Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Noé, at age 17

Noé, at age 17, has finally mastered the art of blowing. This sounds ridiculous unless you understand that he has severe apraxia, which makes him unable to coordinate and initiate movements of his mouth and jaw on command. This is also the primary reason why he is nonverbal. For years, he ignored his birthday candles. We would "practice" blowing them out ahead of his birthday, but he just could never do it. Then, more recently, he "sniffed" out his candles. But this year, he shocked us all and blew out his candles on the cake he shared with his brother earlier this month at their family birthday party. Today, on his actual birthday, he was blowing out candles left and right, including the ones I put on his favorite meal: lasagna.
It's amazing how good these seemingly small victories feel when they come - especially when you've worked on these skills for years and you begin to wonder if they'll ever show up. You take your kid where they're at, love them, and hope for the best.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

12,842 words

That was my version of last month's NaNoWriMo.

Very short of the 50,000 words you are supposed to write (who picked November, a month of holiday prep and school activities for NaNoWriMo, anyways?) but I'm finally on my way to writing my first book!

And, guess what?  My book sucks!

(But that's okay, I've done enough reading about the writing process to understand that first drafts are never good).

I do see small glimpses of potential within the graphs. Sometimes I have to look hard, but it's there.

It's the greatest feeling to come up with an idea for a character and then get it into the draft.

I'm looking forward to piecing it all together into a book, learning a ton in the process, and keeping expectations grounded for this very first try.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Dear Dad

Dear Dad,

It's been almost twenty years since you died. I'm only four years younger than you were when you fell. That seems impossible.

Everything has changed, but nothing has changed. But mostly, everything has changed.

I married a Stanford graduate, for reals. But most importantly I married a kind and loving man. A man who is honest and doesn't cheat on me or in life. A man who loves his family fiercely. Luckily, he is my best friend, too. And my greatest blessing amidst the ashes of May 2000. You missed meeting him by just a couple of months, in fact. The only silver lining of you not being around anymore is that you two would be best sports and music buddies and that would be very annoying at times for me.

We have two boys! Teenage boys! Almost men, really. Asher is fourteen. I see Asher's playful nature in you. He is the kid that everyone likes and wants to be around, just like you. He loves all kinds of music, just like you. Sorry, he doesn't love sports. But he does run cross country, like you did in high school.

Noé is sixteen. We found out that Noé had autism when he was two years old. I missed you so much through his diagnosis. I always felt like you would know what to do. You would find a way to make it better. You would have helped us carry the burden.

Noé is his own person. I can't really say how he is like you, but I can say you would love him. We sure do. He's the center of the family. He always wants us to be together and happy (and eating). Wait, that is how he is like you.

You also have seven other grandkids. They are all healthy and happy and bright and reflect you in all kinds of wonderful ways. The cousins are mostly close in age and fiercely protective of one another. There was a legendary brawl at a pizza joint when one of the cousins was getting picked on by a random kid. This was back in their preschool days. Now they are teens and tweens and still love being together.

Dave, Jeff, Katie and Kelli? All of your kids have careers and significant others and are putting good things into the world. No one has spent a single night in jail.

Mom. I shouldn't speak for her, but I know she misses you. I also know she is content. She is a machine -- doing family history and learning new languages and serving at church and fixing up her house. She is a gentle light. She is unconditional love.

Speaking of fixing up houses, you will never guess where she lives. Not the Big House. Nope, Mom sold that sucker and it has officially been declared cursed (that's a whole other letter). She went back to Cherry Park, to the Red House on 104th. The Red House still has the cedar paneling you nailed to the ceiling in 1985 and the red shed you built out back. But it doesn't feel frozen in time. We congregate for birthdays and holidays and to just hang out and play basketball out back on warm summer evenings. Mom talks about selling it now and then, but let's face it, that house is in our DNA.

You will never guess who the president is: Donald Trump! Yes, he's the President of the United States and it has been the absolute worst.

Also, a year after you died some terrorists hijacked American planes and ran them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Three thousand people died that day and we call it 9/11.

But good things have happened too: We elected our first black president! Gays can legally marry now! And after experiencing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the stock market has marched straight upward for the last ten years. Today the Dow closed at over 27,000 (I'm not lying!) and the S/P is over 3,000. I remember riding in your Acura in high school and the newscaster announced excitedly that the Dow had finally broken 3000. A share of Amazon stock is worth over $1700 alone. Yeah, that is the little online bookstore. Now we buy everything from them.

I think you're pretty much caught up now. Oh, we're still waiting on the Blazers to win another championship. Sometimes I think that '77 banner will sit lonely in the Moda Center (no more Rose Garden....) forever.

Miss you everyday.

Love,

Jenni (but nobody calls me that anymore except for mom)










Tuesday, October 15, 2019

9th Grade English: 1989 versus 2019

"Mom," Asher asked me a little sheepishly. "I want to show you my narrative essay, but I have to tell you something first."

"What's that?" I asked.

"Our teacher lets us use swear words." Awkward pause. "Is that ok with you?"

I stop to consider this revelation and then quickly shift into writer's mode. "Well, I think that depends on how you use the words. Does it add emotion to your story? Does it make your characters more authentic? Or do you just use it crassly or for attention?"

"Uh....oh yeah....that makes sense. Well, I think I use it ok."

I glance at his title, "My F*cking Worst Day of Middle School."

Hmm.....


***************

Mrs. Durrell certainly did not let us use swear words in our essays. How I dreaded ninth-grade English class with Mrs. Durrell and her frosted perm and razor-thin eyebrows and outdated pussy bow-tie blouses. In Mrs. Durrell's class we read Great Expectations. But instead of discussing and dissecting Pip's coming of age saga and why Miss Havisham never took off that damn wedding dress and parallels between Victorian era social class norms and our modern day social class structure, we answered flat affective questions typed (literally....with a typewriter) in stapled packets about plot and setting and point-of-view and tone. The only true-world connection I've ever made to that book is when I go visit my favorite Portland donut shop - Pip's Donuts.

In Mrs. Durrell's classroom, Great Expectations, and the many other classics that followed, were taught in their time and place. A time and place which was foreign and disconnected to my own early 1990s American teenage middle class life. It wasn't until a few years later, in AP English class, that I realized the classics can transcend their borders and their timescape and should connect to every generation that reads them.

Sitting stone-cold bored in freshman English, diagramming sentences and filling out those packets, I never would have guessed that in adulthood, I would have an unsatiated desire to read and write my days away. Books didn't hold magic until that AP English class came along. And I didn't start writing until even later.


I / hated  /English
                 /
                /
               freshman

**************

Curriculum Night, Grant High, September 2019

I sit in Ms. D'Cruz's classroom and listen to her ten minute overview of her ninth grade English class.

In English, we will read a mix of classic and contemporary works – from Homer and Shakespeare to contemporary writers like Angie Thomas and Samira Ahmed, connecting literary texts to real world issues. Together, we will be psychologists and philosophers, asking questions about the human condition. This year, I am hoping to create a dystopian fiction unit, offering students a selection of books  around different themes.  

As writing instructors at Grant, , we work together closely to align our curriculum and ensure student growth. Our instructional philosophy in ninth grade English  is deeply rooted in The National Writing Project - we believe writing should be taught, not just assigned and sent home. Each skill is modeled for students, so they have a clear picture of what is expected. Each major writing piece is taken through multiple drafts and revisions before it is assessed. We believe in using not only professional models in our writing, but also teacher and student models, so we share much of what we write out loud.  In this we become a community of readers and writers, growing and (often) laughing together – and we have had lots of fun storytelling already this year as they are just starting to get to know each other as Hawthorne Community classmates.

After her presentation, I have to stop myself from begging Ms. D'Cruz to please let me join her class. I'm sure Asher would be cool with it.


************

I finish Asher's narrative essay and think it is quite brilliant, at least after we tone down the profanity. He is a natural storyteller and his writing voice is strong and authentic. In his essay, he uses dialogue well and even makes a couple of clever allusions back to his current English class. Ding, ding, ding....I think we have a writer!

We will work on perfecting cursing.




Sunday, September 22, 2019

Familia Guzman by the Numbers

Ed and I just celebrated another wedding anniversary, so I thought I should update our family numbers:


18: Years of Marriage
2: Kids
2: Languages Spoken in our home
4: Cities We've Lived in (Portland twice, NYC, DC, Seattle)
7: Homes we have lived in
5: Full-time Jobs (Ed)
2: Full-time Jobs (Jen)
8: Part-time Jobs (we're all about the side hustle)
2: Cars we've owned
9: K-12 schools the kids have attended in total (I am so not proud of that number)
3: K-12 schools the kids have attended together
5: Sports kids have participated in
3: Instruments played
27: States we have traveled together as a family
9: National parks we have traveled together as a family
2: Foreign countries we have visited 
3: Times my kids have thrown up since they were babies (two this month alone!)
3: Hospital Visits (lucky)
1: Life-threatening allergy
Infinity: Number of autism-related therapy visits
200%: The amount our monthly grocery bill has gone up over the last four years (no joke).
4: Years until college (not enough)


Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Noé's Secret School Life

We were on vacation this summer, somewhere along the Northern California coast, lurking among the giant Redwoods. We had just parked at a trail head to do some more exploring when a red, sporty convertible pulled up beside our sensible Honda CRV. It was driven by a middle-aged man in sunglasses with a huge happy-lappy dog in the backseat. I was fetching empty pop cans from the car, trying to avoid eye contact, as we had taken the final parking spot in the lot and the sporty convertible was probably annoyed with us. Noé popped out of his seat and I heard an audible gasp coming from the convertible, followed by a loud, "Noé!"

Huh? We were hundreds of miles from home!

I turned around and convertible guy introduced himself to me as Joe, one of the vice principals at Noé's high school. We chatted and introduced Asher, who would be attending the school next year, then he took off (since we had taken the last parking spot and all....whoops. It seemed really awkward to offer it up at that point?)

I was relaying this story to Noé's lead teacher, Ashlee, yesterday. Noé and I were at the school to register and get his student body card and TriMet pass and to tour the new school (Noé attended a temporary school building across town during the remodel, part of the reason I did not recognize convertible guy as school administration).

"Wow... I was just so impressed that he knew Noé by name! It is such a big school," I told Ashlee.

"Well....."

And then she told me the story of Noé's secret school life:

Last year was Noé's freshman year, and he was mostly enrolled in special education classes. The special education program is large enough that he was able to switch classes each period, just like a general education student. Noé did well with the transitions and quickly learned his way around the school, so his teachers started to let him travel to his classes independently.

However, he never seemed to make it to his class period directly before lunch. His teacher would inform the office, and inevitably VP Joe was sent out to hunt for Noé and send him to class. The first time he didn't show up for class his teachers and VP Joe were in a complete panic. "Maybe we had let him be independent too early in the school year," they worried.

But Noé was quickly located. He was found.... and this will not be a surprise to anyone who knows him... in the lunchroom inhaling an early lunch.

And every subsequent time he didn't show up for class, he was found... in the lunchroom. So yes, VP Joe got to know Noé very well.

Apparently his teachers tried all kinds strategies to help him remember to go to class and not the lunchroom, but nothing worked. The problem was they were assuming that Noé was misunderstanding his school schedule. But there was no misunderstanding - he was choosing lunch over class. It was his very own version of ditching class!

We have these types of problems with Noé constantly and I am always reminded of what my friend Ami once said about him, "Noé just does what everyone else really wants to." Yeah, he's kind-of my hero that way.

As Ashlee relayed this story, so much of last school year suddenly made sense. I felt like I was putting money into Noé's lunch account every week and when I finally sat down and did the math, he was buying an average of two lunches every day. Turns out he was buying early lunch and then regular lunch on my dime.

I also received regular school alerts informing me that Noé had been marked absent from class. But only one class per day. Yet I knew he was at school...

I decided not to contact his teachers about Noé's magically-disappearing lunch account balance or the mysterious absences. They are an amazing group of dedicated educators and terribly overworked. Noé was thriving at school. I would let the small stuff go. But I have to admit that I would find myself wondering about it this summer at random times. Mystery solved,  Noé has a secret school life in the cafeteria.








Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Fake Pact

Shortly after Noé was diagnosed with autism, I made a fake pact with God that I would not have to endure children who threw up. It seemed fair - I had a long row to hoe with Noé and having puke-y kids would just be over the top.

And then neither of my kids ever threw up and my fake pact magically became real.

They NEVER threw up! A mom friend would lament how their kid had puked on their face in the middle of the night. Or another friend might apologize for arriving late to something, "I had to clean up vomit from the car." I would give them a sympathetic, knowing look.

But I was such a fraud. My kids had never yaked in the car or in my hair or anywhere! I could never admit this to anyone. I feared losing serious mom cred. I feared saying the words aloud would invalidate the fake pact. So I stayed silent. And grateful.

Mid-morning last Friday, Noé was at camp and I was frantically catching up on paid work. I had only been able to sign Noé up for one week of camp this summer and I felt the clock ticking on my work productivity until I could ship him back to school. And then my phone rang. I let the call go to voice mail as I had a strong suspicion that it was someone from Noé's camp and I wasn't ready to face that reality. A minute or five later, I listened to the voice mail, steadying myself to hear that Noé refused to drink water or put on sunscreen or was touching a female counselor's bare leg (it's a sensory thing, I swear!)

"We are at the Tualatin Wildlife Refuge and Noé just threw up in the visitor's center bathroom. You need to come and get him as soon as possible," the director of his camp explained into my iPhone.

Wrong kid, I thought. I'll call him back and explain that Noé never throws up because I have a pact with God.

After making the director repeat back a physical description of Noé, it was determined that he had thrown up in the sink of the women's bathroom (that's actually when I knew for sure.....he always mixes up the men's and women's restrooms).

On the way home, he threw up again in the car, officially making The Pact null and void. Twenty-four hours later, Ed and I  had survived our first stomach flu. Our car still faintly smells of puke, the house has been disinfected, and I'll never have to fake a look of sympathy to a parent who has just endured cleaning up their kid's chunks again.







Saturday, August 10, 2019

Favorite Things, Summer 2019 Edition

Aside from my occasional meltdowns from dealing with Noé and his many needs all summer long, and a seemingly never-ending existential crisis about my career trajectory, this summer has been pretty great. The weather has been sunny but not too hot, no wildfire smoke (yet), and I have a mellow work schedule and a beautiful new yard to enjoy. We haven't traveled, aside from a trip down to the Bay Area, but we are all now officially in possession of passports and we are planning an international adventure this winter (TBD).

Here are some of my favorite things so far this summer:

1. Running or working out in the morning sunshine then coming home and consuming a huge hunk of ice cold watermelon.

2. Taking Noe out for bike rides in the evening around our neighborhood. Ed rides ahead and scouts for oncoming traffic and I keep him "boxed in" to the right of me on my bike. I can tell he loves the independence of being on his own bike. It is such a huge accomplishment for him!

3. Riding Noé through the local McDonalds drive-through for an ice cream cone on the RadWagon for a treat after he's finished his work for the day. I really hate McDonalds but Noe loves their ice cream cones, and as a bonus, it is really fun to annoy the McDonalds managers with our bike order. Then we ride over to Grant Park to enjoy the splash pad at the Beverly Cleary character statues.

4. Poking around my garden in the early morning light. Finding a hidden cucumber or zucchini under the leaf canopy - it's like finding a pot of gold.

5. Listening to Asher play the pianos at the local parks, especially the one at Mt. Tabor that overlooks downtown. When we go in the evening, the sun is setting and the light is gorgeous. Watching the crowds gather around him and film him with their cameras. Asher acting shy but loving the attention even more than the occasional tip he receives from a fan.

6. Eating most of our evening meals at our new table on the back deck. Playing cards or cornhole afterwards. Lingering with our conversations until we have to turn the lights on and light the candles, and not really caring if the neighbors hear us.

7. Not setting an early alarm.

8.  Biking to dinner or brunch around town with Easy Ed.

9. Walking along various Oregon beaches and just staring out at the water. I can count a hundred shades of blue.

10. The evening we got our sh*t together in time to catch a MAX up to Washington Park and pull out a blanket and snacks and listen to some great live jazz. Afterwards, we walked around The Rose Garden and retold our engagement and found a piano for Asher to play before riding the train home.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Serious People

I am reading this gem of a middle reader book. I'm not sure exactly why I like reading from the MR and YA section, but I do. There are a ton of great books for kids to read these days. I'd like to think the quality of writing has improved since I was a MR and YA.

While the book is mostly about a girl named Merci (Mercedes) and her changing relationship with her family amidst her grandfather's dementia, as well as surviving 6th grade at a private school, there is a quieter subtext of growing up as working class immigrant Cuban-American family.

One phrase that pops up continuously in family conversations is being "serious people." Familia Suarez is always worried about being perceived as "serious people" by the rest of the community. Merci is constantly reminded by her parents to be a "serious person."

A serious person seems to be defined as someone who is ambitious, engaged with their studies or work, reliable, and always doing what they are supposed to be doing in the place where they are supposed to be. I never felt the push to be a "serious person." I might even have felt more pressure at times to be the opposite.

But the hearing the phrase echoed throughout the book made me suddenly understand some things about Ed and his family and some of their behaviors that confounded me for so many years.

~ When we go out to a restaurant and The Abuelos order way too much food, or the most expensive item on the menu, to show they belong there.

~ Ed has always dresses up for work: clean-shaved face, dress shirt ironed and starched, slacks, dress shoes shined, even when working in the newsroom slums where half the staff couldn't be bothered to find non-flip flop shoes to wear to work (I'm looking at you Oregonian). I never really got why he felt he needed to look so professional all of the time.

~ The Abuelos constantly sending the kids dress clothes (no two boys have ever owned so many polo shirts and ties) and Abuela's constant nagging that I iron all of their clothes (I do not), and their obsession with the kids' grades and college, even as they never made it through middle school.

~ Casa Guzman adorned with American flags. They even have a bumper sticker on their SUV they received from the LAPD stating they contributed to some police compensation fund.

The list goes on....but the bottom line is that they still struggle to feel comfortable in this country they've lived in for almost half a century. On many levels, they feel like visitors that need to impress in order to keep their invitation.




Sunday, May 5, 2019

Come Hike with Familia Guzman




Hiking Observation Point at Zion National Park. A family that
hikes together......

I don't treat our family blog as a journal on purpose. I know it would make me feel constantly behind, and writing would quickly become a chore rather than an escape. So, I miss a lot of family events on here. For instance, last month for Spring Break we spent a fun week in Los Angeles visiting The Abuelos. We had perfect weather, great visits with family and friends, and California was greener than I'd ever seen her. One day we snuck out of East LA and hiked Malibu Canyon in full spring bloom. We saw remnants of the fall forest fires highlighted by bright green undergrowth and we remembered those same hills from episodes of MASH filmed on location decades earlier.

And last weekend, we camped at Cape Disappointment, just north of Astoria on the Washington side of the Columbia River. And we took a spectacular hike up to the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. We were alone on the lush green coastal trails, and the route offered gorgeous views of the beaches and river below.

Hiking is woven throughout our family life. It is something we can all do together. It is something we all enjoy doing, especially when there is a promise of a post-hike treat. It requires very little equipment -a huge bonus for our minimalist lifestyle. We are lucky to live in a place where hiking is easy to get out and do, and is also extremely rewarding. It doesn't take much driving or effort to find amazing trails and scenery. It gets us moving, off the couch and out of our heads - good for both the teens and middle-aged among us.

And for me, it is just the bit of adventure that I crave. I love the splash of nerves and adrenaline I experience before beginning a new trail. I never know what lies ahead….will there be steep edges? Wild animal encounters? Will it be peaceful or crowded? Will Noe get poison oak again from his insistence on touching all the plants?

Some of our best family hikes by our various residences …  


NYC
Everything was a hike in NYC. But with babies, no actual forest in the city and no car access, we were not hikers during this time in our lives.


DC

  1. Appalachian Trail via Shenandoah National Park, our first real non-urban hike as a young family.
  2. Theodore Roosevelt Island - the perfect hike with toddlers, just minutes from downtown DC and the Mall.
  3. Reston Trails - Reston was a special place to live. A suburb that felt some parts suburb, some parts urban center and a few more parts rugged wilderness. The trail from Walker Nature Center to the lake was a favorite and just minutes from our home. I also learned to appreciate the beauty of winter hiking on these trails, especially all the opportunities to spot birds on bare winter tree branches.
  4. Great Falls - the trail system wasn’t extensive and it was always crowded, but the waterfalls were very beautiful and also a short drive from our home. 
Washington State
  1. Rattlesnake Ridge, just east of Seattle
  2. Mt. Constitution Trail, on Orcas Island
  3. Lava Canyon Trail and the suspension bridge! near Mt. St. Helens
  4. Discovery Park - we hiked it extensively and often, but a specific hike on a gloriously sunny January 2018 day with the snowcapped mountains in full view with the Sound below us helps vault this urban nature park onto our “best” list.
  5. Carkeek Park - We also knew these trails inside and out, but they were especially glorious in the fall when the salmon were spawning



Props to my Best Seattle Friend Julie for getting me on the Washington trails with my kids and teaching me how to get them to hike long distances.  Hint: candy


Oregon



We are just getting started in Oregon, but here are a few of our favorites from visits over the years:



  1. Eagle Cap Wilderness - shhhh...don’t tell anyone about the magical Wallowa Mountains.
  2. Crater Lake Rim. We hiked it July 2017. I hadn’t been since I was a kid and it took my breath away. There was still so much snow that we couldn’t access parts of the trail. The kids were so enchanted with the views they didn’t complain once!
  3. I will always have a soft spot for Wildwood Trail in Forest Park. Most memorable was running the trail for the Forest Park 10K with some of my siblings.
  4. My favorite Columbia Gorge hike is Triple Falls, but maybe it was because we had such a beautiful day to hike it. Noe did it barefooted. Thank goodness we were in Oregon so it wasn't weird. I have lots of memories hiking in my younger days with my BFF Angie, but I'm excited to share the Gorge with my family in the coming years and as it slowly recovers from the recent devastating forest fire.
Other Favorites:

  1. Devil’s Garden at Arches National Park. Between the heat and hopping large boulders, I’m so thankful we’re all still alive.
  2. Observation Point at Zion National Park. Also heart-stoppingly wonderful.
  3. Damnation Creek Trail - Five miles roundtrip through magnificent CA Redwoods to the ocean. I think this was my all-time favorite hike with my people.
  4. Temescal Ridge Trail - near Pacific Palisades, along CA coast near Los Angeles. Breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. And snakes!





Friday, February 8, 2019

Snow City

Most people think pre-snow hysteria in Portland is ridiculous and I totally disagree. I think it is one of the best things about Portland.

All day today, everyone was buzzing. How much snow will we get? When will it come? How many days will the kids get off from school? How mad will we be if it just rains!?!  There was a current of excitement that went beyond usual Friday levels.

Biking home from work, I spotted people outside salting down their sidewalks while chatting with neighbors. Another man was awkwardly lying on the ground trying to put chains on his car. I stopped by the library to pick up some reading provisions to get us through the potential of consecutive homebound days. Packing up the books and getting back on my bike, an older woman, a complete stranger, approached me and gave me a hug for being out on a bike in this kind of weather, all to help our planet. I didn't have the heart to tell her that I love to bike so much, I might still do it if it increased greenhouse emissions. It's just a lucky twist of fate that biking helps me look like a heroine of the planet.

And I'm pretty sure people who live in the Midwest don't empty out their grocery stores at the threat of 2-4 inches.  It's all a part of the hysteria that makes Portland quirky. While pre-storm grocery shopping isn't exactly fun, it's definitely a memorable experience and a great reminder that our food isn't necessary limitless. I went into Trader Joes with a quick exit plan, but there was less food and longer lines than during my visit to Ruble Crisis Russia in 1999. 

I came out of Trader Joe's with frozen vegetables, soup, spaghetti noodles and sauce and frozen orange chicken. None of it on my original list, but it will get us through the weekend. I also came out of Trader Joe's to....RAIN. Not a single flake in the sky.












Monday, February 4, 2019

Sitting with my grandma at the hospital

I'm just sitting here,
holding grandma's
hand, watching her die. (Jan 22 text to Ed)

I walked into her room that night a little ill-prepared. She looked fine, good actually, for someone so close to death. But I did recognize the death, and hadn't experienced it in-person since my dad passed away. I immediately wanted to run far away from it.

But I sat down and held her hand. And thought of the million ways she's loved me over the years. And I looked at her sweet face, still full of color. And I felt her soft, warm, wrinkled skin, and hoped I could pass a little of that love back to her.