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staying within the lines

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I must do something about my distractible nature.

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I read endless self-help books about focus, motivation and drive.  I have always been fascinated by the brain and draw upon my limited background in gero-neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.  But I have yet to discover how to utilize my lobes in mid-life to allow me to function efficiently at maximum capacity.  I sound like I want to be a drone.

I have just completed reading Malcolm Gladwell’s second book, Blink, from over a decade before.  It delves into making snap decisions and quick judgment calls and how to slow time down to focus.  This is a trait I would like to master; the ability to read situations and more importantly, to read people.

I found myself standing in a parking lot talking to a fellow parent about our sons’ lack of social skills. I suspect that I, too, reside somewhere on the autism spectrum line; off-center.  But with maturity and experience I have learned to bring myself back, to cut through the noise and center on what is important…unless I am distracted.

If you say,  “Squirrel!” my head is already swiveling.

Gladwell concludes in his book that too much information can cloud our ability to make unconscious, judgment calls.  If we think too long about a decision we become more indecisive as more information is collected.  I, too, am overwhelmed when given multiple choices such as when I purchase groceries for my family.  I used to be a member of a co-op, frequented farmers’ markets and walked the aisles of Whole Foods, Sprouts and Trader Joe’s.  And then I read  Omnivore’s Dilemma, and  Fast Food Nation and stood indecisively at the sliding glass doors.  Organic really wasn’t organic?  I had too much information; standing over aisles reading food labels.  My grocery shopping excursions became stressful mind games where I questioned every single purchase.  It was ridiculous!

The fellow mom and I hug in the parking lot and I think of her words; the ones she hopes for her son.  She just wants him to belong.  He’s a high school junior.  That’s all we ever want for our kids…to fit in, find their way and belong.  It’s what I want for myself and I often ponder where my place is in this life as I walk from place-to-place.  Most times you’ll find me in the back of a room in a corner; my preferred space.  In a tea house I hear the John Mayer song with my eldest son; and I call to him if he remembers the app that can tell me what song is currently playing.  Shazam!  My son quizzically looks at me and I smile.  I’ve always loved this song but never knew who sang it.  Until now.

They love to tell you
Stay inside the lines
But something’s better
On the other side

I wanna run through the halls of my high school
I wanna scream at the
Top of my lungs
I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world
Just a lie you’ve got to rise above~ John Mayer

Just this morning my girlfriend and I talked about ADD and distractibility.  I think of my own high school years and I was the one who couldn’t sit still in my classroom.  I would, randomly, get up out of my seat and walk the halls of my high school but what I really wanted to do was run and shout, just as in Mayer’s lyrics.  Those words speak to me.  And when I would return to my class and seat; the assistant principal would often be occupying my space and would quietly move as I re-entered the classroom from the back.  There was nothing they could do to me; I didn’t disturb others outside of my exiting and entering.  They knew my father was dying of cancer.  I was ranked third in my graduating class.

I have a hard time staying within the lines.

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I was reminded of my easily distracted self last week; chaperoning a high school event.  My sole duty was to take roll call of the twenty-five students on my bus, and the girlfriend I had partnered with was not making the return trip back to school with us.  I have chaperoned many elementary field trips but this was my first foray with teenagers.  A student had volunteered to take roll as we prepared to return home but the bus driver had engaged me in conversation.  It wasn’t until the director boarded our bus that it dawned upon me I had not prompted the student to take roll call and we gazed at one another, deer in the headlights; delaying our departure.  Yep.  Distracted.  I felt like I was nine years old.   This after I had tripped and face-planted in front of another local high school group trying to catch up with our students.  Definitely not one of my finest moments.

My extroverted nature tends to get in my way; causing my brain waves to scatter.  My girlfriend tells me of the book she is reading; on how to focus and to brings things back.   It is next on my reading list.  These days I work hard to sit back and observe, to bring my thoughts into focus and think before I speak.  But now I even question if this is a good thing.  After reading Blink I realize,

I over think too many things and must allow myself to trust my gut; to go with the flow.

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It’s okay not to stay within the lines.  Because my nature is such that I must always seek to get to the other side (whatever/wherever that is).  But I also fight this urge because if I’m too busy trying to reach somewhere else, how can I inhabit the present and focus on it?  Sometimes, we, adults have too much information and get lost in the details.  Kids can easily read another person.  Yes, they too are easily distracted but they know what’s important and impulsively will act on their first reaction.

This is my life’s journey.  To learn from my life’s experiences.  To hear and feel what my subconscious is telling me.  To trust my instincts.  To filter through the noise and find my song.  I will resist my urge to over think my words and stay within the lines.  I will write them across the pages and sing them loud.

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friendships, School

Intersecting thoughts & roundrects

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These past two months my mind has been looping in circuitous circles; going round-and-round.  With the crazy schedules and multiple tasks I have been unable to focus my internal lens.  But yesterday my circles interlocked like Venn Diagrams; my thoughts intersecting.  I love when it all comes together and I can begin to make sense of things.

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Unable to write/blog I busied myself with digital graphics and the tablet graphic, above, visually summed up where my thoughts ran.  It all began with rounded rectangles.

Rounded rectangles?

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When Bill Atkinson, an engineer at Apple, discovered algorithms to create ovals he excitedly showed Steve Jobs.

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“Well, circles and ovals are good, but how about drawing rectangles with rounded corners? Can we do that now, too?”

Dismayed Atkinson replied that it would be difficult to do and felt there was no use for them.  Jobs demanded they take a walk, his modality for communicating important issues and decisions in his life, and proceeded to show his lead engineer the various rounded rectangular objects they encountered.  Jobs’ demand for more made Atkinson discover how to create this graphical interface the very next day.  These roundrects became the design philosophy for all things Apple; from the original Macintosh in 1981, to the iPod/iPad designs and apps today.

And of course the icons came in his favorite shape, the primitive he made Bill Atkinson design into the software of the first Macintosh: rounded rectangles.

This small detail would’ve escaped me; but my computer scientist hubby noted this design feature as I worked on creating a yearbook cover for my sons’ elementary school.  The idea was not my own but I was designated as the implementer; the one to manufacture the vision digitally.  It is a small detail, the rounded corner, and as I created apps we began to realize it permeated everything;  tablets, iPods and apps.  I had not realized this in December, but this feature would lead me to various unrelated paths that would come to intersect.

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At this same time I had begun reading the Malcolm Gladwell book, Outliers.   I had indulged my epidemiological curiosity of what defined off-the-chart individuals, and discovered that being born in 1955 would be a harbinger for success.  Interestingly enough both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were both born in 1955, and Gladwell discovered that a combination of factors created outliers in our society.   One assumes hard work, motivation and innate ability creates success but there are other socio-economic, physical and geo-political factors that align to create, “the perfect outcome.”

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I continued to learn to use Inkscape for my vector graphics and thought of the book choice I would make for our February bookclub.  The bright red cover brought The Rosie Project to my attention; tying in with the month of Valentine’s day.  And as I read within its pages I discovered the protagonist had the characteristics of Asperger’s.  As a parent always worrying about my eldest son’s lack of empathy and social skills; I took this read to heart.   This led to reading Flowers for Algernon and the curious incident of the dog in the night-time about the lack of services for severe retardation and special needs services.  I had traversed from high-to-low outliers; statistical points or deviants from the mean or norm.

As I began to populate my tablet cover with applications, apps, I thought of how technology pervades my children’s lives. Most of the students of our school are familiar with electronics and social media.  It is both a blessing and a curse as instant gratification produces immediate, and sometimes dramatic, results.  Growing up, without our current technology, I had time to think before I made choices.  My modem would still be dialing the CompuServe server to check message boards.  I recalled the green screen of the TRS-80 in my middle school science class and programming with DOS prompts.  Now, with the press of a touchscreen, kids had the means to include and exclude.  Comments and photos were instantaneously seen and  read by large groups of people in a short amount of time.

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Yet I lament that our school lacks technology.

On my Goodreads feed I see the Amanda Ripley book, The Smartest Kids in the World, and I devour it in three days during a busy work week.   The Rubik’s cube on the cover intrigues me as the yearbook cover is sidelined for approval.  This book was completely off my radar and when I was done; I went online and diligently looked at several of the author’s resources.

Technology did not prove to aid in creating smarter kids in our society.  Instead our education system needs a better way to compensate and support our teachers to raise the bar.  We need more rigor and to demand all of our kids, not just those tracked or designated as special, with support services.  We are a community and parents, teachers and students need to be aligned with the same common values to create smarter kids in the U.S.  The theoretical physicist Michio Kaku claims the top scientists in our country are not born in the U.S.A.  He asserts that they become American and have been granted their residence due to the H-1B Visa.

Where are the innovators? 

When I watched the seventy minute YouTube video on Amanda Ripley; I noted that her former editor at Time magazine, Walter Isaacson from the Aspen Institute, was the author of the Steve Jobs book that sat on my nightstand.  I barely made it to page 88, in February 2013, and set it aside. I haphazardly glanced at the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and knew it was being piloted at our school this year; before it officially rolls out in Fall 2014.  I began to dig deeper, and researched the lofty educational goals.  Would they work?  How would we implement them?  Would we be able to, once again, produce the smartest kids in the world?  

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In manufacturing we’ve discovered the lack of technical expertise needed to create products from raw materials.  Most businesses look outside the country to fill the void.  Why?  Because Americans do not have basic mathematical skills to measure, to analyze and to critically think.  The blue collar jobs are now outsourced overseas to those who can and will do these things.

Steve Jobs lamented that Apple contracts were overseas because there were not enough technical engineers who could decipher how to create the products he produced.  If we are transplanting foreign born “genius” Visas and not providing ample compensation for those who occupy our top math and science professions; how will we motivate and nurture our children’s generations?  Will we continue to lose our knowledge base and jobs overseas?

I finally did pick up the Steve Jobs book again.  And upon its completion I stared at my graphic above; understanding his obsession with the rounded rectangles.  I also noted the author’s observation that Bill Gates’ geeky fascination flirted on the fringes of Asperger’s.  Steve Jobs’ success was, in part, due to his obsessive and ruthless desire to push the limits; raising the bar.  He demanded his product be the best and that meant he only needed A players; weeding out the B and C players.

Apple is about people who think outside the box, who want to use computers to help them change the world.

Simplicity isn’t just a visual style.  it’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter.  It involves digging through the depth of the complexity.  To be truly simple, you have to go really deep.

Jobs envisioned his products and tablets replacing heavy textbooks.  In education he had strong opinions, as well.

Teachers should be treated as professionals, he said, not as industrial assembly line workers…All books, learning materials, and assessments should be digital and interactive, tailored to each student and providing feedback in real time.

I commiserated Windows 8 woes with my son’s former first grade teacher.  Windows 8 is NOT intuitive.  Neither of us endorse the closed integrated system that Apples promotes, but we talked about innovators.  She shared that she attended a GATE conference where Steve Jobs had been the keynote speaker.  We both lamented the brain-drain in the fields of math and science.

CCSS

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Soon after I sat in the audience of parents as both our administrators presented the Common Core State Standards.  How could our kids take the Smarter Balance assessments when they didn’t have basic typing knowledge? My youngest son is able to type now; a typing program available for all of our school families, for free.  Last year a cost analysis to purchase a typing program had been $1,000.  Thankfully our administrator thinks outside of the box and utilized resources untapped.   Later, as I stood in her office I noted the Aspen Institute webpage on her monitor.  Unbeknownst to either of us we both had watched the same seventy minute YouTube video.

The Venn-diagrams appeared in my mind; our thoughts were aligned.  Independently we had arrived at the same place.   I stared across at her and was grateful that my children attend this school; her school.

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My circles began intersecting.  Education. Technology.  Simple Design.  Common Core.  Depth of complexity.  Love of reading.  Manufacturing.  Math & Science Skills.  Collaboration.   Delayed tracking.

Tracks for vocational and technical occupations and college shouldn’t be determined until high school.  All of our students should universally be taught higher, rigorous standards until this time.  Teachers should have more rigorous training, more support services available and compensation.  We need to streamline these pathways.  The hope is that Common Core will do this.  I cross my fingers but I know this isn’t the sole answer to this problem.

The way to a great start is to model a love of reading to our children.  It is that simple.

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It is the simple beauty that inspires.  The rounded rectangles, the colorful covers of books, the tea cups that set the mood for an informal, pajama-clad group of ten women who enjoy discussing books.   Most of these women did not make the time to read books before we began our reading discussion group in January 2010.  It is now a priority, each month, and our children note our solidarity.  Yes, we do socialize.  But what our kids also see is a love of learning, the ability to discuss and think outside of our four walls.  We are exposed to outside worlds…vampires and female trafficking.  Nazi occupied Germany and slavery in the South.  Tiger mothers and ordinary days.

At the end of the day, any of our ten women can think outside of the box.   We can provide text driven responses and back up our statements with written evidence.   We’ve learned to collaborate with each other and to communicate issues and concerns.  When we hit our lows we’ve learned to put one foot in front of the other, to ask for support, to rediscover who we are and what we feel is right.   We take missteps and leaps but that is okay.  Our kids won’t solely learn to think critically from CCSS and education alone.  We have to model it for them.

The circles are closed; circuits interwoven.  I appreciate the rounded rectangles and enjoy the tablet graphic that allows me to visualize  my intersecting thoughts.  My lens is clear and focused.

Family

Oh, the places I’ll go

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“The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” ~ Dr. Seuss, “I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!”

As a young adolescent my favorite place to go was the thrift store.  I would beg my parents incessantly until they would sigh in resignation and drive me there.  I always exited with a full bag…of books.  It makes me think of Dr. Seuss’ book Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

In the past four days I have completed four books.  This is a treat I rarely allow myself but after weeks of Accounting 101, learning a new digital program for a deadline and creating two months worth of financial reports; I was done with having to think.  I needed a break.  And so I read.

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My unofficial reading marathon began on Friday with the teen; who did not have school.   Upon returning home I could hear the bored sighs of my son as he vacantly stared at his computer screen.  It was 11:00 AM and so I decided it was “date day with Mom.”  First came the groaning and moaning ‘But I don’t want to go anywhere Mom.  What if I see someone I know?’ but with the promise of food he quickly changed and we set out.

As we sat perusing our menus I looked across the table and the years melted away.  I recalled a day in kindergarten, as we waited in a local coffee establishment, for his 3 y/o brother to be picked up from preschool.  The youngest, still an infant, was nestled in his carseat asleep and my heart twinged as I asked my firstborn about his half-day at school.  He wasn’t chatty; even then, but happily would drink and decide what to eat.  You’re a big boy now, in a big school.  I’d tell him.

Then came the moves and through the years I have watched this son transform many different times.   The waitress came to take our order and I was about to prompt the son when he surprised me.  He conversed with the waitress, succinctly ordered and then turned to prompt me.  As the menus were taken away I asked him what he had been working on before we left and decided I would remain quiet and listen with intention; for most teenagers don’t want us to talk, nag,  or lecture them.  They just want to be heard.

As he continued to converse the realization came over me…this kid is smarter than I and when he asked me what I thought about Schrodinger’s Cat Paradox; I had no idea what he was saying.  I have since caught up on this paradox…the idea that a cat could be both alive and dead at the same time based on theories in quantum mechanics by Dr. Erwin Schrodinger.  As we bought ice cream at my favorite coffeehouse; the barista, a philosophy major, had a great time explaining this to me as my son nodded in agreement.

Later we perused our local bookstore to pass the time.  I found the book I have chosen for our bookclub to read; a random find that fit all of my critieria: light, love story and some science.  To my surprise and delight it was $1.99 for all e-reader forums for the other nine girls to read.  I had fretted my choice to choose a current book, easily found in a library amongst some hefty and heavy reads.  The customer service lady had walked me to my book above and said her co-worker highly recommended it.  This same co-worker appeared and recommended another book to me that she had just completed.

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I read the inside cover of The Rosie Project and discovered, to my surprise, that it was also about Asperger’s.  And all the stars aligned and I heard the “aaaaaahhhhhhh” in my mind.  This book was meant for me to read and the other book she recommended, the curious incident of the dog in the night-time, also touched on this subject matter.  I had not known either of these books were about this higher functioning form of autism (most people think of the movie Rainman) and when I asked the woman why she was interested in Asperger’s; she looked vague;  and so, I stopped questioning.  I grabbed both books and returned to my son as he read his book choices.

The son before me has, for the last four years, undergone testing to rule out the diagnosis of Asperger’s.  And this week I will attend an IEP (individualized education plan) for him to be officially taken off of it.  I sat across from him, grinning broadly, at the events that had taken place within 20 minutes in a bookstore.  It had already been fortuitous that the book I had chosen fit all the other criteria for bookclub.  The fact that it was cheap and about this subject matter was the icing on the cake.

Asperger’s is on the autism spectrum of symptoms.  These individuals do not necessarily exhibit the more traditional forms of autism (limited speech and social interaction, repetitive movements/behaviors and sensitivity to sounds, touch, etc.) but tend to be less coordinated in their motor skills, can be  socially inappropriate, lack empathy and become fixated on a single subject for a long period of time.  Words are taken very literally with phrases such as idioms.  People that are identified as Asperger’s have the ability to be mainstreamed into the regular school curriculum and have higher cognitive function with some accommodations.

This son has always had difficulties in transitioning and, even at age six after our move from kindergarten, went through counseling.  People tended to dismiss my concerns and said it was the effects of  military kids going through many transitions.  My son never qualified for services but I angrily watched as he became a target at his new school; which became exposed explosively on a soccer field during a game.   It was then that I began to advocate for my son, who after an extensive investigation at his school, was the victim.  The father of the other child was a boy scout leader; trusted by many.  From that day he could not look me in the eye after he had angrily thrown accusations at my son and us, on a busy soccer field.  It is a day none of us will ever forget.

Just last month a group of parents continued to trash talk a teacher at our elementary school.  I remained quiet as they continued to feed off each other but chose to speak up when a parent brought up an incident which involved my eldest son that occurred two years ago.  I know parents all have blinders as to how they see their children and hers could do no wrong.  Instead I decided to shut her up and shared that the teacher they were all trashing stood up for my son; after being told multiple times he was retarded because he had been undergoing testing to rule out Asperger’s.  This immediately and effectively stopped all conversation on this topic as I knew it would.

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These thoughts continue to percolate in my mind; bubbling to the surface.  It is allowing me closure on this chapter in our lives.  The son above is no worse for the wear and finally understands what is important and who his true friends are.   I, the mother, have advocated and discovered new things, encountered wonderful teachers and learned important lessons along the way.    Reading the two Asperger’s related novels affirmed many things and the son that I have fretted over has now become a very normal, mouthy, and gregarious teenager.

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Another book that the above son read for school, and I for bookclub, was Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief; a novel set in WWII in Germany.  I was surprised the book was classified as Young Adult since the content reads more for a mature audience.  Our bookclub has attempted to watch this film but it is shown in limited theaters for a short amount of time.  We have been surprised there has been very little press or discussion on this bestselling novel and have missed the showing of this film at our local theater.  So when my girlfriend called to say it was playing at a $3 theater on Sunday afternoon I texted her back,  Let’s do it!

The three of us (she took the above cell shot) found ourselves sobbing once again (we had just seen Saving Mr. Banks two weekends prior) as the book came to life.  Unlike a few novels we have read; this screen adaption stayed true to the story and was a joy to see.  I wished I had brought the son above for his reaction.  We will definitely have to rent this when it goes on RedBox.  It was a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.  Thanks girls for that!

For MLK the hubs and I ventured outdoors on our own “date” day at the bookstore.  I grabbed the books below and continued to read Flowers for Algernon.  This book was recommended to me awhile back from the woman who I look to for reading inspiration; my very well-traveled Chinese girlfriend.  The title had seemed familiar and it dawned on me; as the eldest had me proofread his essay on this same book.  Unfortunately, I discovered how it ends and had chosen not to read it.  But since I was having a reading marathon and the subject matter seemed to fit in with my “theme,” I picked it up and quickly became immersed.

I am so glad I read this book; a novel from Daniel Keyes published in 1966.  I grilled my son over the content but soon learned his 8th grade English class had a teen abridged version.  This book has a lot of deep seated issues that continue to plague us to this day.  When the last page was read I closed my Paperwhite Kindle and decided the marathon was over.  The emotional rollercoaster I have traveled in these last three days has been more than enough.  The last time I read three outstanding books back-to-back was early last year after reading Cutting for Stone, The Fault in Our Stars and The Language of Flowers.

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Books are my way to escape…to allow my mind to travel to faraway places.  From Outliers I have discovered I, as a parent, practice concerted cultivation, in The Rosie Project I laughed and cried as we discern what social norms are important and what are not.  the curious incident of the dog in the night-time delved into the darker aspects of spectrum disorders and Flowers for Algernon completed the weekend with the moral, ethical and psychological issues of how our society handles those with severe mental retardation.   I chose to put the Accounting for Dummies book back on the shelf to take a break.  That’s why we hire a CPA to handle our business financials!

I think I’m ready to get back to the mundane details of our normal week once again.  Whew!  I will save Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed for later.