Sunday, January 21, 2018

Life's Not Perfect

Graphic from Malavika Suresh blog post 
I was thinking on the tagline I wrote for this blog some 12 years ago. Yes, 12! "Life's not perfect, but it sure is fun."

Not perfect indeed. My goal has always been to write about the ups and downs of life, not just the niceties. There's been one subject I haven't shared so much, because I respect my now 14-year-old's privacy. But her diagnosis of severe anxiety disorder has turned our family upside down, in ways not written about here.

This fall, she began to attend Southwest High School, our local public high school, for her freshman year. The school is two blocks from our home. I always imagined my kids going there, our home becoming a stopping off point for friends after school, a safe place for teens to gather.

Instead, after four days there, her anxiety was at such an all-time high that she could no longer muster the strength to physically leave the house. If you have ever witnessed someone having an all-out panic attack, then you understand when I say she could not physically go. This is not a matter of obstinance, will, or being spoiled. Her brain was functioning in such a way that going to school would have been bad for her health, and unpleasant for everyone around her.

So she stayed home.

Within the week we had found an option of MPS Online, the online education arm of Minneapolis Public Schools. She began taking classes online, staying home all day to work on the lessons.

But her anxiety would rear its ugly head throughout the week, despite having removed the trigger of being in a school. She often did not get a full 5 days of classwork in, which meant that as the weeks went on, she fell further and further behind. This had the added benefit of increasing her anxiety.

There's so much more, but this isn't about Lindsey, this is about our family.

In October, after nearly a month of online high school, Wayne and I began discussing how to best help Lindsey, and he floated the idea of my staying at home.

I surprised myself by not jumping at the idea. I mean, my workplace was not perfect, none are, but I have worked my entire adult life, and I really liked my job. I was given full rein over how I chose to fundraise, I got to write, my teammates are experts in their areas, passionate and driven. Plus, it was incredibly flexible with the demands my family had made on my time. I mean, what more could a fundraiser need in a job?

I had begun working at home Mondays to help Lindsey get her week started, and we discovered that Mondays were always Lindsey's best day. She got up on time, she ate healthy throughout the day, took her supplements, had a productive school day and took decent breaks (meaning walking the dog instead of playing a game on her phone.)

This idea began to grow. My husband the conservative accountant began running the numbers. Is this possible? Miraculously, it was. It was possible.

I wanted to stay at my job through the end of the year. After all, at a nonprofit, that's when all the fun stuff happens! I could not let my team down by leaving them during our busiest time of year. I gave my notice the week after Thanksgiving and gave them a month to become accustomed to the idea that I would not be starting 2018 with them.

And in January my new life began.

I can best describe the change in a single incident.

My youngest child is always ready for school nearly an hour before she needs to leave, so she can have some time to relax. One morning she and I are in the kitchen. My hands are around a mug of coffee and I am listening to her tell me about something that happened at school.

I inexplicably began looking for something to do. Surely it wasn't right that I was just sitting there, listening? There must be some task I should be doing. Then I The most important thing I could do at this moment is look her in her beautiful gray-green eyes, give her my full attention, and listen.

So I did. And I realized that it had been days — days! — since I had looked her in the eyes. What a sad statement on the busyness of life.

Yes, life is not perfect. But I am grateful that our family is in the position to make the changes we're making, to make it a little better for everyone in our family.

Friday, December 01, 2017

My Big Small Town

Best service in the city. Go if you need a new eye doctor. 
I woke up in screaming pain one day this past week. I opened my eyes and felt like someone was stabbing a knife directly into my right eye. I could not open it, I could not move my left eye without my right feeling like it was being scraped by sandpaper.

My youngest, God bless her, brought me a cold washcloth and a cup of coffee with cream, just the way I like it. I laid in bed, unable to move my eyes, or move in general without being in pain, for an hour. I patiently waited for 8 a.m. to roll around so I could call my eye doctor for an emergency appointment.

I called and got the office voice mail informing me that on Thursday, of all days, their hours are from noon to 8 p.m. But...there was a phone number to call for urgent care. I called; it was my eye doctor's cell phone.

I left a message and she called me back within 2 minutes. She made arrangements to see me that morning even though the clinic wasn't open.

By the time I arrived the pain had subsided substantially, probably due to the ibuprofen I'd been popping and the lack of eye movement. She confirmed what I suspect, which is that I had somehow scratched my cornea (I don't recommend doing this). It probably began healing overnight, but upon awakening in the morning ripped the healed cells back off my cornea, thus the stabbing pain at that time.

She called in a prescription to the pharmacy for antibiotic drops and gave me directions on how to care for it while it healed. We chatted about our kids; her oldest is in 1st grade, my youngest in 7th, at the same school.

I drove straight to the pharmacy, where I was greeted by Meg, who knew that a prescription had just been called in for me, but there was another waiting for me as well. Psst...I didn't even give her my name, first or last. They just know me there. I'm not sure if it's a good thing that the pharmacy staff knows me that well, but in this situation, it was incredibly reassuring.

I walked out of the store, smiling to myself, thinking about what an amazing small-town service experience I had while living in a major metropolitan city. As I stepped out, I saw my neighbor, an 89-year-old woman who has lived on our street her entire life, waiting at the stop light for the light to turn green. She and I waved to each other, the light turned green, and off she drove, eyes just inches above the dashboard of her large sedan.

Yep, I definitely live in a small town. In a big city.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Pinnacle of Skating Season: North Shore Inline Marathon

I have not been skating much this summer, like last summer. Last year I developed plantar fasciitis which meant my feet were in extreme pain for two days after skating. This year, my feet are a bit better, but still not great.

I've only been out on my skates a few times this summer. I did the Minnesota Half marathon the first weekend in August, and it was exhilarating. I had forgotten how awesome it feels to skate on an open road, without having to worry about bikers or others on the trail. Before I knew it I was at mile-marker 7; I couldn't believe the race was halfway over! I finished in a little over an hour and was surprised at how quickly it had gone by.

That weekend I signed up for the North Shore Inline Marathon, six weeks after my half marathon.

I only got on my skates once more between the half and the full marathon. I was not well-trained, but I didn't really care, I wasn't going for a certain time, I was going for the thrill of it. Kristi and the girls came up with me for support; my own cheering section!

The thrilled started a little early. The drive up Friday night was awful. About 20 miles outside of Duluth we hit fog that got thicker and thicker. Soon I was peering straight in front of the car, hoping to not lose sight of the lines on the road. There was no exiting the highway because I couldn't see where the pavement began or ended, and could not tell if other cars were nearby. That was not the kind of thrill I was hoping for. We made it safely to the hotel, nearly 1 1/2 hours after we should have arrived.

The morning of the marathon looked no better. We drove to the shuttle pick-up in dense fog. Once there, it began to pour. Lots of skaters were consulting with others on whether or not they were going to do the race. I had braved such terrible driving to go there, there was no way I wasn't going to try. I figured that unless they canceled the race, which they would only do for lightning, I was going to skate it.

By the time the bus got to the start line the rain had stopped, the fog lifted and there was no discernible wind. The pavement was wet but in good condition. Road improvements over the past year meant that the majority of the 26.2 miles was on smooth pavement -- no cracks or "tar snakes" to gum up wheels. Due to the wet pavement course marshalls were recommending no drafting, making what is usually a very social event one of solitude instead.

The first two miles are almost completely downhill. It felt wonderful to just tuck and go. The storm had churned up Lake Superior, which was visible to my left, angry and gray.

I had forgotten that for much of the course, skaters have to climb up and then the terrain flattens out, then climbs again. There's no coasting downhill for several miles. And then there was mile 11, a long, slow downhill, curving gently to the right.

The lake was practically in front of me as I began, sounding like an ocean in the crashing of its waves. I tucked low and began down the hill, gaining speed. Faster and faster, until I checked my watch and saw that I was going 24 mph. Cool air, crashing waves and speed=exhilaration.

The rest of the race felt wonderful until about mile 21, when my lack of training became apparent. I felt like I was using every last bit of strength and was moving in molasses. There are a couple of big hills near the end when we get off the interstate -- a volunteer walking along the side of the race course was going faster than me. How embarrassing.

Finally, the finish line! Kristi and the girls were cheering me on and I couldn't let them down. I completed the race in 1 hr 57 minutes, beating my goal of 2 hours by a few minutes. It was such a wonderful feeling, knowing I had made it through the sludge of the last few miles to finish with gusto.

I've already signed up for next year's marathon. This time, I'm going to train for it.

Just minutes after finishing. So great to see my cheer team at the end (including the one behind the camera).

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Our Dog the Celebrity

I don't mean to brag, but it turns out our dog Beauty is a celebrity.

There's a certain place we go where she is greeted by name the minute we walk in the door. Staff stop to pet her, and they can barely contain themselves taking turns to give her treats.

That place is Walgreen's.

This is one of the pluses of living in our walkable, dog-friendly neighborhood. There's a Walgreen's three blocks from our house, and they let dogs shop with their owners. Between our family of four we've got five prescriptions on auto-renew; we are there a lot. Plus it's an easy stop for a gallon of milk, some chocolate, or other items.

We know most of the employees by name. There's Kris, who walks to work 2 miles one way. Only during thunderstorms or blizzards does he take the bus. And John, the pharmacist tech, who recognizes me and knows to look for prescriptions under one of two names when I appear at his window. And Muhamed, who is afraid of dogs but tolerates Beauty. Of course, Monica is our favorite, because she feeds Beauty treats one after another right out of the box behind the register, and then usually steals one or two into our bag as she's checking us out.

We walk in and whomever is working the register usually greets the dog before s/he sees who is accompanying the dog. "Hi Beauty!" we'll hear upon entrance.

Beauty usually checks register #2 first -- if no one is there, she'll walk around to register #1 and sit politely, waiting for a treat. The minute she sees an employee in a light blue shirt in any aisle, she walks up to them and sits down, eagerly waiting for a treat.

If you let her lead the way, she'll walk you straight to the pet food/dog toy aisle, where she will sniff everything in earnest.

She doesn't usually get to have one until we check out, and then the farewells begin: "Bye Beauty! Bye pretty dog! See you again!"

Some day I'll teach her how to give out her autograph.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Concert Ticket for One, Please

On Friday night I joined dozens of my friends and fellow U2 lovers and went to the U2 concert at the US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Except I sat alone.

I knew many of my friends were planning on going, had probably purchased tickets the second they went on sale. Because our family life has been so unpredictable of late, I didn't buy one. As the date came closer and closer, I knew I couldn't miss one of my favorite bands for the second time in three years. I nabbed a cheap ticket from a neighbor on and made plans to go alone.

Turns out that I was able to have dinner beforehand with my childhood friend Lisa and her sister, Kathy, who traveled from Green Bay to the Twin Cities to visit and take in the concert. We walked to the stadium after dinner and then parted ways. I headed up to the top-most tier, second to last row from the back wall.
Lisa and Kathy, two of the four "Hirsch girls" as they will always be to our family. 

Looking out the massive glass doors of the stadium onto downtown Minneapolis on my way up to my seat.
I chatted for a bit with the couple next to me, who had also purchased their tickets from the same couple I had. But once the concert began, it was just the music and I.

I danced. I sang. I stood up when nobody else around me was. I belted out every word to the lesser known songs when no one else was singing.

The visual show was incredible. Inspiring. Magical. I am so glad I took in this experience.

The Joshua Tree, opening scene.

The real Bono is the white spot in the blue light on stage. The visuals were unbelievable.

Gives a new meaning to "harvest moon." 

It's not the first time I've gone to events on my own, the first one being Creed in 2010. I had loved the band at their height but lived in Mankato at the time, and going to the concert in the Twin Cities was a bit more daunting then. Now, on what I suspected would be their last tour, I couldn't miss them. I ended up connecting with a gay couple next to me during the concert, and we went out afterwards for a drink.

Another time two of my favorite guitarists, Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, were in a tour called "The Hendrix Experience," with some of the top guitarists paying tribute to Jimmy Hendrix. No one was interested in going with me, so I bought myself a ticket and went. I ended up leaving that one early because I had forgotten to bring ear plugs and I was so close to the stage that I was seated in front of the wall of speakers. I love a good Joe Satriani solo, but knew I was doing my ears damage when my head started ringing. When I walked out into the crisp March night the world was muted and didn't sound quite right until well into the next day. Oops.

When "Les Miserable" came back around the Twin Cities I wanted to go, even though I'd already seen it previously with my husband early on in our marriage. He had no interest in seeing it again (he also doesn't watch re-runs on TV, unless it's a Star Trek series), so I bought a ticket for one and went. I had forgotten how moving and tragic the music was; I cried through almost the entire thing. It didn't matter -- no one knew me.

One plus of buying a single ticket is that you can buy them at the last minute and get much closer to the stage than if you needed to buy two seats together. I sat in the 16th row at Creed with a walkway in front of me; yeay for extra space for dancing!

My sister goes to lots of events on her own. Sometimes I feel badly that I am not able to join her, but experiences like this one make me realize that it isn't lonely to go to events alone, it is freeing. I don't have to worry if someone else is enjoying him/herself, or if I've picked a place that meets his/her needs. I don't have to make extra stops for food, drink, or bathrooms, outside of what I need for myself.

I don't want to ever regret not taking in an experience because I wasn't willing to do it alone. So thank you, U2, for an unforgettable concert.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

An Open Letter to Superintendent Ed Graff and the MPS School Board

Dear Mr. Graff and the MPS Board of Education,

The chaos of the beginning of this year's school year at Southwest High School is a great example of why you don't make significant administrative changes three weeks before the school year starts.

You already know about the kids who showed up Day One with a half a schedule, or were double booked for classes in the same hour. (Hermione's time-turner, which allowed her to attend multiple classes at the same time at Hogwarts School of Wizardry, is a piece of fiction, by the way.)

Did you hear about the classes so packed that not only were there not enough chairs for students to sit, but there wasn't enough room in the classroom to put those chairs, even if they could be found?

Or students who believed that their schedules were set, only to show up on Day Two or Three and be told that they were being pulled out of one class and put into one they hadn't signed up for, to make room for students who need their spot in order to graduate?

What you probably don't know is the impact this has had on those whose schedules were set and never changed, like my daughter, an incoming freshman. People who try to dissect what's going on in our public school system talk a lot about the numbers. I want to demonstrate the impact on a single student, my daughter Lindsey.

My daughter has a 504 plan for severe anxiety disorder. Her anxiety about attending high school has been heightening ever since she entered 8th grade and realized that it was her last year of middle school. Yes, that's a full year before high school began for her.

Her care is being managed by an incredible team of medical professionals, working on nutrition, psychiatric care and therapy to help her anxiety get under control. Many days it takes all of her strength and courage just to leave the house.

She called upon that strength to attend two days of freshman orientation, and to attend the first official day of school on Wednesday with upperclassmen.

In the meantime, I had been reaching out to various people at the school to try to address the needs outlined in her 504 plan. We were not able to pull together a meeting before school started, which makes sense now, considering that the administrators who were key to this process were missing. During this time, multiple things happened at school that intensified her anxiety.

On the first day of school one of her teachers strictly told the students that once class begins she would be locking the doors and no one would be admitted without a pass. This is the day after freshman orientation, when students were told that teachers would be lenient with kids who are late to class while they figure out how to get around the school. Being locked out of a classroom is my daughter's nightmare; because she's still learning the school and didn't want to be late to any classes she didn't use a bathroom between classes for the rest of the day.

One part of her 504 plan allows her to leave a classroom if the content being discussed is triggering for her, yet none of her teachers know this, so her overall anxiety just being in the classrooms was heightened.

She thrives on structure and was excited to get started on lessons. Yet the chaos of students being moved from classroom to classroom meant that teachers were not yet starting lessons until they knew their classrooms were set. Two days of name games for everyone to learn everyone else's names? I told her to bring a book to read, but again, her teachers don't know about her 504 plan or her anxiety, so she did not feel comfortable doing so. I asked if I could email teachers directly to let them know, but she doesn't want to be "special" so she absolutely refused to let me.

A friend was suddenly re-assigned removed from a health class she had signed up for to performance theater, because the spot was needed for a graduating senior who needed the class. The uncertainty of knowing if Lindsey would have the same schedule one day to the next only made her anxiety worse.

The freshman dance, which was insensitively scheduled on Eid ul Adha, was canceled because someone finally realized it should've never been scheduled for that day in the first place. For Lindsey, that was the carrot that had been getting her through the week, and it was suddenly taken away.

Finally, Friday morning, her courage was depleted. Every day she called upon a well of strength that no one outside of her understands, and every day events happened that made her anxiety worse. I could not assure her that lessons would finally start, and I could not physically move her into attending. And so she stayed home.

She missed nearly two months of 8th grade due to her anxiety;  this is now only the 3rd day of high school and she was out of courage.

I finally got a hold of a social worker at SWHS in person on Friday, and the poor woman got the wrath of fury that she absolutely did not deserve. The staff are doing everything they possibly can on the "important AND timely" box of priorities. Because of that, my daughter's "important but NOT timely" needs did not get met.

She is now under doctor's orders to NOT attend school until we can make the environment less triggering for her. I need the school's immediate help to put her 504 plan in place ASAP so she can attend for at least part of the day.

I am a huge proponent of public schools. I believe in them, I believe that every student deserves a quality education, that our society is made better by the education of future generations. Yet my faith in MPS' ability to provide this education has been shaken, and it is not the fault of the staff at the school, who are furiously working to fill the void of these sudden absences at the top of the school.

Why would three top administrators at one of the district's largest and most successful high schools be removed three weeks before the start of the school year? How is it that the district under-estimated the attendance of the school by nearly 200 students, so that it is not properly staffed at the beginning of the year? Why can't class schedules be accurately assigned before the start of the school year?

Our family has the resources to go elsewhere, and it appears that finally, after 9 years of a public school education, we will be leaving for private schools. This makes me sad for the public schools, because those with the resources to make them better leave, and those without have no choice but to stay. And we wonder why public schools are in decline.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

I Was Okay Until You Asked if I Was Okay


My boss's father recently passed away quite unexpectedly. He had a history of heart troubles, but he had been healthy of late. He even recently traveled to Minnesota from the east coast to visit family, and was feeling good up until the morning he died.

The family is saddened that no one else besides his wife got to say good-bye to him, and yet, truly, isn't this how all of us want to go, quickly, not linger on in the care of someone else?

In the days that followed, his widow did not want to go out. She would look out the peephole of the condo door before taking the garbage out, because she didn't want to run into anyone and have that person ask how she was.

Many of us are like her. We are fine on the outside, seemingly functioning, taking care of ourselves, getting up in the morning, eating, working, even laughing.

But the minute someone asks "Are you okay?" it becomes very obvious that we are not.

Living with anxiety or depression is like that. It can sometimes take all your strength to get out the door, to leave the security and comfort of your home. Even the very thought of leaving brings tears, but finally, by God, you're out the door, into the world.

And then some well-meaning person sees red-rimmed eyes, the aftermath of the effort to join them, and says, "Are you okay?"

Well dammit, you were until someone asked. Suddenly all of the struggles you've worked so hard to shove away deep inside are right there on the surface, exposed. You find yourself on the verge of tears, fingers trembling, face reddening at the lie you have to tell.

For me, my well-perfected answer is, "I'll be fine, thank you for asking." End of conversation, or at least I hope.

Except, I have people in my life who ask, "Are you suuuure?"

And unless this person is a confidante, someone who is in my inner circle of people I connect with, lean on and share my life with, usually s/he is just curious. People living with anxiety or depression do not just walk around spilling their guts to everyone who asks "Are you okay? Are you suuuure you're okay?"

Those who are dealing with the aftermath of a loss, like my stepmother or my boss's mother, often don't need or want to rehash every last detail of their loved one's final hours. Some do, but then you never need to ask "Are you sure?" because they'll be talking your ear off and you'll be nodding and looking at them while practicing your sympathetic expression.

Those suffering from anxiety or depression look a lot like grieving people; if you were a part of their healing circle, you would know it and wouldn't be asking "Are you suuuure?"

I guess my point is...

Please ask "Are you okay?" and be okay with whatever answer you get. If you somehow feel urged on to ask, "Are you sure?" stop yourself and instead say "Let me know if I can help." If you can, that person will let you know.

Sometimes this small kindness is all it takes.