Sedaris.