Halloween 2017

We went trick-or-treating yesterday. As usual, it was freezing, even colder than usual. My kids didn’t give a hoot about the temperature. They’re extra bitchy about coats; Andy is a human furnace and Ben refuses to have his costume marred by the likes of anything out of character.  He went as Freddy Faz Bear from Five Nights at Freddy’s, which is a horrible little video game that forces the player to creep around a Chuck E. Cheese kind of pizza place and make sure the animatronics don’t come to homicidal life. Of course, the animatronics do come to life and creep closer and closer in the dark. You either stop them with your flashlight and defeat them, or they reach you and jump-scare the shit out of you.

Jump scares are a big thing in my family. It’s become part of the Roberts culture. It started a few years ago with a kid lurking behind a door, giggling loudly as he waited for Shawn to come up the stairs and pretend to be scared. Then, it got a little more sophisticated. They learned to turn off the lights. Ben learned to bide his time and remain in his hiding place without giggling. Once, he waited outside the bathroom door for a full twenty minutes as I showered and applied hair goo and face goo and brushed my teeth. When I emerged, quite naked and relaxed, he came flying out of the shadows and shouted, “Aaaa!!!!!” He earned that scream. And I hated it.

Shawn actually started this jump-scare tradition.  He began torturing the boys when they were too little, in my opinion, to endure such fright. He’s very good at what he does. He’s hidden under Andy’s bed and reached out to grab Andy’s ankles. He’s lurked in a dark room and made creaking noises; the boys know he’s in there waiting to scare them and push each other towards the doorway. When he finally does jump out, it’s loud, pants-shitting terror. Each morning when he comes up the stairs to greet the three of us at the breakfast table, he does it with a jump-scare. Usually, he targets the boys, but if I have my back to him while I make my smoothie, he’ll do it to me.

“What the f— is wrong with you!?” I always scream at him. And he laughs hysterically. Recently, he jumped out at Ben with such vigor that Ben burst into tears. It was simply too much for his little nervous system to handle.  He should have felt guilty, but I think his primary emotion might have been more accurately described as “pride.”

I hate jump-scares. But I’m in the minority, here. At the Spirit Halloween pop-up stores, they sell jump-scare decorations. You step on a pad and a hairy spider lunges at you or an arm comes flying from behind a gravestone to grab your leg. Ben and Andy run through the store to find each and every display before they can focus on buying a costume. Personally, I’d be content to never be startled again as long as I live. I feel no desire to step on that pad and have a 2-foot arachnid lurch in my direction.

This is a golden time for Shawn. His boys are old enough to participate in his beloved tradition and young enough to think it’s hilarious and cool. Halloween is his favorite holiday. He hangs tacky lights all over the mantles and woodwork in the house. He keeps scary masks in his desk–not just for Halloween use but for general jump-scare merriment. Last evening, he decided he was going to dress up for trick-or-treat, too. But instead of wearing something ghoulish, he found Andy’s old lady mask from last year, an expensive piece of latex that transforms the wearer into a crone. That would have been disturbing enough, but then he decided to pair it with my unicorn onesie. And my hiking stick.

 I’m not sure what the theme was, other than “disturbing.” He said the onesie kept him warm in the 30-something degree temperatures. And he remained in character for an hour, cackling at little children and repeatedly poking me in the ass with his cane. I cringed when we came upon houses with elderly residents handing out candy. Then again, Andy wore the mask last year on a parade through Peterson Rehabilitation Hospital, so I suppose the tradition of walking the line between humor and offense continues.

On a related note, this was the first year I brought hooch in my coat.


There’s nothing like a weekend away at Piedmont Lake to really clear the head and calm the soul.

I got the weekend away, but it wasn’t so much clearing and calming as it was chaos and calamity. I don’t know why minor accidents follow my family around everywhere, but in three days Ben spilled six drinks, Nugget broke a glass and tore a screen, Maya pooped on four different neighbors’ lawns, and Shawn popped Ben’s favorite raft with a nail.

Still, it’s good to be out there. A few hours feels like a few days when the sound of traffic and sirens and television are quelled.

Ah, the glorious silence of nature.

In addition, I finally got to play with my birthday gift: the paddle board I’ve been wanting for years but have always been too cheap to buy. We’ve enjoyed our kayaks for years, but stand-up-paddling is an entirely different kind of fun. The kind that promises both exercise and humiliation.

It’s been a chilly May. Consequently, the water temperature hovered somewhere around 75. Great if you’re a bass; not so much if you’re a swimmer. It didn’t bother Andy at all. The boy is impervious to cold. Ben, however, spent most of his weekend wet and blue-lipped, shivering yet refusing to get out of the water until I forced him into a hot shower.

Everybody got a chance to paddleboard, though.

I’m proud to say I’m the only one who didn’t fall off. And while that may have more to do with the new prescription sunglasses I was wearing, I like to think it’s just because I’ve got the balance of a Flying Wallenda.

Unfortunately, there’s only so much skill to go around.


Doormats, Weasels, and Jerks

A few weeks ago I had a series of interactions with jerks. A rude man on the phone, an argumentative dental insurance company operator, and a neighbor who gave her handyman permission to drive his truck on our lawn, leaving wet, muddy ruts. Jerks come in threes, I think, like disasters.

On such days, the world feels overstimulating and abrasive, like a cheese grater on my arm. People present their worst selves in clusters, and I want to respond by being a jerk back. A bigger, snappier, more clever jerk, but a jerk nonetheless. An eye for an eye.

But my parents raised me to rise above. Don’t be petty. Don’t be petulant. Do the right thing. Be kind. These are the values we all try to impart upon our children and for good reason. We can’t all be jerks, and we cannot exist as a society if we only exist for ourselves. We need to make an effort to get along, to extend the olive branch often, for the betterment of everyone’s lives. Sometimes, that means swallowing what a jerk dishes out for the sake of moving past the moment.

It’s easy to take that high road to an unhealthy extreme, though.

I always take the high road. Always. You can count on me never to start a fight. To play it safe and calm and cool.  And I don’t think that’s necessarily something to brag about. My regular refusal to engage in any sort of confrontation really means I lack spirit. I don’t stand up for myself. I’m not up here trotting along the high road on my moral high horse. No way. I’m here because I’m suffering from elevated levels of door-matitude.

Unfortunately, door-matitude is tricky to overcome because I’ve allowed it to persist for so long. It’s easy to tell myself that I’m doing the mature thing by turning away from a jerk and refusing to engage them. What I’m often doing is letting them off the hook because it’s hard to step up. To further complicate the matter, there’s a distinct difference between solidly standing up for myself and acting like a petty little weasel. Everyone should practice the former, whereas weasels just make trouble. (They steal your keys and hide them under the couch every chance they get.) But as healthy as it would be to practice assertiveness, it would also feel really good to let my petulant inner punk out of the bag.

My friend Thomas once claimed I wasn’t the kind of person who started the fight; I was just the person who ran in at the end and kicked the loser when he or she was on the ground. But he was wrong. I’m nowhere near the fight. I’m the person sitting on the fence, watching, where nobody can accuse me of taking a side or throwing a punch or being anything less than totally neutral.

Talk about a weasel. That’s not even neutrality. That’s just wishy-washy.

I don’t know where I got my wishy-washiness, but I have plenty of examples in my family of people who not only stand up for themselves, but also allow themselves the pleasure of a little pettiness, now and again. No one could ever accuse Shawn of being wishy-washy. Recently, we received a notice from our neighbors about our trees. Our yard is bordered by a row of townhouses. The back porches look right into our yards, and the owners routinely tell maintenance workers to their drive big trucks on our lawn without so much as asking our permission. (And that’s the thing: we’d totally say yes if they did.) One worker borrowed a wheelbarrow, trashed it, and drove off without a word. Another broke off a tree branch.

When a cantankerous letter arrived demanding that we remove our pine trees from their view, we declined to do so. We did, however, trim the branches that had grown into their airspace and cleaned up some of the overgrowth. At this point, I’d have been content to let the whole affair fizzle and diffuse. Not Shawn. He wasn’t done, and went out and bought two more baby pine trees, specimens which will grow rapidly to heights of 40 feet and will block the neighbors’ view of our yard. And the sunset. And the sky. He enjoyed every minute of it, and he tends to those trees as he would his children.

How I envy both his carefree ability to say to the jerks, “Screw you guys,” and the smile on his face very time we talk about the baby trees. They hold the sweet promise of years of completely legal neighborly annoyance. I’d have let the neighbors push me around, but Shawn just plants more trees.

Hopefully, Shawn will impart upon our kids the desire to take less crap than their mother does. I want my children to feel confident when they take a position. I want them to know they’re on the side that aligns with their moral compass. Wishy-washiness and door-matitude will never serve them. Not only does fence-sitting show weak moral character, but you also spend a lot of time bent over in the bathroom plucking splinters out of your ass.

Benjamin has never displayed the attributes of a fence-sitter. He always knows where he stands, and that’s right there in the thick of the fray, brawling for all he’s worth. Andy, on the other hand, takes after his mother. He’s anxious, he’s slow to act, and he’s always worried about doing the right thing.

Recently, Andy’s fourth-grade class spent several weeks participating in the World Peace Games. They divided up into various countries and tribes, and together they worked through crises and learned how a global society functions, for better or for worse. Andy was assigned membership in a small tribe with few members.

He was also secretly given the role of the game saboteur.

I wondered how this would affect him. The saboteur’s job is to ruin things at just the right moment, e.g. poisoning the cattle, introducing disease, and dropping atomic bombs. Timing is everything, and if Andy was found out and convicted in World Peace court, his part of the game would be over. Plenty rode on his ability to be sneaky and snarky and devious, and I wondered if he would find the intestinal fortitude to take it on. Yet he had an enviable job, I’d say. Specifically given permission and instructed to throw a monkey wrench into everything.

I’d love to go back to eighth grade and drop an atomic bomb on the girl who told me my ideas were stupid, and to shut my fat mouth before she smacked it.

For the first week Andy seemed a little hesitant. He made it out like he was waiting for the right moment, but I thought maybe the idea of souring everything felt wrong to him. He had friends in various countries and tribes. He’s a sweet soul who feels uncomfortable when the people he cares about are uncomfortable. In the car after school my desire to live vicariously as a person who not only eschews the fence but blows it up entirely grew stronger each time he told me he was waiting for the right moment to strike.

Waiting for the right moment. I’ve said that many times as a way to justify inaction. When I don’t want to take a side or take a stand, I pull the I’m waiting card. And I worried that Andy might do the same.

And then one Tuesday he got into the car with a fat-cat smile.

“How was school?” I asked him.

“Oh, it was great,” he said. And continued to grin.

“What happened?”

“Well,” he said. “The members of my tribe were real jerks today.”

“Oh buddy,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah. They were so mean. They told me I was going to ruin everything.” He smirked. “So I just decided I would.”

I held my breath for a second. “And?” I asked.

Andy, saboteur extraordinaire

“I poisoned my own tribe’s water.” The smirk turned into a toothy grin as he leaned back against the seat and added, “Some of them burst into tears.”

Apparently, I won’t be plucking splinters out of Andy’s bum after all.



Andy’s Update

The summer got away from me before I could continue the blog, shamefully. After our trip to the mountains of West Virginia, we had a birthday for Andy, and I left for Summer Community of Writers at Chatham University in Pittsburgh to finish my MFA. When I came home, Shawn left for Boston for a week and we reconvened in Fort Myers Beach for ten days of vacation. I’d started to forget what my bed felt like. As with all summers, this one went quickly. I look forward to writing about it.
But for now, I find myself reflecting on the changes our family underwent this summer, changes I have not yet written about. It’s difficult to find the appropriate manner in which to write about your kids, isn’t it? I published an essay about Benjamin, and in it, I shared with the world both his propensity for calamity and, more importantly, my shortcomings as a mother. They are many, and in “Calamity Ben,” I tried to connect with readers about my struggles. Humor writers derive pleasure from their own failures, in a way, because they see each disastrous escapade as fodder for another piece, and thus another way to reach out into the world. I think that’s why I write about my failures, anyway. It’s how I want to touch the world. My children have been the dominant force in my life for the last ten years; thus, they are a fount of inspiration. 
But now, I find that Andy is more than capable of telling his own stories. More importantly, he has a say in whether I may tell them. Often, when I take his photo, he says with trepidation, “You’re not going to put that on Facebook, are you?” I don’t know if he’s yet reached the stage where he’s embarrassed by me, but he’s certainly aware that, as the child of a writer, he’s on a stage of sorts. While things like Calamity Ben-fires and -knives still feel like fair game to me, the adventures and struggles of an older child are no longer mine to share. A great deal has been written lately about parents who share their children’s lives on social media. And while I have yet to decide precisely where the line is (and have done my share of sharing), I do agree that when a child is old enough to object to the idea of his presence on Facebook, he has every right not to be there.
That said, I’ve spoken with Andy about telling his story, here. He gave me his permission and told me it was about time.
In June, we learned that Andy has Tourette Syndrome. 
Andy’s first tic appeared when he was four, I think. Like most kids, it began with a blink. I did the prudent thing and had his eyesight checked, and the doctor told me it was indeed a tic, a very common occurrence for a little kid. Many children will have a tic in their lifetime. But Andy’s tics didn’t disappear as he grew. Though the blinking came and went, at age 7—first grade—we began to notice other tics. Head jerks, often, and there was a grimace. Each time I mentioned it to his teachers they told me they’d never noticed the tics, and this relieved me a great deal. Nevertheless, I was aware of Tourette Syndrome and, being the anxiety-prone crackpot that I am, began to worry about it more than I should have. 

Tics cannot be controlled. It’s difficult to understand, but it’s been likened to the need to blink. It’s an undeniable urge, and though patients can suppress them for short periods, they must come out eventually.

There are multiple tic disorders. The difference between Tourette and Transient Tic Disorder (TTD) is a matter of small degrees. Transient Tic is categorized by one or more tics that have been continuously present for longer than 4 weeks but less than a year. Often, the pediatrician referred to Andy’s tics as TTD. He told me in a frank and calm manner that even if Andy did have Tourette Syndrome, there were far worse conditions with which to be faced. And while that might have come across as patronizing from another mouth, another person, when I heard him say it, I felt relief. I am grateful for our pediatrician for so many reasons, not the least of which is his ability to properly categorize the seriousness of a child’s condition when faced with an adverse parental reaction. (Translation: He calms batshit crazy moms down.)
The tics continued to increase through 2nd and 3rd grade, though, and I admit my anxiety ran away with me. In my heart, I knew we’d moved beyond the textbook definition of Transient Tic Disorder, and that we were only one vocal tic away from a Tourette diagnosis. Looking back, I want to laugh at myself a bit. I spent a disproportionate amount of time worrying about something far beyond my control. I worried about Andy, and his feelings, and his education, but, if I’m to be honest, I worried the most for myself. How was this going to affect me? How hard was this going to be for me? How was I going to handle it? How was I going to get Andy through it?
What an arrogant ass, right?
Well, yeah, sort of. I spent a few months beating myself up for those feelings. And then, in May, when the first vocal tic appeared (a loud voice that sounded much like Fozzie Bear), my anxieties became realities. It was Tourette Syndrome, the doctor confirmed. And suddenly, all those hours of worry and dread no longer mattered, because the here and now had arrived, and nothing I’d obsessed about had any bearing on the next step. Whether or not I was tightly wound from three years of fearing what if, I still had to make one decision at a time.
I need to be honest about the preceding statement, though. That “one step at a time” stuff came from Shawn and my father: my two, rational rocks. I’m not a “one step at a time” gal. I’m the kind of person who sees a gray cloud and goes down into the basement to restock canned beans in the tornado shelter. I’m twelve steps ahead, well on my way to apocalyptic apoplexy, when really, all I need to do is make one small decision: What’s the very next thing I have to do?
I never remember to think that way, though.
The next thing we did was to start Andy on a low dose of a medicine that may or may not help him. He does not take medicine for his ADHD, and we—Andy included—don’t like the idea of meds that aren’t necessary. Often, such meds have side effects far more unpleasant than any tic. What he’s taking now is a tiny dose of a simple drug that has the potential to calm physical symptoms, but the jury is still out on its efficacy. The thing about Tourette Syndrome is that it will likely worsen during his adolescence, peaking sometime in his teenage years. Often the tics wane as the child enters adulthood; sometimes they do not. Andy will always have Tourette Syndrome, but it’s unknown how it will affect him, and how it will change over time.
And of course, I must address the elephant in the room: the cursing. Coprolalia, as it is called, is rare, affecting only 10% of Tourette Syndromers. It’s the pop culture signifier of the disease. It’s funny to some and it’s a comedic favorite—Tourette’s Guy, I think he’s called. The symptom pops up in movies and television sketches. Mention Tourette and that’s what comes to mind. But the vast majority of Tourette patients will never utter a curse word unless they stub their toe. Alternately, some will repeat words they’ve heard (echolalia) or words they themselves have just said (palilalia). There’s no way to know what tics will manifest in a patient. There’s no way for me to know if Andy will ever have to suffer in that rare 10%. Truth: I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about coprolalia. I have yet to tell him about it; he doesn’t know that there’s a cursing element to Tourette. I can’t bring myself to share it with him, lest the very act of speaking the words strike the tic up within him.
It’s a silly fear, I know. I have to take medicine too.  
On the first day of school, Andy asked me to come into his classroom and explain Tourette Syndrome to his friends. He’s been with his classmates since he was a wee man of four. He’s not the only kid with tics, and I’ve noticed that they aren’t particularly aware of each other’s tics anyway. When I ask him about other kids’ tics, he just shrugs, as do they. The wonder of young children is their ability to accept whatever is presented to them as normal. 
When exactly do we outgrow that? When do we start to perceive each other’s eccentricities and categorize them as flaws? How long before some mean-spirited jerk makes fun of my son?
It was permissible to worry about both Andy and myself. It was human. I’ve let myself off the hook, and in so doing, I’ve realized that Andy is far more capable of handling this obstacle than I ever could be. He thanked me for talking to his class. I worried all day that I’d said something that might embarrass him (What, me? Worry?) but he gave me a tight hug and said I’d done a great thing. His classmates were both accepting and non-nonplussed. They already knew Andy had motor tics and barely paid the movements any mind. Now, it is Andy’s and my hope that they will understand any vocal tics that might manifest. 
Andy’s Tourette Syndrome hasn’t changed life as I feared it would. I make that statement with the caveat that we are lucky: many Tourette patients have behavioral difficulties, but Andy is the same sweet, loving kid he has always been. I try not to worry too much about those what-ifs; life is teaching me far more lessons right now than it is Andy. He is in a loving environment at school, blessed with teachers who will work with him in whatever capacity he requires, no matter how that capacity changes from week to week. We are slated to visit UPMC Children’s Movement Disorder Clinic in November and have been taking him for cranio-sacral work that has minimized his vocal tics for up to a week after treatment.
It’s hard for me, as a parent, to accept that something about my child’s body doesn’t function properly. This seems silly, on paper, doesn’t it? Nobody’s body works perfectly. Look at me: an autoimmune mess. My husband has ADHD and crackly ankles. My dad’s feet turn out too far. And yet, no mother pictures her unborn child with an imperfection. No mother anticipates complications. The challenges come as a surprise to us. 
I do not believe that all challenges have hidden blessings. There is not a good, divine reason for every crappy thing we endure. Sometimes, shit just happens. That said, Andy’s diagnosis has brought me closer to him in a way I’d been seeking for some years. It forced me to strip away everything but the present moment, what I have to do right now, for Andy, today. No, I haven’t stopped worrying or obsessing—that’s part of my own syndrome. But I do see the lack of value in worry, and this helps me to push past it as best I can. If my child must endure tics both annoying, humiliating, and sometimes painful, at least I am now better equipped to support him in our newfound closeness.
I don’t write about Andy’s Tourette Syndrome so that he can receive a pass or sympathy. I write about it because this is our family challenge, for now, and he seems unphased by it. No, he doesn’t like his tics—he despises them. “I would give anything to get rid of these tics,” he told me. But still, he’s unapologetically Andy. The notion that Tourette Syndrome could hinder him even a fraction has never entered his mind. 
I hope that it never does.