Sunday, April 19, 2015

Saying No To The Abuelos

(Originally published January 4, 2006 on Tales from the Crib blog)

Our family is finishing up our “West Coast Holiday Tour.” With my husband Ed’s family living in LA and mine in Portland, we try to divide our vacation time as evenly as possible.

On Christmas Day, we traded balmy LA for a little Portland rain, but not before a silent showdown with Ed’s parents, aka The Abuelos.

The Abuelos immigrated from Mexico to East LA in the early 1970’s. Ed’s father works as a garbage man in the vast suburbs of LA and Ed’s mom spends most of her day cooking as well as nagging Ed on the telephone. They have achieved the American Dream, which in their minds includes owning a modest home and oversized American automobiles, and keeping their grandsons outfitted in overpriced designer clothing, typically at least two sizes too large for their little bodies.

My relationship with the Abuelos has been difficult at times. Cultural differences abound with my husband always caught in the middle. To keep peace, I have tried extra hard lately to please them. 

Christmas Eve had been a day of complete overindulgence and excess. It began soon after the roosters in East LA started cock-a-doodling, when a truck pulled into the Abuelos driveway and a group of men proceeded to blow up a giant balloon castle. Our boys just turned 3 and 1 years old. They seemed pretty young to have their own castle, but I tried to be excited. These kids also received constant presents throughout that day as well. I was gracious, and saved my worries about how much money the Abuelos had spent on my kids, what spoiled brats they might become, and how we were going to haul the gifts back to New York, for later. 

And the boys really did have a wonderful day. They jumped on that stupid castle for most of the day, stopping only for food and juice breaks.

Christmas morning, everyone seemed a little hung over from the previous day’s holiday food and castle hopping. The Abuelos insisted, however, that I put the boys in their new Ralph Lauren suits for the plane trip. They also acted offended when we suggested that we ship the Christmas toys out to New York at a later date. They insisted we take food with us for our trip. Because, after all, how will we survive a three hour plane ride without tamales and chorizo (smelly Mexican sausage)? After some discussion, Ed and I decided to honor our Christmas peace agreement. We silently packed up the food and toys in shopping bags and were off to the airport with our seriously overdressed toddlers.

I knew it would all end badly.

On our crowded Southwest flight, we quickly regretted our silence. Ed and I were exhausted and grouchy from trying to carry two toddlers and multiple bags of toys and food through security and onto the plane. One-year old Asher threw up twice on his new RL suit before we had even reached Oakland. We couldn’t contain the smell of our Mexican food storage and any plane turbulence would send off a hundred cheap plastic toys singing ‘Old McDonald’ and every other annoying nursery rhyme known to man. Passengers began to comment on the smell drifting down from the overhead compartment. Poor 3-year old Noe was walking off the plane behind me, when I looked back to discover that his too-large RL suit pants were around his ankles. The poor child had a full audience of Southwest passengers laughing as he tried frantically to keep up with his exhausted grumpy parents sans drawers. 

I am already preparing my “No Suits, No Toys, No Food” speech (in espanol) for next year’s visit. And if I lose my nerve, next time I’ll at least have the good sense to chuck the food and toys into the nearest airport garbage can and bring a change of clothes for my kids!

Friday, April 17, 2015

May 16, 2000

(Originally published May 17, 2008 on Tales from the Crib blog).

That was the day I lost my dad and found my life. 

I had a great dad. He was the dad who nailed a wooden basketball hoop to our backyard shed for my eighth birthday and didn't worry that I was the only girl on our block whose birthday wish list did not include Strawberry Shortcake or a My Little Pony. Dad would sneak me out of the house to run errands or go to ball games with him before my other brothers and sisters could be jealous, because he knew I needed a break from being the oldest. One year, he stayed up past midnight helping me finish the Christmas presents I was making for my friends.

He did the funniest impression of my junior year English teacher, Ms. Kullbom, where he slid his glasses down his nose, squinted his eyes really tight and scowled like an old bird. One year, for Halloween, he dressed up as a nerd and went into his office wearing broken glasses, a pocket protector and taped toilet paper to the bottom of his shoes. He was the owner and president of the company.

Aloe-scented after shave, warm wool sweaters, Simon and Garfunkel, eggnog french toast, NBA games on lazy Sunday afternoons, magical summers on the beaches of Maui....these things will forever represent the life I had with my dad.

A tragic fall from a roof, sleepless nights and jigsaw puzzles in the ICU waiting room, my brother's tearful goodbye...his fingers caressing my father's cheek, my mother's house bathed in flowers and casseroles, and a very large and public funeral with no time or space for mourning....these things will always represent his death.

My sophomore year at BYU, Dad surprised me with a trip to Washington, D.C. for my birthday. He had a conference to attend, but we managed to do a fair amount of sightseeing together. While we were walking near the US Capitol, we watched a fleet of limousines pull up to the Capitol building. I remember him saying we should wait and see if anyone important comes out....and I replied, "I am already looking at someone important." Such a cheesy line, for sure, but I really meant it. 

Dad had always loomed large in my eyes. And understandably so, he had accomplished a great deal in his career, in his public life, in his home. I spent a lot of time during high school and college trying to live up to what I perceived to be his impossibly high standards. No GPA was high enough, no career choice perfect enough, no boyfriend good enough to bring home to him. These weren't things he ever said to me, but expectations I placed on myself. The year before his death I felt particularly lost. I was finished with my undergraduate degree but felt adrift. I felt beaten down by my college boyfriends and wondered if I would ever find true love (ridiculous to think about now considering I was 23 at the time).

And then one day I went to work and got the call that changed everything forever, my dad was in a coma and he wasn't coming back.

The days following his death are still a haze of grief and shock and anger and exhaustion. Walking down the street left me winded, catching a ball felt shaky...even though a week before I had been in nearly the best shape of my life. I never realized how physical grief could feel. Have someone kick you square in the stomach and live that feeling for an entire year...that was my grief.

And then eventually, between the waves of grief, a new, unexpected emotion emerged....Relief.  Not relief in the variety of "thank goodness he is dead." Even eight years later, I crave him. I want so badly to share the life I have built with him. I want him to play with his grandsons and to sleep in our guest bed and talk sports with Ed. Instead, the relief I felt was a kind of freedom. Freedom of expectations removed. Freedom to start living the life I wanted for myself.

And that I did. Over the next two and a half years, I got married, graduated from MBA school, moved across the country and had a baby. Talk about putting your life on fast forward.  Initially, a lot of guilt accompanied these feelings of freedom. Since then, I have read that this is actually a pretty common reaction to losing a parent. I've read stories about adult children making huge life changes soon after a parent dies, everything from quitting a smoking habit, to changing careers, to moving abroad, all resulting from the relief of expectations removed.

I fully anticipate I will feel free of another set of expectations when my mother passes away. And I will also miss her terribly.

And I hope that when I am dead, my own children derive some peace and happiness from their own newly found freedom.

But not too much.

Neighborhood Swimming Pool

(Originally published on Tales of the Crib blog, August 8, 2008)

Our summer routine has gone something like this: I get home from work, we eat a quick dinner, and we spend the rest of the evening at the pool. Ed joins us at some point in the evening, depending on his work schedule.

Yesterday, our neighborhood pool was closed, so we tried another one. This was our first time at the pool, and apparently it is not very popular because it was completely empty, save two teenaged lifeguards. They were less than pleased to see us as our presence meant they had to turn off their ipods and cell phones and actually do their jobs.

And let’s just say that my boys weren’t winning any awards for good behavior. I spent most of our pool time putting one of them in “time out” for running, or getting another out of the filtration ducts that keep them strangely fascinated. When I had finally settled down with my book, five-year-old Noe plopped down on top of me with his wet little body, completely drenching my clothes and my book. Meanwhile, three-year old Asher had to go potty, and insisted on using the urinal in the men’s bathroom. I obviously couldn’t go in there, so I shouted directions to him from outside the bathroom. He couldn’t reach it, gave up and came running out of the bathroom with his swim trunks around his ankles. I scooped him up like a wet, noisy fish and forced him to sit on a toilet in the women’s bathroom before he had an accident.

I’d like to say that this was unusual behavior for them, but unfortunately it’s pretty typical for those last hours just before bedtime.

The two lifeguards looked on with horrified amusement. They whispered back and forth. I could almost hear what they were saying, “What little brats. Why can’t she control her own kids?” I could almost hear them, because those had been my own words when I was their age. 

We stayed until the pool closed, and all walked out together: teenaged lifeguards and mother with the bratty little kids. The teenagers got into their sporty SUVs and cranked up the radio. I loaded the boys into their car seats, and cranked up NPR. As the teenaged lifeguards looked at me in my nine-year-old sedan one last time, I knew their thoughts, “I never want her life.”

And as I watched the teenaged lifeguards speed out of the swimming pool parking lot, their lives so full of angst and unnecessary complication, I whispered with amusement, "I'll gladly keep my own life, thank you."

Rite Aid Haiku

(Originally posted on Tales from the Crib blog, March 12, 2008)

in the checkout line
gripping my Vics and Nyquil
hazy with the flu

two girls curse and slur
punching and slapping ensue is pregnant

white suburbanites
observe with looks of horror
I only want sleep

now walking outside
expecting the stale Queens air
wait....I'm in Reston

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Happiness is Working with Brad Pitt

(Originally posted on Tales From the Crib blog on October 30, 2007)

My 2-year old Asher's favorite question these days is, "Baba (aka me), you happy?" Ok, maybe this is more like his third favorite question after, "I silly, Baba?"and "Are we going to play CARS or WHAT?" 

The first time Asher asked me if I was happy it really caught me off guard. Such a simple question and such a complicated answer. Asher, if you only knew....

Well, as for the big, important stuff....I couldn't be happier. I love my husband, I love my kids. I couldn't have chosen a better husband for me and father for them. I have great relationships with my mom and all of my siblings. I talk to each of them at least once a week. With a lot of work, I've even developed a good relationship with the in-laws. I am pretty happy with the person I have become, the beliefs I hold dear and most of the decisions I have made along the way.

Most days, I do enjoy staying at home with my kids. I like having control over their earliest influences and just simply having some fun with them everyday. Although I have yet to find the perfect outside work versus home balance, I feel fortunate to be able to control how much time away from home I am willing to work during their earliest years.

However, I have little voices in my head going on all day....voices that eat away little by little at this Happiness. Voices that ask me, "Am I doing this whole stay-at-home mom thing well enough? Is having me at home REALLY going to make a difference in the lives of my children...or am I just driving myself insane for no reason?" Or "Why exactly did I spend all of those years pursuing higher education in order to spend half my day scrapping kiddy crud off the kitchen floor?" Or, "Is this (insert playgroup/storytime/playdough/singing "Popcorn Popping" 1,000 consecutive times) supposed to be fun...or am I seriously missing something?" Occasionally, I find myself asking, "Is my life exciting enough?"

One day when the voices were winning, Ed called home to tell me what time he would be home and, oh, by the way, Brad Pitt was hanging out at his office and he had just returned from a meeting that he attended. WHAT??? I'm not usually star struck but BRAD PITT!?! What was he doing there? Is he even better looking in person? Was Angelina there too? All of these questions while I was on my hands and knees scrubbing pee from the carpet after another not-so-successful potty training session with Asher. It felt like a low point. Maybe if I hadn't quit my career I would be having lunch with Lisa Lang or Meg Whitman instead of this.

Hardly. That was my conclusion after shutting the door to my room and taking a few deep breaths. If I hadn't quit my career I would probably be working through my lunches, or dining alone at some cheap deli, in order to get home as fast as I could to my kids in order to squeeze a few minutes of quality time before we all self-destructed and drug ourselves to bed. I've seen it over and over, and while some moms can make it work, I know myself well enough to admit my life would be a juggling act where I would be dropping balls right and left.
I also reminded myself that Ed's job isn't really all that glamorous unless you dig selfish, overpaid professional athletes or you are fascinated by Watergate. People like Brad Pitt don't walk into his office everyday. In fact, he was there doing research for an upcoming role and my husband's contact with him was very brief. A much different reality than the image I had in my head a few minutes earlier…..Easy Ed shooting the breeze over vodka tonics and cigars Oceans 11 style while a few miles away in a Northern Virginia townhouse I chased around half-naked, snot-nosed boys in my own suburban housewife hell.  
Luckily, most days these voices do not win. And, at least according to my apparently very secure husband, Brad Pitt is even hotter in real life.

Spelling Bee

(Originally posted on Tales From the Crib blog, April 21, 2007.  Asher was 3 yo).

My Asher is quite the little speller and counter (thanks mostly to HIS heroes and MY weekday 9-10am PBS babysitters Cookie Monster and Count Von Count). He will count his peas before he eats them, count how many steps it takes up to the slide at the playground and he will even count the buttons on the shirt of the lady behind us in the grocery line. He loved learning his ABC's and now spells out the words he encounters in his everyday two-year-old living. He won't be reading Moby Dick any time soon or anything crazy like that, but there is such a pure joy for me in watching him develop a love of learning.

As for street smarts, Asher isn't quite there yet. For example, his loud, very deliberate spelling often gets him into trouble. Even if he doesn't tell me directly, I always know exactly what he is doing, even from a room or two away:

Asher: "T-M-O-B-I..."
Me: "Asher, please don't play with my cell phone!"

Asher: "O-R-E-O"
Me: "Sorry Bugs, no cookies until after lunch."

Asher: "K-Y-J-E-L-L.."
Me: "Asher, get out of that drawer right now!"

His usual response, "Otay, Mommy..." and we find something else to do together.

If only he would continue to spell out his activities to me loud and clear right through his teenage years....and if only playing trains or reading a book together would continue to work as a quick diversion....

I have a sneaking suspicion that things aren't going to stay this easy forever

No Deodorant Miracles, Just a Lot of Sweat and Tears

(Originally published Saturday, May 19, 2007 on Tales from the Crib blog.  Noe was 5 years old).

A couple weeks ago I dreamed that my four-year-old autistic son, Noe, was strapped down to a hospital bed while being examined by Dr. House. If you haven't seen the television show, House is an eccentric curmudgeonly genius who solves impossible medical cases in an hour. While House was examining Noe, something caught his attention and he started sniffing around the room until his nose landed under my armpit.

"What kind of deodorant do you use?" he asked.

"Secret, I think," I replied with a puzzled look.

"Switch to Dove and your son will be fine," he instructed in his irritated, know-it-all voice. And then he turned to leave, off to solve his next case.

Of deodorant was causing Noe's autism! Why hadn't I thought of that in the first place? It all made perfect sense....until I woke up.

It has been two years since Noe's diagnosis. Two years full of anxiety and research and therapies and more anxiety and lots of medical bills followed by even more anxiety. We have attacked his autism using a variety of approaches. We are treating him biomedically, taking advantage of supplements and keeping his diet free from gluten and casein, which often exacerbate autism symptoms. We have a private ABA program, which relies heavily on behaviorist theory to teach him new skills. He has speech therapy to increase his language. He attends a special ed preschool program, which is preparing him to be integrated into a regular elementary school.

Every time we start a new therapy, I try to be realistic. I tell myself he will make progress, but it will take time and patience and hard work. But a small part of me still holds hope for a "deodorant cure"....that a particular therapy will click with Noe and rid him of his autism forever.

It is possible. More and more kids are recovering from their autism.  Some kids respond amazingly well to certain biomedical treatments, and other kids, if they start young enough, can essentially be cured of their autism through hours and hours of behavioral therapy. Noe has hit a lot of developmental milestones in the last couple of years, thanks largely to his therapies, but he is far from cured.

Most days, I am ok with it all. I know that even if we never find that quick cure, Noe will still find his niche in life and be happy and productive. Most days I feel lucky to have Noe in our family. He is a sweet, affectionate, beautiful child who does a lot of normal 4-year old stuff: He rides his bike like a maniac, loves to swim and hang from the monkey bars, he whines about eating his fruits and vegetables and fights with his younger brother. Most days I say to myself that if this is our family's cross to bear, I consider myself blessed.

And then there are the other days. Days I spend on the phone with our health insurance, trying to figure out why they won't pay Noe's claims. Days I spend looking for qualified therapists for our ABA program, or trying to convince the ones we have to stick around even though we can't pay them what they're worth and they have no health insurance. There are evenings when I spend 4 hours getting Noe to settle down for bed, only to have him wake up every hour during the night. On his worst days, Noe can't focus enough to play or learn and reverts to his own world where he spins his toys or claps his hands or laughs hysterically at nothing in a corner by himself. On those days, when no amount of coaxing or bribing will bring him back, I go to my bedroom and scream into my pillow. I curse his autism and ask God, in all of His power, why He won't bring Noe back to us.

I am learning that some miracles come fast, others slow, and I'm redefining what Noe's miracle will entail. It will be the sum of the resources, energy and time we put into his therapy regiment over many years. It will encapsule all of the hard work Noe puts into his own therapy sessions. It will be amazing teachers and therapists along the way that find ways to motivate him to learn.

That said, I still wish all I had to do was change deodarant brands.

MY AVG Child

(Originally posted on Tales From the Crib on Saturday Jan 14, 2006.  Noe was 4 yrs old, Asher 2 yrs old).

Asher Victoriano Guzman. It was only AFTER we named our second son that friends poked fun of his initials. I was a little annoyed that I had unwittingly condemned my son to a life of being 5’8/ a C student/ in middle management. Let’s be honest here, everyone thinks their kids are destined for greatness and way too much of our self-worth as parents is tied into how our kids turn out.

Six months after Asher’s birth, my older son, Noe (then 2 ½), was diagnosed with mild autism. Average suddenly sounded really wonderful. 

Noe doesn’t do anything within the mean. His language skills are severely delayed. He just turned three and is barely starting to say words and understand simple directions. His social skills and some of his fine motor skills are also delayed. 

On the other hand, Noe possesses an amazing aptitude for visual and spatial relationships. He puts together 100 piece jigsaw puzzles in minutes and can find his way home from just about anywhere (it’s like having my own little GPS with legs!). Noe continues to bring me a tremendous amount of joy, but his jagged development is maddening and often stressful. Despite the progress he has made through various therapies since his diagnosis, I stay up many a late night worrying about his future.

As much as I love Noe, I have come to appreciate my AVG son and every developmental milestone he passes not early, not late, but right on time.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Lessons from Tia Nanny

(Originally posted on Tales From the Crib blog on Monday, October 6, 2008.) 

We don't really call her Tia Nanny. She is "Abuela" to the boys and "Tia" to Ed and I. She is Ed's aunt, a woman who lived in his house in East LA growing up and is very much a mother to him. She is an immigrant, the first in her family to arrive in the US. She is a US citizen. She is a fervent orthodox Christian, no longer Catholic. She is the best cook you could ever imagine....her kitchen is a studio and she is the artist. And for the summer, she was our nanny.

Before I get too far, I want to say that we were very appreciative of Tia Nanny's help this summer. She took extremely good care of the boys, allowing Ed and I to work in good conscience. I directed a summer enrichment academy and could not have managed without her. We really needed to make a chunk of extra income this year, between our oldest son's autism therapy expenses and a car that will need to be replaced sooner than later. My job and her service provided this for our family.

A lot went down this summer, a lot I am still processing here in October. There were some funny moments. The fresh mint that kept appearing in Tia Nanny's morning tea and the eventual realization that she was pilfering from the neighbor's garden. The day I left for work admiring my blooming hydrangea and then came home to see it pruned back to a nub.The short haircuts that she insisted the boys wear so they could resemble Barack Obama. 

There were some less funny moments. The petty fights she had with our neighbors, relationships that we are still working to mend. The expensive tickets we purchased for her and Ed to spend an evening at a flaminco performance, only for her to change her mind about going at the very last second, putting us in a lurch. And the various cultural barriers that often felt like mountains that I just didn't have the energy to climb.

While our goals for the summer were to get ahead financially and for our boys to know their abuela, Tia Nanny seemed determined to turn me into a traditional Mexican housewife.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a mediocre housewife and I am fine with that fact. I have no Martha Stewart aspirations. My house is generally clean and organized, at least at the end of the day. I usually fix quick meals for dinner, but once a week or so I'll spend a couple of hours preparing a nice dinner. I don't bake bread, but I would like to give it a try someday. Same with sewing something besides curtains. I could always do better, but I don't exactly need a housekeeping intervention.  When I'm working full time, Ed does a good share of the housework as well.

Each day after I returned from work, Tia Nanny was waiting for me at the top of our staircase...motioning for me to come see her. She always had a criticism to share, complete with visual aides and a teaching lesson on how to do it the right way. You folded the laundry wrong (but it's folded).This ironing is NO GOOD (why do I need to iron the boys play clothes?).This food is NO GOOD for the boys to eat (well, it's somewhat nutritious and they'll eat it). Why you only buy the tiny bags of rice? (cause that's all they had at the store).

My reaction to her lessons depended greatly on my mood. Some days I was amused and made furious mental notes so I wouldn't forget to share the high comedy of her daily rant with Ed. Some days I just endured....waiting out the lecture until I could be free to spend some time with my boys, both of whom I had missed so much during the day. Some days I wanted to yell at her and tell her to leave and that we didn't need her help after all. But I never did. Out of respect for Ed, and also because we really did need her help.

One day after work I returned to the aroma of flautas and rice on the stove. We never expected Tia Nanny to cook our meals, but it was always a treat when she did. She showed me how to fry up the flautas (something I had done a million times, but I indulged her). She told me that she was going to her room to rest, but to be sure to heat up the rice on the stove (NOT the microwave, the microwave NO GOOD!) and to serve Ed freshly fried flautas when he returned home from work. And not to eat my own food until he was served.

By the time Ed returned from work, it was much later. The boys were fed and I was playing with them out front, trying to squeeze out just a little more fun from the summer evening.  Ed went into the house and heated up his own meal. We thought nothing of it. Like most couples of our generation, Ed and I operate under rules of pragmatics rather than tradition. We do what needs to be done and we don't pay much attention to traditional gender roles.

Returning from work that next day, Tia Nanny met me at the top of the stairs unusually agitated. Que paso? I asked. You didn't serve his dinner last night did you? No, I replied and tried to explain that I was watching the boys out front when he returned home. Apparently, last night had been my Good Housewife 101 final exam and I got a big fat F.

It makes me very sad that you do not take care of my son, Tia Nanny whimpered, dangerously close to tears. That he returns home from work each day and has to heat up his own hurts my heart.

I was upset, but not because I had disappointed her with my lack of good housewifery. It is just not in me to be that wife. I was deeply saddened that she felt my husband was not cared for in our marriage. That she had lived with us for the entire summer, but had failed see the ways that we take care of each other. The affectionate hugs, the long walks and late night talks, the general positivity that runs through our marriage, even when things are hard. That she couldn't see how we cared for each other so deeply, now that was hard to take.

It's a cultural thing. That's a sentence I mutter often to myself when I am with Ed's family. Love in Ed's parent's home is expressed in a clean house, a fridge crammed with food, a dinner feast served every evening and freshly laundered  clothes in your drawers. It is a lovely and important way to show that you care for your family, but it will never be my own chosen signature of love.

I wanted to tell Tia Nanny all of this, everything in my heart. But my Spanish just wasn't going to make it there. So I looked straight into her eyes and said, "Lo siento, Tia." And I meant it, I was sorry.