Sunday, September 24, 2017

Welcome to Adulting

The other day I was in the car with one of the offspring, and I was asked, Mom, what did you do at work all day?

Paperwork.  I did paperwork.

Apparently I use this answer a lot as a response to inquiries about how my day went, because the questioner (I'm pretty sure it was the Son of Never Stops Eating, so we'll go with that) responded with, Mom! That's all adults do! Paperwork! 

Yes, I am the Mom of Ceaselessly Filling Out Paperwork.

Actually, that's not entirely accurate.  Adults do other things, too: We stand in lines to submit paperwork.  We sit on hold to ask questions about paperwork.  We go online to figure out how to fill out paperwork.  We search through old documents to find birth certificates and old social security cards to provide supplemental evidence for paperwork.  We gasp in horror when we attempt to fill in paperwork on the internet and the computer gives us the blue screen of death just before we press the "submit" button. We sit in meetings that generate lots of paperwork. Other people send us paperwork that stacks up on kitchen counters, unread, until we really need to know what our homeowner's insurance policy really says.

I have filing cabinets full of paperwork that may or may not be important but that I'm afraid to get rid of because you never know, right?  Special education moms are paperwork magnets.

The Teenager is in the midst of the 21st century version of paperwork right now, filling out online college applications and applying for scholarships. The other day I applied for my very own FAFSA ID number so I could participate in filling out the very important FAFSA paperwork in October. I suspect that all this paperwork, and the prospect of still more paperwork to come, is causing the Teenager some stress. 

Welcome to adulthood, kid. I feel your suffering.

Sometimes when we're in overly stressful situations it's tempting to think that once you have lived through the challenging situation you find yourself in, life will become easier- once you finish high school and know what's next, whether it's college or the military or vocational school or a job, then life will be less stressful.  Then you start college, get married, buy a house, have a baby, get a new job that throws you some learning curves, or encounter any number of adulthood challenges and you start thinking, OK, I only have to get past this and everything will be great!

When I was the exhausted mother of young children, sometimes I'd look at families with older kids and think, "once my kids get to be that old, life will be so much easier!".  Then I became the mom with the older kids, and I realized that older kids come with their own challenges, so it wasn't really any easier; it was just different.

So, in the last few remaining months that I have to impart my Mom wisdom to the Teenager before she becomes the Young Adult and moves out and away from my constant influence and nagging, one lesson I can offer is this: learning healthy ways to manage stress is one of the best things that you can do for yourself.  Parents can stress you out.  School work can stress you out.  Thinking about the future can stress you out.  Financial stuff can stress you out.  Relationships can stress you out.  However, you are the one responsible for how you respond to that stress, because there will always be something or someone that is giving you stress.

Managing stress is not an easy skill to master;  I still let stress get the best of me at times and I'm practically eligible for AARP membership.   I find that taking lots of hikes in the woods and nature photography helps me manage stress; other people take yoga or martial arts or sing in bands or take painting classes or run;  different methods work for different people.  The important thing is to find something that works for you and to make that thing a priority. 

It won't get any easier from here; sometimes life will go smoothly and sometimes it won't, but there will almost always be something giving you stress, unless you are extraordinarily lucky or you're one of those few people who are immune to stress.  You'll find out if you are one of those people sometime next spring, when you get to fill out your first income tax return.

If that thought is already stressing you out, then welcome to adulthood.  If it makes you feel any better, the rest of us are right there with you.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Frugal Package

A few days ago, I was sitting at the kitchen table sorting through a week's worth of household paperwork.  The Teenager walked into the kitchen and dropped a thick envelope on the table.

We had an assembly about ordering our caps and gowns this week, she told me.  Here's the information.

Ordering a cap and gown for a high school graduation seems like it should be a straightforward procedure. You don't have to select colors, or styles; just fill out a form and send money. I had a brief weepy Mom moment during which I mentally reminisced about the first baby outfit I bought the Teenager, when she was still in utero.  It was an adorable little Winnie-the-Pooh onesie with a matching hat. Now, here I was buying her graduation cap and gown. 

I opened the envelope. That the outside of the envelope informed me that payment plans were available should have been a warning.  If you have been through this process before and you tried to enlighten me to what lay ahead, I'm sorry; I didn't pay close enough attention.  If you have yet to go through this experience, I'm telling you now.  Nothing related to high school graduation is easy.  It's almost like planning a wedding except you don't have to have awkward dinners with the prospective in-laws. Instead of Bridezilla, however, the star of the show is a teenager stressed out about college applications and schoolwork.

Inside the envelope. I found several glossy brochures and sheets of paper.  I had many, many choices. I could order announcements, class jewelry, T-shirts, photo cards, hoodies, key chains, plaques.  To make my life easier, I was given the option of ordering the "school mascot package", which included everything that would make your graduating adolescent's dreams come true (except a new car) and came with a price tag to match.  I sorted through the paperwork, looking for what I needed to complete this process.  I was looking for the "Frugal Package"; the one that included the required cap and gown and the minimum number of official graduation announcements.

Such a thing did not seem to exist.

One of my pet peeves is going to buy something and then finding out that I can't just buy the item I want and leave;  I have to deal with the sales pitches for the "extra stuff"- the insurance, the maintenance packages, the added features.  When I tell the salesperson I don't want to add anything to my purchase, the more skilled among them have this amazing ability to make me feel like if I don't buy the extra stuff, I am making a colossal error in judgment that I will regret as soon as I walk out the door.

The last time I flew on an airplane, I used the self-check in, and the computer tried to upsell me on an aisle seat instead of the middle seat, for an additional $25. No, really, I told the computer, I just want to get on the plane.  When I bought my car, the salesman waited until I practically had the keys in my hands and then said "You will want to buy one of our extended warranty packages for your new car!".  No, really, I just want to drive that car off the lot.  When I bought a new washing machine, the cashier's final question was "Shall I add the extended service package?" No! I just want to go home!

This graduation year is one long process of being asked to buy a lot of extra stuff.  I'm trying to be zen about it but I'll admit that my attitude about it might not be the most chipper on occasion.

So here I was, looking through the glossy brochures for class jewelry, and fancy photo announcements, and Class of 2018 key chains and personalized address labels (I definitely don't need that; I have a ton of those from every charity I've ever donated to) seeking the information I needed: how to order one cap and gown set.  I might have been vocalizing my frustration a bit; the other human members of the household seemed to have disappeared, the dog had sought refuge under the coffee table, and the hamster was hiding under her wheel.

Finally, after I put my reading glasses on and flipped the order form to the back, my persistence paid off! I found the cap and gown line item in small print on the bottom of the order form. Success! I had found the Frugal Package, for the low price of $29.99.  After a brief internal debate,  I added 25 graduation announcements to the order.  The Dad of No and I come from small families, so I don't actually need 25 announcements;  I'll probably just randomly send out the extras to my friends.  If you are selected to receive an announcement, there's no obligation to send anything. I just suspect it will be easier for you to throw it out than it will be for me to do it.

I had been hoping that in three years, I would be able to use the same cap and gown for the Son of Never Stops Eating, but I don't think that is going to work; not only is he much taller than his older sister but I'm informed that the dye lots change so you have to order a new set of graduation regalia for every child.  At least now I know, however, where to find what I'm looking for on the cap and gown ordering form.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Tattered Wings

Lately, as I take my nature walks, I've become fascinated by the imperfect, the worn out, the torn, the tattered.  It's tempting, when trying to photograph nature, to look for the bold, the perfect, the stunning, the bright and brand new- but those tattered wings are telling a story.  What that story might be is up to the observer's imagination; I often envision close encounters with a bird's beak. 

As I get older, sometimes I feel a little tattered and I definitely have my imperfections- so perhaps it's that I can relate to these once-bright creatures, now faded and with tattered wings.

I can assure you, however, that each of these creatures was still able to fly just fine.

Red Admiral

Hackberry Emperor

Widow Skimmer

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Queen butterfly

Painted Lady

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Good Advice?

Late last week, the news broke regarding the Equifax data breach.  According to their website, mine was one of the identities compromised, but then later I read that they might just be randomly telling you that to lure you into signing up for their ID monitoring services, which start off free but then after a year require a fee to continue. So maybe my data was compromised, or maybe it wasn't, but at this point I'm not sure how much it matters, since my identity has already been stolen to file a fraudulent income tax return, among other things. At this point, who knows what my identity has been up to.

Also, there could be some really old college textbooks out there floating around that have my social security number written in them. When I was in college, students were advised to write their SSN's in their books.  I think the reasoning was that in the event the books were stolen, it would make them easier to trace.  This was probably bad advice, but I'm sure I did it anyway because I was a gullible freshman.  I had just parted with $200 for a green hardcover copy of "The Poetry of John Donne"*, and I was going to guard that bad boy with my life.  If you can find that copy of John Donne's master works, you too could steal my identity.

After all the data breaches my data has been part of, I could probably paint my social security number on my roof in red paint and it wouldn't make any difference.

To all you young whippersnappers out there who just cannot wait to become adults and get away from your annoying parents with their stupid rules and their nagging and their insatiable curiosity about what you are doing at school and who your friends are and why you spend so much money at Starbucks, here is one of the not-enjoyable aspects of adulting: figuring out what is good advice and what is bad advice.

For example, what to do about this Equifax data breach?  Do you sign up for the monitoring service, or do you not? It depends on who you ask.  Some advice-givers tell you to sign up, and some say, run for the hills; whatever you do, do not sign up for that monitoring service- why would you want the people who mismanaged your personal data in the first place in charge of monitoring if other people were trying to steal it?  I have no idea what to do.  This is outside the Mom of No's area of expertise.

For a brief moment, I mentally explored the concept of cancelling all the credit cards, going off the grid, and hiding all my cash in a coffee can buried in a secret spot that I would divulge to no one. However,  I don't think my employer will actually pay me in cash and for the next four years I have to fill out something called a FAFSA, which requires income tax information, so going financially rogue isn't really going to work well for me logistically at this time.

Before the onset of Hurricane Irma, there was a meme going around Facebook advising people to store their most precious memories in their dishwasher.  A dishwasher, after all, seems to be watertight, so in theory this idea sounds great.  However, other people were saying that this was a bad idea and it didn't actually work- dishwashers aren't really watertight and if your house did flood,  you could come home to a dishwasher full of wet paper pulp that used to be your prized photographs and your important documents.

No matter what problem you are trying to solve, or what stage of your life you are in, bad and conflicting advice abounds.  Because I am approaching the early stages of geezerhood, I remember when the sources of information were limited to your family and friends, the 7 PM news on TV, newspapers, and books. Now you can log on to Facebook, post any request for information, and watch the conflicting information roll in. It's probably a good thing social media was not yet a thing when I had infants and toddlers; Mommy boards were bad enough.  Facebook would have sent me over the edge in terms of attempting to make informed parenting decisions.

So, if you are wondering what to do about the data breach, or trying to decide where to store essential documents and important irreplaceable photographs, I'm actually not sure what to tell you. I'm still trying to figure it all out myself.  In a few weeks I have to fill out my first FAFSA; I'm sure it will take weeks to recover from reading all the Internet advice about that. 

*John Donne, English Poet, 1572-1631, famous for the phrase "No Man is an Island".  I had to write a paper on it.  He's actually not that bad as poets go, although I'm more of a science and historical fiction reader.

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Plan

Quite awhile ago, I was surfing through the four thousand channels on the TV, looking for something interesting to watch.  I'm not usually much of a TV watcher so I must have been home sick, or something- but I finally settled on a show about people prepping for the apocalypse.  The family in the show was prepared to go off the grid for years after the total breakdown of society.  They had a plan in place and they were ready.  They had shelves stockpiled with food, water, medicines and sanitary items, all hidden in a bunker out in the middle of nowhere. It was absolutely impressive.  As someone who appreciates a good plan, I was in awe of the logistics involved here.

After watching this show, I surveyed my pantry.  I have enough food to last two teenagers about 5 days.  Maybe six, if you include the stuff no one likes- canned beets, trail mix with coconut (coconut is not a preferred flavor in the Household of No), and the stuff that requires other stuff and the application of heat to actually become something edible, like flour or rice.

I didn't give it much thought after that. 

Last week, as Hurricane Harvey unfolded in Houston, I called the Grandpa of No every day, checking on him.  Water was backing up on his street.  Water was in his yard.  Water was up to the landscaping by his house.  Water was nearly up to his front door.

What are you going to do? I asked him.  What is your plan?  The Grandpa of No has always been a man with a plan.  What are you going to do about Mom? My mother's Alzheimer's is steadily progressing, and she gets agitated in unfamiliar environments.

Well, I don't know, he responded.  Your mother refuses to leave the house. 

Later, I was on the Internet with the Son of Never Stops Eating, looking for information on animal-related charities, and we came across some comments criticizing people who had stayed in the Houston area.  Why didn't they leave before the hurricane? the commenter said. I would have been gone. I would have taken my fur-babies and gotten out of there. 

Maybe people stayed because the footprint of the Houston area is huge, or because Harvey didn't impact just Houston but all along the Texas coast.  Maybe people remembered the mess that was the Hurricane Rita evacuation in 2005, with freeways backed up for miles.  Maybe more people than we realize have family members with autism and Alzheimer's disease and other disabilities and illnesses that make it difficult to just pack up and go.  When leaving the house to go to the grocery store requires a series of carefully choreographed steps, planning an evacuation from a potential disaster probably seems overwhelmingly impossible.

The day after the water was at the Grandpa of No's front door, I called his cell phone and received no answer.  I sat at my computer, mulling over options.  I didn't have the phone number of the neighbor who had been checking on him.  I wasn't sure who the law enforcement authority was in the area.  Just as horrible possibilities started playing out in my mind, he answered his phone.

We're all good here, he told me.  It got close, but we're still at the house and the water is receding from the yard. 

The entire event made me realize, whatever plans we have, they're inadequate. I am the prepping equivalent of going into a disaster with a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter.  Planning for emergencies is easy to put off, because there are so many other things that require attention, and after all, what were the chances that a category 4 hurricane would slam right into the Texas coast, causing massive flooding in the metropolitan area where your parents live? 

I don't think I'll be stockpiling five year's worth of water, however.  Alas, I lack a huge underground bunker in which to store it.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

It's a Big State

As I write this, the coastal bend area of Texas is being pummeled by Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey.  The area is undergoing massive flooding; damage is immense.  The recovery could take years.

At the same time, friends who don't live in Texas are e-mailing and messaging me, asking if we are okay, if we're surviving, if we've had any damage, if there's water in our house yet.  I look out the window, where the sun is attempting to peek through the clouds and a cool (for August) breeze is blowing.  A few rain showers have come through, but, except for the adolescents of the household not being too excited about starting school tomorrow, we're doing well- because we're actually nowhere near the hurricane.

I know people mean well and they are concerned, and I appreciate that greatly.  Texas is a big state, but you might not realize how big it is unless you actually live here, and decide that it might be fun to go on a road trip through West Texas to visit Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. You drive and drive and drive and drive and then realize that you're only in Abilene and you still have to keep driving and you are still nowhere near the New Mexico border- and in fact, it might be another hour before you even see a Dairy Queen because you are stuck in the middle of nowhere on a two lane highway behind some truck towing some giant farm machinery that is going only 30 MPH.

That ended up being a great road trip, though.  Good times.

I can understand how people might be confused, however, because if you've ever driven down Interstate 45 from Dallas to Houston, it takes an hour to get out of Dallas and before you know it, you're in the outskirts of Houston because Dallas is huge, Houston is massive, and both cities just keep growing so eventually they'll probably just merge into one massive metropolitan area with Austin and San Antonio. Maybe there will be a tiny rural circle left in the middle of the I-45/I-35/I-10 triangle with nothing in it but some cows and a Buc-ees (if you're not from Texas, you'll have to look that up).

People who live in Texas tell stories about friends and relatives from smaller states who come to visit and will say things, like, "Hey, let's drive down to San Antonio and see the Alamo this morning, and then after lunch maybe go to South Padre Island!", and the punchline of the story always involves the Texan explaining that they live in El Paso or Dallas or Lubbock and that it will actually take hours to get there so it would probably be an overnight trip, and the not-from-Texas relatives are astonished to learn this. I never believed these stories until I went to New England on a work trip and drove through three states in the same time that it takes me to drive to work. 

Several years ago I volunteered at work to go to Beaumont, Texas after Hurricane Rita to assist in a disaster recovery mission.  A woman taking care of logistics (who was probably not from Texas) called me to make arrangements for me to get from my house to Beaumont.  She wanted me to fly into Houston and pick up a rental car at the airport.

Nah, that's OK, I told her.  I'll just get a rental car here and drive down there.  That way I can bring more than one suitcase of stuff (I tend to be an overpacker, especially when I know I'm going to be away from home for a long time). 

How long will it take you to drive down there? she asked me.

About six hours, I told her.  Plus or minus an hour based on traffic.

That's a long drive! she exclaimed.  Are you sure you don't want to fly?

Nope, I said, I drive an hour to get my hair cut.  I'm fine with it.  Besides, I hate to fly.

You're crazy, she told me. 

I'm fairly certain I'm not crazy, although people who come here to visit in August might dispute that.  But just like almost every other Texas resident, I do drive a lot. 

So to my friends and relatives who live beyond the Texas borders, we are doing fine, except for the usual back to school angst.  Houston and the coastal areas, however, could use your prayers and your support, not just now but during what will likely be a long recovery.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Random Back to School Thoughts

It's about time to go back to school, and the Son of Never Stops Eating is having none of it. Earlier today, someone asked him if he was excited about starting high school; he responded by saying "Don't say school words! I still have one week of summer left!".

Oh, the suffering. Oh, the angst. Oh, the inhumanity of it all.

So here, in commemoration of summer and in honor of school starting back up, are some random thoughts from the Mom of You Have to Go Back To School Whether You Want to or Not:

1.  It's okay to use the same lunchbox or backpack several years in a row.

2.  It's also okay to get a new one; sometimes, nothing is as empowering on the first day of school as a new backpack or lunch box with a superhero on it.

3.  When I really want to torture my kids, I say "I think school should be all year long!".  Sometimes I follow this up with "And I think uniforms should be required!".

4.  In about two weeks, the Christmas displays will start going up at the mall.

5.  Some people send their kids to school with healthy lunches of vegetables, fruit, lean meats, whole grains, and low-fat dairy.  My kids pack their own lunches and based on the grocery list, Oreos and fruit snacks seem to be a favorite choice.  Don't judge me.

6.  I predict much social media angst over the school drop-off and pick-up lines.  Remember the Golden Rule: Behavest thou in the school car line as thou wishest other people to act towards thee.

7.  If you try to take a great back-to-school photo of your kids to share with your friends and family and all the kids do is roll their eyes and complain- join the club.

8.  Deciding where to sit for lunch can be pure torture for some kids. If you're a kid, and you see another kid looking uncertain in the cafeteria, invite them over.  It's lunch, not a lifetime commitment- and you might make a new friend.

9.  The Son of Never Stops Eating has one favorite shirt, and he wears it all the time.  If you are his teacher, I just want you to know that he does have other clothes; he just chooses not to wear them- and I am the Mom of Choosing my Battles Wisely.

10.  I have to remember that I need to start leaving for work 10 minutes earlier now because I go through a school zone. 

11.  The start of school means high school football, great marching band shows, and delicious band nachos!

12.  I completely forgot that I was supposed to order my high school senior's yearbook this summer.

13.  If you can, you should definitely go to your teenager's school open house.  Not everyone goes, and it's a great opportunity to meet your adolescent's teachers and get the scoop on what they're learning in class.  Also, your mere presence in the school could be embarrassing to your teen, which  is reason enough right there to do it.

14.  Back to school also means fundraising season is now underway.  Start saving your money for those band pies!

15. I haven't actually done any back to school shopping.  It's kind of hard to envision wearing sweaters when it's hot enough to cook an egg on the hood of my car.

16. I still haven't sorted through all the paperwork from last school year.

17. I live in absolute terror that something will happen to the teenager's marching band uniform while it is in our custody, and I will have to pay for it.  I have no idea how much those things cost, but I'm willing to bet they're not cheap.

18. It still feels weird to drive by the elementary schools my kids went to and realize all over again that time of my life is over.

19.  Kids, when project at school are assigned, remember the P6 rule for maximum academic success: Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance.  Also, a mother who has to run to the Big Box Store at 8 PM the night before a project is due to buy 8 pieces of neon orange poster board is an unhappy mother.

20. If you are a friend of mine, I might have put your name down as an "alternate emergency contact" on the school paperwork.  I would have put the Grandpa of No, but I suspect that they want someone who lives closer than 250 miles from the school.  

21.  The Son of Never Stops Eating is already hoping for ice days.

22.  To all the kids out there who are sad that summer is over and school is starting back up, not to worry.  One day, you will graduate and then you won't have to worry about going back to school in the fall- you'll be at work year-round, and the seasons all kind of blend together as you toil away.  Adulting is fun that way.