Sunday, May 28, 2017

Martha's Month and Pam's Plans

Recently I received an offer for a free subscription to Martha Stewart Living magazine if I renewed my current subscription to another magazine by the same publisher. Since it cost me nothing, I decided to accept the offer, not even knowing how amusing I would find this magazine. On page one of every issue, readers are greeted with “Martha’s Month: Gentle reminders, helpful tips, and important dates,” a calendar with brief notes apparently highlighting what Martha plans to do each day. Clearly, she and I lead very different lives, and her agenda often makes me laugh. For example, why does she really need to “Sharpen knives and scissors” on June 19th?  Does that have anything to do with her plans to “Deadhead peonies” a week later?

I notice that she never mentions doing laundry, grocery shopping, or even spending time at the Target Dollar Spot. Perhaps she has staff to do those tasks that seem to consume so much of my time. I also suspect that her plans on the 9th to “Clean outdoor lighting fixtures” probably involve a more thorough job than my simply tapping the glass until the dead bugs fall out and then kicking them into the grass with my athletic shoes. Speaking of athletic, Martha admirably and diligently plans to exercise (weight training, yoga, cardio, and core on a rotating basis, of course) every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. My fitness routine is much less structured, consisting of random stair climbing to find things Alex has lost, contorted stretching to shave his face and tie his shoes, and power walking as a means to keep up with his long-legged strides. On three of those days when she is getting physical exercise, I’m getting mental exercise by working the Sudoku puzzle, knowing that Alex will carefully check my accuracy and call me on any mistakes I might make.

A good deal of Martha’s time seems to focus on gardening. She plans to plant melons, beets, spinach, lettuce, bush and pole beans, and sunflower seeds next month––all on different days. Instead, I will be planting myself on the couch to watch Jeopardy and baseball games with Alex. Martha will also weed her various gardens: rose gardens and vegetable beds. Instead, I plan to weed through autism research next month, looking for ways to make Alex better. The fruits of her labor allow her to “harvest garlic scopes” and peas; however, I harvest pens for Alex by lifting couch cushions and having them magically appear.

In other ways, perhaps Martha and I are not that different, after all. On June 2nd, she plans to “Wash and groom cats,” which I can’t think would be too much different than my washing and grooming Alex on a daily basis. On the 11th, she plans to “Pick strawberries for jam”; I just pick up strawberry jam at the grocery store. While she plans to “Stock up on summer wines” on the 7th, I plan to stock up on toilet paper around that time. On the 27th, she has earmarked time to “Feed roses,” and I feed Alex multiple times every day.

Aside from the small chores, we both have important tasks next month, as well. On the first of June, she will “Cover garden paths between beds with salt hay.” [What is “salt hay,” anyway?] On that same day, I will be teaching my last day of seventh grade English, trying to keep my students in their seats by walking the paths between their desks without the benefit of salt hay. On the fourth, she will “Judge the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum’s National High School Design Competition,” which sounds impressive. The next day, I will be meeting with Alex’s psychiatric nurse practitioner to go over his comprehensive metabolic profile, lipids profile, complete blood count, medication levels, and complete thyroid panel results, which also sounds fairly impressive. On the 24th, Martha will be enjoying recreation, as she plans to “Go for a horseback ride.” I, on the other hand, will be calling in Alex’s prescriptions, impatiently waiting for the ads about shingles and pneumonia shots to finish so that I can punch in the numbers to refill his medications.

Even though Martha’s life seems much more glamorous than mine with her plans to “Host friends for picnic” on the 10th and “Brunch” on the 25th, I wouldn’t trade my life for hers. She’s busy growing flowers, fruits, and vegetables in her garden while I’m busy helping my son grow and bloom into a fine young man, in spite of autism. My month may be more mundane, but I’m certain that the harvest I will reap will be much more fulfilling in the long run. Besides, I’m not big on gardening, wine, or cats. Instead, I think I’ll harvest some Bic ballpoint pens today for Alex before we plant ourselves on the couch to watch 1100 miles of auto racing with the Indianapolis 500 and the NASCAR Coca Cola 600. Now, that’s a gentle reminder, helpful tip, and an important date!

“The Lord will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring.” Isaiah 58:11

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Finishing Strength

In our house, the month of May tests our endurance. As Ed and I finish up teaching for the school year, we find ourselves engaged in grading multiple papers and exams, sitting through end-of-the-year meetings, and trying to maintain the enthusiasm we had in August with students who would rather be outside enjoying the nice weather. Even though Alex continues his schedule of support services throughout the summer, May always seems to be difficult for him, too. Because he is quite intuitive, he likely senses the stress Ed and I feel trying to accomplish everything we need to do, despite our best attempts to keep things calm for Alex. In addition, the high pollen counts and unpredictable weather with varying air pressures along with his concerns about severe weather, namely thunderstorms and tornadoes, makes May difficult for him, as well.

Recently, he apparently caught the virus that was going around and making people lose their appetites. Fortunately, he doesn't seem to be in any discomfort and hasn't complained of anything bothering him. Not wanting him to lose weight and strength, we have encouraged him to eat and drink whatever appeals to him. Although he has been compliant, his diet still includes a limited range of soft foods, such as applesauce, pudding, and scrambled eggs. We keep trying to tempt him with foods we know he loves, but even when shrimp or meatloaf nears his mouth, he makes a face indicating disgust and tells us he’s not hungry. Our formerly meat-loving son who would eat nearly anything placed before him has become a vegetarian who favors fruit. However, we know with Alex that phases pass about as quickly as they appear, so we try not to fret about his current eating habits.

Other than his appetite, Alex appears healthy and content, still energetically happy hopping through the house and enjoying his usual activities. However, we have noticed that the tremor in his hands caused by one of his medications seems to have increased, making eating more difficult for him, and requiring more assistance from us. In addition, he is not as eager to go places as he usually is, which makes us think he’s still not completely recovered from the virus he had a couple of weeks ago.

The other day, Ed mentioned that he had noticed a white film in Alex’s mouth when giving him pills in the morning, and he wanted me to take a look in his mouth. Armed with a penlight, I couldn’t see any redness or sores, but I did see the telltale milky film we see when he has yeast overgrowth in his digestive tract. After more than a year of having the yeast under control, the beast sadly seems to be back. With the extremely warm and wet weather we’ve been having along with an immune system compromised by a strange virus, Alex was susceptible to the invasion of yeast in his digestive system. No wonder he hasn't been interested in eating much! However, we were thankful that the usual primary symptom––irritability, sometimes displayed in a meltdown––has not been present.

Fortunately, we had the prescription medication Diflucan on hand and gave him a dose on Friday and will give him the second dose tomorrow, praying that one round of antifungal will wipe out the yeast in his digestive system and heal him. Next weekend, we will take him for his routine six-months lab tests, which will help his doctors and us see if anything else could be contributing to his change in appetite and increased shakiness. In addition, he has his usual biannual appointment scheduled in a couple of weeks with the nurse practitioner who oversees his anxiety medications, so we can consult with her about our concerns. Hopefully, he’ll be all better by then so that we can spend the appointment talking about how well he has done since he last saw her in December.

With all the other stresses at the end of the school year, I really didn’t need having to worry about Alex’s normally healthy appetite being off. Feeling overwhelmed and fatigued, I have briefly toyed with the idea of having the lesson plans for the final two weeks of school for my middle school students revolve around watching YouTube videos while playing with fidget spinners. Of course, they would be thrilled, but I know that’s not what's best for them. Moreover, I know that I would not be giving them my best, which I always strive to do. With eight class days to go with my students, I will pray for strength, patience, and peace, knowing that God has me where He wants me to be for now, relying upon Him and waiting for what He has planned, and continuing to hope for Alex’s complete healing.

“But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” Isaiah 40:3

Sunday, May 14, 2017

If Not For You

“If not for you
Winter would have no spring
Couldn’t hear a robin sing
I just wouldn’t have a clue
Anyway it wouldn’t ring true
If not for you.” ~Bob Dylan, “If Not For You”

Dear Alex,
If not for you, I wouldn’t have fulfilled my lifelong dream to be a mom. Thanks for letting me be yours.

If not for you, I wouldn’t be a NASCAR fan. Thanks for sharing one of your favorite sports with me so that I could enjoy it as much as you do.

If not for you, I wouldn’t have learned to wait patiently. Thanks for teaching me that good things, indeed, come to those who wait.

If not for you, I wouldn’t know the ABC Chicago meteorologists on a first-name basis. Thanks for making me as enthusiastic as you are about watching the weather reports on television.

If not for you, I wouldn’t be assertive when I need to be. Thanks for giving me reasons to stand up for what is right, making sure you get what you need in life.

If not for you, I wouldn’t know who, when, or where the Chicago Cubs are playing on a daily basis. Thanks for including me in one of your favorite pastimes so that we can cheer on our team together.

If not for you, I wouldn’t have had met the wonderful people who comprise your support team. Thanks for allowing your friends to be my friends, too.

If not for you, I wouldn’t truly appreciate the value of numbers and patterns in time, dates, addresses, and pi. Thanks for helping me overcome my dislike of math, something you adore.

If not for you, I wouldn’t have seen an endearing side in your daddy as he speaks sweetly and gently to you, makes sound effects to entertain you, and talks about you with such loving pride. Thanks for showing me what makes me love him best: his love for you.

If not for you, I wouldn’t pay much attention to the stock market or gas prices. Thanks for keeping me apprised of the daily trends you find so fascinating and making sure that I always go to the gas station with the lowest prices and keeping me honest by having me give you my receipts.

If not for you, I wouldn’t have known the value of a smile. Thank you for warming people’s hearts with your sweet smile that endears you to those who see the pure heart behind those cute dimples and twinkling eyes.

If not for you, I wouldn’t have become familiar with the expressions you have created in your clever mind. Thanks to you, I know what “bad imagine clothes” and “scroungy voices” are and why they must be avoided at all costs.

If not for you, I wouldn’t have realized that the only thing better than reading a good book is to read it aloud to someone you love. Thanks for appreciating books as much as I do and for indulging me in reading to you when you were able to read on your own.

If not for you, I wouldn’t have comprehended how much trivia I have stored in my brain in my lifetime. Thanks for insisting that we watch Jeopardy every afternoon so that we can beat most contestants by combining our acquired knowledge.

If not for you, I wouldn’t know the depth of God’s love, grace, and faithfulness. Thanks for your steadfast faith that reminds me to trust that everything has a reason and that God will always take care of us. I have no doubt that He gave you to me to teach me the most important lessons I needed to learn in life, which makes you my greatest blessing.

Love always,

“Children are a gift from the Lord; they are a reward from Him.” Psalm 127:3

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Learning Continues

When Alex was little, the theory regarding developmental windows of opportunity caused needless anxiety for me, fearing that we only had a short time for him to learn needed skills. Promoting early childhood learning and early intervention for children with developmental delays, this windows concept stresses that optimal learning takes place between birth and the age of four. As I tried to teach preschooler Alex everything I thought he needed to know, I kept picturing that dreaded window slamming shut as I was running out of time.

Later research discovered the concept of brain plasticity in which the brain can modify its structure and function after bodily or environmental changes, such as brain trauma or disease. In fact, the brain can be remarkably adaptable, allowing further learning and modified behavior at any age, even after that learning window has supposedly long closed. As a teacher of adolescents, I know learning opportunities exist after age four because I see growth and development every school year in the students I teach. Moreover, I see Alex continue to develop his skills over time, even though he lags behind his peers due to autism.

A few days ago, a fascinating article regarding the continued ability to learn appeared in an online article in UCR Today. [To read this article, please click here.]  In “You’re Never Too Old to Learn That,” Mojgan Sherkat describes the research of University of California Riverside psychology professor Rachel Wu, whose paper “A Novel Theoretical Life Course Framework for Triggering Cognitive Development Across the Life Span” was recently published in the journal Human Development.

Professor Wu asserts that people develop habits and learning strategies throughout their lives that either encourage or discourage cognitive development. While infants and children learn many skills through broad learning experiences, adults learn to specialize their learning for their careers, becoming expert at certain skills. This specialized learning leads to cognitive decline, first in unfamiliar settings and later in both unfamiliar and familiar areas. To prevent the cognitive decline with age, people should engage in “broad learning experiences,” continuing to learn new skills.

Moreover, she contrasts the differences between broad learning, usually seen in children, and specialized learning, usually seen in adults, in six ways. For example, broad learning focuses upon learning new patterns and skills outside the comfort zone, whereas specialized learning shows preference for familiar routines. In addition, in broad learning, teachers and mentors guide the learners; in specialized learning, learners do not have access to experts who can help them. Also, while broad learning holds the belief that abilities develop with effort, specialized learning holds the belief that inborn talent is more important than effort. In another contrast, during broad learning, mistakes and failure are allowed as part of the learning process, but these same mistakes can have serious consequences in specialized learning, such as being fired from a job for incompetence. Yet another difference between the two types of learning is the serious commitment to learning found in broad learning versus little commitment to learning found in specialized learning, often due to time constraints or giving up when the task becomes difficult. Finally, broad learning, as its name suggest, involves learning multiple skills at the same time; specialized learning involves learning one––if any––skill at a time.

Consequently, to keep the mind sharp, adults must return to the learning styles they engaged in as children. As Professor Wu explains, “What I want adults to take away from this study is that we CAN learn many new skills at any age. It just takes time and dedication.” Thus, the proverbial “old dog” apparently can be taught “new tricks” with the proper amount of effort and willingness to learn.

Often, people will ask me what Alex is doing these days, now that he is a twenty-five-year-old young man living with autism. Because he cannot yet function in a job setting and because we have not found a day program appropriate for his needs, he is at home with us. However, he is not just sitting around; home schooling continues for Alex as we give him as many opportunities to learn as possible. Knowing that the window of opportunity to learn has not closed, we provide him with guidance, encouragement, and the tools he needs to learn. He spends his days reading, researching online, engaged in conversation with us, and getting out in the community by going to restaurants, concerts, sporting events, and other activities he enjoys. As career teachers and parents, Ed and I hope to continue to develop this broad learning so critical to Alex’s continued progress.

Last week, we were able to see how Alex learns through a series of unusual events. Apparently, he had some virus (as I later discovered his music therapist and one of my colleagues also had experienced last week) that caused him to have no appetite. Since Alex has always been a good eater, this caught us totally by surprise, especially when he wouldn’t even eat his favorite foods, such as shrimp, white chili, and meatloaf. Ever the researcher, Alex delved into his various huge medical books and Internet medical websites, trying to diagnose his ailment, just as many of us do when we have odd symptoms.

Although we tried to reassure him that he had nothing serious and encouraged him to eat a few things that appealed to him, such as applesauce and Jello, he decided to begin a new search on mortality. Since Alex has never had to deal with the death of anyone close to him, this may have been his first time exploring the concept of death. Along with recently having discussed the meaning of Easter and Jesus’ death and resurrection, Alex decided to study the abstract concepts of life, death, and immortality. However, we, along with his therapist, had to reassure him that he was not going to die from a brief loss of appetite. Nonetheless, our conversations with him revealed that he continues to develop a depth of understanding about the world around him, even those difficult to comprehend issues of life, death, and eternal life promised by the sacrifice of Christ. Clearly, Alex continues to develop his cognitive skills, and we eagerly anticipate all that he will learn and share with us in that amazing mind God has given him.

“That is what the Scriptures mean when they say, ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him.’” I Corinthians 2:9