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Archive for September, 2009

Coping with sadness

Back in July, RivkA of Coffee and Chemo had one of the most insightful posts I’ve ever read.  She said she used to think that there were people with complicated, difficult lives, and people with easy, smooth-going lives.  Nowadays, she still believes that there are two types of people, but the two types are “1. People whose lives are complex and 2. People who you do not know so well.”

I’ve thought about this ever since I read it, and have been thinking about this lately in particular as I’ve learned that a student in the school in which Ilana-Davita teaches committed suicide—the second student to do so in six months.  In addition, the sister of a friend of mine died last week—by all appearances a suicide.

These incidents have a much different effect on the living than surviving someone who has died of illness or sudden accident.  Death always seems to make us take stock of our lives, but suicide seems to create doubt in our minds, to bring guilt to the surface, to make us ask why someone would choose death over life.  We feel betrayed, rejected, abandoned when someone leaves us on purpose.  We blame ourselves for not knowing how the person felt, and try to imagine what we might have done to contribute to the person’s misery and unhappiness, or what we should have done to alleviate his suffering.

And yet.  While a rabbi in my neighborhood commented on Shabbat that the woman’s death last week was a wake-up call to all of us, I learned at the shiva that there was no sign of discontent in her life, that she was in good health, she had a good job, a beautiful loving immediate and extended family, and that she was the sort of person who, when things got beyond her ability to deal with them, would ask for help from others.  Whether she had an unknown source of unhappiness, or whether there is some other explanation, the family may never know.

But this brings me back to RivkA’s point.  We may believe we know the people closest to us, but sometimes we just don’t.  I don’t share every single thought or worry that I have with others, no matter how close they are to me.  And I know there’s plenty that goes on in the minds of my husband and children that I know nothing about.

For someone to be driven to the point where she believes she cannot ask for help, or accept help, and would rather devastate those closest to her than deal with her problems is a very serious point indeed.  We don’t like being unable to understand things, which makes it all the harder to understand how someone could make a decision like that.  What balance of worry, coping skills, and mental stability (or instability) came together in this person to result in something so final and, seemingly, unnecessary?  We see people deal with life-threatening illness, grief, poverty, abuse, and personal disaster every day—why did this person think he couldn’t cope?

I sometimes use literature to help me work through my thoughts.  I love the play Romeo and Juliet, and consider myself very fortunate to have been able to teach it once to a class of bright 10th graders.  It’s one of the few works in the curriculum that I think speaks to kids in their early teens.  But as we know, it involves lots of death, and a double suicide at the end.  I was not insensitive to this when teaching my students, and the day they walked in after having finished the play, I took a few minutes to discuss with them the ending.  How did it come about?  What role did the adults play?  How much of the play’s action was dictated by the youth and impulsiveness of the characters?  What were their alternatives?  What would have happened to them in the long run if they had not married one another secretly?  I finished by making the point—based on my own experience, that of my family and friends, and that of others I have known—that the human spirit can absorb an enormous amount of insult, abuse, disappointment, and heartache, and still recover.  Just because Romeo and Juliet couldn’t see beyond their immediate circumstances does not mean that they would not have had a full life, filled with joy, contentment, and productivity ahead of them.  When a door closes in one place, a door often opens somewhere else; it’s merely a question of finding it.

May the aggrieved be comforted, and may we all live in the knowledge that while we cannot always see the future, it is there waiting for us.

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Cleaning lessons

Hashem has blessed the Cap’n and me with four adorable, delightful children.  But as most parents know, kids don’t come with a “cleaning chip” installed in their brains.

So one of the great challenges of my life in recent years has been to find the right combination of teaching, reminding, reprimanding, and doling out of unpleasant consequences (you know, punishment) for failure to pick up one’s own possessions and put them away.

I have some compassion for the Crunch girls, because they don’t have large amounts of their own space in which to dump their clutter.  The three of them share a room, and since Israeli closets rarely include those most excellent junk depositories known as “drawers,” they are forced to tuck them between socks and pajamas, or dump them next to their beds.  On a trip to IKEA last year, I picked up a set of six drawers to allow the girls to store personal items, giving them two drawers each.  But for pack-rats, that’s just not enough.  (Of course, I have the same system for their father in the form of his old foot locker, in which to store memorabilia from years past.  Once the locker is full, he has to part with things to make room for more.)

I devised weekly charts for each child with a grid reflecting the chores I expect each child to do (tailored to the child based on age) and a space to put a small sticker when the chore is done.  One of these chores is picking up one’s things, and keeping their room and playroom tidy.  A small amount of mess is permitted in the playroom, since they will occasionally come back to a game.  But the bedroom has to be kept tidy because it’s a much smaller shared space and tidiness is a form of consideration, something the Cap’n and I think is important to teach, especially in the context of family life.

I had hoped that the presence of this chore on the chart would serve as a motivator for them.  (The more stickers they have at the end of a week, the greater a percentage of their total possible allowance they receive.  A pitiful week gets them a half-allowance disbursement; a good week, with about 80% of their stickers, gets them their full allowance.)  Alas, it has not proved to be so.  My children are not all good readers (at least in English) so either reviewing the contents of the chart for them would be in order.  I could also put it in Hebrew, which the eldest two read well.

But even were I to do those things, my expectations of their tidiness performance are limited.  This is why I reached back into my employment past to the year I worked with kids in residential treatment and some of the practices we employed there.  I worked in a “cottage” in what was officially a mental health facility with girls ages 8-14.  With a dozen or so girls in the cottage, neatness was understandably an issue.  The children’s daily routines allowed for regular tidying times, but for items left unclaimed at the conclusion of such times, there was “confo box.”  This was a cardboard box in which stray clothing items, toys, books, or other tchotchkes were put to be redeemed (for a small ransom) at the end of the week.  In the past week I have adopted a cardboard box for the Crunch family’s confo box.  Roller blading pads and wrist guards left out in the garden for the birds to poop on were rescued and put in the box.  A bag of crafting supplies that Beans was instructed on numerous occasions to put away were added.  And I’m not above putting errant pairs of shoes or discarded dirty socks in there.  All items are redeemed on a mandatory basis for a small fee (half-shekel for large items like the pads, 10 agurot for smaller items).  The fee goes directly in the tzedaka box.

When I was looking for graduate programs in psychology almost half a lifetime ago, I met with a professor at the University of Washington.  She told me her area of interest was motivation.  I nearly laughed out loud.  “M&M-ing!” I thought, remembering Psych 101.  How could someone possibly spend all her professional time and energy doing that?

But as every parent knows, getting kids to do their homework, eat their vegetables, and clean their rooms is ALL about motivation.

Now I know.

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A new, cool, creative blog!

At lunch today, my neighbor Andy told me about a blog he came across recently, called Creative Jewish Mom. I just checked it out.

It’s gorgeous! Beans is always interesting in making crafts, and this woman, with talent in design, photography, gardening, and pretty much everything else that truly matters, is a great source of inspiration. I’m adding her to my blogroll, and checking out her suggestions for things to make and do for Rosh Hashanah.  Happy crafting!

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Ordeal By Hunger

One of the books I read last summer was Ordeal By Hunger, an historical account of the journey of 87 pioneer men, women, and children who set out from the plains of Kansas for California in 1846.

This book is required reading in some high school social studies departments.  It is a thoroughly researched account by historian George R. Stewart, who reconstructed their harrowing journey through desert, thick forest, and the Sierra Nevada mountains in winter, following a barely-explored route to California aggressively promoted by a way-too-mavericky explorer.

I found it to be a brilliant account of the human psyche in the face of every-increasing stress, disappointment, fear, and possible death.  How do they keep their courage up in the face of adversity?  How do they deal with disappointment?  How do they cope with scarcity?  How do they work together as a group when faced with daunting tasks?  How do families and family groups treat each other on the long, hard journey?  How do they help or hurt each other?  Stewart details their heroism, skiving off, hoarding, sharing, selfishness, selflessness, risk-taking, risk-avoidance, alliance, betrayal, and—in the worst possible circumstances—cannibalism.  Where The Grapes of Wrath is a fictional account of a poor family’s migration to California during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl days, this is an historical account no less gripping and heartbreaking (and probably more so because it’s nonfiction).  My edition includes numerous appendices including correspondence and diary entries from some members of the party, as well as an analysis of an early journalist’s attempt to gather information about the journey by interviewing survivors, sometimes decades after the events.

This particular chapter in American history is valuable in my opinion because it highlights a number of issues that Americans encountered as they drifted westward: exploitation by those who were supposedly interested in “helping” the emigrants travel and settle; the vulnerability of a group of plains farmers with no mountaineering or military skills to aid them when faced with the Sierra Nevada in December and American Indians who relied in part on scavenging off of pioneer cattle for their sustenance; and the inability to rouse much assistance for the settlers trapped in the snowy mountains while California was being hotly contested in the Mexican War.

From a human standpoint, it is both heartbreaking and inspiring to see the increasing discouragement and disappointment as they cached their belongings along the road, cut their way through dense thickets and woods, traveled for days without water and watched their cattle go mad from dehydration.  The survivors lucky enough to make it to California alive lost nearly all of their possessions, and usually family members to hypothermia, disease, and starvation.  Most heart-breaking was to read of parents as they lost their children and children as they lost their parents and to the life-and-death decisions on part of families to split up in order to try to get help, wondering if they’ll ever see each other again.

I’m a Westerner by birth and upbringing.  We learned in school about Lewis and Clark, the pioneers, and the Oregon Trail.  We took field trips from school to see the forts built to shelter the pioneers and visited Indian reservations that preserved for the public the history and culture of their native population.  But never before did I fully appreciate what some pioneers and their families encountered when traveling west.  Never had I read about how this population, too, was preyed upon by self-serving profiteers and snake-oil salesmen.  And I had rarely heard about the far-reaching effects of one of the U.S.’s least-studied wars (despite the fact that a third of the continental U.S.—including the entire southwest and Texas—was acquired as a result of it).

It’s yet another example of why I am grateful to live in this time and place, when my own family’s toughest obstacle in moving to California was abandoning our broken-down Cadillac on the shoulder of Interstate 10 in the Mojave Desert, and riding the rest of the way in our un-air-conditioned station wagon with the wind in our hair and the dog’s breath in our faces.

It’s also why from now on I will think twice before saying “I’m starving” when it’s only been a few hours since I’ve eaten.

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Years ago, when I was pregnant with Beans, my first, the Cap’n and I were up late watching television.  There was an episode of “E.R.” on where one of the plot lines involved a kid brought to the hospital after collapsing on a school trip.  It turns out the kid had measles, and ended up dying in the emergency room.  Further inquiry into the case turned up the fact that the child’s parents had opted not to vaccinate him.

How he managed to get through school (especially public school in America) without being current in his vaccinations escapes me.  But the real point was the fact that despite widespread immunization programs in the U.S., diseases like measles have not yet been eradicated.  I remember as a child an outbreak of measles in our area, and my parents taking us on a Saturday to a school gym many miles from where we lived in order to get my sister vaccinated.

This made a conversation I had recently with another mom about our children all the more interesting.  She’s a new immigrant to Israel, and I was telling her about our experiences with Tipat Chalav (the well-child clinic) and Nurse Evil who works there (sister to Dr. Evil, I’m convinced).  She smiled at my stories, and said, “Well, I won’t be taking my children there.”  “You won’t?” I asked.  “No,” she answered.  “I don’t vaccinate them.”

The way she said that last sentence was with the same casual assurance as one might use to say, “I don’t spank my children” or “We don’t eat non-kosher food in our house.”

This fascinates me for a number of reasons.  Most of my home-schooling friends here and in the States don’t vaccinate their children either.  (This mom’s kids go to regular schools here in Israel.)  I suspect their reasons include the fact that their children aren’t in regular contact with children they don’t know, they believe that these diseases are essentially eradicated, they don’t need to vaccinate since everyone else does, and some developmental difficulties have been correlated with (note I don’t say “caused by”) administration of some vaccines.  There may be other reasons as well, but these are the ones I can guess at or have heard.

The Cap’n and I have chosen to vaccinate our children against all the typical diseases (measles, mumps, rubella, polio, whooping cough, hepatitis A and B, and the rest) except chicken pox, which we will do as late as possible.  (Despite the vaccine being given for a couple of decades, no one seems to know how long it’s good for, and when a booster might be required.  Since the result of a woman coming in contact with chicken pox while pregnant is usually quite bad, and because we have three daughters, we will have them get the vaccine as late as possible in the hope that it will carry them through their child-bearing years at least.)  We believe that despite what some people may think, these diseases still exist on the planet, and while the chance of catching them has been drastically reduced, the morbidity and misery associated with them is not worth taking the risk.  Our children are healthy, thank God, and we have observed no ill effects from giving our children the vaccines against them.

What I do find interesting is that in the population I know that doesn’t vaccinate, all the same sorts of anomalies in children exist as in the vaccinated population—developmental delays, ADD, personality disorders, learning disabilities, and sensory integration difficulties.  In other words, their children appear comparable (not superior) to vaccinated children in mental and physical health, intelligence, and every other category.

In the end, it’s up to the parents to decide whether the risks (as yet unproven, to my knowledge) of vaccinating outweigh the risks of a child getting ill, and act accordingly.

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All-girls education

I promised in a comment exchange on yesterday’s post to write about single-sex education, and here it is.

Until 11th grade, I attended mostly public, co-ed schools.  I liked school, was a good student, and both because of my success in school and because I was one of the older students in the class, I was often viewed as a leader in my class.

But over the years, I began to notice trends that I didn’t like.  I noticed that girls were often much more concerned with what they looked like (hair, make-up, clothes) than they were with their subjects in school.  Many wouldn’t raise their hand and participate in class.  At the same time, boys were louder, even if they weren’t as smart as the girls in class.  Most of the kids who misbehaved and disrupted the class were boys.  And it was impossible to ignore that a significant amount of the emotional energy of both boys and girls went into trying to appear favorable in front of the opposite sex.  I had friends of both sexes, but often found friendships with boys to be less stressful.

In 11th grade, I opted to try boarding school for my last two years of high school.  I was disgusted with the class sizes, budget cuts, and lousy faculty at my local public high school, and my parents were agreeable.  I applied to a small co-ed prep school and a slightly larger all-girls prep.  I got into both, but because I believed I should cultivate more friendships with other girls, I chose the girls’ school.

I was pleased with my choice.  There were girls I had nothing in common with, just as there had been in public school.  But in general, there was a greater feeling of comradery among my classmates (though I was given to understand that my class was kinder than average for the school).  I loved that there were no boys at the school, so bad-hair days were a source of mirth rather than humiliation.  Spirits ran high at the school, and pranks and fun were around every corner.  The faculty was of a high caliber, and they were there entirely for us girls.  I fell in with a group of girls who were also good students who called themselves the Geek Clique.  We were not the prettiest, or the wealthiest, or the most socially elite, but we stuffed the top slots in the class ranks and had a wonderful time.

I had a similar experience in college, where I chose a large state university because it was cheap, and ended up pining for the more intimate, serious atmosphere of a women’s college.  (I transferred to a women’s college in the middle of my sophomore year.)  And I had similar experiences in Jewish learning and graduate school, starting in co-ed and ultimately choosing all-women’s settings.

Early in our marriage, the Cap’n brought home a book from the library entitled All Girls: Single-sex education and why it matters by Karen Stabiner.  It was a fascinating read, and while I was already sold on all-girls’ education, the Cap’n lacked my first-hand experience and learned a good deal about the issue from the book.  In the end, we both hoped our girls would have access to that education at some point in their lives.

I know most of the criticisms of all-girls’ education.  It’s not the real world.  What are boys supposed to do if the girls go off and learn at all-girls’ schools?  Aren’t girls from all-girls’ schools at a grave disadvantage when it comes to functioning in the world of men?

First of all, school is about as far from the real world as anything can be, and it doesn’t matter whether boys are there or not.  The purpose of school is not to recreate the read world; it’s to do something to prepare children for it.  (Or, if you’re really cynical, to keep kids occupied while their parents are at work.)  School isn’t like a job; there’s no pay (except grades), no practical skills taught that could help one make a living.  In my view, it doesn’t really matter that it’s not the real world; the goal is to create the best environment possible for children to learn.  By eliminating some of the factors that distract or interfere with learning (such as the pressures that accompany the presence of the opposite sex), one gives girls the best chance at succeeding in school.

Never fear; there are not nearly enough all-girls schools to siphon off a significant portion of the female population, denying the boys what many claim is the “civilizing factor” that girls provide in co-ed schools.  There are enough parents and adults who remain convinced that co-ed school is more like the real world to keep all the girls from fleeing such schools.

And no, girls from all-girls’ schools are not at a disadvantage when functioning in the world of men.  Having been nurtured in an environment which is created for them—for their style of communicating, for their needs, for their extra-curriculars, for their ways of learning—they emerge with confidence, strength, and assertiveness.  They are accustomed to hearing female voices—voices which are often shouted down in the world of men.  They are in a better position to scrutinize the world and if they find it lacking, see where it needs to be improved.

I believe that girls educated in all-girls’ or all-women’s institutions see the world differently.  When I began graduate school in a large New England campus, I couldn’t help but notice that a large portion of the campus was dominated by a stadium.  And this stadium, I knew from attending women’s colleges that didn’t have them, was two things to the college: a large money-maker for the institution, and a monument to men’s sports (i.e. testosterone).  There were sports halls where women’s sports were held, but it doesn’t take a Ph.D. sociologist to notice that the sports most people (especially men) turn out for are played by men.  I couldn’t help but think how primitive that is, how gladiator-like.

I have women friends who totally reject the value of girls’ education.  If they had the option, they would probably send their girls to co-ed schools all their lives.  (Religious education in Israel, however, rarely offers this as an option.)  But I believe these women are unusual in their personalities.  They are intellectual power-houses, outspoken, and blissfully unaware of some of the pressures girls feel when in school in co-ed environments.  They are not typical, in my opinion.

I no more think of myself as putting my daughters at a disadvantage by giving them single-sex educations than I do by changing Bill’s diapers.  It is true that in the real world there will be no one to wait on him hand and foot like I am now.  But it doesn’t change the fact that he needs this kind of care and nurturing now to prepare him for the challenges of the real world, just as it will be nice when Banana gets to girls’ kindergarten next year and doesn’t answer the question, “How was your day?” with “Good—no one hitted me, no one kicked me, and no one pushed me off a chair.”

Whether we will make the decision to send Bill through an all-boys track, or keep him with girls as long as possible remains to be seen.  I imagine it will depend on his personality, how he socializes with other children, and his own desires.

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Tzniut adventure, Grade 1

I found myself in an interesting situation today with Peach’s school.  At about 8:00 this morning, I got a call from the principal of the school telling me that Peach had turned up at school in pants.  I knew she had put on pants because I had helped her get them out personally, since the girls have sports today.  The fact that she had made it out of the house without putting a skirt on over the pants was a bit of a surprise.  (She got past her father, me, and her two sisters without any of us noticing.  It’s been a long, relaxed summer with the girls wearing shorts with no skirt on over them, so not too surprising when one pauses to reflect.)

However, instead of seeing this as an oversight and saying, “Peach seems to have forgotten to wear a skirt today.  Are you available to bring her one?” the principal chose to assume I was an ignoramus and informed me that this is a National Religious school (a fact of which I was already aware, having chosen the school myself, thank you very much), and that as a result of this infraction, Peach would be made to sit in the secretaries’ office until such time as I and the skirt materialized.  I got off the phone with him, fetched a skirt from Peach’s closet, and fired up the Crunchmobile to take it to her.

The whole trip there, I made an effort to temper my irritation since it was anyone’s guess what emotional state I would find Peach in when I arrived.  After a bit of hide-and-seek, I managed to find Peach’s classroom first, and introduced myself to the teacher.  She said Peach was still in the secretaries’ office, and sent one of Peach’s classmates to show me where it was.  When I arrived, Peach was seated in a chair, with her trademark mild expression on her face.  She smiled when she saw me, and when I asked her if she’d forgotten her skirt this morning, she giggled.  I gave it to her to put on, and then she took my hand and took me back to her classroom.  I gave the teacher a stern look and asked, “Is everything all right now?”  She came up, put an arm around Peach, and apologized profusely, assuring me that it was not her choice to isolate Peach in that way.  She gave me to understand that it is a policy the school adheres to, but that she agrees that it’s a bit much for a little girl to receive for simple forgetfulness.  I in turn assured her that Peach simply forgot, that it’s the first time she’s ever forgotten, that we were focused on the fact that Peach needed something UNDER her skirt to keep her panties from public view during sports, and that I have four children and sometimes miss things.  She was very understanding and, I think, communicates more compassionate to the children than the head.

I was warned by more than one person not to send Peach to this school.  There is a school closer to where we live that she could attend, but Peach was adamant after her wonderful experience in an all-girls kindergarten last year that she wanted to be in a girls’ school for first grade.  The Cap’n and I are firm believers in single-sex education for girls (for boys is another matter entirely), and were happy to comply.  But clearly there are areas in which we will clash philosophically with the school and its head.

I know what the head is trying to achieve.  He wants to establish clearly at the beginning what the school’s dress code is, and to make clear to the girls that girls who deviate from it significantly (Peach was in the equivalent of off-white hot pants today) will need to remedy the situation before they can participate in their class’s activities.  On the other hand, as I’ve stated, he is also sending the message that what you wear is more important than what you learn.

But had Peach been of a different personality (Beans’s, for example), I might have found her sitting in a puddle of tears awaiting me and her skirt this morning, and then I would not have held back my wrath from the head.

I’ll let it all slide today, because I doubt Peach will repeat this oversight, and she’s none the worse for wear.

But I have my eye on that man.

Update: Upon further questioning about the incident, Peach told me this evening that the head had actually offered her the choice of wearing a school-issue skirt (“someone else’s skirt,” Peach called it) and returning to her class, or sitting in the office until I got there with her skirt.  Peach herself chose the latter.  She also said that she had felt like crying when it happened, because she’d never been in this situation before, but wanted to show she was a big first grader, and managed to keep herself from breaking down.  Brave thing.  It makes me more favorably disposed toward the head, that is certain.

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