Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Millennium Turns Ten — CMB Post

This post originally appeared on the now defunct Chicago Moms Blog.

So the aughts are over. All the hoopla about Y2K seems like just yesterday, yet here we are a decade down the pike. Of course, all the hoopla over the Bicentennial doesn't seem that long ago to me, either, so what do I know?

It's been a running joke in our family that, when I feel like my kids are growing up too fast, I tell them sternly "No double digits." In other words, I wanted them to stay little forever. Like all four of my children, however, the Millennium is completely ignoring me and rushing toward adolescence, that terrifying time of turbulence, defiance and change. I'm not sure I'm ready to face four teenagers and the 2K teens all at the same time.

The aughts for me were a decade steeped in parenting. We welcomed 2000 with two eight year olds, one three year old and a toddler not quite two. We're saying goodbye to 2009 with two graduating high school seniors and two middle schoolers. How did that happen? I know my parenting days will never truly be over, but my child-rearing days will end before the next decade does, and that just feels strange.

For nearly two decades now, I've known more or less what the gig would be. Play dates and school and carpooling were the ebb and flow of life. My kids, grownup though they are, still let me read stories to them at night, when there's time between homework and after-school commitments. What will it be like in 2020 when they aren't home any more? Maybe I'll read to the dog. She'll be an old lady by then.

Don't get me wrong. I have a life. I'm not one of those completely neurotic parents who live vicariously through their children. It's just that it's been fun. I've liked being the mom in a house full of noisy, wild, wonderful children. While it's true that they make me completely crazy, it's also true that they make me laugh – out loud – every single day.

So while other people are counting down the minutes to midnight January 1, 2010, my countdown stretches beyond another seven years, to when my youngest boy will head off to college or life or wherever he's heading. I've promised myself that I won't miss a minute dwelling on the end. I guess that's my New Year's resolution: to live in the moment and pay attention.

Happy New Year! Pay attention. 2020 will be here before you know it.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When Susan Bearman isn't busy waiting for the ball to drop in Times Square on New Years Eve, she can be found writing at Two Kinds of People.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

It's Not Easy Being Green

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who send holiday cards and those who don't. 

I've sent my own holiday cards every year since I left for college. Last year, I chronicled our ridiculous photo odyssey in a post that showed all 23 "oops" photos that we had to take before we finally got one that was holiday-card worthy. The good news is that this year it only took four shots. Maybe that's because we didn't try to include the dog. (That's the best one up there; don't they look cute?)

We've been doing the stairway shot every year since we moved into this house, nearly 12 years ago. The youngest guy, on the lower right, was just an infant when we started. It's a great stairway, a perfect backdrop, and even though the kids keep getting bigger (despite my threats), they all still fit. It's a tradition I love.

In addition to my usual tardiness at getting this holiday project started, I'm struggling with the whole idea of sending cards. On the one hand, I love getting real mail — snail mail, if you will — with stamps and envelopes, delivered to my IRL mailbox. I love seeing the cards our friends and family have chosen, the photos they send and the stories they share.

On the other hand, the idea of sending cards this year doesn't feel very green. Plus, at 44¢ per stamp, it doesn't feel very economically sound, either. 

So, after weighing my options, I am (for the most part) going with this e-version of our holiday card this year. Know that my warm wishes for a happy, healthy, peaceful New Year are still sincere. Know that I love and miss you and hope we can make time to get together soon. Know that this is not just laziness on my part (OK, it's partly laziness — but not 100%).

I'm also going to make it easy for you to send your holiday greetings to us. All you have to do is click here and leave a comment.

May your holidays, however you celebrate at this time of year, be joyful and bright. Best wishes for 2010.

The Bearmans

P.S. Over on The Animal Store blog, Kenn is giving away a $100 gift card. Just click here and leave a comment for your chance to win on December 22. Pass it on.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

iPhones — New Help for Special Needs Kids — CMB

This post originally appeared on the now defunct Chicago Moms Blog.

Disclaimer — I do not now nor have I ever worked for Apple, and they haven't paid me in goods or dollars for this post (although I'm open to negotiation).

Last month, my twins turned 18. I'm still in deep denial over what is clearly a blip in the time-space continuum. I know for a fact that it was just a few days ago when we were huddled around their isolettes in the NICU, watching in awe as their tiny 24-week bodies struggled to survive. And now … well, I just can't go there yet.

We have been so blessed, so lucky. Their delays, while significant, were just that — delays. They are both fully-functioning, healthy, happy (adult?) human beings, enjoying their senior year in high school and starting to think about the future. My daughter has taken the wheel on her road to life and is well on her way to independence. Her brother, who has had more physical and learning issues, still has a way to go.

For their 18th birthday, we got them each iPhones. During such difficult economic times, it's reasonable to ask why would we spring for such a hot, trendy, extravagant gift as an iPhone. That, I can tell you in two words — assistive technology.

The lingering issues that continue to affect my son as a result of his extreme prematurity are:
  • low tone/graphomotor issues — he explains it like this: "It's really hard for me to think and write at the same time."
  • short-term memory deficit — he would explain it to you, if only he could remember. Seriously, one of his teachers once told me: "He seemed to understand. He repeated it back to me exactly." He does understand — he understands everything, he just can't remember once the cue is gone.
  • sequencing disorder — trouble breaking down tasks into reasonable chunks and completing them in the right order in a reasonable amount of time.

I have long believed that my son was lucky to be born when he was — that technology would be his friend. I still believe that, but there have been some bumps along the way: an addiction to video games and losing three (count them, three) cell phones his freshman year. During the few days he managed to hold on to his cell phone, he never remembered to turn it on, so I couldn't reach him any way.

Then, last year, he used his birthday money to buy himself an iPod Nano. Miracle of miracles, he did not lose it. He kept it turned off during school, but remembered to turn it on after school so he could listen on his way home. About a month ago, we had a meeting with his assistive technology specialist at school. A long-time PC person, she recently got an iPhone and is tremendously excited about the potential it holds for many of her students.

Assistive technology runs the gamut from wheelchairs to customized computers that allow quadriplegics to communicate with eye blinks. The field is exploding, but much of it is hugely expensive. While the initial outlay for the iPhone (about $200 for the middle-range iPhone) isn't too bad, the $30 monthly bite per phone for the data package adds up fast. We learned, however, that unlike computer programs, iPhone apps are pretty inexpensive (often free), and there are new ones every day. While there are many PDAs out there, the iPhone offered some distinct advantages, first and foremost the fact that it would be my son's new iPod, so we were pretty sure he would hold on to it.

It's fairly obvious how the calendar and organizational apps could help someone with short-term memory problems, but the iPhone apps offer much more than simple datebook functionality. For example, there's an app called VoCal that allows my son to record a voice message on his phone, which then translates into a written calendar reminder.

And it works! Our first iPhone success came after a missed orthodontist appointment one Friday. That night, he added the orthodontist's phone number to his contacts and entered a voice reminder into his phone. That entry sent him an alert after school on Monday to call the orthodontist for a new appointment. My son gets out of school at 3:35. By the time I called him at 3:45, he had already made the new appointment and entered it onto the calendar, which automatically sent an email to me so I could put it on the family calendar. That may sound like a small thing, but it was one giant leap toward independence for him and peace of mind for me.

That ability to recognize voice commands is a huge advantage for a kid with graphomotor issues. The sensitive microphone allows him to use his voice in a variety of ways, bypassing the need to write (and even draw). For example, there is an app called Omni Note. Say his horticulture teacher draws a picture of a plant cell on the board and tells the class to copy it for a quiz on Monday. This would be extremely difficult for my son to do, and the end result would not look anything like the original.

With the Omni Note app on the iPhone, my son could take a picture of the diagram, draw directly on that picture, add a typed and/or voice message to the picture and send it immediately to his computer at home so he could study it over the weekend. How cool is that?

His teachers are also on board, allowing him to keep his iPhone out and on throughout the day. He doesn't text and we haven't given out his phone number, so there is no risk of interruption during class. As part of his sequencing disorder, he has trouble organizing his thoughts into a coherent structure in school papers. One of his English teachers had the brilliant idea of having him research new apps and, as an assignment for class, write out the directions on how to use it (a great sequencing and organizational exercise), and include a paragraph or two about how he, personally, is using the app (a good way to practice his analytical skills).

Right now, our district would have provided him with an iPod Touch, which has some, but not nearly all the functions of the iPhone. The integrated microphone of the iPhone is a big part of the functionality my son needs to make this tool work for him, so we opted to make a family investment.

I understand that this is new technology, which is often scary and expensive for schools to contemplate, but I urge educators to jump on this bandwagon early. The potential of the iPhone for special needs students is vast and untapped, and this generation of students is already immersed in technology. This seems to me to represent the best that technology has to offer — a chance for students to overcome (even bypass) their disabilities and get right to the good stuff — the learning.

How did we justify making the same investment for our daughter? We told her it was because it would be a good tool for her at college next year, and it will be, but really, this is just one of those times when she should be darn grateful for her twin brother.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When Susan isn't busy trying to figure out how such a young mom can have such old children, she can be found writing at Two Kinds of People and The Animal Store Blog.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Fog Produced the Compass

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who have a good sense of direction and those who don't.

In 1993, technology gifted the directionally impaired with the 24th Navistar Satellite, completing the network now known as the Global Positioning System, or GPS. My girlfriend calls her GPS "Jill" and wouldn't leave home without her. My husband loves his GPS (affectionately known as "Gypsy"). "Take next slip road left," Gypsy says in her calm British accent. It took several months before we figured out that a "slip road" was an exit ramp. Who knew? Gypsy is now several years old and a bit past her prime, so, like every other man in the world, he would love to trade her in for a younger model. 

Personally, I have enough people telling me that I'm headed the wrong way, so I don't need to invite an electronic nag into my car. Plus, I've always had a pretty good internal compass. Of course, it helps that we live in the Chicago area, where the lake is always east, you can see one of the world's tallest landmarks (still and always the Sears Tower to me) from many miles away, and the whole city is organized according to a numbered grid.

But I maneuver well even beyond Daniel Burnham's brilliant organizational plan for the Windy City. Sure, I print out my Mapquest route before heading someplace unfamiliar, but I'm not afraid to veer off the beaten path. Nor am I afraid to stop and ask for directions when things get a little confusing (you try finding the Comfort Inn in Mt. Vernon, Ohio at 3:00 in the morning). 

My kids and I are intrepid road trippers, tackling the 1,200-mile trek to visit my parents in Florida at least twice a year for at least six years now. Our greatest dread is getting stuck in traffic on the Interstate, so we often take the next available "slip road" in search of an alternate route. With our trusty compass, we know that as long as we are heading mostly south and a little east, we can't go too far wrong. You have plenty of time to correct course over 1,200 miles, and it always feels better to be moving — even meandering slowly on surface roads — than just sitting. 

If only the metaphorical road of life were as easy to navigate. Lately I feel like my life compass is completely out of whack — like someone tied a blindfold on me, spun me around for a couple of years, and has now shoved me away, shaken and dizzy, to find my way.

I don't think I'm unusual feeling a little turned around at this particular stage in life. My twins are high school seniors now, and getting ready to begin their own journeys. The "little" boys are in junior high, and while they may still need me to drive them around, they have definite ideas about where they want to go.

I feel like I've reached a kind of crossroads, a place where I need to choose the right direction or I could get seriously lost. So, here I sit, stuck in the traffic of inertia, waiting for a sign to point me in the right direction. I hope I don't need to follow Chicago's example and burn the city of my life to ground before I can develop a workable plan. Perhaps I can rely on our current state of financial emergency for the necessary inspiration. Victor Hugo said:

"Emergencies have always been necessary for progress. It was darkness which produced the lamp. It was fog that produced the compass. It was hunger that drove us to exploration. And it took a depression to teach us the real value of a job."

The depression Hugo referred to took place in the 1800s. I guess not much has changed in the intervening 200 years. 

If along your life path, you've discovered a successful short cut, please share it in a comment here. If you know anyone who needs a good freelance writer, please point him or her in my direction. And if you travel over the holidays, may your trip be easy, your journey rewarding, and your return safe and sound.

Photo credit: Compass by Ivan Prole